Author! Author! :: Anne Mini's Blog

Author! Author!

Overcoming those bare-page blues, or, getting those wheels spinning productively

October 13th, 2014

spinning lady

One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis — if not every day or week, then at least as often as I’d like — is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.

One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger’s perspective: even when I’m not posting fresh material, I’m often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives this extensive, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.

That doesn’t mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:

First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.

I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let’s talk about why this species of writer’s block annoys so many, and why it’s so hard to overcome. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can’t seem to write today! syndrome, it’s comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.

Just to clear the air: none of those explanations is necessarily apt, in practice. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off — and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.

Darned frustrating, even if you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let’s all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.

At worst, it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it’s still a useful principle, is it not?)

Instead of nagging Firma — who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself — to use her time better, let’s dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there’s certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there’s even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven’t found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.

Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn’t it? What a remarkable coincidence.

As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer — an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session — finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer’s block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that’s another story.)

The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can’t they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.

Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.

That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn’t it? I’m not surprised: in the throes of writer’s block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can’t quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.

Mr. Wells’ sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.

I could also echo William Faulkner’s famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can’t feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.

Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells’ advice literally? After a productive writing session, some human contact can be very nice. Best to keep supportive folks on this side of the sill, I say.

That being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.

As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album — they still make those, right? –but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

Do select something you like, because it’s going to be your book’s soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play — always in the same order, please. It’s fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You’re going to want at least half an hour’s worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.

Here’s the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don’t do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It’s fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn’t currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It’s up to you.

Oh, stop groaning: it’s better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn’t it?

What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don’t write on another project. And, of course, don’t give up and start answering e-mails. Don’t surf the net. Don’t check Facebook.

I’m serious: don’t do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re bored — in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.

Why, you ask in horror? You’re prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking — and that you’re willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you’re writing.

“But Anne,” I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? “Won’t this take a lot of time? I mean, I’ve already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins — won’t this just feel like punishing myself further?”

Ah, but isn’t part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process — not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.

Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that’s published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.

“Aha!” the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. “In other words, what I do today doesn’t matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing for another three minutes, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else.”

Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?

Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.

“But not forever, right?” you ask nervously. “I’m not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver’s greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?”

Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it’s time to write.

Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works — and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance — you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? “But Anne,” some of you murmur, “I’m already pretty easily distracted; that’s part of my problem. Hadn’t it occurred to you that if I don’t write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?”

It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my snappy comeback: it actually doesn’t matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it’s time to get down to writing.

You’re a creative person — experiment. If music’s not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it’s set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.

At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book’s mindset a snap.

“Oh,” the creative parts of your noggin will shout, “that’s Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again.”

And another forest of hands has sprouted. “But Anne,” timorous writers everywhere protest, “I’m willing to try these wacky things, because I’m desperate. I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy it’s going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I’ll risk it.

“I’m scared, though: what do I do if this doesn’t work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?”

No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn’t the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.

Before I start whipping ‘em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you’ve written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?

There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. In the meantime, pressing forward — and not just because you resolved to do it, or because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

As the screen goes wavy again, or, what had already begun to bore Millicent by the time talkies rolled around

May 8th, 2014


No time for a long-winded missive today, campers, but I could not let the occasion pass without posting a few words. What occasion rises to the mandatory observation level, you may well ask, eyeing both the lapse between this and my last post and the undeniable fact that Author! Author!’s older posts are still, alas, unhappily plagued with extraneous symbols? Participating in a species of conversation all too common behind the scenes in publishing circles.

It tends to run something like this: someone whose job it is to read submissions, all day, every day (except, of course, on those days she invests in skimming a few hundred queries at a sitting) quietly goes nuts while reading the 531rst submission of the month. Grounding her no doubt expensively straightened teeth to an extent that her former orthodontist would deplore, our Millicent — for yes, it is she, everybody’s favorite agency screener — she vents her frustration upon a sympathetic friend while she is waiting in line for her latté.

“It’s happened again,” she murmurs into her phone. “Three submissions in a row in which the text asserted that what was going on was…wait for it…just like something in a movie!”

Having been savvy enough to call a fellow professional reader, she’s sure to meet with sympathy. Calling me, however, might not have been the best choice. “I know, I know: it’s maddening to see writers rush to use the same metaphor, over and over again. But you must admit, it isn’t those three writers’ fault that you happened to read their submissions back to back.”

“Not their fault!” Predictably, Millicent burns her lip on her too-hot latt?. “Everybody knows that saying something happening on the page was just like a movie is bad writing.”

I can’t resist teasing her; we’ve had this discussion too many times. “It depends upon how the sentence using that tired old concept is constructed, doesn’t it? I could imagine it being expressed very prettily.”

“Fine. I’ll send the next fifteen manuscripts that use it to you, so you can compare their delightful sentence structure.”

She’s laughing by the time we hang up, but I must admit, she has a point. As anyone who reads for a living could tell you — particularly agents, editors, and the screeners they employ, all of whom by necessity must read manuscripts one after another, due to sheer volume — nothing quite makes the mind scream like spotting the same phrase, concept, or metaphor crop up repeatedly, page after page. When those pages happen to belong to different manuscripts, the frustration can be even greater: after the fourth or fifth time in a week, even the most literature-loving Millicent can start to wonder if half of the writers in the English-speaking world gathered someplace secret five months ago, to agree upon what the clich? of the season will be.

Hey, there are fashions in writing, just as in anything else that requires taste to appreciate. And, just as in runway fashion, once an innovative author hits the big time with a unique offering, the pros are used to seeing dozens — nay, hundreds — of copycat submissions flooding their inboxes shortly thereafter.

At first, that can be exciting: it’s no secret that publishers often attempt to capitalize upon the success of a bestseller by bringing out similar books in short order. Which makes sense, right? A certain group of readers have already demonstrated that they like that kind of book; why not offer them similar titles?

Actually, there’s a pretty good answer to that: after what can be an astonishingly short time, however, the readership for a particular type of story can, well, get tired of it. Perhaps more to the point for those trying to break into print, the Millicents tasked with screening all of those remarkably similar stories can begin to find them a bit predictable.

And those Millies are not the only ones. “Another Twilight knock-off?” their bosses exclaim. “This one had better have an awfully different spin.”

The rapid rise and fall of bestsellers and their followers is too well known in literary circles to raise many aspiring writers’ eyebrows these days. Come closer, though, and I’ll let you in on a little professional secret: that’s not the kind of repetition that causes Millicent to fling aside a submission, rend her garments, and rush out the door for a coffee refill. It’s seeing how many otherwise original, well-written manuscripts utilize precisely the same standard comparisons and hackneyed phrases as those that are neither prettily constructed nor particularly unique.

Seriously, it’s kind of startling to spot on the page. A pro will be reading along, enjoying a good story well told, when she’s abruptly confronted with a paragraph like this:

Ambrose staggered, stunned by the force of the blow. The world wavered before his eyes, as if he were watching an old movie and a flashback was just about to begin.

Nothing wrong with the writing there — so why might that last clause send Millicent’s hand automatically reaching for a form letter beginning Thank you so much for your submission, but I’m afraid it does not meet our needs at this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an hour ago, she had just rejected a manuscript containing this gem?

Mignonette clutched her head, trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal. She felt as if she was in a movie.

Leaving aside the relatively rare editorial pet peeve regarding how often narratives describe perfectly comprehensible scenes as surreal — not nearly so often as they label a situation utterly devoid of irony as ironic, admittedly, but still, frequently enough to become annoying — is it really so hard to understand why the lingering memory of Mignonette’s affection for film might color Millicent’s perception of the freshness of Ambrose’s reaction to the blow?

And a thousand writers’ hands shoot into the air. Yes? “This is ridiculous, Anne,” film aficionados everywhere grumble. “Why shouldn’t two writers embrace the same comparison, if they write about it differently? Feeling like you’re in a movie is a fairly common experience, after all; eschewing writing about it would be akin to declaring that depicting a character drinking milk an instant-rejection offense.”

An excellent argument, grumblers, but part of the problem is that so many manuscripts don’t write about it differently. Even in conversation, it was just like a movie is a clich? for a reason, after all: in everyday life, people tend to describe what you rightly point out is a common feeling in the modern world in a common way.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the primary goals of developing an individual authorial voice not to express things precisely like everybody else does? And don’t we writers pride ourselves upon presenting our readers not merely with a mirror held up to their own lives, accompanied by a transcript of what they already hear, but our own personal take on reality, phrased in a way that is like no one else’s prose?

Do I sense writers of third-person fiction leaping to their collective feet, shouting, “Yes, by gum! Down with hackneyed phrases and concepts!” while those of you who spend your time crafting first-person narratives sat on your hands? I’m not entirely astonished: writers of first-person fiction and memoir frequently work under the principle that if good first-person narration reads as though an actual human being might conceivably have said it out loud, and if most people incorporate clich?s into their everyday speech, then loading a first-person narrative with clich?s is only being true to life, right?

Well, arguably. It can — and all too often does — result in a narrative voice that sounds not like a specific individual, but just anybody. Millicent is also confronted with this kind of opening many times a day:

Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. I’m sick of this. The gall of some people! I’m so over it. I’m out of here.

Believable verbal expression? Oh, yes. But I ask you: what do those stock phrases actually tell you about this narrator? Or about the situation, for that matter?

Hackneyed phrases and concepts are, after all, generic. That’s why polite exchanges so often bore readers: by definition, those phrases that everybody says in particular situations convey no individualized meaning.

Did I just hear some eyebrows hitting the ceiling? I kid you not: as delightful as courtesy is to encounter in real life, it can be stultifying on the page. Take a gander:

Kendrick held out his right hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, too,” Ghislaine said. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the weather is nice. Oh, here’s Maurice. How are you, Maurice?”

They shook hands like old friends, as indeed they were. “Fine,” Maurice said. “How are you?”

“Oh, fine. Ghislaine, this is Maurice.”

Maurice shook her hand. “How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

Longing yet for death’s sweet embrace? What if you had read similar personality-free conversations eight or nine times today?

Does that prospect appall you? Or have you caught up pitchforks and torches for some other reason?

“Oh, come on, Anne,” polite people everywhere scoff, genteelly brandishing weaponry. “Everyone understands that these are stock phrases — but that’s the point, isn’t it? By having the characters spout courteous clich?s, the narrative is letting the reader know that these are nice people.”

Perhaps, but surely, that’s not the only way to demonstrate their many sterling qualities. If Kendrick complimented Ghislaine on her fetching frock, would he not come across as a pretty nice guy? If she were rushing back from her volunteer work with homeless children, pausing only briefly to exchange pleasantries before her shift at the leper colony began, might the reader not gain an inkling of her other-orientation? If Maurice had just experienced the loss of his beloved pet ocelot, would you consider her rude if he mentioned it?

Actually, that last one’s not the best example, as Millicent would hasten to tell you. She could not even begin to estimate how many times in any given week of screening her tired peepers fall on a scene like this:

“How are you?” Kendrick asked.

“Fine.” Maurice drew his sleeve across his eyes. “Except my beloved pet ocelot, Coriolanus, has just passed away.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kendrick said. “Oh, here comes Ghislaine. Ghislaine, Coriolanus died!”

“Oh, Maurice!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I could go on and show what the policeman on the corner, all seventeen of Maurice’s coworkers, and his great-aunt said upon hearing the news, but you’re sensing a pattern, right? I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: just because people say something in real life doesn’t mean that it will make good reading on the page.

Or, to put it another way: strong dialogue doesn’t need to sound like everyday speech to work in print. It’s needs to be more interesting than everyday speech.

If it’s to impress Millicent with its originality and beauty, that is. After hours of too-polite dialogue, imagine what a relief it could be to read an exchange like this:

Ghislaine realized that she knew the man tugging on her arm. “Why, Kendrick, you look just awful!”

“I feel as if my guts have been ripped out.” He managed a brave smile. “Haven’t you heard about Maurice’s ocelot?”

Her intestines squirmed with anticipated horror. “What’s happened to Coriolanus?”

“Killed in a freak basketball accident. He was prowling along the top of the backboard, and a rogue shot knocked him to the ground.”

“Oh, my God!” Ghislaine cried. “It’s just like something in a movie!”

Oh, so close! Millicent was just settling in for a nice, interesting read, and the manuscript had to throw up a red flag. It might not be the final red flag for this submission — you would want to find out why there’s an ocelot in this story, right? — but in most professional readers, Ghislaine’s cri de coeur would at least elicit a roll of the eyes.

Were there other problems on the page, though, it might well prompt a cry of “Next!” Remember, it’s Millicent’s job to thin the submission pile. Her boss, the agent of your dreams, can only take on a few new clients per year; naturally, there’s a heck of a lot of competition for those spots.

That being the case, is it truly sensible submission strategy to decorate your manuscript with that observation about how the ongoing situation resembles what one might expect to encounter on the big screen?

Do I hear some cries of despair out there in the ether? “There you go again,” frustrated writers complain, and who could blame you? “You’re just accepting Millicent’s claim that everybody knows that the movie comparison is bad writing. At the risk of repeating the grumble from earlier in this post, doesn’t it all depend upon the writing?”

Yes, of course — and no. You see, good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; readers of every stripe tend to read more than one author in their lifetimes. They have come to expect the work of one author to differ from every other’s.

And they’re right to expect that: imagine how boring life would be if all well-written books sounded as though they had all been written by the same person!

