As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a regular reader of these short blogs, poor formatting is one of my pet peeves. This is one I consider a fairly minor faux pas, but shows a bit of savvy when employed. You may have never noticed; I didn’t until I had to format my first book. Like most formatting conventions, it’s noted in reliable sources, but can be easily overlooked or missed.
In traditional fiction publishing, the first paragraph in a chapter or section is not indented, but flush with the margin. What’s the point? There are two main ones. First, it helps set the stage, even subconsciously, that what follows is not a direct continuation of the previous scene, but something new. Second, if only spaces are used to show section breaks, this may be the only clue that a new section has begun. This is particularly true for ebooks, where extra spaces are often lost.
This is not a “big deal” as some formatting issues goes. However, it is one more way to show consideration to your reader by including subtle clues to what’s going on with your story.
Yesterday I talked about using a visual clue for section breaks other than an addition space. One way to enhance your book’s interior is to use a glyph that relates to your story instead of asterisks. Making them a part of your formatting adds a nice, thoughtful touch that adds to the flavor of the story. For example, if your story is about a horse, you could use a few horse shoes for section dividers.
There are many options you can explore in unicode and wingding fonts which are easier to use overall than a jpg file. One drawback of jpg files is their resolution, which to show up clearly needs to be at least 300 dpi for print. I don’t know about your word processor, but Word isn’t very cooperative for this and tends to reduce them to around 200 dpi. This then requires replacing them in the final pdf file one by one, which can be onerous, to say the least. Some print on demand publishers may not care, but some like Lightning Source and Ingram do, and will bounce it back. Thus, if it’s part of a font set, this is not a problem.
One of the most obvious ways to divide your massive novel into sections is chapters. There are pros and cons to their length, which is really up to you. Personally, I prefer shorter chapters since sometimes I don’t have a lot of time to read and I don’t like to stop in the middle. But this is just me, though it seems that everyone is pretty busy these days, so I don’t think I’m that unique.
Another way to divide your story is by including more than one scene in a chapter, perhaps because you change point of view characters. In this case, it’s best to mark your section breaks with a few asterisks rather than simply rely on an extra space. This can work in a print book, especially if the first paragraph of the new section is also not indented, another visual clue to the reader that the scene has shifted. However, this might not be noticeable on an electronic reading device. I’ve encountered this before and it turned out it was quite confusing because the POV had changed.
This is another simple trick to let your reader know what’s going on so they don’t get lost.
When you start a new chapter or section, if a significant amount of time has passed, be sure to tell the reader so s/he doesn’t think something was missed or lost. These breaks are intuitive indicators that something has shifted, unless it’s one of those chapters that ends with a cliff hanger. Assuming that’s not the case, if the change is dramatic, such as years have gone by or the viewpoint has shifted to another character, clue in your reader as quickly as possible. Remember that losing your readers doesn’t build suspense, only annoys them.
It’s best to mark your section breaks with a few asterisks rather than simply rely on an extra space, which might not be noticeable on an electronic reading device. This is particularly important if you change the point of view with the next section, a significant amount of time has passed, or the scene location has changed. Every time you leave a reader confused enough that they have to go back and reread a previous section to figure out what’s going on you run the risk of losing them entirely.
One complaint I’ve heard about Indie novels is lack of proper formatting. While this is usually one of the services provided by a publisher, when you’re an Indie you’re on your own unless you want to hire someone to do it for you. Otherwise such oversights, ignorance or perhaps laziness contribute to a poor reputation which hurts everyone. Here are a few simple formatting tips which will help your work shine:
The first paragraph of a new chapter typically begins with a letter that is larger than the others and called a “dropped cap.” This gives it a more professional appearance. This does not necessarily work for some formats, however, where this larger letter will increase the leading (e. spacing) between the lines. For print format, however, this is the convention.
The first paragraph of a chapter is flush with the left margin; it is NOT indented. This is also true for each new section and provides a stronger visual clue than doubled spacing, which is sometimes inadvertently introduced into ebooks by a page break in the original file that doesn’t necessarily indicate a new scene or viewpoint has begun.
Along these same lines, it’s easier on the reader if you demarcate the end of a section with some sort of indicator whether it’s a few asterisks or some other design.
Speaking of section breaks, when you change viewpoint from one character to another or start a new scene you should start a new section unless the entire book is written in omniscient point of view that switches from one person to the next continually. Remember, however, that you don’t necessarily have to get into everyone’s head to know what they’re thinking. Describing a character’s expression or body language can convey what they’re thinking or feeling just like it does in real life. Clearly is you’re writing in first person you can’t read another person’s thoughts directly and would use visual clues.
Book design refers to the fonts used for chapter headings and text, your paragraph indentation style, line spacing, page number and heading placement, and so forth. Paying attention to these details gives your book a more professional appearance. For ebooks these details don’t show up but if you’re publishing in a print copy they make a tremendous difference as far as presenting your work as that of a professional.