Friday, January 02, 2015

Query Question: fonts for backstory

In 2005, Elizabeth Kostova had success with her vampire novel, The Historian, a book in which the past/backstory was in set in italics. How often do literary agents see manuscripts so formatted, and do you get any gut feelings, presentiments, or intuitions when you do?

Often enough, and it makes me nuts.

The book you read with the italics was published. It was NOT the manuscript form.

The industry standard for manuscripts is TNR or Courier 12pt. No italics. No using different fonts for inner thoughts, IM texts, or notes passed under the table.

If you need to set off chunks of the manuscript as backstory you mark it with a date that clearly distinguishes it from the present day narrative. Example:

Felix Buttonweazer's teddy bear had seen better days.

Italic is suitable ONLY for small bits of texts: inner thoughts, IM texts or notes passed under the table.

And don't underline in place of italics.

The ONLY exception to this is if you are sending a manuscript to a place that has different, specific guidelines. You will be able to identify those places because they will have something called Submission Guideline and it will say "send all manuscripts in Comic San Serif" and you will do that.


Unknown said...

Interesting Anecdote: I was recently in a bookstore looking for something to buy--and then saw half the book was in italics and for that reason alone, put it down.

Because the text "made me nuts."

Anonymous said...

Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

I am guilty of having done this and having done it quite recently. Interesting though, neither editor, nor agent, said a word about it. And it was a page and a half of that.

Maybe they didn't worry over it because it's such an easy fix.

Colin Smith said...

Okay, your answer confused me at first, Janet, but then I read more closely. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that the manuscript FONT needs to be in either TNR or Courier New throughout. The font STYLE can be italicized for brief sections (e.g., a few lines of inner dialog, notes passed under the table, IM texts, etc.). But italics should not be used for extended chunks of text (e.g., back story). For those portions the writer should use a date or a section break rather than have paragraphs of italics.

As a general observation, it seems to me a bit reckless to take one's manuscript formatting tips from published novels. That's like trying to make an egg look like a chicken.

Les Edgerton said...

Good post, Janet. I venture one more use for italics--for emphasis, particularly a single word, instead of that godawful all caps which looks mostly like email language.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I was wondering about using italics for inner thoughts. If there are too many should the MS be in 1st person POV instead of 3rd .

The unusual font in Runner worked well for Rachael’s thought-notes.

And for the Parisian viewing of The Better Days of Felix Buttonweaver’s Teddy bear. The Escurial would be fantastic. I’d host an aftermath cocktail. Just cross the street. Here’s the link to the cinemas for hire:

It would be such a treat to meet Colin, Donna, Carolynn, Hank et all.

Unknown said...

Donnaeverhart: it wasn't lines of thought or a dream--but literally half the book written in italics.

Anonymous said...

Angie, I keep it at the back of my mind that one of these days, maybe we will all get to meet face to face. Would we all stand around stupefied with happiness? I think so, I know I would.

It WOULD be a treat. The closest I'll get to this reality is Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC, Oct 2015. Counting down the days.

Anonymous said...

MB Owen - ah, I see. That would have made me put it down too.

Maybe in my case it was acceptable, at least to the ones eyeballing my ms. One of my characters recounted a past experience which caused a burn scar on his chest. I italicized it, and in hindsight, I'm realizing I probably could have just made the page break.

Janet Reid said...

Colin, you've said it better than I did. You're spot on.

Dena Pawling said...

My manuscript is currently with a freelance editor for review. She told me that traditional publishers want underlining in the manuscript, which will translate into italics when published.

Now I'm all confused. Was it just the publishers she had used, that wanted it underlined? And most of them want the italics?

I want to get it "right" [if there is such a thing], but does something like this really matter?

There's not much underlining/italic in my manuscript, but it does show up occasionally.

Mister Furkles said...

wrt Angie's comment, it would be even more interesting to meet the world famous Felix Buttonweaver.

And the problem with large blocks of italics is that the creepy letters, just on the edge of view, crawl around he page like little black worms.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: I'm planning on being at Bouchercon in October. That makes three of us (including Janet). I wonder how many others? Granted, the hotel bar in Raleigh, NC isn't exactly cocktails by the Seine, but it's the company that matters, yes? :)

Anonymous said...

What a timely post. Laura Zats recently posted on twitter she was tired of seeing queries with sentient penises. So, the discussion came up on Lit Forum, naturally, about this and how conversations would be carried on with said sentient penises.

This was important because I have a sentient sword in my fantasy which often talks to its master and I have to differentiate the mental conversations. We assumed conversations with sentient penises would be the same, but who knows?

We finally decided the owner of the sword would have the conversation in italics and the sword would be italics set off with dashes on either side of the dialogue. These conversations are few and far between so it isn't too distracting. I would think a sentient penis would be more conversant...and annoying.

