I hate to say it, but first impressions ARE important…

Once upon a time

I started writing fiction for public consumption just over a year ago. A colleague and I were strolling one lunchtime, joking about a futuristic concept of body recycling when she suggested, probably half-heartedly, that I should knock that into a story and submit it to the Bristol Short Story Prize. As I’m always very well behaved and do exactly as I’m told, that’s exactly what I did. Tanya, the strolling colleague, and Mark, a friend from way back when, polished the story with some fine editing then off it went, submitted over the Internet to the BSSP website!

This was the first fiction I’d written in over twenty years, yet I honestly thought I would at least reach the long-list and with a little wind in my sails, possibly make the short-list. Even the little realism I’d held onto made me realise winning probably wasn’t on the table, though it might be, unlikely, but certainly possible, if only…

The day of the announcement for the long-list approached and I was F5’ing my browser all day long, keen to see how high I would be on the list. And then, after one refresh, there it was. Not me on the list of course, just the list on my screen, and with my name glaringly absent. At the time I’ll admit I was a little put out, who wouldn’t be, but with a thick skin and a thin copy of an earlier BSSP short-list compilation, I soon realised why I wasn’t on the list. And not only why I wasn’t on the list, but why my story probably wasn’t even read all the way through.

Bristol Short Story Prize

Bristol Short Story Prize

The thing is, BSSP isn’t a little story competition for people who live in Bristol; the entrants are national, even international. To confirm that, I just picked up the third anthology: the winner was Irish (though living in Manchester) and second place went to an Edinburgh based Scot.

I liked my story, I thought it was good and I still do, but I’m certain a large part of the problem wasn’t the story itself, it was the presentation! If you could make a list of things that you need to do properly before submitting to an agent, publisher, competition, etc., my submission would have ignored them all. It wasn’t that I was trying to make an artistic statement in my layout, some kind of Tracy Emin’s approach to writing, the simple truth was that I didn’t know any better.

Since then, I’ve researched what I should have done a few months earlier and updated the formatting. That first story, Body Recyclers, has now been published on Mark Coker’s Smashwords and Amazon. Smashwords publish on numerous sites so the formatting in any submitted work needs to be generic and clean; to aid this Mark released a style guide which not only defines the “you must do’s” but also the “you must not’s”. At the same time, I read the excellent ‘The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile’ from Noah Lukeman, and numerous blogs, such as Joanna Penn’s and Joel Friedlander’s.

First Five Pages

My tip for the day is this: before you submit anything, make sure you read at least a couple of the above blogs or publications, the advice is invaluable. I do like the premise to Noah’s book: you’ve got five pages to prove your book is worth reading. As he says, some books can be dismissed on the first paragraph, even the first line, and that would be well before those words you spent hours trying to chose the correct lilt and rhythm for are even encountered. So do yourself a favour, tackle the layout!

Simple is good

One piece of advice you will hear over and over is to keep it simple. Avoid dainty flourishes such as mixing fonts or a wild variety of point sizes, just keep it simple. If you give too much attention to numerous styles then so will the reader, and this will detract their attention from the content. Whilst it may look fantastic, they came to your book expecting a good read, not to be distracted by artistic embellishment.


You probably think fonts are straightforward and you can chose what you want and at any size. Not so. With the exception of the first character in each section, fonts should never be larger than 12-point. Smashwords suggest you should avoid all exotic fonts and stay with the tried and tested, such as Times New Roman, Garamond and Arial. Joel Friedlander prefers the historical fonts: Garamond, Janson, Bembo, Caslon and Electra.


Once you’ve got your fonts pinned down, you need to consider the layout. Indent each paragraph, but be careful to use paragraph styles rather than using tabs or spaces. When submitting a hard copy, your manuscript should be double space, or at a minimum, one-and-a-half. For ebook publishing, use single or one-and-a-half, anything larger looks bad on an e-reader.

The point of this was to make you aware of the options and to point you towards great resources of information. I hope this has done that and I hope this has been useful.

And by the way, BSSP5 will be accepting submissions soon, so pull out that pen/netbook/computer and get writing. But don’t make the mistakes I made, remember to get that formatting correct!