Formatting Manuscripts, with Blackberries and Margaret Mead

  l love blackberries. This time of year is always bittersweet, because I know that when the blackberries are at their peak, cold weather can’t be far behind. And cold weather would be fine, if my bones weren’t aging faster than my mind, which still thinks sledding is one of the most satisfying activities one can do. Safe? Who needs safe?

Speaking of safe, a friend mentioned that she needs to know how to format her first novel. She’s still at the draft stage, and lots of us have preferred methods of formatting as we move through the stages. It’s fine to be eccentric (Webdings at the end of every chapter? Sure, if it makes you smile and write on) but when we’re ready to submit, there’s not as many options. As the article referenced below attests, 12 pt Times New Roman font is the standard. Period.

I usually reserve the finer points, like sectioning my manuscript so that no page numbers appear on the cover and title page, until I’m in my fourth or fifth draft. That sort of formatting means I am down to serious business, no longer in the lofty realm of imagining every new page into existence, but down to pruning, tieing up loose ends, and staking to the plot every foreshadowing event and metaphor. (How do you like them metaphorical berries? )

Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to save yourself some time by getting your headers right from the beginning, and making sure you’re in some 12 pt font, so you can give a reasonable word count when some writer buddy corners you at a party and insists that fantasy novels cannot exceed 50,000 words. (Which I hope happens to you NEVER.) You may want to read the article cited below thoroughly and think about what steps you should perform now, and which fine points to reserve for that magic moment (substitute a modifier of your choosing: sweat-inducing; terrifying; barfable, etc.) when you are ready to query agents and/or editors.

And Margaret Mead? She wrote a memoir called Blackberry Winter, an account of her development on Longland Farm. The term refers to the timing of a spring cold snap which makes the blackberries produce more abundantly. Needless to say, her account of her childhood was not completely rosy, but it certainly produced a spate of intellectual siblings, as well as Margaet, the noted anthropologist, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Carter. You may know her best through the oft-repeated quote, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

When I was a young anthropology graduate student, there were few women in my field, and just looking at pictures of her trudging around the world’s major universities in her cape and with her walking stick gave me the courage to labor on. (I also thought it was cool that she was frankly sexual, something also not done without a cost by female academics at that time. Rumors of her affairs with women and men swirled around her. She went on being Margaret Mead.)
May you find your own blackberry winter, in whatever season, that one aha! that shocks you and thrills you and makes you work faster, better, more exuberantly toward your own ends.

But, first, stop for some blackberries at the farmer’s market this morning. They’re at their sweetest when winter is nipping at our heels.

How to Format Your Manuscript

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4 Comments

  1. I love blackberries. Unfortunately, there are no blackberries where I live. Growing up on the outskirts of a town, my siblings and I were sent out to gather wild blackberries each year in late summer/early autumn. Nowadays, I feel bad about buying blackberries. Here, they come in tiny containers and cost a horrible amount of money.

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  2. Always enjoyed eating blackberries and grew up munching on wild cousins of these berries in India.love how you weave in novel ‘pruning’ into this!

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