In an agency, publishing house, or even within the context of a writing competition, good writing doesn’t magically rise to the top of the submission or entry pile. To get to it, Millicent and her ilk read through everything else. Since a submitter cannot control the order in which his work is read, it really doesn’t make strategic sense to rely upon the hope that his use of the movie trope — or any other commonly-employed comparison or phrase — will not pass under a screener’s eyes immediately after somebody else’s attempt to do the same thing.

Even the best of literary devices can start to seem overused with repetition after all. Think about Millie’s screening day for a moment. What kind of pretty prose do you suppose greeted her over the morning’s first latté?

She ran through the bleak forest, her long, red hair streaming behind her. Were those dogs she heard in the distance? Why had Fidelio placed her in this horrible position?

No time to wonder — those villagers with torches would catch up with her any minute now. If she’d been the monster in a Frankenstein movie, she couldn’t have been in more danger.

Come on, admit it — you’re starting to tire of the film references. And although I’m certain it doesn’t feel that way, so far, only four of the examples in this post have contained it.

Yes, really. This comparison gets old fast.

Picture, then, how Millicent’s weary eye must twitch upon catching sight of yet another iteration of the same concept. Especially if the next manuscript in the pile read like this:

Silvia couldn’t believe it — this was all so surreal. She didn’t even feel like herself: it was like she was watching herself on television.

In response to what fully a quarter of you just thought: no, Virginia, referring to television instead of a movie wouldn’t lessen the negativity of Millicent’s reaction. She would merely think that the writer of that last one didn’t get out as often as the writer of the one before it.

She would have a hard time justifying sliding either page under her boss’ nose, and not just because, like any experienced professional reader, the agent for whom Millie works may safely be assumed to have seen the movie/television/music video comparison thousands of times already. Like many publishing professionals, that agent may also feel a certain resentment towards movies, television, music videos, and new media for taking up time that right-minded people used to devote to reading.

But it didn’t occur to our submitter to say that Silvia’s surreal experience was like something in a novel, did it?

Still not convinced? Okay, I’m dropping all pretense: there’s one other reason that Millicent might hesitate to overlook this particular red flag on the page. This next example is infected with a mild case of the phenomenon; see if you can spot it.

Ricardo ducked behind the nearest desk, gasping as if he were about to have a heart attack. What a great movie this chase would make! Except that no one would believe it.

Yes, this passage contains the dreaded movie comparison, but did you catch the secondary problem? Essentially, what a great movie this chase would make! is a review of the scene currently in progress: not only is the narrator telling the reader that this chase would be exciting on the big screen — the text goes so far as to say that the result would be great.

If Millicent and her kind cringe when they spot a hackneyed phrase or concept in a submission, they see red when they think a manuscript is indulging in self-review. “It’s not your job to tell me how great you are,” she’s likely to snap at the manuscript. “It’s your job to show me. And it’s my job to decide whether you’re great, good, or so-so.”

The moral here, should you care to know it: it’s a heck of a lot easier to impress a professional reader with good writing that’s original than good writing that strays into overused territory, either in terms of wording or concept. Stock phrases and comparisons might sound right in the privacy of your writing studio — as well they should: people actually do talk in clich?s. But by definition, clich?s are not fresh; clichés are not original.

And trust me on this one: that clich? about how the current scene is like a movie ceased causing agents and editors to exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that on the page before!” approximately two and a half years into the silent era.

Maybe it’s time to give it a rest. Instead, why not startle and delight Millicent with an insight and phrasing only you could have produced?

It’s worth a try, anyway. Keep up the good work!

Hey, what happened?

April 7th, 2014

Many, many apologies to those of you who have been trying to trawl the famous Author! Author! archives over the last few weeks, campers — for reasons completely beyond my control (and largely beyond my understanding), my website’s host simply threw out my site. In other news, that host has since gone out of business.

Thanks to the semi-heroic efforts of the new hosting entity, Author! Author! is once again back online, as you may see, all ready to chat about your burning writing-related questions and publishing-concerned anxieties. Back, at least, are the posts from prior to June of 2013, the last date upon which the old hosts evidently made a system-wide backup.

What does that mean for you fine people’s use and enjoyment of my blog’s contents? Well, first off, it’s going to take me a while to repost the last ten months’ worth of our interactions here. That may take a little while. I’m told, though, that — brace yourselves — it may never be possible for me to restore the comments on individual posts from that period; I gather that would require my searching more recent screenshots and retyping each comment into the current system, one by one. As sad as I am to lose all of that good feedback, since 90% of blog readers don’t look at the comments, I’m not entirely convinced that recreating my readers’ original voices by proxy will necessarily do the trick here.

Readers did ask a tremendous number of intriguing and thought-provoking questions during the now-lost period, however, and you’ll be delighted to hear that one of the Muses habitually taps me on the shoulder each time I read a question that really does deserve an entire post to itself. I saved quite a few of them, question and answer both, in separate files, in anticipation of the happy day upon which I would have time to spin my observations at my trademarked greater length. Rather than recreating those exchanges in the comments, then, I shall be revisiting them as posts over the next couple of months.

Less easy to rectify: the newly-restored backup seems still to be infected with spatters of obnoxious additional code throughout old posts, the residua of a former upgrade that — wait for it — my old host may not have handled entirely exquisitely. I had been spending off moments for much of the last year trying to clear up these maddening distractions; evidently, most of my efforts to that end are no longer visible.

So again, my apologies. I wish I had an army of minions to sweep in and clear up problems like this in an hour or two, but blogging is, alas, a solitary activity. And, at least for the next little while, a fairly time-consumptive one.

I appreciate your patience and good thoughts throughout this trying period. Please feel free to keep posting questions in the interim — in the comments on the most recent post is fine, Gary, in response to your now-defunct recent comment — and as always, keep up the good work!

Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!

February 23rd, 2014

lit-up champagne 2lit-up champagne 2lit-up champagne 2

A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer — or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse — abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today’s post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.

“You’ve been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?” she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. “You’ve posted hundreds of times, haven’t you? It’s only writing — what could you possibly still have to say?”

I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer’s or editor’s perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one’s next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it’s not as though there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.

At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home — an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house — if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.

With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so — egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.

What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts’ chances of success? How long have you got?

We’ve come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation’s largest writers’ association’s website, little did I — or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless ‘em — imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.

Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn’t want me to blog, per se — in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.

As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?

And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver’s being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn’t as though much of the online advisors actually in the know — as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once — were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?

That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.

Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things — because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?

So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another’s questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn’t I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers’ association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn’t that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?

Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing — and, consequently, good writers — were being expected to jump prior to publication.

Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no — can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don’t want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.

Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!

Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don’t know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.

Let’s face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that’s a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what’s currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams’ experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours — all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.

But you’d never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? To hear folks talk, you’d think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.

Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn’t it?

None of that is true, of course — and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.

But I don’t need to explain that to those of you who have been at this writing gig for a while, do I? I’m sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, “What, you still haven’t published your book? But you’ve been at it for years!”

Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that’s your route.

I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author’s fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?

Instead of quibbling over whether it’s ever likely — or possible — for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let’s tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.

Humor me: I’ve been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.

At the risk of sounding as though I’m 105 — the number of candles on my own great-grandmother’s last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness — I’d like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.

Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? “Oh, come on, Anne,” readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, “isn’t it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay.”

Ah, but that’s just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience’s senses — vision and hearing — for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, “Two.”

A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I’ve seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I’m not ashamed to say it. If you’re willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject’s body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.

So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.

If you’d really like to make her happy — and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams — how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character’s physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?

Sacre bleu!” I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. “Are you mad? The other characters in the scene — including, if I’m writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist — will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn’t, the reader might — gasp! — form a mental image that’s different from what I’m seeing in my head!”

Why, yes, that’s possible. Indeed, it’s probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader’s imagination.

Which is, if we’re being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character’s looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they’re doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?

You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist’s acquaintance.

A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake’s narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts’ encampment.

Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?

His long nose stretched as he spoke. “Good day, madam,” he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, “but could I interest you in some life insurance?”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as…well, anything you’d care to name is anywhere it’s common.

That means — and it’s a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this — that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author’s narratives differ from how other writers’ work reads on the page, not in how it’s similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.

The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it’s not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can’t possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.

Don’t believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method. Okay, let’s take a peek at the next few paragraphs of Henriette’s saga.

She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.

“On your way, mister,” she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. “We don’t cotton to your kind here.”

An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.

Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair — which could be described no other way than as long and blonde — tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother’s cherished magenta hair ribbon.

Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet’s shirt as red as the previous day’s sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.

Had enough yet? Millicent would — and we’re still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, “For heaven’s sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!”

To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it’s really not all that character-revealing to describe a person’s outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette’s story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it’s a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?

Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent’s perspective convincing? “Okay, Anne,” you sigh, “you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I’ve grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character’s existence to the refer. But honestly, I’m not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you’re suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?”

Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.

Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.

If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!’s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn’t it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.

For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.

Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here’s the reader’s first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:

A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place…

That’s it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn’t it, considering that this novel’s account of this woman’s passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut’s household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.

Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.

To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.

That’s a nice hunk of character development, isn’t it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she’s not very good at sewing, and that she’s not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?

But wait: there’s more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert’s choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles’ sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.

Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.

His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? The paragraph continues:

A feature really beautiful in her was her eyes; although they were brown, they seemed black by reason of their lashes, and her glance came to you frankly with a candid assurance.

This passage reveals as much about Charles as about Emma, I think: how brilliant to show the reader only what happens to catch this rather limited man’s notice. Because his observation has so far been almost entirely limited to the physical, it isn’t until half a page later that the reader gains any sense that he’s ever heard her speak. Even then, the reader only gets to hear Charles’ vague summaries of what she says, rather than seeing her choice of words.

The conversation at first turned on the sick man, then on the weather, the extreme cold, the wolves that scoured the fields at night. Mlle. Rouault did not find a country life very amusing, now especially that the care of the farm devolved almost entirely on herself alone. As the room was chilly, she shivered as she ate, and the shivering caused her full lips, which in her moments of silence she had a habit of biting, to part slightly.

Didn’t take Charles — or the narrative — long to slip back to the external, did it? Now, and only now, is the reader allowed the kind of unfettered, close-up look at her that Millicent so often finds beginning in the first sentence in the book that mentions the character.

Her neck issued from a white turned-down collar. Her hair, so smooth and glossy that each of the two black fillets in which it was arranged seemed a single solid mass, was divided by a fine parting in the middle, which rose or sank slightly as it followed the curve of her skull; and, covering all but the lobe of the ears, it was gathered behind into a large chignon, with a waved spring towards the temples, which the country doctor now observed for the first time in his life. Her cheeks were pink over the bones. She carried, passed in masculine style between two buttons of her bodice, eye-glasses of tortoise-shell.

Quite a sensuous means of tipping the reader off that she’s a fellow reader, isn’t it? Two paragraphs later, we hear her speak for the first time:

“Are you looking for something?” she asked.

The initial words a major character speaks in a story, I’ve found, are often key to developing character on the page. Choose them carefully: in a third-person narrative, it’s the first time that this person can speak for herself. Make them count.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not urging any of you to copy Flaubert. His narrative voice would be pretty hard to sell in the current literary market, for one thing — did you catch all of those which clauses that would have been edited out today? — and, frankly, his work has been so well-loved for so long that a novel that aped his word use would instantly strike most Millicents as derivative. As some wise person once said, a strong authorial voice is unique.

Oh, wait, that was me, and it was just a few minutes ago. How time flies when we’re talking craft.

I hear those gusty sighs out there, and you’re quite right: developing an individual voice and polishing your style can be time-consuming. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary.

Take that, naysayers who cling to the notion that the only true measure of talent is whether a first draft is publishable. The Muses love the writer willing to roll up her sleeves, take a long, hard look at her own work, and invest some serious effort in making sure that all of that glorious inspiration shows up on the page.

So what, in the end, did I say to the lady who exclaimed over the notion that I could possibly have spent more than seven years writing about writing? Oh, I treated to her the usual explanation of how tastes change, trends waver, and the demands of professional writing differ from year to year, if not day to day. If the expression in her stark blue eyes was any indication, she lost interest midway through my third sentence.

The true answer, however, came to me later: in all of these years, and in 1599 posts, I had never shared my favorite depiction of falling in love with you charming people. A shallow love, to be sure, but a memorable description. And for the prompt to whip out this volume, I owe that lady some thanks.

Do I have more to say about writing? Just try to stop me. Keep up the good work!

Avoiding the writer’s classic holiday blues, or, what to say when Aunt Myrna exclaims, “What? You’re still working on that book? I thought you’d have it published by now!”

November 28th, 2013

potato star

My apologies for the long, long posting hiatus, my friends. I’ve been on crutches since July 4, and it turns out that, contrary to what Tiny Tim may have led even the best of us to expect, hobbling is not necessarily conducive to comedy writing. At least not to the type of bright, witty banter about deadly serious topics we like to cultivate here at Author! Author! Yet another major holiday is upon us, however, so it’s time to dust off the keyboard and get cracking again.

Why so surprised? You didn’t think I was going to send you into Thanksgiving dinner without a few words of encouragement, did you?

Already, the eyebrows of those new to treading the path literary shoot skyward. “But Anne,” bright-eyed neophytes everywhere murmur, and who could blame you? “What makes you think that writers, of all people, would need to gird their loins prior to venturing into the no doubt warm and accepting bosoms of their respective families and/or dining rooms of their invariably supportive friends?”