Anyway, yes, this was a great post. I limit the italics to internal dialogue, sentient sword, notes on murder victims, etc.

I did note one agency said they read everything on the computer and for them Arial is easier on the eyes. That just goes to show always read the submission guidelines.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: Sentient...?? Ummm... okay. That sounds like 50 SHADES meets CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. And as a guy, that's possibly one of the most disturbing concepts I really don't want to think about.

Mental purge in process:
Fluffy bunnies. Cute kittens. Fluffy bunnies. Cute kittens...

Loretta Ross said...

Somewhere in an MFA program somewhere *that* guy is going, "there's a reason I wrote my entire manuscript in italic Papyrus. Yes, it's an unusual choice, but that's what makes it so bold. The varying font sizes are part of the story architecture. Obviously it's over your heads. Philistines."

Janet Reid said...

Dena, your manuscript is NOT being sent to a publisher. It's being sent to agents, none of whom as far as I know want any of that crazy "underline for italics" stuff.

If/when a manuscript is acquired for publication, some publishers have style guides that may include that kind of instruction. THEN and only then, would you do that.

I'm talking in this blog post about sending pages with queries and full manuscripts on request.

LynnRodz said...

Now, why did I think italics was supposed to be underlined in an ms? I know I read it somewhere, but where and when? And is it Courier or Courier New as Colin said? I like the look of an old typewriter, but then again that's just me. (I learn something new every time I come here.)

Roslyn Reid said...

Extended italics makes me nuts too. I only use it for inner thought, very seldom, & only if there is no other way...such as no companion present to ask, "What is it, Doctor?"

Colin Smith said...

Janet: I'm glad you said what you did to Dena since I was thinking the same thing, but being a nobody in the publishing world didn't feel qualified to comment. My understanding is that at the query stage, you care more about agent submission guidelines than editor/publisher submission guidelines. Once you have an agent, s/he can help you make your ms editor-ready, especially since s/he will be aware of *specific* editor/publisher formatting requirements for *specific* editors/publishers.

Another reason to pursue an agent... :)

Melissa said...

Dena and LynnRodz,
I work for a publisher and we'd be confused by an underline. We'd probably query you and ask if you meant it to be italics or really underline.

I believe this is a holdover rule from typewriters when you couldn't do italics. Like double spaces, it is dead.

LynnRodz said...

*Note to self.* Refresh Janet's blog in case new comments have posted before you hit "publish" and you don't look like you're still hung over from two days ago!

LynnRodz said...

Thanks Melissa. I have to remember to stop those double spaces in comments! I don't do it in my ms, but it's a habit that's hard to break.

So italics it is. I'll go back and undo the underlines in my ms. Once again, great post Janet.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, folks. I'm still stuck on the "sentient penises." At first, I thought this was a typo. Except, it's not a typo since it was used three times. I mean, oh, never mind. This led to a visual, one I'd rather not have.

I'm now joining Colin on the fluffy kittens and bunny track.

The Sleepy One said...

So you don't want my manuscript in all-caps Comic Sans with interior thoughts in dingbat?? Guess I better start retyping.

Anonymous said...

Colin, what's even more disturbing is she's getting enough queries with said sentient beings that she has to ask for people to stop sending them. Who knew it was a thing?

On the plus side, it makes you think if you just send a well-written query with an interesting story sans sentient things you must move way on up the list.


Elissa M said...


"That's like trying to make an egg look like a chicken."

I got this image of a craft project using blown eggs, toothpicks and construction paper. Made me smile.

Anonymous said...


Years and years ago people used to do the underlines for italics on typewriters or handwritten manuscripts. There's no need to do that now with word processors. It shows how old I am that I remember doing this.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well I'm screwed.
Half my book, (the previously published columns part) are italicized) Highlighting in yellow sounds friendly and happy. Maybe I'll try that. Yeah, sure.

I haven't had time to read all the comments, I'm at work and then a houseful of people for my daughter's birthday dinner tonight. I did catch Donna and her "penises" though so I'm eager to 'get-on-top' of the comments later on.

I love fonts. Like go font yourself and font off. See you later.

Colin Smith said...

Carolynn: I'm sure Donna doesn't want to claim the aforementioned reproductive organs for herself (though I think you've just named a new punk band). The comments are well worth the time, though. :)

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I’ve reloaded this post like ten times. I was confused about the penises. My dyslexic mind confused it with ellipses... Oulala!

Colin and Donna, I’d love to meet you at Bouchercon but it’s bad timing though I love NC. I am sure it would be well worth every penny even if I’m not writing mystery, or crime and will never write my memoirs. But if someone sends me an image of Felix Buttonweaver, I’ll make the invites, even pop-ups.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I'm home, house will fill in about an hour and a half. Penises, kitties and fluffy bunnies - where the hell else would find such a threesome when discussing fonts and italicizing.

