Friday, 5 December 2014

Layout: THIS is what your book should look like

Proper layout isn't just some finessing to-sort-out thing before you send a manuscript out (like spellcheck and proofreading) - it allows you to do nifty things in your actual writing that you couldn't do without it. Like cut out all those filler scenes. Attribute dialogue with a whole lot less "he said" "she said". Create silence between speech. So whip out your current manuscript. Does it look like this?

Every paragraph flush with the margin, white space between each paragraph? If it does, you're doing layout wrong - and missing a whole bagful of tricks to add to your repertoire. Now go to your bookshelf, pull out any novel, and flip through it. What does it look like?

Yup, more like this. (Sorry for the blotchiness, I blurred it to protect copyright.) See those paragraphs indented all over the place? See that horizontal white space halfway down the right hand side? So the manuscript you're working on should look a lot more like this:

I could get on my high horse and go "I can't believe writers still don't know this" and so on, but a) that would be as useful as a chocolate kettle, b) I'm constantly going through this with students who otherwise write extremely well, and c) I submitted my first novel looking like the top version. Somehow, years and years of immersing ourselves in novels, and suddenly all that visual memory flies out the window and we lay out our stories the way we were taught to lay out letters at school. Here's the good news: it's very easy and very useful and I also have a template for you.

Sections vs paragraphs

You have more levels of organisation than you thought: chapters, sections, and paragraphs.
  • Sections are flush with the margin (not indented) and have white space above. 
  • Paragraphs are indented, with no white space above. 

Take another look:

The left-hand page starts with a paragraph (continuing from the page before.) A third of the way down, that section ends. White space. The next line starts flush with the margin. Then we have lots of indented bits, because there's quite a bit of dialogue (more on that in a moment). This continues onto the right-hand page. About half way down the right-hand page, the section ends. White space. The next line starts flush with the margin.

Section magic

A new section means a new scene. As soon as you start using sections, you cut a swathe through your filler scenes, your travel scenes, your how-do-I-make-time-pass scenes, your how-do-I-get-them-to-the-next-spot scenes... Just start a new section. You're in a new scene. No more filler-timey-travelly stuff: just jump forward to the next scene.

Paragraph magic

The paragraph magic is all about the dialogue, so here's a quick rundown of the rules:

“He fancies you,” Terry said later, as they made their unsteady way to the pub loos.  “He always talks like that to girls he fancies.”
    “Well, he can fancy away.  I’m not available.”
    “The guy in Cape Town, still?  The ‘not-hippy’?  What about a bird in the hand?” said Terry.
    Claire shook her head.
    “Are you writing to each other now?”
    “Sort of…”  She was reluctant to tell even Terry about the webcam, and the regular envelopes of sketches that now almost covered her wall.

  • new paragraph for each change of speaker
  • speech’s punctuation goes inside quotation marks
  • use a comma instead of a full stop before “she said” etc, but use exclamation marks and question marks as normal
  • short character actions / thoughts go on the same line as their speech
  • a character’s actions or thoughts can stand on a separate line to indicate their silence
  • switch from single to double quotation marks or vice versa to quote something inside speech
And this is what's magic about it. Short character actions / thoughts go on the same line as their speech - so you can use your character's actions and thoughts to attribute speech, instead of "she said". (Top editing tip: almost every time you see "she said, ____ing" you can change it to "she ____ed". "She said, sighing." becomes "She sighed." It's rarely important to make them happen at exactly the same time, so you rarely need the weak ___ing structure.) A huge new speech-attribution tool opens up. And character’s actions or thoughts can stand on a separate line to indicate their silence - so no more writing about how silent they were, or how many beats passed, or that they said nothing - use their actions (or lack of actions) to indicate their silence. If you're writing from their point of view, use their thoughts, their observations - it's a great spot to throw in some description, because when people are uncomfortably silent, they often look away at something else.

So: a few simple rules, a magic bag of tricks, and here's a Word template for you, with the styles & formatting all set up and handy shortcut keys, and your headers and footers already sorted. Pop it in with your other templates, or if you don't know how to do that, just open it and then say "save as" and choose the option of "template" instead of "document".

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