Experience, mostly. In descending order of probability, a fellow writer, a writing blogger, and an editor provide the three most likely shoulders aspiring writers will dampen with their frustrated tears immediately after the festivities cease. Heck, established authors often beard the heavens with their bootless cries this time of year.

Why, those new to the game ask breathlessly? Because, let’s face it, most non-writers harbor completely unrealistic notions about how and why good books get published.

Don’t believe me? Okay, what do make of it when Aunt Myrna plucks your sleeve and asks tenderly, “Honey, why isn’t your novel out yet? I keep telling my friends that you write.”

Or when Uncle Clark chortles, “Memoir? What on earth do you have to write memoirs about?”

Or, heaven help us, when Cousin Ritchie wheels out his annual passive-aggressive attempt at encouragement: “Still no agent, eh? I had really thought that a book as good as yours would get snapped up right away. Have you thought at all about self-publishing?”

A sane, confident, unusually secure writer might well answer: “Why, yes, Ritchie, I have. As I had last year and the year before, when you had previously proffered this self-evident suggestion. Now shut up and pass the darned yams.”

Or pipe merrily, “Well, as the agents like to say, Uncle Clark, it all depends on the writing. So unless you’d like me to embark upon a fifty-two minute explanation of the intrinsic differences between the Ulysses S. Grant-style national-scale autobiography that you probably have in mind and a personal memoir about the adolescence in which you played a minor but disagreeable role, could I interest you in a third helping of these delightful vermouth-doused string beans?”

Or, while Aunt Myrna’s mouth is full of pie, observing suavely, “I so appreciate your drumming up future readers for my novel; I’m sure that will come in very handy down the road. But no, ‘trying just a little harder this year’ won’t necessarily make the difference between hitting the bestseller lists and obscurity. You might want to try telling your friends that even if I landed an agent for my novel within the next few days — even less likely at this time of year than others, by the way, as the publishing world slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — it could easily be a year or two before you can urge them to buy my novel.”

But most of us aren’t up to that level of even-tempered and informative riposte, are we? And for good reason, too: in the moment, even the best-intentioned of those questions can sound very much like an insidious echo of that self-doubting hobgoblin living in the back of the creative mind.

“If you were truly talented,” that little beastie loves to murmur in moments when we’re already feeling discouraged, “an admiring public would already be enjoying your work in droves. And in paperback. Now stop thinking about your book and go score more leftover pie and some coffee; tormenting you is thirsty work.”

Come on, admit it — you’re on a first-name basis with that goblin. It’s been whispering in your ear ever since you began to query. Or submit. Or perhaps even as soon as you started to write.

Even so, you’re entitled to be a little startled when Bernie with the pitchfork suddenly begins speaking out of the mouth of that otherwise perfectly nice person your brother brought along to dinner because she’s new in town and has nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving. Try to be charitable: your brother’s friend may actually be doing you a favor by verbalizing your lingering doubts, you know.

How? Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to argue with a living, breathing person than someone whose base camp is located inside your head. Astonishingly often, an artless question like “Oh, you write? Would I have read any of your work?” from the ignoramus across the table will give voice to a niggling doubt that’s been eating at a good writer for years.

Or so I surmise, from how writers tend to complain about such questions. “How insensitive can they be?” writers inevitably wail in the wake of holiday gatherings, and who could blame them? “I swear that I heard, ‘So when is your book coming out?’ twice as often as ‘Pass the gravy, please.’ Why is it that my kith/kin/the kith and kin of some acquaintance kind enough to feed me don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be a working writer, as opposed to the fantasy kind that writes a book one minute, is instantly and spontaneously solicited by an agent the next, and is chatting on a couch with a late-night TV host the next? Why is publication — and wildly successful publication at that — so frequently held as the only measure of writing talent?”

I’m relatively certain that the question-asking gravy-eschewers who drove these writers to distraction (and, quite possibly, drove them home afterward) did not intend to be cruel. However, the short answer to that well-justified wail is an unfortunately cruel one: because that’s how society at large judges writing.

I know, I know: I don’t like it, either, but it’s pervasive. Not only does popular misconception holed that the only good book a published book — a proposition that would make anyone who actually handles manuscripts for a living positively choke with mirth — but also that if a writer were really talented, publication would be both swift and inevitable. Commercial success arrives invariably for great books, too, because unless the author happens to be a celebrity in another field, the only possible difference between a book that lands the author on the bestseller lists and one that languishes unpurchased is the quality of the writing, right?

Are you laughing yet? More importantly, is Bernie the Hobgoblin? Trust me, anyone who works with manuscripts for a living would be.

Yet I sense that you’re not laughing. Okay, let’s tease this logic out a little. If all of those suppositions are true, there are only two possible reasons that a manuscript could possibly not already be published: it’s not yet completed (in which case the writer is lazy, right?) or it simply isn’t any good (and thus does not deserve to be published). Accordingly, the only kind response to a writer who has been at it a while, yet does not have a book out, must be to avert one’s eyes and make vaguely encouraging noises.

Or to change the subject altogether. Because, honestly, it isn’t your sister’s coworker’s fault that your mother told him to sit next to the writer in the family. Why, the coworker thinks, rub salt in the wound of someone who clearly has no talent for writing?

Chuckling yet? You should be. While it is of course conceivable that any of the reasons above could be stifling the publication chances of any particular manuscript to which a hopeful writer might refer after a relative she sees only once a year claps her heartily on the back and bellows, “How’s the writing coming, Gladys?” again, the very notion that writing success should be measured — or even could be measured — solely by whether the mythical Publication Fairy has yet whacked it with her Bind-It-Now wand would cause the pros to choke with mirth.

So would the length of that last sentence, come to think of it. Ol’ Henry James must surely be beaming down at me from the literary heavens over that one.

Yet I sense that some of you are not in fact choking with mirth. “But Anne,” frustrated writers point out, “although naturally, I know from reading this blog (particularly the informative posts under the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category at right), listening carefully to what agents say they want, and observation of the career trajectories of both my writer friends and established authors alike that many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up, part of me wants to believe that’s not really the case. Or at least that it will not be the case in my case.”

See what I mean about the holiday table’s capacity for causing those internalized pernicious assumptions to leap out of the mind and demand to be fed? Let’s listen for a bit longer; perhaps we can learn something.

“If the literary universe is fair,” writers and their pet hobgoblins typically reason, “a good manuscript should always find a home, right? And if that’s true, perhaps my kith and kin are right that if I were really talented, the only thing I would ever have to say at the Thanksgiving table is that my book is already out and where I would like them to buy it.”

“Wait just a book-signing minute!” another group of not-yet-completely-frustrated writers roar. “What do you mean, many an excellent manuscript languishes for years without being picked up? How is that possible? Isn’t it the publishing industry’s job — and its sole job — to identify and promote writing talent? And doesn’t that mean that any truly talented writer will be so identified and promoted, if only he is brave enough to send out his work persistently, until he find the right agent for it?”

“Whoa!” still a third sector shouts. “Send out work persistently? I thought that if a writer was genuinely gifted, any good agent would snatch up her manuscript. So why would any talented writer need to query more than one or two times?”

Do you hear yourselves, people? You’re invoking the Publishing Fairy. Are you certain you want to do that?

It’s a dangerous practice for a writer, you know. The Publication Fairy’s long, long shadow can render seeing one’s own publication chances rather difficult. Following her specter can lead a writer to believe, for instance, that the goal of querying is to land just any agent, for instance, rather than one who already has the connections to sell the book. Or that it would be a dandy idea to sending out a barrage of queries to the fifty agents a search engine spit out, or even every agent in the country, without checking to see if any of them represent a particular kind of book. Or — you might want to put down your fork, the better to digest this one, my dear — give up after just a few queries or submissions.

Because if that writer were actually talented, how he went about approaching agents wouldn’t matter, right? The Publishing Fairy would see to it that nothing but the writing quality would count — and thus it follows like drowsiness after consuming vast quantities of turkey that if that writer gets rejected, ever, the manuscript must not be well-written.

Heck, by this logic, it’s hardly necessary for the writer to make any effort at all, beyond writing a first draft of the book, is it? Those whom the Publishing Fairy bops in the noggin need merely toss off a first draft — because the honestly gifted writer never needs to revise anything, right? — then wait patiently until an agent is magically wafted to her doorstep. (Possibly accompanied by Mary Poppins, if the wind is right.)

Ah, it’s a pretty fantasy, isn’t it? The agent reads the entire book at a sitting — or, better still, extrapolates the entire book from a swift glance at a query — and shouts in ecstasy, “This is the book for which I have been waiting for my entire career!” A book contract follows instantly, promising publication with in a few weeks. By the end of a couple of months at the very latest, the really talented writer will be happily ensconced on a well-lit couch in a television studio, chatting with a talk show host about her book.

“It has been a life-changing struggle, Oprah,” the writer says brightly, courageously restraining tears, “but I felt I had to write this book. As Maya Angelou says, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.'”

You would be astonished at how pervasive this narrative of authorial success actually is amongst aspiring writers. They may not all believe it intellectually — they may have come to understand, for example, that since no agent in the world represents every conceivable type of book, it’s a waste of time to query an agent who does not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category — but at a gut level, every rejection feels like just more evidence of being ignored by the Publication Fairy.

Which must mean that your manuscript isn’t nearly as good as you thought, right? Why else would an agent — any agent — who has not seen so much as a word of it not respond to a query? The Publication Fairy must have tipped her off that something wasn’t quite as it should be. So Aunt Myrna may have a point.

Come on, admit it — you’ve thought this at least once, haven’t you? Practically every aspiring writer who did not have the foresight to be a celebrity (who enjoy a completely different path to publication) before attempting to get published entertains such doubts in the dead of night. If the road to publication is hard, long, and winding, it must mean something, mustn’t it?

Why, yes: it could mean that the book category in which one happens to be writing is not selling very well right now, for one thing. Good agents are frequently reluctant to pick up even superlative manuscripts they don’t believe they could sell. It could also mean that the agents one has been approaching do not have a solid track record of selling similar books, or that one has assigned one’s book to an inappropriate category.

Either can often result in knee-jerk rejection. Or, even if the manuscript is a perfect fit and everyone at the agency adores the writing, the literary marketplace has contracted to such an extent that the agent cannot afford to take on as many talented new clients as she would like.

But those are not the justifications that pacify Bernie the Hobgoblin in the dead of night, are they? Nor are they likely to convince Uncle Clark, or to awe Cousin Ritchie into the supportive acceptance you would prefer he evince. Which is interesting, as offhand, I can think of approximately no well-established authors for whom the Publishing Fairy fantasy we’ve been discussing represents an actual career trajectory.

If you have fallen prey to these feelings, especially after having spent even a few minutes having to defend one’s writing habit to non-writers with whom one is sharing a gravy boat for the evening, try not to be too hard on yourself. The popular conception of how publishing works is, not to put too fine a point on it, composed largely of magical thinking.

There’s a reason for that, I suspect: all of us would like to believe that if a manuscript is a masterpiece, there’s no chance that it would go unpublished. We cling to the comforting concept that ultimately, the generous literary gods will reach down to nudge brilliant writing from the slush pile to the top of the acceptance heap.

We believe, in short, in the Publication Fairy. That’s understandable in a writer: those of us in cahoots with the Muses would prefer not to think that they were in the habit of tricking us. An intriguing belief, given that even a passing acquaintance with literary history would lead one to suspect that they do occasionally get a kick out of snatching recognition from someone they have blessed with talent. (Edgar Allan Poe didn’t exactly die a happy man, people.)

In non-writers, though, this attitude can seem a bit less reasonably derived. What, after all, does an otherwise upstanding citizen whose idea of Hell consists of a demon’s forcing him into an uncomfortable desk chair in front of a seriously outdated computer and howling, “You must write a book!” possibly gain by believing that, unlike in literally every other human endeavor, excellence in writing is invariably rewarded?

Yet even those who strenuously avoid bookstores often seem to cling to the myth of the Publication Fairy. If you doubt that, try talking about your writing over a holiday dinner to a group of non-writers.

“So when is your book coming out?” that-cousin-whose-relationship-to-you-has-never been clear will ask. “And would you mind passing the gravy?”

“What do you mean, you haven’t finished writing that book yet?” Great-Aunt Mavis chimes in, helping herself to sweet potatoes. “You’ve been working on it for years.”

“Are you still doing that?” Grandpa demands incredulously. “I thought you’d given up when you couldn’t sell your first book.

Your cousin’s wife might try to be a bit more tactful. “Oh, querying sounds just awful. Have you considered self-publishing?”

Because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dark midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing — at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the royalties to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, still — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Over half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

The Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

Contrary to what some intrepid readers might be beginning to suspect, I’m not bringing all of this up in order to depress everyone into a stupor about just how difficult it is for a first-time author to bring a book to publication, or even as a precursor to breaking the sad, sad news that a good 80% of the fine folks who don’t now get that agents don’t magically appear on good authors’ doorsteps within thirty seconds of the words The End being typed also won’t understand when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity.

Yes, really. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house. We could stack up the first million or so nickels for girders.

No, I’m raising these unpleasant realities to provide a bit of ego salve for the many, many aspiring writers whose otherwise charming Thanksgiving table partners might not have been as supportive of their writing aspirations as they might have liked. Try not to hold it against your father-in-law: chances are, he just doesn’t have any idea how publishing actually works.

