Don’t Depend on Subtitles
by: Bruce L. Cook
Subtitles clarify a manuscript. But subtitles don’t necessarily replace organization.
The problem isn’t with the subtitles themselves – they can be perfectly good. The problem is with the readers.
Some readers read both subtitles and text, as the author expects. However, many readers skip the subtitles, reading only the test. And others read the subtitles but not the text.
Here’s an example of a subtitle in text. (The text is adapted from Wikipedia. The subtitle was added.)
A seashell, also known as a sea shell, or simply as a shell, is the common name for a hard, protective outer layer, a shell, or in some cases a "test", that was created by a sea creature, a marine organism. The shell is part of the body of a marine animal. In most cases a shell is an exoskeleton, usually that of an animal without a backbone, an invertebrate. Seashells are most often found on beaches.
Different Types of Seashells
In this area, we find marine animals from various different phyla. These shells include remains from species in other invertebrate phyla, such as the moulted shells or exuviae of crabs and lobsters, the shells of barnacles, horseshoe crab shells, the tests (endoskeletons) of sea urchins, sand dollars and seastars, brachiopod shells, and the shells of marine annelid worms in the family Serpulidae, which create calcareous tubes cemented onto other surfaces.
Careful readers who peruse text and subtitles will catch the intended message. However, those who skip subtitles will be confused by the phrase “In the area,” for without the subtitle it seems to refer to “beaches.” Thus, an essay writer cannot safely assume that all readers have digested the subtitle.
In the above case, for example, the sentence under the subtitle should have repeated the subtitle, despite the duplication. For example, it could have begun: “Seashells are of different types, including species in other invertebrate phyla, such as…”
The subtitle can also cause problems in a fiction manuscript. Perhaps your story jumps back and forth in time and is confusing to the reader. In this case, you might rearrange the items so they fall into chronological order, as the reader expects. Then the sequencing problem is solved. However, you might opt to retain the disorder and use subtitles instead, assuming that readers will rearrange the items in their minds. For example, inserting exact dates for each section. But will the readers have enough patience to rearrange sections? In this case, rearranging the items in chronological order would seem best.
Subtitles clarify a manuscript. However, unless they are carefully used, subtitles may make the manuscript confusing.
What Impression... (continued)
Now this all sounded a bit odd to me as the book is highly marketable and the agent is at the top of his field. Agents don't usually remove clients from their list this quickly - even if they can't place a book with a publisher.
I spent two hours listening to the author and trying to come up with solutions to the problems that had arisen. During this time, I heard phrases like: "I can't do that," "he won't let me" and "I'd rather not". Then, there was: "that's not allowed" and "that'd take too much of my time."
A lot of her statements were conjecture, based on negative assumptions. She seemed to anticipate bad things happening and a worst case scenario, without it even happening! How was she to know something wouldn't work without trying it? How could she possibly know that her agent would say "no" without asking him? Who invented these unspoken rules - who said they couldn't be broken?
By the end of the consultation I was emotionally drained and exhausted. I'd come up with maybe 20 or so different solutions to resolve the problems. Many of my other clients have run with these suggestions and made a phenomenal success of them. Yet every single suggestion was met with a 'can't', 'won't' or 'couldn't'.
What puzzled me is that this author had driven over 150 miles to see me and was paying for a two-hour consultation. Yet by the end of it, she was no further on than when she had arrived. Except perhaps she'd found 20 more things that 'didn't work' for her.
I put it to the author, as delicately as I could, that there are no free lunches in publishing. Even if she got a book deal tomorrow, there would be work involved. There would still be a PR and marketing campaign to organize. There would be promotional events. There would be a media campaign. There would still be hurdles and challenges.
She had spent 3 years writing and researching her book. She'd then spent another year trying to find an agent without success, before seeking my help. Surely after all this effort, it was worth a little extra work?
I was met with stony silence and one of those looks that told me I didn't know what the heck I was talking about.
This author had such a negative attitude that it didn't surprise me in the least that her agent was trying to get rid of her. In fact, I was starting to think the very same thing myself!
A couple of days later, the author sent me an email saying she had ended the contract with her agent and was going to look for another one. She pulled out, not the agent - so she never had chance to find out if he was trying to get rid of her after all!
Here was an author who had every chance of a decent book deal - and her very worst enemy was herself.
Not everyone is as negative as this particular author. But we all have our 'off' days. The important thing is to make sure these 'off' days don't impact on our professional relationships. An agent (or publisher) is not someone to off-load your problems or anxieties on to. They are not someone who wants to hear 'can't' or 'won't' in every other sentence.
Literary agents and publishers regularly go the extra mile for clients. Often this is done in their own free time. We take manuscripts on holiday with us. We make phone calls from home. It's part of publishing - the wheels wouldn't turn unless we were prepared to do this. The fact is that we do it because we love our work and the best clients are a joy to work with. When we're working with a talented writer, it's what makes our jobs worthwhile and exciting. And the 'can do' authors with a positive attitude are the ones we're most prepared to put ourselves out for.
Stephanie J Hale is a leading writers' coach and publishing scout. She's worked with bestselling authors and top literary agents for over 20 years. She specializes in helping writers get the publishing deal and readership they deserve.
More FREE publishing tips at: http://www.richwriterpoorwriter.com
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Publishing New Writers,
August, 2009 (no. 1008)
Publisher: Bruce L. Cook, 6086 Dunes Dr, Sanford, NC 27332.Submissions/comments firstname.lastname@example.org. Links are
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