My dad fusses with the ornament placement on the tree for the ninth time while the twentieth rendition of O Holy Night – this time from Manheim Steamroller – shuffles through the Christmas-music mix. Waiting for my hot chocolate to cool, I admire our handiwork. All the lights twinkle merrily, the red and gold bulbs are dispersed evenly among the blue and silver and an angel tops the gussied-up evergreen. These are the moments I cherish most: the tweaking and finagling until perfect.
The process of writing is a lot like decorating the tree. (Okay, so even if you think the correlation is weak, go with me here.) You have a tree: your novel. It’s comprised of branches of prose, some plot holes maybe, but there’s a sturdy trunk of a foundation that carries the weight of your words in the way that only a Noble Fir can. Your family and friends have all gathered around and helped you address troublesome spots, and a few branches were removed for the sake of a cohesive package. Now what?
If you submit a picture of the tree as it stands to a “Decorated Tree Contest” site – like self-pubbing your novel right after NaNoWriMo –you’ll notice instantly that your evergreen Noble doesn’t look right among the 52 professionally decorated Christmas trees currently on display at the White House. Without the garland or bulbs or icicles, your tree not only looks “amateur” but people may walk right by it without a second glance.
What are the “trimmings” that traditionally-published books have that most self-pub books miss?
Take a look at your nearest, dead-tree paper-back and think how your project, when finished, will compare to it visually. The most obvious trait is perhaps the cover art that represents what the pages of the book are all about. What may not be so immediately obvious are the little details. See if you can locate the category listed somewhere on the cover, probably on the back or the spine. It’s good form to let the retail store know what shelf the book belongs on so that associates don’t have to guess by the title. There’s also a price listed, in U.S. and sometimes Canadian dollars. The Bookland/EAN barcode which is the standard format to show the ISBN, is probably right underneath the price, or at least in the same region.
Next, check out the formatting on the inside. Do “running heads” exist at the top of the page? What information is there? The author’s name or chapter title? Note the structure of the paragraphs, how everything is justified. The text should be word-wrapped so there are no “white rivers” running through it, especially in the right margins Widows and orphans will be next to or completely non-existent. (A lonely word on an otherwise blank page or a sentence beginning a paragraph stuck on its own at the bottom of a page) These things will stand out and scream “the author used a word processor”.
Now, you don’t have to decorate your tree with tinsel and an angel-topper. But, if you want a professional polish, imitation is the best form of flattery. Pick a book you like the best and adopt the layout. Your audience may not notice the extra work, but they’ll stop to admire your tree.
What plans do you have for your copy layout? Do you have cover art in mind? How close are you to this stage of your project?