But you do. Don’t let anybody, not even the insidious hobgoblins of midnight reflection, tell you that the reason you don’t already have a book out is — and must necessarily be — that you just aren’t talented enough. That’s magical thinking, and you’re too smart to buy into it.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that those of you who have yet to dine today deliberately pick a fight with your third cousin twice removed or any other delightful soul considerate enough to inquire about your writing. In fact, I’ve been deliberately delaying my own foray into the kitchen in order to help you avoid that particular argument — or, more likely because writers tend to be awfully nice people, avoid the hurt feelings that those unwilling to fight often find hard to swallow.

How might one side-step that especially indigestible discussion? Had you thought about abruptly asking how everyone at the table feels about the recent government shutdown? Or universal healthcare?

You see the point, don’t you? Just as it’s risky to assume that everyone gathered around even the most Norman Rockwell-pleasing holiday table shares identical political beliefs, it is always dangerous to presume that everyone at an agency or publishing house will share the worldview or life experiences of the submitter. Or that everyone around the holiday table will be concealing under that sweater-clad chest a heart open to the realities of publishing as it actually happens.

So how might a writer besieged by the Publication Fairy’s adherents do to protect his digestion? How about limiting to the discussion to, “The writing’s going very well. How’s your handball game these days, Ambrose?”

Seem evasive? Well, it is. But would you rather allow the discourse to proceed to the point that you might have to say to a relative that has just referred to your writing as Allison’s time-gobbling little hobby, “Good one, brother. Seriously, though, I don’t want to bore you with an explanation of how books actually get published.”

If pressed, you could always add, “I’d love to continue this fascinating exchange, Hermione, but would you mind if I grabbed my notebook first? Everyone here is aware that anything you say can and will be used against you in a manuscript, right?”

If you do feel compelled to try to nudge your loved ones toward a more supportive attitude while they are gnawing upon drumsticks, dinner might be an excellent time to disabuse them of the also quite ubiquitous notion that author’s kith and kin routinely receive free copies of books. Yes, publishers do generally provide their authors an extremely limited stock of their books, but it’s with the expectation those will be used for promotion, not to grace one’s mother’s bookshelves, if you catch my drift.

That means, in practice, that if you recklessly promise free copies, you will almost certainly be buying them yourself. And to answer your mother’s next question: yes, Mom, authors do often receive a discount upon their own books, but the books the author buys do not count toward sales totals.

Translation: the best thing Aunt Myrna could do to support your writing career would be to commit to buying your book(s) herself. Promise to sign it for her when she does. If you’re feeling adventurous, extend that promise to visiting her in order to inscribe copies for all of the friends she can cajole, blandish, and/or guilt into purchasing.

Or just bookmark this page and forward the link to your kith and kin a few months before your first book comes out. I don’t mind playing the heavy here. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining to everyone’s relatives that since the Publication Fairy so often falls down on the job, it’s up to the rest of us to support the writers in our lives. I see no reason to stop now.

Your writing deserves that support, doesn’t it? Happy digestion to all, and to all a good night. And, as always, keep up the good work!

John, have you seen Jon, James, and/or Jeremy lately? What about Jessica, Jacqueline, Jessamyn, or Jasmine?

July 16th, 2013

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle today?

Actually, that was a trick question — I’m going to be talking about two of the most common, gratuitous character name repetition and character naming that inadvertently gives the impression of same. Why talk about them together, you ask? Because in manuscript submissions, faux pas of a feather tend to flock together.

Why, yes, that was a mixed metaphor, now that you mention it. Would that the following not-all-that-uncommon type of fiction opening suffered from only metaphor-blending.

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Mona, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Maurice!”

Mona moaned. “Darling Morris,” Mona mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Marius means nothing to me, and Mencius hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Merton, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Mona!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Mona murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Marius, Mona — I am accusing you of being in love with Maurice!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Mona?”

Mona looked blank. “Maurice who?”

Maddening to read, is it not? If you really want to drive yourself mad, try reading it out loud. Or simply step into Millicent the agency screener’s shoes and read a good third of the fiction openings on any given day.

Why are these phenomena so pervasive in submissions? Believe it or not (but I hope you select the former), as evident as the too-similar names would be to virtually any reader, most aspiring writers — nay, most writers, period — seem to have a hard time noticing how their name choices can distract the reader. Or so I surmise from how defensive writers often get when editors like me suggest, however gently, that perhaps their manuscripts might benefit from some name fine-tuning.

In fact, I would bet a wooden nickel of the variety that folks are always urging one not to take that a fairly hefty proportion of the otherwise excellently-humored writers reading this have already taken a bit of umbrage from the nation’s seemingly inexhaustible supply. “But character names are a creative choice!” writers everywhere protest, indignant. “And if I like a character’s name, why shouldn’t I use it a lot? It’s necessary for clarity, you know!”

Is it now? More to the point, is it always? I ask because usually, what indignant name-dropping writers have in mind as the only feasible alternative is something like this:

He strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or him!”

She moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? He means nothing to me, and that other guy hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now a third fellow, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” he gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit — I am accusing you of being in love with You Know Who!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Who?”

Yes, this pronoun-fest would be a bit difficult for your garden-variety reader to follow. As justifying examples go, however, you must admit that this one’s a bit of a straw man. I’m not saying that you should never mention your characters by name at all. No one — no one sensible, anyway — would seriously suggest that, because you’re right: naming characters can be awfully handy for identification purposes.

Nor is anyone here arguing that character names don’t fall firmly within the province of authorial discretion (but don’t be surprised if your future agent/editor/some random guy from your publisher’s marketing department harbors few thoughts on the subject). No, what we sensible editorial types have in mind was a revision more along these lines:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or Armand!”

She sat bold upright on a chaise clearly designed for supporting an inclination to recline. “You mean Armand Jean, the Duc du Plessis, otherwise known as Cardinal Richelieu? Why, he’s been dead for either decades or centuries, depending upon when this scene is set!”

Morris sank to the floor, clutching his head in his hands. “Oh, God, have I been time-traveling again?”

Just kidding — that was the edit the guy from marketing wanted. (Oh, come on — you wouldn’t keep reading?) Simply making the names less similar would produce a run of text a little more like this:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling Morris,” Elaine mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Elaine!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Elaine murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan, Elaine — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Elaine?”

Elaine looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Come on, admit it — that’s easier to follow, isn’t it? As little as writers might want to hear it, anyone who has ever screened manuscripts or judged contest submissions could tell you (quite possibly whilst clutching his aching head and/or bathing his weary eyes) that the best or only test of the strength of a character’s name is not whether the writer happens to like it.

Yes, yes, I see your hackles rising, defenders of authorial rights: the writer of this turgid little exchange may well have been deeply enamored of every name in the original draft. I can guarantee, though, that the reader will find this set of monikers considerably more individually memorable — and thus more conducive to matching with each character’s personality.

While you’re retracting those hackles, however, let me ask you: this time through, did you notice how often Morris and Elaine’s names appeared for no good reason?

If you’re like most writers, the answer is no. Seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

But you know better, right? In a two-person scene, is it remotely necessary to keep reminding the reader who those two people are? Yes, it’s helpful to identify speakers the first time around, but couldn’t any reader familiar with the principle of alternating dialogue be relied upon to keep track of which is speaking when thereafter?

And while we’re at it, isn’t audibly a trifle redundant here? What else are the quotation marks for, if not to alert the reader to words having been uttered aloud? Could not the writer assume sufficient intelligence in the reader to render this rendition a viable option?

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough. It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha! Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Oh, there go those writerly hackles again — it takes so little to raise them. Clarity and flow not enough for you?

“I guess that’s fine,” hackle-raisers mutter, kicking the nearest piece of heavy furniture, “but really didn’t see a problem with the earlier version. I miss the fun names.”

Of course you do — as a writer. As a reader, you almost certainly wouldn’t; let’s face it, the similarity of the names of Mona’s presumptive lovers could only be amusing for so long. It’s also a type of joke that our Millicent sees often enough in submissions that even if it did tickle her funny bone at first, it could hardly strike her as original. On the whole, she’s more likely to be pleased to see some naming restraint. She spends so much time trying to remember which character is which, you see.

Oh, you think that’s not difficult? Okay, try a little experiment: hie yourself to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and pull twenty books off the shelves. Stack them neatly before you and read the first page of each. Wait five minutes, then jot down as many of the main characters’ names as you can.

It’s not so easy. Especially if you happened to select books in which the characters boast similar names. Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Js in today’s title, right?

I sincerely hope so: names beginning with J have for years been by far the most common in submission, especially in YA. Isn’t that right, Jeremy, Josh, and Jesse? And don’t even get me started on the many, many years during which John, Jon, Jonathan, Jack, and Johnny traipsed merrily through the pages of virtually any novel one might happen to pick up in an airport.

Just between us, Justin, a screener or contest judge doesn’t have to be on the job for very long to start longing for the odd Anthony, a wayward Terence, a charming Gregory, merely for the sake of variety. “Would it kill the average submitter,” Millicent moans into her third latt? of the morning (hey, something’s got to keep her awake), “to give a passing thought to naming his protagonist Keith?”

Oh, Millie, I feel your pain — but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, John, must we go over this again?), it’s my considered opinion that on the manuscript page, writers just don’t spot the problem. Partially, that’s attributable to an unfortunate fact of submission: a good 90% of writers currently sending off manuscript pages to agencies, small publishers, and writing contests have never actually clapped eyes upon another writer’s manuscript.

So is it really any wonder that any given submitter should be unaware that by the time Millicent meets his protagonist, Joshua Jefferson, in the course of her screening day, she will have already had the pleasure of making the literary acquaintance of 13 other Joshes, Jeffs, and possibly their sons? As far as they know, her Josh is the only one in town.

Then, too, all of us are just used to knowing quite a few people with the same first name. So is Millicent. In her case, though, all the sympathy this experience sparks is to wonder why so few writers seem to have noticed that in the real world, it’s often kind of inconvenient when several people moving within the same circles share the same name.

Says the former coed who could walk into her collegiate dining hall, shout “David!” and see a third of her male classmates turn around. Someone in the admissions office — and in the nation’s maternity wards a couple of decades earlier — sure must have been awfully fond of it.

Before any of you slice-of-life aficionados leap to your feet to argue the virtues of having a manuscript’s naming strategy hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, let me hasten to add that it’s really, really common for readers to confuse characters whose names begin with the same capital letter, let alone the same first syllable. It may be fun to plan a story about adventurous twins Ken and Kendra, but on the page, it’s likely to confuse a skimmer. So are those intrepid best friends, Dustin and Justine.

Oh, you don’t believe me, friends of Morris, Maurice, and Marius? Okay, let’s take a peek at some of these naming faux pas in their native environment, the manuscript page. If you’re having trouble reading such small type so fast, I recommend holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

For those of you who would like to replicate Millicent’s experience within the comfort of home, I invite you to try to read your way all the way down the page in less than 30 seconds. On your marks, get set — squint!

name rep example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught the author’s name in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

So far, so good. But let me ask you: did the 6 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

Again, for most writers, the answer would be no — as long as this page had fluttered gracefully out of their own manuscripts. Admittedly, though, not all of them would have instantly leapt to their feet, crying, “My heavens, Mr. or Ms. Johns, have you never met a pronoun you’ve liked?”

That’s quite a bit more charitable than what a nit-picky reader would have shouted — and since that demographic includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges, you might want to worry about that. Millicent, I assure you, would have found the level of name-repetition here eye-distracting.

How eye-distracting, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let me put it kindly: how distracted from your fine writing would you find it acceptable for her to be? Wouldn’t you rather she focused upon the many excellencies of your style than all of those Js and Ps?

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, to professional eyes, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your friendly neighborhood Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to itsy-bitsy computer screens.

Oh, did that reference perplex you, children? Ask your parents about the early Macs’ postcard-sized screens. They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a tablet, you can usually view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I never have so chosen, in case you were curious. But it’s nice to have the option.

Given how much easier it is to see words on a screen now than in days of yore, Millicent is left at a loss to explain why writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a page. Could it possibly be as simple as writers tending to christen their major characters with their favorite names (I’m looking at you, John), ones they like so much that they simply cannot see the darn things crop up often enough?

Good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. I suspect it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.” I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little axiom unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So my prescription for learning to head this Millicent-irritant off at the pass will not, I suspect, come as a complete surprise: the best way to catch any visual pattern on the printed page is, you guessed it, to print out the page in question and read it. As I think you will soon discover, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention.

Since I don’t see too many of you stampeding in the direction of your manuscripts to verify this in your own writing, here’s another example. Again, you’ll get the most out of this exercise if you read it at top speed.

name rep 3

Did you notice how your eye longed to leap from one T to the next, even if it meant skipping some text? That’s only natural. Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks, that is — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve. It’s virtually always grammatically incorrect to Use Punctuation to Attract Unwarranted Eyeballing, just as it’s seldom literarily acceptable to “surround” words like “this,” presumably to demonstrate to the “reader” that were these words being “spoken aloud,” someone might emphasize them, but that doesn’t seem to stop devotees of either practice.

To be fair, using punctuation as a substitute for writing that calls attention to itself does indeed work. Just be aware that among print-oriented people, that attention will probably not be positive.

Proper nouns, on the other hand, claim capitalization as a natural right. Completely legitimately, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the named characters. That way, reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

In most manuscripts, no. It’s pretty common for narratives to remind readers unnecessarily often of even the protagonist’s name. And since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, that can result in a whole lot of capital letters competing for Millicent’s attention.

Are you satisfied with that outcome, John? John? If you don’t start paying attention, I’ll have to page Pauline.

