Category: Industry

Take Hurting Seriously

The latest eruption in Book Twitter is about American Dirt, a novel about Mexican emigrants written by someone who four years ago claimed to be white. For an explanation of what’s problematic in the book, read this gentle review, or this straightforward one, or this salty one, or this explainer. If you’re a person of color, you probably already know what I’m about to say.

But I want to speak to white authors. When I searched for “American Dirt” to see what all the fuss was about, this was one of the top news results:

Preview image of headline with author photo and book cover.

(The headline of a Washington Post article reads, “‘American Dirt’ is a novel about Mexicans by a writer who isn’t. For some, that’s a problem,” with the first-line preview reading, “At first, Jeanine Cummins was worried she had no business writing ‘American Dirt.’”)

That Post headline rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m ashamed to say it took me some time to figure out why—because I’m also guilty of it. The headline frames people’s objections as an intellectual issue: “some” people have “a problem” with it. The caption of the photo heading the article is, “The book has sparked debate over who is entitled to tell fictional stories.”

I’m white. I’ve been the author who was afraid of “cancel culture.” I’ve been afraid to write BIPOC characters because of the backlash if I get it wrong. But I listened to authors and readers of color, who did the emotional work to explain what shouldn’t have had to be explained: if you’re more afraid of being called out than you are of doing harm, you’re worrying about the wrong thing.

But it’s worse than that. Even though I understood and assented to the notion that I should care more about doing harm than being called out, I was still unwittingly treating call-outs as an intellectual exercise: a matter of justice and fairness. I wasn’t giving enough credence to people saying, “These bad representations are actually hurting us.”

The uproar has nothing to do with who is “allowed” to write about Mexicans. It’s not like Cummins wrote a great book and Latinx critics are just sore because she’s white. People are pointing out the real harm that this book’s misrepresentations can cause. As David Schmidt wrote,

While the book ostensibly pushes a progressive message, it drives home a very Trumpist myth: “crime and violence are Mexican problems.”

That problem is worse precisely because the book was given a seven-figure advance and a huge marketing/PR push ahead of books that actual migrants have written. David Bowles wrote a great piece about the problematic parts of publishing that landed us here, ending with,

“Imagine what $1,000,000 could have done to actually address the problem Cummins ostensibly set out to resolve. Macmillan: you could have, for example, advanced forty Chicana/Mexicana writers $25,000 each for their #ownvoices stories about our ‘faceless’ plight.”

If you read the critiques of American Dirt and come away thinking that the problem is just that its author is white, you’re guilty, at least subconsciously, of thinking, “These people are exaggerating their pain.”

People’s hurt deserves and desperately needs to be believed. That’s as true of readers calling out bad rep as it is of women reporting sexual assault and people of color reporting racism, and and we need to take them seriously.

How to Format Your Manuscript, Part 2

Level 2: Jediimage

So the last post told you about font formatting and headers/page numbers. This post takes you to the next level of convenience—because that’s really what this is about. When you use the techniques Microsoft Word is expecting, you can get the application to work with you instead of feeling like you’re working against it.

Use styles for chapter headings

Why? Because you get at least two cool features: jumping around easily in your document using the navigation pane and automatically starting each chapter on a new page.

Here’s the top of my navigation pane in the full manuscript when I use Heading 1 as the chapter heading style:

By default, Heading 1 is a larger and possibly different font, but I updated the style to be the same font (instructions also in previous post), just without first-line indentation and centered instead of left-aligned (from the Modify Style dialog, in the lower-left corner choose Format > Paragraph).

I mentioned a second cool feature, which is this: I also clicked the all-important button to force automatic page breaks.

No more hitting enter until you get to the next page, or even Ctrl-Enter that might get deleted accidentally. I also happen to think it looks nicer if there’s a little more breathing room after the chapter title than after a regular line, so I add space after the paragraph (which gets added automatically without having to double-enter).

But what about the first chapter?

I’m glad you asked! If you follow agent Mary C. Moore’s advice, you know she says to just begin the novel right after the title on the same page. No problem! Put your cursor in “Chapter 1”, then open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph, Alt+o+p, etc.) and unselect the “page break before” option I showed above. This will change only chapter 1 and not affect the style for other chapters. This is technically a hack (content-level formatting) but it’s good enough for now.

Right-aligned tabs

You’re doing great, but then you have to put the word count on the right side of the page. What is this magic? Spaces? Tabs? A new textbox? All functional hacks (and I don’t turn up my nose at hacks, as I just demonstrated), but for ease of use, you can’t beat the right-aligned tab. As you can see below, where I’ve “shown invisibles” (formally known as formatting marks), I use just one tab and it’s aligned to the right margin.


If you’re using US Letter paper with 1-inch margins, the usual standard in the US, you want to set a right tab at 6.5″. As the link describes, you can do that with the ruler, but I find the Tab dialog easier.


Voilà! Type your name, then Tab, then your word-count. You can also use this technique if you want to have both left- and right-aligned information in your header. Why might you do that? Here’s a teaser for the next post:


(OK look, I feel bad about not including Padawan Obi-Wan in the last post, but I loved that flail GIF, so here’s some more handsome for you.)

Image result for young obi wan kenobi

Format Your Manuscript Properly: How to Get Microsoft Word to Do What You Meant (Part 1)

So you’re submitting your manuscript

Here’s the usual expected formatting: But how do you get Word to do that?