Hey, I'm all for NC, just to see what you yahoos look like. I think I used to smoke Raleighs or was it Winstons or Salems? (Gotta love NC.) That was back when turning your walls sticky-yellow and your lungs black was cheaper. I don't smoke anymore, haven't for over thirty years. Think it's out of my system yet? Too bad we can't meet in Denver.
Clears throat and heads for Dayquil.

Anonymous said...

I wish I wrote mysteries. I actually have a steampunk mystery floating around on the back burner. I have a friend in Raleigh, NC who is one of my writing partners. Le sigh I shall be heading to Surrey and possibly Denver, however.

Raise one for me.

Anonymous said...

Carolynn, Colin would be a British yahoo. I'm determined to hear how he says "ya'll," however. Me? I'm just a yahoo, through and through, Raleigh being my hometown, and I've upped my yahoo'ishness even further by moving to Dunn. Oh, and last I checked, normal pieces and parts were intact, so I'd prefer not to lead anyone astray in THAT department. :)

Angie, ellipses, penises, kitties, and bunnies. They all end in "es" so I say it's a close call. And, I believe I'm afraid to see Mr. Buttonweazer.

LynnRodz said...

Julie, it shows how old I am for thinking I still needed to do this! Ay ya ya!

Unknown said...

I can think of one place that wants underlining instead of itals-- I've been looking at the writer's guidelines for some of the major SF magazines--Analogue, Fantasy & Science Fiction, places like that, and they want underlining instead of itals, and Courier instead of TNR. I had to go back and change my itals.. Not sure why they prefer it the old way..

Michael Seese said...

One of these days im going to write a book, and make Felix Buttonweazer my MC. Then Janet will have to sign me.

Rochelle said...

For those of you who need to change from underlines to italics:

Choose "Advanced Find" from the dropdown menu
Delete anything that's already there
Choose the "More" button.
On the bottom left is "Format" as a dropdown menu. Click it and choose "Font."
click on the underline dropdown menu and choose the single line.

Under the replace tab of the whole dialogue box, choose format again. Under the underline menu choose "none." Then choose "italics" from the middle column at the top.
Click "replace all."

(You can do this on any version of Word, but this specific layout applies to the Windows versions of at least 2010 and 2013. No guarantees on how it looks for 2007 or earlier.)

Dena Pawling said...

So I posted my question this morning, went to work, and 12 hours later the comments exploded!

Yes, I'm querying agents, not publishers, so I'll change all my underlining back to italics. Thanks for clarifying, Janet. You're awesome.

I've been whacking the space bar twice after a period for #$^#&$ years. That one's gonna be hard to re-learn.

And Colin, I can pretty much guarantee that I'm more of a nobody in this business than you are. I was VERY surprised to learn that several people had the same question tho. I thought I'd be the only one, and that it was an idiot/very newbie question, but I figured if I was gonna sound like an idiot, this is just about the safest place to do so.

Happy new year!

Colin Smith said...

Dena: I'm sure I've sounded like an idiot more than once in this forum, but like you, I feel safe to express my inner dork here. Funny how you learn so much when you don't pretend to be smart. :)

I also grew up on the double-space thing and had to unlearn what I had learned.

Are we all old people here? Next we'll be sharing mix tapes... :D

DLM said...

Dena, on the spacebar thing - I just did a search and replace on my MS once it was done, so the habit is at least reparable while you're trying to break it. I'm trying to train myself out of it in comments and on Twitter, but am still not getting the re-swing of it on my blog and so on.

I know the people who hate the two-space method go wild seeing white "rivers" in a block of text - but, as for me, a giant block of tight, unbroken text is as ugly to me as a river is to them. Oh well. The older I get, the more I try to let go of my grammatical/writing expectations (Arrant Pedantry helps! :)), but this particular habit is a tough one to overcome. See also, this paragraph ...

*Hangs head in middle-aged typewriter-trained shame*

french sojourn said...

Well, I spoke to Felix and he's up for the trip. STOP He was a little disenfranchised with you know who for disparaging his Teddy bear STOP.

Below added by Felix STOP

We'll talk STOP

Cordially Felix T. Buttonweazer Stop

Am arriving May 6th 1937, at Naval Air Station Lakehurst STOP

(Western Telegram STOP sent April 5TH 1937 STOP)


The following was received and archived. It has been forwarded to the addressed party and is registered for delivery. Sorry for the delay.
Global Crossing Dispatch Aug. 27 1972.

Forwarded to New York head office. Tagged for delivery to Sharsque. by Zippy's bike delivery service. 1-3-2015.