Millicent’s constantly confronted by scenes constructed by authors evidently terrified that some reader will forget who is speaking. Or so she must conclude by the frequency with which characters address one another by name — much more often than would be bearable in real life. And it’s not just the characters that seem to fall prey to this fear: narratives often compulsively name and rename everyone in sight. Heck, while we’re at it, why not remind the reader of how those characters are interrelated?

“But that’s not fair, Mom!” Cecile wailed.

Her mother stroked her bent head. “Now, Cece, you knew running for Congress was going to be hard.”

The daughter batted the maternal hand away. “It’s no use, Mom. I simply cannot kill another baby. My pucker is broken.”

Call me zany, but I cling to the hope that when one character refers to another as Mom, a conscientious reader will be able to figure out that the latter is the former’s mother. Similarly, once that reader has been made aware that the latter gave birth to the former, I’m pretty confident that the conclusion that Cecile is the daughter will not be an especially surprising revelation.

Besides, we’re not dealing with legions of characters here. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, most readers will leap to the radical conclusion that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

A fine question — and the reason professional editors so frequently cut tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker every time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth. Once the narrative has established the speakers in two-person dialogue (far and away the most common variety, by the way), a reasonably intelligent reader is more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin.

So if your text seems to have broken out in capital letters, look first at the dialogue, both inside the quotation marks and without. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear.

And it’s my job to get you to hear it as you read. I can keep producing these examples all day, people.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

Does that combination of frantic jumping and wild arm-waving mean that some of you would like to add something here? “But Anne,” some perennial reader-distrusters point out, “wasn’t that last example rather unwise? I mean, if you took your vicious red pen to that exchange, slashing all of the proper nouns but the first set required to set up the alternating dialogue rhythm, you’d end up in precisely the dilemma we saw at the top of this post, the one you dismissed as a straw man: a scene in which the characters share a pronoun. Get out of that one, smarty-pants!”

In the first place, I seldom edit with red pens: due to early school training, virtually any adult will perceive red-inked marginalia as more critical than commentary scrawled in another color. (And you might be shocked at how excited some adult writers become when they learn that if a paragraph is especially good, I have been known to slap a gold star next to it. Book-length revisions have been fueled by the hope of gold stars.) And in the second place, with a little finesse, depicting an exchange between pronoun-sharers need not be at all confusing.

We’re writers, after all: why should the only possible word choice to replace a proper noun be a pronoun? Use your creativity, as well as your scissors. And don’t be afraid to rearrange a little text.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it is. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

We weren’t exactly flung headlong into a morass of confusion there, were we?

“But Anne,” pronoun-eschewers protest, and who could blame them? “You keep giving us dialogue examples. I find myself going out of my way to eschew pronouns in narrative paragraphs as well. Is there then no hope of quelling my deep and abiding fear of being misunderstood when I’m describing a couple of similarly-gendered characters?”

Never fear — we already have a very capable quelling device in our tool kit. And look, here’s a dandy excerpt to which we can apply it, fresh from the pen of someone terrified that two shes in a scene is one lady too many.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. Tanya inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. Haughtily, Eve tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her. How dare Tanya treat her like a drunk?

At this juncture, dare I hope that you found this at least a bit annoying to read? Come on, admit it — if I had opened the post with this example, it would have struck you as better prose, right? Which is why, I can reveal at long last, I’ve been positively burying you in examples today: until you’ve had to read page after page of name-heavy prose, it can seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word — any single word — within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader.

Yes, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name merely makes it stand out more, bellowing at Millicent, “Look at me! Repetition here! Wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?”

So what, the fearful ask, are we to do about it? Clearly, we can’t just replace all of the proper nouns with she; the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you retain any linger doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie he’s just seen.) And clearly, going after tag lines and characters naming one another wouldn’t be helpful in a scene containing neither.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t perform a little judicious proper noun removal surgery. We’ll just have to exercise a little more creativity. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the perceived necessity of naming the players.

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya snatched the glass in mid-flight. She inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. God, she hated being treated like a drunk. Haughtily, she tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her?

Anybody confused? I thought not.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, let me hasten to point out that this was not a very time-consuming revision. All it required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it can draw the eye away from an orderly, line-by-line reading, and therefore detrimental to the reading experience. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, almost always seems just a trifle odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Feel as though you will be excising proper nouns in your sleep? Excellent; my work here is done. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

Yes, I am fully aware that real people use run-on sentences in everyday speech, and first-person narratives should sound like real speakers, but honestly, must we go overboard?

July 3rd, 2013

gin and tonic

Sorry about the unusually lengthy posting hiatus, campers: as the not-particularly-evocative clich? goes, there’s been a lot going on. I know that many of you will be spending the long weekend (or just the weekend) honing your querying, submitting, and pitching skills. Or just indulging in some nice, unbroken writing time. It seemed like a good occasion for a fresh post.

Especially when I had already been devoting quite a bit of thought in my spare moments to the question of narrative voice. Specifically, voice in first-person narratives and the ways in which writers often bend, spindle, and mutilate the rules of grammar ostensibly to make the page read like everyday speech sounds.

Particularly likely to be sacrificed for the sake of speech-like flow: that pesky rule about run-on sentences. It doesn’t just dissolve, you know, when a writer chooses to embrace a first-person voice. As with other deliberate violations of standing rules of grammar, a writer may choose to do it for effect, just so long that she bears in mind that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, and their ilk may disagree with her over whether the effect justifies the means.

Why? Well, slip your tootsies into Millie’s moccasins for a sec and tell me: if you spent your day scanning the first page or two of a hundred submissions, most of which contained at least one typo, misspelling, or grammatical error, would your first response to clapping your eyes upon a page of first-person narrative consisting of paragraph-long sentences be

(1) to exclaim, “This is the most innovative approach to capturing the spoken word upon the page I’ve ever seen!”

(2) to sigh gently and murmur, “Well, it does sound like everyday speech — the copyeditor can always add the necessary punctuation later,” or

(3) to assume that the submitting writer just doesn’t know that run-on sentences are improper?

If, like Millicent, you immediately shouted, “3,” well, at least you have no illusions to be shattered. If you answered, “Why, #2, of course,” on the other hand, you might want to bear in mind that it’s not Millicent’s job to read charitably, nor to select manuscripts with an eye to providing her boss, the agent of your dreams, with extra unpaid editorial work. Professional manuscripts are expected to adhere to the rules of grammar unless there’s a darn good reason that they shouldn’t.

If you answered (1), you have a lovely nature, coupled with a most inadequate literary background. While I suppose it’s not completely beyond the bounds of probability that a screener could come to the job so inexperienced in the history of both the short story and YA that she’s unaware that the single most common means of creating a chatty voice involves stringing sentences together with and, it’s completely impossible that she could hold her job for more than a month without noticing the tendency.

Seriously, if an alien from the planet Targ attempted to learn the rules of written English solely by grabbing a couple of weeks’ worth of submissions from a well-established agency, it might well conclude that this I who seems to narrate so many stories is magically immune to the requirement to use periods. You’d be astonished at the frequency and vim with which your garden-variety first-person manuscript embraces the logic that that (a) everyone who has ever tread the earth’s crust has spoken in run-on sentences and (b) since the point of first-person narration is to sound precisely like people — all people — actually talk, (c) the only possible means of constructing a first-person narrative involves constructing sentences of a complexity and length to cause even the notoriously long-winded-in-a-single-breath Henry James to clutch his chest, gasp for air, and wheeze, “Really?”

To which editors the world over can only shake their heads wearily and concur, if only because (a), (b), and (c) are all demonstrably false. Individuals have been known to sport individualized speech patterns, you know; even if huge swathes of the population do spout and, but, and or constantly, I surely did not have the only mother in the New World who discouraged run-on constructions — as well as split infinitives, the ending of sentences in prepositions, and referring to one’s elders as “Bozo” — in everyday speech. (How else did you think little girls with braids grow up to be editors?)

Besides, can anyone explain the charm of a narrator that sounds like a generic person? Even in the unlikely event that someone actually spoke like a composite dictionary of American standard speech, why would a good writer want to write nothing but run-on sentences? It’s not as though the only goal of first-person narration (or of dialogue, for that matter) is to echo what people actually say, is it?

I’ll take that astonished silence for assent. Which is as it should be, as there are as many ways to construct a first-person narrative voice as there are individual characters up to narrating a book.

Yet in the overwhelming majority of first-person narratives, be they fiction or memoir, the humble conjunction is the hardest-working part of speech. Not that there isn’t some competition, mind you. Habitual word repetition, even if it’s limited to the level common in casual speech, can rapidly become both predictable and a bit dull on the page. Take a gander:

The street was empty and bare, free of chattering folk, the wayward crowd, and the well-advertised pitter-patter of tiny feet, but nevertheless, I conquered my incidentally completely reasonable fear of being hit in the head by a brick and ventured toward the castle. But I soon had reason to regret my own bravery and derring-do, believe you me: the instant I stepped into the crosswalk, a rain of boards, nails, stick-and-daub wall parts, thatch, and masonry hailed upon my head, evidently having made the transition from rain to hail somewhere in flight, the better to pelt and torment me. And yet I moved forward, as inextricably drawn to my ancestral home and its proud and lengthy tradition of revivifying corpses as I felt repelled by the angry and violent mob behind me, waving pitchforks and flaming torches in accordance with local tradition. Prudence, I felt, dictated a swift taking of cover, and my options were limited, so I leapt over the moat and drew up the drawbridge behind me.

Don’t see the problem, since the writing’s actually not bad here? Try reading it out loud. How many of those sentences could you speak in their entirety within a single breath?

While you’re hyperventilating from the attempt, you might want to take note of how often the same words (or different forms of the same words) turn up here. Why, even if we only highlight that most overused of words in manuscripts, and, this passage seems repetitive in both word choice and sentence structure. As Millicent would see it:

The street was empty and bare, free of chattering folk, the wayward crowd, and the well-advertised pitter-patter of tiny feet, but nevertheless, I conquered my incidentally completely reasonable fear of being hit in the head by a brick and ventured toward the castle. But I soon had reason to regret my own bravery and derring-do, believe you me: the instant I stepped into the crosswalk, a rain of boards, nails, stick-and-daub wall parts, thatch, and masonry hailed upon my head, evidently having made the transition from rain to hail somewhere in flight, the better to pelt and torment me. And yet I moved forward, as inextricably drawn to my ancestral home and its proud and lengthy tradition of revivifying corpses as I felt repelled by the angry and violent mob behind me, waving pitchforks and flaming torches in accordance with local tradition. Prudence, I felt, dictated a swift taking of cover, and my options were limited, so I leapt over the moat and drew up the drawbridge behind me.

I would strongly suggest replicating this exercise with several randomly-selected pages in your manuscript, to gain a sense of how Millicent would see your work. Yes, even if you don’t happen to be writing in the first person. Print the page, then circle and each time it appears; while you’re at it, draw a box around each use of those most pervasive of verbs, to be or to have. If you really want to get fancy, underline any word that appears more than once.

Once you’ve finished, prop the page against the back of your desk chair and take a few steps back. How many sentences remain unmarked?

Or, if that test sounds like too much trouble, you could always just scroll back through the bewildering array of examples cunningly tucked into my last few posts. Too great an affection for these multi-purpose words can lead, to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting nasty warts all over one’s kneecaps.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, as far as Millicent is concerned. Any reasonably busy professional reader sees and in print so often that there might as well be a WANTED poster with its image plastered on the wall above her desk.

And‘s crime? Accessory to structurally repetitive prose.

Let’s face it: no other word is as single-handedly responsible for text that distracts the eye, enervates the mind, and wearies the soul by saying different things in more or less the same way over and over again on the page. Take, for instance, that immensely popular sentence structure, X happened and Y happened:

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sentence, of course, standing alone. Solitude, however, tends not to be and‘s writer-preferred state. A perennial favorite in both submissions and contest entries, the X happened and Y happened sentence structure all too often travels in packs.

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too. Jorge ate what was left of Vivian’s cake and then went out and baked his own. After having tried his cake, Frankenstein’s monster broke into his apartment and destroyed his oven.

“I’m stopping him,” the monster told reporters and the requisite crowd of torch- and pitchfork-wielding locals, “before he bakes again.”

Did you catch it this time? Like any kind of sentence that appears too often within a short run of text, its tends to bore the reader after a while, even if the subject matter is inherently interesting — and yes, Virginia, even if every sentence in the run isn’t put together in precisely the same way. That’s and‘s fault, you know: when too many of them appear on a page, even the untrained eye starts unconsciously counting them.

Oh, turned pale, have you? “But Anne,” the more gifted conclusion-drawers among you quaver, “if I’ve already started toting ‘em up, how does a trained eye like Millicent’s respond? Especially if the ands in question have rampaged all over page 1 of a submission — or even, heaven help us, a query letter?

Good questions both, and they share the same answer what’s the most over-used word in Millicent’s vocabulary? “Next!”

That’s not to say, naturally, that the X happened and Y happened sentence structure doesn’t have some legitimate uses. It is appealing to writers because, let’s face it, it can provide a quick way to inform the reader of quite a bit of action in a short amount of text. Instead of having to write a brand-new sentence for each verb with the same subject, all of the action can be presented as a list, essentially.

That can be especially handy if the individual activities mentioned are necessary to plot, characterization, or clarity, but not especially interesting in and of themselves. Look how quickly we can polish off this string of events:

Weary from a long day at work, Ernie sat down and removed his heavy steel-toed boots.