Level 1: Padawan

I have Office 2016 on Windows 7, so your setup might look a little different. Try searching the term I give you and the version of Word that you have (e.g., “font dialog Office 2011 for Mac”) if you can’t figure it out, or hit me up on Twitter and I’ll do my best to help.


There are two places you might have to set a font. One is the “Normal” style (more on Styles later, but here’s an overview) and one is the “default” font (which is sometimes different). When I was compiling from Scrivener, I noticed that I had to update the default font, but usually updating “Normal” is enough.

Almost always, agents and editors want Times New Roman. In my mind, there are plenty of other highly readable, more interesting fonts (yep, I’m a font nerd), but there are good reasons for wanting everyone’s submissions to look the same, which I won’t elaborate on here.

If your manuscript pretty much looks right, you can probably skip the font step.

Updating the Normal Style

Try this first. Go to the Home tab on the Ribbon or bring up the Styles pane (Format > Styles or ALT+o+s).

Method 1 (if you haven’t formatted at all yet)

  1. Right-click on the style in the Ribbon or click on the dropdown in the style pane and choose “Modify…”.
  2. Set the font and size.
  3. In the lower-left corner, choose “Format > Paragraph”.
  4. Set the indent and spacing.

If this method doesn’t seem to work, try selecting your whole manuscript and clicking on the Normal style to apply it. NOTE! Doing this will get rid of any other styles you’ve applied (e.g., for chapter headings), so only do it if you know you haven’t inentionally applied styles yet.

Method 2

If you already have your words with the proper font, size, indenting and spacing, you can just update the style so that it becomes the default.

Right-click the Normal style in the Ribbon  and choose “Update Normal to Match Selection.”

Setting the Default Font

This step should only be necessary if you’ve done the above but parts of your manuscript still look fishy. Open the Font dialog. It’s under Format > Font, or in Windows you can type ALT+o+f, or you can open it from the Ribbon (outlined in red below).


Choose Times New Roman, 12 pt, and then click the Set As Default button in the lower left.


Exceptions to Normal

For the first page that Mary C. Moore recommends above, you can apply the “No Spacing” style to change it from double- to single-spaced. If it’s acquired the half-inch first-line indent, you can either backspace once at the beginning of each line, or open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph or ATL+o+p).

Then change “Special” indentation to “(none)”.

Header and Page Numbers

I usually set the page numbers first, because that’s really easy in Office 2016 (TBH, I can’t remember if it was this easy in earlier versions). Instructions for Mac here.

First, double-click in the margin of the page to go to Header/Footer view.


This should automatically open the Header & Footer Tools tab group and the Design tab. Choose Page Number > Top of Page > “Plain Number 3” to get right-aligned page numbers. You can also get there from the Insert tab or Insert menu as described here.

Then click next to the page number and type your name and title.


Note that the number will look grey when you select it because it’s a field that updates, whereas the text you type will be the same on each page.

You will want to check “Different First Page” on the header or in the Format Page Number dialog, before or after you insert the page number. For Mac, format your page number to be right-aligned and uncheck “Show number on first page.”


Edgy Inspirational Fiction (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

This session was a surprisingly fun and interactive presentation from J.D. DeWitt. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but it ended up being a great advice and encouragement session for Christian authors.

She started with the basics, which was good, because I’m not too familiar with the world of faith-based publishing. Until recently, it was mostly dominated by the Christian Booksellers Association, or CBA, whose extremely strict guidelines governed the content of “Christian fiction” (i.e., what you might find at CBD or Lifeway bookstores). The guidelines include: no mention of sex, drugs, or abuse; Christian characters may not drink, play cards, or gamble; etc. Even poop is off the table! It makes sense, though, if you consider that a Lifeway store has to be able to sell to someone from any denomination, so basically anything that any Christian might find offensive is not allowed. (I’m sure some readers still found ways to get offended, but there you go.) While there is and has been a large market for such clean books, DeWitt wants authors to know that there is a growing market on the edges of the CBA guidelines that is hungry for something a little more authentic.


  • “Christian fiction” follows the CBA guidelines and readers expect God to be at the center of the romance and the restoration in the plot
  • “inspirational fiction” or “inspi” would be sweet, feel-good, faith- and family-oriented, but not necessarily specifically Christian as defined above
  • “sweet romance” or “clean reads” doesn’t mention God but would be otherwise safe for readers of the above
  • new genre “transformational fiction” deals with tough issues, may be gritty or edgy, and invites the reader to journey with the character through (duh) transformation, with restoration still expected at the end
  • “gritty” means some level of violence
  • “edgy” means some level of sensuality

The main question on the table was whether “gritty” or “edgy” had a place in faith-based fiction. A poll of readers and published authors shows that indeed there is a strong market for it, but that the market is currently being served mostly by self-published writers. Large publishers want the large distribution power of the CBA, and thus are limited to their guidelines. Secular publishers don’t know how large the underserved market might be and don’t want to publish anything risky. Research shows that Christian fiction readers read more books than the average reader in the US, and that they are running out of titles that hold their interest. (If you have a faith-based thriller, DeWitt wants to talk to you!! 🙂 ) The downside of self-publishing is that anyone can label their stuff with any of the above tags, so it’s up to readers and reviewers to help people.

DeWitt’s takeaway: write for this market if it appeals to you as a writer. There are readers out there, and when the big publishers “discover” that, you want to be there already. 🙂