SOME GENERAL CAREER ADVICE
Though writing is a lonely art, it's not good to wall yourself off completely. You need to hear how others react to your work. To be quite honest, the best and fastest way to learn to write (and to make the contacts that are so necessary, too) is to attend an accredited creative writing program. This can be helpful even to those who aren't necessarily in the market for a teaching or graduate degree.
One we know enough about to recommend is at Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Full disclosure: NHP is affiliated with it, and several of our editors teach there.) Their MA in Creative Writing is a 21/24-credit, 18/24-month, low-residency program taught in one-week residencies in January and June, and on the Web between residencies. Students meet with mentors and complete their plans during residencies, then do area reading, writing projects, and finally their capstone (thesis) project, usually a novel or short story collection, during the semesters. Lastly, our final outside readers are not other academics, but practicing editors and agents from New York. The program is well-planned and rigorous. It not only trains students to write, but also to plan, organize, refine, and market their work.
There are many other good CW programs, though, and if you're really serious about writing as a career, or plan to teach, you really should seriously consider an MA or an MFA in the field.
If you decide against a formal degree program, we recommend local writers' workshops. Also, go to as many writers' conferences as you can. They educate you in the craft. They give you contacts and names you'll yearn for come marketing time. And they stoke that fire in the belly we all need. We recommend the Ossabaw Island Writer's Retreat, where we also teach from time to time.
Whatever you decide to do, good luck!
A SHORT GUIDE TO MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING
Use 12 point type, in a readable typeface like Times Roman or Courier. Sans serif fonts are harder to decipher. Make sure the printed text looks sharp and clear, and is in black, not green or red or purple. In general, eschew colors and exotic fonts in your manuscript.
The lines should be double-spaced, with NO additional spacing between paragraphs (not as in a business letter or on an internet site). Editors need double spacing to leave room for comments or corrections and to make reading many pages easier on the eyes. A big white-space break indicates the end of a section or scene and the beginning of the next; that is what you use extra spacing for in a manuscript. Using # # # symbols signals a line break.
Make sure margins are one inch all around, so the words aren't running off the bottom or over into the right and off the edge.
Paginate your manuscript. Unnumbered pages can get lost or out of order after they're printed out. It's traditional to suppress the number "1" on the first page of the manuscript, but it's not necessary for a novel ms, since your title appears on the preceding (title) page. Also it's a good idea to have a header with your last name, usually opposite the page number.
For a novel or nonfiction book-length work, include a title page. Center the title, in larger type (18 to 24 point) with the author's name centered below in a smaller font size. Your address, phone, and email address should appear in the lower left corner, in 12 point type. In the upper right corner indicate which draft (Draft 2.0, etc.) and approximate word count (round it off). In the upper left put your name and the year.
For a short story ms, put name and contact info in the top left corner. Put the word count in the upper right. Center title in larger bold type (14-16 points), and center 'by (your name)' below that. In the middle of page 1 begin the text of your story.
For ALL manuscripts, printed or digital, look over EACH page to make sure nothing is missing, and that there are no mysterious blank pages. Use Spell Check by all means, but it will not detect missing words and grammatical errors or egregious homonyms ("there" instead of "their," "wood" instead of "would," and so on).
Include ONLY what the editor or agent asks for. If they request that you send the first three chapters, or only the first five pages, don't second-guess the instructions. Include a synopsis, outline, bio, or other materials ONLY if these are requested. Keep your query or cover letter to one page. Specific NHP guidelines for submission are on the Submission/Contact Us page.
Again, good luck!