Nothing wrong with that, right? The reader doesn’t need to spend two sentences mulling over Ernie’s rather predictable post-workday actions. Now, while we’ve got our revision spectacles on, we could debate from now until next Tuesday whether the reader actually needs to be told that Ernie sat down — it’s not exactly a character-revealing move, is it? — but that’s a matter of style, not proper presentation, right? Technically, this is a perfectly legitimate way to convey what’s going on.

Often, though, aspiring writers will present even quite a thrilling string of events in this manner, purely in the interest of telling a tale rapidly. This tactic is particularly popular amongst synopsis-writers trying to compress a complex plot into just a page or two.

ERNIE (27) comes home from work one day, removes his steel-toed boots, and discovers that the third toe on his left foot has transformed into a gecko. He cuts it off in a panic and takes it to a veterinarian, DR. LAO (93). Dr. Lao examines the gecko-toe and determines it has the capacity to knit exquisite sweaters. He and the gecko kill Ernie, go into business together, and soon take the skiwear market by storm.

Not the most scintillating way of describing the story, is it? The repetitive structure gives the impression that none of these potentially quite exciting plot developments is important enough to the story to rate its own sentence. Obviously, that’s a problem in a synopsis, where the goal is to present the story you’re telling as interesting and exciting.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: it’s a pretty good idea for a narrative voice to present the story it’s telling as interesting and exciting, too. Copying the level of sentence structure and word repetition in everyday speech usually is not the best means of pulling that off.

Why? Well, many actual living, breathing, conversation-producing people do indeed incorporate the X happened and Y happened structure into their speech with great regularity. In many cases, with monotonous regularity. Certainly, it can feel awfully darned monotonous to the reader, if it appears on the printed page with anywhere near the frequency that it tumbles out of the average person’s mouth.

Perhaps less obviously, this structure can create a similarly dismissive impression on a manuscript page. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but skimming eye like You-Know-Who’s will frequently note only the first verb in a sentence and skip the rest.

Before any and-hugger out there takes umbrage at the idea of every sentence in his submission or contest entry’s not getting read in full, let’s take a moment to think about verb-listing sentences from Millicent’s perspective — or, indeed, from any reader’s viewpoint. If an action is not important enough to what’s going on for the writer to have devoted an entire sentence to it, why shouldn’t a reader assume that it’s vital to the scene?

I sense some squirming out there. “But Anne,” some of and‘s partisans hasten to point out, “while I admit that sometimes I lump a bunch of activity together in a few short, list-like sentences in order to speed things up a bit, that’s not the primary way I use and in my prose. As you yourself have mentioned, and not all that long ago, stringing together sentences beginning with but or yet, it creates the impression conversation-like flow. Isn’t that essential for a convincing first-person narrative?”

Chant it with me now, non-partisans: echoing recognizable speech patterns is only one technique for constructing a plausibly realistic first-person narrative voice. Far and away the most popular technique, as it happens. There’s a pretty good reason for that, of course; it would be hard to denying that

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

is chatty, casual, echoing the way your local spouse-poisoner is likely to describe her activities to her next-door neighbor, should she happen to wish to confess to the first person she sees afterward. True, it doesn’t quite match the arid eloquence of Ambrose Bierce’s

Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.

But then, what does?

Yes? Do you clever people have anything you’d like to add here? Perhaps the observation that no matter why a word, phrase, sentence structure, and/or narrative device appears over and over again within a short span of text, it’s likely to strike a professional reader as repetitive?

No? Were you instead thinking of my oft-repeated axiom that just because something happens in the real world doesn’t necessarily mean that a transcript of it will make compelling reading?

Despite the sad fact that both of these observations are undoubtedly true, few real-world patterns are rendered with fidelity in writing as often as mundane verbal patterns, especially in dialogue. Social movements come and go unsung, jargon passes through the language literarily unnoted, entire financial systems melt down without generating so much as a mention in a novel — but heaven forefend that redundant or pause-riddled speech should not be reproduced mercilessly down to the last spouted clich?.

Don’t even get me started on the practically court-reporter levels of realism writers tend to lavish on characters who stutter or — how to put this gracefully? — do not cling tenaciously to the rules of grammar when they speak. In some manuscripts, it seems that if there’s an ain’t uttered within a five-mile radius, the writer is going to risk life and limb to track it down, stun it, and pin it to the page with quotation marks.

“I want it to sound real,” writers of this breed shout with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, for plenty of reasons, but let’s concentrate upon the one most relevant to us today: real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

And I’m talking arm hair here, people. If you doubt the intensity of this reaction, here’s a little experiment.

(1) Sit in a crowded caf? for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim.

No fair picking and choosing only the interesting ones; you’re striving for realistic dialogue, right?

(2) Go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using only the dialogue that you actually overheard.

No cheating: reproduce ALL of it.

(3) Wait a week.

(4) Seat yourself in a comfy chair and read the result in its entirety.

If you can peruse the result without falling into a profound slumber, congratulations! You have an unusually high threshold for boredom; perhaps you have a future as an agency screener. Or maybe you have cultivated an affection for the mundane that far outstrips that of the average reader.

(5) Ask yourself honestly: does the dialogue you overheard contain any entertainment value at all when reproduced in its entirety? Or are only selected lines worth preserving — if, indeed, any lines deserve to be passed down to posterity?

Even if you are lucky enough to stumble upon an unusually witty group of caf? denizens, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative prose. Why? Glad you asked: in professional writing, merely sounding real is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining enough to hold a reader’s interest.

Yes, Virginia, even if the manuscript in question happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Most of what goes on in the real world, and nearly everything that’s said, doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Not of good literature, anyway. And that’s as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

There’s more to being a writer than having adequate transcription skills, after all. Merely reproducing the real isn’t particularly ambitious, artistically speaking. Think about it: wouldn’t you rather apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something better than reality?

In that spirit, let’s revisit that sentence structure beloved of the real-life speaker, X happened and Y happened and see if we can’t improve upon it. Why, here’s an example of it wandering by now.

Ghislaine blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

Bugged you that time, didn’t it? Yet each of these sentences is grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English. It’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

Now let’s take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Ghislaine blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, is it not? Admittedly, the prose here is still pretty purple, or at least a blushing lilac. At least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Most agents, editors, and contest judges would agree with the paragraph’s assessment of its creator, alas. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of this kind of sentence within half a page. Screaming has been known to ensue after the sixteenth use within the same space.

If that seems like an over-reaction, consider this: most professional readers go into the job because they like to read. Adore it. Can’t get enough of lovely prose. Lest we forget, people who work at agencies are individuals with personal preferences, rather than the set of automatons sharing a single brain that many aspiring writers presume them to be. I can guarantee, however, that they all share one characteristic: they love the language and the many ways in which it can be used.

Millicent screens manuscripts all day at work, pulls a battered paperback out of her bag on the subway home, and reads herself to sleep at night; her boss totes submissions back and forth on that same subway because he’s so devoted to his job that he does half of his new client consideration at home. And no matter how many manuscripts they reject in a given week, both wake up each and every day hoping that today, at last, will bring an amazing manuscript into the agency, one to believe in and guide forcefully toward other lovers of good literature.

With such an orientation, it’s genuinely frustrating to see a great story poorly presented, or an exciting new voice dimly discernible through a Frankenstein manuscript. Or — and this happens more often than any of us might care to think — when a talented writer was apparently in such a hurry to get a scene down on paper that a series of potentially fascinating actions degenerated into a list that barely hints at the marvelous passage that might have been.

“But Anne,” some of you cry, “I just love the charge-ahead rhythm all of those ands impart to a passage! If the writing is strong enough, the story gripping enough, surely a literature-lover like Millicent would be able to put her repetition reservations aside?”

I see that it’s time to get ruthless: I’m going to have to show you just how much damage an injudicious application of ands can inflict upon even the best writing. To make the lesson sting as much as possible, let’s take the exceptionally beautiful and oft-cited ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY. To refresh your memory:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Even before I finished typing this, I could sense hands shooting up all over the ether. “Aha, Anne! He began two sentences with and! And he used the very X happened and Y happened structure you’ve been complaining about for the last two posts. So you must be wrong about them both, right?”

No, actually — I selected this passage precisely because he does incorporate them; he also uses the passive voice in one sentence. He does it sparingly, selectively.

Look at the horror that might have resulted had he been less variable in his structural choices. (I apologize in advance for this, Scott, but I’m making a vital point here.)

And I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, and I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, and that it was somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, and it was where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, and in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. And it eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster and we will stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Well might you cringe. Even when the writing is very good indeed, structural repetition can be distracting for the reader.

Where might one start to weed out the ands, you ask? Ah, but you’ve already begun doing it; I introduced that exercise above for a reason. All you have to do is expand its use from selected pages to your entire manuscript. Simply scan your pages for sentences in which and appears more than once.

Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case, and thus doubly ripe for revision. So you may be sure to spot it more easily in the wild, a multiple-and run-on will probably look something like this:

In avoiding the police, Babette ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on — too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions. Ask yourself: is there another, more interesting way I could convey all of this information? If not, is all of this information even necessary?

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ immortal comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spent all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.) I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) If (and only if) it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) If (and only if) it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If (and only if) the writer doesn’t use the same device elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where including a run-on will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and..and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. You may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading Millicent to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve been sensing disgruntled rumblings out there since I uttered point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I may have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format expectations on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading; her boss would be able to afford to take on a difficult-to-market book project every month or so, just because he happens to like the writing, and the government — heck, all governments — would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

As simple observation will tell you that none of these matters are under my personal control, kindly take me off your literary hit lists. Thank you.

Even in literary fiction, it’s dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission. To someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Then, too, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary writing. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To reproduce Millicent’s real-life dialogue with grim fidelity: “Next!”

Unless you are getting an extremely valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. Make sure that two such sentences never appear back-to-back.

Why? To avoid that passage appearing to Millicent as the work of — horrors! — a habitual runner-on, or even — sacre bleu! — the rushed first draft of a writer who has become bored by what’s going on in the scene.

Naturally, neither may be a fair assessment in your case. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail. I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on vivid specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader. A Frankenstein manuscript just isn’t safe anymore when you’re in the room.

Since your eye is becoming so sophisticated, allow me to aim it at paragraphs where ands abound in order to consider another possibility: are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day. Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who engaged in such minute-saving tactics? Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the speediest way/ It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. As we have already seen, relying heavily on the ands tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story.

When actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important, the reader tends to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which, I’m guessing, is not precisely the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right? Call me psychic — and keep up the good work!

Do you mind if we talk about something else? Like, say, the times that try editors’ souls?

May 27th, 2013

redundant sign 2

Or, to put it in more practical terms, if I promise to show you more properly-formatted pages while I’m at it, will you forgive my devoting tonight’s post to a foray into a notorious editorial pet peeve? What about if I talk about several?

It’s not as though there aren’t dozens from which to choose: as I may have horrified you with depressed you into a stupor by bringing up mentioned in passing last time, those of us fortunate enough to read for a living are expected — and often rigorously trained — to notice patterns in writing. How often a manuscript uses the word blanched, for instance, or describes anything as being mauve.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either word choice, mind you, when used sparingly. Surely I will astonish no one, however, if I suggest that your garden-variety reader might prefer not to see characters blanching at the sight of mauve objects on every other page. Adult readers, if you must know, tend to become bored by word and phrase repetition every bit as quickly as they lose interest in a slow-moving plot, dull explanation, or unsympathetic protagonist’s plight. In order to spare the reading public that pain, editors strive to catch not only larger narrative issues, but also redundancies, whether they be of concept, image, or phrase.

And, bless our hearts, we are seldom shy about pointing them out, sometimes as early as the second or third time an author uses a pet word or action. “For heaven’s sake, Mavis,” we have been known to scrawl in manuscript margins, “Jeremy has blanched, went pale, and felt the blood drain from his face already in a 4-page scene — need he also waste the reader’s time noticing his ashen face in the nearest mirror? What’s a mirror doing in the middle of a forest, anyway? And while we’re talking plausibility,” Mavis would be expected to turn the page over here, to read the editorial scribblings on the back of the page, “are you planning at some point to provide the reader with some explanation for all of the mauve leaves on the purple trees? Is the water supply in this forest somehow tainted? Are the trees subject to some sort of lavender mite infestation? Or have you perhaps forgotten that the trees on the other side of the world you’re describing were also on the mauve side?”

Given so much provocation on the page, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that one of the great long-term liabilities of reading for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated pro becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly.

Heck, I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. One recent November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the proper spelling would have confused the counting machine, I’m told.

But would that not have been preferable to asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? Possibly to serve in mauve robes?

While in some walks of life, this level of habitual scrutiny might prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted upon using impact as a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from your presentation’s effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

I see some of you blanching, doubtless at the thought of that manuscript you recently sent out to the agent of your dreams. Well might you turn pale, ashen-faced ones. If the same metaphor graced page 1 and page 241, a good editor would catch it. So is it really so much of a surprise that an even ordinarily conscientious agent — or, for that matter, Millicent, the agency screener — felt all of the blood draining from her face when that metaphor cropped up on pp. 1 and 5? Or — sacre bleu! — twice on page 1?

Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at any of these levels of metaphor repetition — they would have leapt to the conclusion that the writer was repeating himself so much on purpose. Clearly, this is an authorial plot to get away with lazy writing. As opposed to, say, an authorial failure to recognize that his pet phrase of today was also the pet phrase of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent.

Actually, you probably didn’t, at least when you first began to write. Until a writer has enjoyed the incomparable pleasure of having her work dissected disemboweled subjected to professional critique, she tends not to have any idea of how closely an agent or editor is likely to read, much less a Millicent. As we discussed yesterday, the overwhelming majority of first-time queriers and submitters fully expect their pages to be read with, if not a completely charitable eye, than at least a willingness to look past little things like conceptual redundancy and an over-reliance upon a select group of particularly nice words. It’s the overall writing that counts, right?

Can you hear Millicent giggling? From a professional reader’s perspective, the very notion that repetitious word choice, recycled notions, or even frequent typos would not be considered part of the authorial voice being offered in a submission is pretty funny. A screener can judge writing only by what’s on the manuscript page, after all. And is Millicent really so wrong to believe that a manuscript in which every inanimate object is apparently mauve-tinted might be indicative of a slight compositional problem?

Then, too, most writers radically underestimate how good a well-trained professional reader’s memory for text will be. Remember, Millicent is usually in training to become either an agent, who would be expected to read a client’s fourth revision and be able to tell how it had changed from the three previous drafts, or an editor, who might conceivably find himself telling a bestselling author, “By jingo, Maurice, I’m not going to let you do it! You used precisely that simile in Book I of this five-part series; you can’t reuse it in Book V!”

Oh, you think I’m exaggerating, do you? Earlier today, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. And not merely because Memorial Day is a natural time to consider the noble calling of memoir-writing. A pivotal scene in that book, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common narrative mistake — both in manuscripts and in queries, as it happens — that I just had to drop our series-in-progress and track down the book.

Yes, yes, I know: sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. If anyone wants to talk about the estimable Katharine Wright Haskell, apparently the only member of the Wright family bright enough to realize that heaving the first airplane off the ground might be of more significance if somebody bothered to alert the media, I’m still prepared and raring to go.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly written by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to tote only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil?! The very pages I had in mind.

Care to guess whether I’d remembered the font correctly?

I’m delighted that I did, as this excerpt provides excellent examples of the kind of narrative missteps that Millicent thinks so many of you do on purpose, just to annoy her. For starters, it exhibits the all-too-common narrative trick of echoing the verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in first-person narration, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. It can work, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page.

It also, you will be pleased to hear, beautifully demonstrates another classic memoir bugbear: telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) And, most common of all in both memoir and fictional first-person narratives, the pages in question much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

All sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, the scene isn’t badly written; the aforementioned garden-variety reader might not even have noticed some of these problems. Nor, unfortunately, would most aspiring writers prior to submission, for the exceedingly simple reason that far too few of them ever actually sit down and read their work beginning to end, as any other reader would. The writer already knows what’s on the page, right?

Or does he? My guess is that in this instance, the writer had very little idea that what he was slapping on the page was even vaguely problematic.

But you shall judge for yourself. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, as well as to continue our exercises in learning to know properly-formatted manuscript pages when we see ‘em, I’m presenting that memorable scene here in standard format. As always, my blogging program is for some reasons best known to itself a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

Twain page 1

Twain page 2

Twain page 3

Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this tale told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

I sense those of you committed to the noble path of writing memoir — or writing reality-based fiction — shifting uncomfortably in your chairs. “But Anne,” you protest, averting your eyes, “this isn’t the powerful negative example you led us to expect. I get what you mean about the sheer volume of ands, but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the narrative voice here, given that this is a memoir. Isn’t part of the point of any memoir that the voice does sound like someone might speak? Is that not, in fact, one of the charms of first-person narration in general?”

Well, yes, but just as an event’s having actually occurred in real life (and it’s true, too!) does not necessarily mean that it will inevitably strike the reader as plausible on the page, first-person narration’s reading like everyday speech does not guarantee readability. In print, narrative chattiness may work against the reader’s enjoyment, because chatty people, like the rest of us, reuse words and phrases so darned much. Even talented verbal anecdotalists seldom embellish their tales with the level of detail that the most threadbare of written accounts would require. And funny out loud, let’s face it, does not always equal funny on the page.

Which is to say: as delightful as our example above might have been tumbling out of the mouth of a gifted storyteller, as a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? If both are left so completely to the reader’s imagination, is there not some danger that a Millicent fresh from polishing off the manuscript before this one might automatically assume that those trees were mauve, and those villages occupied by the wan?

Oh, you thought I’d dropped that running joke? In a blog, I can get away with going back to that same well this often. How many times, though, do you think I could revisit the joke in a book before the reader got bored? Or Millicent became irritated?

While you’re pondering those troubling questions, let’s return to our example. How else does it fall short?

Well, as so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, rather than shown what those places were like. And lest anyone be tempted to shout out that old writing truism, “But it’s stylish to leave something to the reader’s imagination!, let me ask you: based upon the pages above, could you tell me where these people are with enough specificity that a reader would be able to feel like she’s there?

“But that’s not fair!” I would not blame you for shouting indignantly. “It’s the writer’s job to establish a sense of place, not the reader’s job to guess.”

Precisely what Millicent would say. She would object, and rightly, to this scene’s providing her with too little description to enable her to picture Joan and her young friends operating within an environment. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physical trait.

Heck, poor Millie doesn’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely asserts repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator of the scene.

Speaking of the narrator, were you able to glean much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid; margins absorb them like a sponge does water — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that although this excerpt is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled — wait for it — PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts?

And don’t stand there telling me that the narrator had no choice in the matter, because that’s how it really happened. Yes, a memoir or fact-based fictional story should be true, but it also has to be both interesting in the page and plausible. Reality, unfortunately, is not always plausible; it’s the writer’s job to make it so on the page.

Which begs another editorial question: why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the book in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes? This is another notorious editorial pet peeve: almost without exception, the least character-revealing way for anyone to answer a yes-or-no question is with — again, wait for it — a simple yes or no.

Are some of you writers of the real blanching now? “But Anne,” you gasp, clutching your ashen cheeks so heavily drained of blood, “people actually do answer questions that way! And isn’t the point of written dialogue to reproduce the feel of actual speech?”

Well, that’s one of the points of dialogue. Another is not to bore the reader to death, isn’t it? And, if at all possible, it should be entertaining.

Just holding a tape recorder up to nature tends not to be the surest means of hitting any of those excellent goals. Why? Chant it with me now: most everyday speech is repetitious.

I can stand here and keep saying that as long as necessary, people. Again and again and again.

As we may see in the scene above, a character that keeps saying nothing but “Yes” isn’t exactly thrilling the reader with deep insight into her thought processes. Or even into the scene itself: little Joan is not, after all, a hostile witness in a murder trial, but a child talking with her playmates. Wouldn’t it ultimately be more realistic, then, if she sounded like the latter?

Speaking of realism, would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts have been more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought: this is precisely the kind of thing an editor would have gripped her pen angrily and inked into the margins of a manuscript. Not because she’s mean, but because she’s trying to help the writer give the reader a more enjoyable reader experience.

That’s a noble calling, too, you know. But in the unlikely event that some writer out there might care less about the moral beauty of Millicent and her ilk’s devotion to textual excellence than how to worm his way past it in order improve his submission’s chances of getting picked up by an agency, let me hasten to add that the sooner a writer learns to read his own manuscript the way a professional reader would, the easier he will find self-editing. Not to mention being able to catch the Millicent-irritants that can prompt a screener or contest judge to stop reading.

In the interest of helping you fine people develop that ability, let me ask you another question about today’s example: if you had previously known absolutely nothing about what the what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t be able to think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it merely the first-person novelists sighing gustily? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration. It’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s unnamed childhood buddy sound like anybody else telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s individual speech patterns; no dialogue should sound like just anybody. Which is precisely the problem with all of those yeses, right? All by themselves, yes and no are generally presumed to mean the same thing, regardless of who is saying them. So, like polite spoken clich?s of the “Excuse me” and “I’m so sorry for your loss” ilk, they are too generic to convey personalized content.

Strong dialogue also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know in the situation at hand. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

And if you were tempted even for a nanosecond to mutter in response, “Well, if the 1980s is when readers would have been seeing this dialogue, sounding like that just would have seemed normal,” let me ask a follow-up question: if this scene were narrated in the voice of a pre-teen texting this to a friend today, would that make this scene ring truer to today’s readers? Or would it merely read as though the writer either hadn’t thought much about how Joan and her friends might have communicated with one another — or was presuming that today’s readers were not capable of following any type of dialogue than their own?

Those of us who read for a living have a term for that kind of assumption: insulting the reader’s intelligence. We often find ourselves scrawling it in margins.

How often, you ask, your faces a mask of pallid horror? Well, operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius?

There’s a dinner party, eh? I’ll bring the stuffed grape leaves.

Doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. Millicent, too, tends to regard her own thoughts as separate from other people’s. The inevitable consequence: characters who think together tend to annoy her, unless their shared brains crop up within science fiction or fantasy context, where they can be plausible.

That cast a different light upon the narrative choice here, doesn’t it? As an editor might well scrawl in the margin, are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them? Is the narrator just not familiar enough with the individual characters to be able to guess how their thoughts might have differed, or, (turn page over here) since he’s of a different social class than they are — not abundantly apparent in this scene, is it? — does his reporting that they all thought the same way a function of his views of their training in rational thinking? Or does it indicate the opposite, that he feels so close to them that he presumes that his beloved friends and he could only have thought and felt identically?

“Or, Mark,” the editor might conclude, “did you originally write this scene in the third person, with an omniscient narrator that could plausibly read everyone’s thoughts? If so, you can’t legitimately endow your first-person narrator with that ability. Pick a narrative perspective and stick to it!”

In fairness to Mark, as well as all of the blanching first-person narrative writers out there, plenty of writers actually were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. And with good faith, too: in short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the published examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony.

Or, to put it another way, Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, his distinctive narrative voice and humorous worldview?

Admittedly, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, at the risk of repeating myself, rather boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a collection of verbal anecdotes, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen name and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of young Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy. Good branding has its drawbacks for a creative artist.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

In today’s example, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Reviewers in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth.

But is that how little girls with braids grow up to lead armies?

Twain evidently thought so. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from the clutches of local lunatics or holding confabs with deceased ancient Roman maidens, the locals might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about any of this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The little lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, though, I think it was Uncle Mark’s job as a writer’s to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story he wanted to tell? And if not, should Millicent accept this manuscript?

Does the fact that a good third of you just began hyperventilating mean that it had not occurred to you that whether a story is not only well-written, but attacked from an appropriate narrative angle is a potential rejection trigger? It is, inevitably. Wouldn’t it have been nice if your last rejection letter had told you that, if Millicent or her boss thought that your first-person story would have worked better as a third-person narrative, or vice-versa?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer my question about Uncle Mark’s narrative choices to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, though, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to the choices he did make? Glad you asked. Let the scrawling begin!

What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror and previously rosy cheeks drained of blood? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of letter-perfect creative phrasing dripping from one’s fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, each and every time, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as semi-miraculous productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

And I mean critical readers. The kind who will remember what the author did in the same scene in each previous draft.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, writing up the scene in summary form, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper as rapidly as humanly possible.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a pretty tight deadline. Serialization tended to be submitted that way back then, you know, as Dickens would have been only too glad to tell you. Had Uncle Mark taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and, frankly, I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene. He was too good a storyteller.

But that choice certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead, give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out.

Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing (a word most writers tend to overuse in early drafts, incidentally), the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but did you notice how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

From an editorial perspective, that lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving us to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. It’s his job to make us feel that we were there, or at least to show us the scene engagingly enough that we have that illusion.

Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out). But great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this excerpt is indeed like everyday speech, in the negative sense, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work, couldn’t it?

Please don’t limit your answer to a simple yes or no. I was hoping to learn something about you.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

A bit mauve, isn’t it? Well might you turn pale.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: logically, they are unnecessary. Why? Well, in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3.

Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected. Take a gander:

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you? As a reader, didn’t you get a kick out of that?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in the order they occurred. Racing from its beginning to its end may not be the best way to engage the reader. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable, right? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing, hearing, or observing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right?

So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant. Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously? But it’s how they show their respect for your eventual readers!

And for your literary gifts. Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that you put it there on purpose. She’s also going to believe, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own.

If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great. If he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, though, even better. And if he can work in a little character development, perhaps through revealing dialogue, terrific.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it.

Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t live in the hope that this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? Try to think of it as your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

Do bear in mind, too, that while reality itself can be convoluted and devoid of point, readers have a right to expect a book based upon real events to be a good story possessed of an identifiable story arc. It should be dramatically satisfying. And if the real-life version is not, believe me, Millicent isn’t going to be inclined to take that as an excuse.

No need to go pale about this. You can do it. But in order to pull it off successfully, you’re going to have to be able to read your work not only like a writer, but also like a reader.

Oh, it feels good to be delving back into craft. Would anyone mind if I continued to keep standard format illustration on the back burner for a bit and made narrative voice my topic of the week?

Actually, that’s a rhetorical question, come to think of it. Keep up the good work!

It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

May 25th, 2013

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

It’s all a matter of perspective, or, let’s move the piano over here. Wait — how would it look over there? And other tales of title page formatting.

May 15th, 2013

sagrada familia ceiling3

If you’ve been hearing the Muses tap-dancing on the floor of heaven today, I think I know why: at long last, Author! Author!’s epic behind-the-scenes site upgrade has officially drawn to a close. It’s still going to take me a while to go back through the literally thousands of pages of archival posts, making sure that they’re taking kindly to all of the new bells and whistles, but in theory, the bulk of my blogging time will no longer be sacrificed on the altar of the Internet Deity.

Who, I gather, does not hobnob much with the Muses. If s/he did — hey, who am I to impose gender norms on higher beings? — all of the formerly fuzzy page shots would have magically clarified themselves in the course of this upgrade. Please bear with me while I painstakingly go back and refocus ‘em.

In the meantime, let’s get back to the matter at hand: the proper formatting of book manuscripts. As Odysseus no doubt said to his sailors and soldiers on the way home from the Trojan War, I know that it feels as though we’ve been on this journey forever, but it can’t be much farther now.

But hark! Do I hear some discontented murmuring amongst aesthetes out there in the ether? “But Anne,” visually-oriented aspiring writers murmur under their breath, so as not to attract the wrath of their nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, “my objection is not so much to the sheer length of time we’ve spent going over the strictures of standard format for book manuscripts — not to be confused with the formatting norms for short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, or any other kind of writing intended for professional submission — but to what I feel these rules are doing to my personal style. The pages look so plain! These rules are stepping all over my right to creative expression.

“So I’m asking you as a friend, Anne: if I believe my writing looks best in a special font like Abadi MT Condensed Extra Bold, and it’s how I want my words to look in the published book, why shouldn’t I run with it in a submission? Surely, Millicent can look past a little originality of presentation while she is seeking originality in writing.”

That’s a good question, murmuring aesthetes. The short answer: because Millicent will take your writing more seriously if you format it as she expects to see it — that is, the way that professional book manuscripts are formatted.

And why might she respond better to that than a more creatively-presented set of pages, murmurers? Is it time to trot out the broken record again?

broken-record3 A manuscript should not resemble a published book in many important respects. Therefore, formatting a submission to reflect one’s publication preferences on matters like font (which is the publishing house’s decision, anyway, not the author’s) will not strike the pros as a creative choice, but a reflection of a misunderstanding of how publishing works — and an indication that the writer has not yet taken the time to learn the rules of submission.

What’s that you’re murmuring now? That this is a pretty sweeping set of conclusions to draw from something as simple as font choice or a title page graced with a photograph? Perhaps, but to someone who deals with manuscripts and/or book proposals all day, every day, for years on end, it’s not all that far-fetched. After all, it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of your dreams, would ever consider submitting your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house in anything but standard format; it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

An editor would be too busy staring at that remarkable font choice or non-standard indentation to pay close attention to what’s dearest to any writer’s heart, the actual writing. So in practice, discontented murmurers, presenting your original writing in standard format is more conducive to getting your creative expression into print, not less.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? That’s because you’ve been looking at the page like a writer, rather than an agent, editor, contest judge, or the Millicent lucky enough to screen submissions for any of the above. It’s all a matter of perspective. As international relations professors like to say early and often, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Don’t see why perception of writing talent, like beauty, might lie partially in the eye of the beholder? Okay, tell me: did I take the photograph gracing the top of this post while looking down into an abyss, sideways into an alcove, or up at an impossibly high ceiling?

Out of context, it’s hard to tell which way is up, isn’t it? (But here’s a hint: the purple stuff is flying dust.) Without some orienting landmarks, it’s difficult even to know for sure what you’re looking at, or from what direction.

That’s more or less the same problem the average aspiring writer faces when looking at her own first manuscript or book proposal with an eye to figuring out whether it is formatted correctly. Let’s face it, very, very few as-yet-to-be-published writers have ever seen a professional manuscript up close and personal; still fewer have had the opportunity to glance through a professional book proposal.

Oh, there’s plenty of advice out there on how it should be done, of course, but as many of you have no doubt noted with chagrin, sources differ. And surprisingly often, the sources most inclined to tell aspiring writers that they have no hope in Hades of landing an agent if their manuscripts don’t contain Feature X (because Millicents have, presumably, been trained to reject X-less manuscripts on sight, then rush to a national blackballing database, to urge every other agency in the country not even to open that writer’s queries) or if they do contain Feature Y (because not only is Y hopelessly old-fashioned, but spotting even a single instance of it will provoke gales of laughter from Millicent) do not pause in their warning spates long enough to explain why X is desirable in a submission or Y is not.

Heck, most sets of rules don’t even specify to which kind of manuscript they’re supposed to be applied. No wonder so many aspiring writers labor under the false impression that all writing, anywhere, anytime, should be formatted identically, upon pain of instant rejection. Or, like our murmurers above, just assume that the welter of conflicting guidelines must indicate that Millicent is serious about only the elements common to most sets of rules. Like our murmurers above, they presume that as long as a manuscript is double-spaced and in 12-point type, anything goes.

As you may perhaps have gathered from my many years of revisiting this topic, I have nothing but sympathy for writers at both ends of the spectrum. How on earth is someone new to the game supposed to figure out which end of the manuscript is up, figuratively speaking?

The trick lies in remembering that the principles governing manuscript formatting are based upon practical and historical considerations, not purely aesthetic ones. Shall we wind up that Victrola again?

broken-recordA manuscript is designed to be easy for the intended audience to read, not for the writer to produce. Thus, while two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And, frankly, distracting from the writing.

What looks right in a manuscript, in other words, depends upon the perspective of the person reading it. From where Millicent is sitting, non-standard formatting makes it harder for her to pay attention to the writing. Obviously, she reasons, a writer who presents his work in 14-point type or with half-inch margins, is either unaware that these choices are eye-distracting. So rather than impressing her with his creativity, he simply seems out of touch with how publishing works.

And why might Millicent’s drawing that conclusion from her first glance at page 1 prove problematic for the submission, campers? Out comes the broken record:

broken-record4 Because professional manuscripts and book proposals are always present in the same way, Millicent knows that her boss, the agent of your dreams, would have a hard time convincing an editor at a major publishing house to read even the first page of an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript. She also knows that taking on a manuscript by a writer unaware of that will be more time-consuming to represent than one already familiar with how submissions to publishers work.

That means, unfortunately for lovers of wacky typefaces everywhere, that a choice as small as a typeface can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, not entirely surprisingly, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it matter? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual typeface.

To see why, let’s once again start at the top of the submission packet, taking a gander at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman, one of the two preferred typefaces:

Title page 1

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see — and before we move on, would you join me in tap-dancing with the Muses over how much crisper that image is than any of the page shots I’ve been able to post within recent memory? Nearly brings a tear to the eye, that does. Should your emotional intensity be interfering with your ability to spot the small details, try holding down the Command key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Now that we have it in focus, let’s look at precisely the same information, presented in another font. Let’s assuming that Aunt Jane had favored 12-point Helvetica so strongly that she just couldn’t resist submitting in it:

Title page 2

The letters in this version are quite a bit bigger than in the first, aren’t they? Not enough so to appear to be rendered in, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Estimated word count does, after all, vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200. More on that below.)

Honestly, do you want her speculating about your credibility before reading the first page of your manuscript? Now that we have seated ourselves firmly in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. Even before the text starts, it’s distracting.

Does that increased volume of disgruntled ethereal muttering mean some of you are longing to see a typeface that would be a deal-breaker for Millicent? Happy to oblige. Very few of us who read for a living would be even vaguely tempted to turn the page and start reading this one.

Title page 3

Can’t really blame Millicent for regarding the entire manuscript with a jaundiced eye, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include — in the right places and in the right order, no less — this page simply screams that Aunt Jane has not thought about her future agent’s ease or comfort in reading. Clearly, she was so intent upon expressing herself via font that she neglected to consider the preferences of someone who might conceivably want to judge her writing.

Still resisting the concept? Okay, slip back into Millicent’s moccasins for a second, pretend you’ve been screening submissions for the last seven hours, and feast your eyes on this:

Title page 4

Ah, that one caught some of you originality-huggers by surprise, didn’t it? “But Anne,” those who want to stand out from the crowd protest, “I’ve been submitting my writing on slightly tinted paper for years. White is just so boring, and besides, everybody uses it. I’m merely being strategic: if every other submission Millie sees today is white, mine will automatically catch her eye, right?”

Well, yes, but not for the right reasons — and not in a manner even remotely likely to convince her that this submission, out of the hundreds she will be perusing this week, is the one that will wow her boss. Yes, regardless of how good the writing might be.

Why? Look for yourself: could the agent possibly submit this manuscript to a publishing house in this typeface and on this oddly-colored paper? Would it stand a fighting chance if she did?

And if it doesn’t, does presenting the manuscript in this manner make sense at any stage of submission?

The answers to all three of those questions is a resounding “By Jove, no!” And that’s sad, considering that the book this title page covers is, lest we forget, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The moral, should you care to know it:

broken-record7Even the best writing can be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation. Standard format is the good writer’s friend, not her enemy.

Is all of that ambient clanking is a thousand writers’ hackles being raised? “But Anne,” outraged voices thunder, “aren’t you making Millicent out to be pretty darned shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their blogs about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they often disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard a few of them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing all that matters in a submission, ultimately?”?

Again, yes and no, hackle-raisers. Yes, the writing matters — and no, it’s not all that matters.

Naturally, the writing matters most in a submission, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. Or on their blogs, Twitter feeds, and over drinks at that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any literary conference in North America.

One person’s pet peeve, however, may not be another’s. Since few aspiring writers have access to the industry-specific information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers.

Then, too, adopting the norms of standard format and clinging to them like an unusually tenacious leech will also help you preserve your sanity throughout the often-protracted submission process, for the reason I mentioned in passing above — have you seen how many conflicting sets of ostensibly authoritative manuscript formatting rules are floating around out there?

Honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed opinions to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. Don’t even try. However, because personal (and genre) preferences do exist, it’s always worth a submitter’s time to double-check an agency or small publishing house’s submission guidelines, just in case they call for something wacky. That’s worth throwing another record on the machine, surely.

broken-record2If an agent or editor to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her. If, as is almost always the case, the guidelines don’t specify, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine without visual competition.

In other words, it’s only prudent to adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s a matter of perspective. And from both Millicent and the aspiring writer’s perspective, taking the time to present writing professionally is genuinely worth it.

Admittedly, one does hear of the mythical isolated case of a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential. One also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market being recognized for the work of genius it is and swept to bestsellerdom. The age of miracles has not entirely passed, apparently.

Have you ever noticed, though, how seldom a specific book title comes attached to those stories? Or, when they do, it turns out on closer examination that the writer in question roomed in college with a major agent, or is married to a senior editor at a large publishing house, or used to be a Monkee? If one happens to fall into such a category, one might well encounter an unusual leniency. Ditto if one happens already to be a household name.

Before anyone raises his hand, though, we’ve all heard offbeat How I Got Discovered Stories at conferences. But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. (They also tend to have happened before the mid-1980s; agents used to take chances on long shots more often.) 9,999 times out of 10,000, though, a submission’s tumbling into any of the pitfalls we’ve been discussing will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next problem in the manuscript.

Those pesky hackles are clacking again, aren’t they? “Okay,” the hackled concede, “I can understand how Millicent would be tempted to skip reading submissions presented like the last two examples, where she’s likely to strain her eyes. But if presentation is so darned important, why don’t aspiring writers hear about it more often at conferences, in articles about submission, or even just in discussions amongst ourselves?”

Excellent question, h-raisers. I can’t say for sure, of course, but it wouldn’t be going out too far on an interpretive limb to speculate that a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect might be slightly reluctant to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me, okay?” Having once seen a well-meaning agent tell an indignant crowd that he only took query letters seriously if they came from writers he met at conferences (yes, really; there were many, many witnesses), I can tell you precisely what would happen if some honest soul did take this astounding step: instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; HE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, would it not?

As a veteran teaches of writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything she says about submissions is likely to be repeated with the ?clat of a proverb, to borrow a phrase from Aunt Jane, for years to come amongst the writing community.

You might be surprised how often it happens. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are routinely discussed with less vim and vitriol. Some particularly vehement agents’ pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point, should you be interested, is that the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster that such speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I must admit, I occasionally experience qualms about presenting the rules of standard format here at all. On the pro-regulation side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. (Yes, really.) On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much writerly ire.

The very topic of manuscript presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) If you tell him that his protagonist’s sister is Ruth for the first 72 pages, and Ren?e thereafter, he might actually thank you.

Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter. Which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — as we’ve discussed, rejection decisions are more often than not made on page 1 of a submission. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. If a manuscript is hard to read due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, Millicent may just pass on reading it at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would swiftly find herself covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat. Metaphorically, at least. Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom:

broken-record-150x150From the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it more likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

They can’t fall in love with your good writing until they read it, can they? So don’t you want to do everything within your power to convince them that your manuscript is the one that deserves more than a cursory glance?

Of course you do. Instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of Bauhaus 93 sigh. “What fonts would be the least, you know, Millicent-provoking for me to use?”

I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, both on the title page and in the manuscript. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows. Like other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: from where she is sitting, word count estimation is always predicated upon one of these typefaces.

Why is the question of estimating relevant on a title page? Again, we must look to Millicent’s perspective: unlike word counts in articles or short stories, word counts in book manuscripts are generally estimated, not based upon the actual number of words. For short stories and articles, use the actual total.

Was that giant gust of wind that just knocked my desk over your collective gasp of astonishment? I’m not entirely surprised; a lot of aspiring writers are confused on this point. “But Anne,” they shout, and who can blame them? “My Word program will simply tell me how many words there are in the document. Since it’s so easy to be entirely accurate, why shouldn’t I be as specific as possible? Or, to put it another way, why would an agent or editor ask for the word count, then expect me to guess?”

Would you fling something at me if I said once again that this is a matter of perspective? From Millicent’s seat, the answer is pretty obvious: industry practices dictate how manuscripts are handled, not the whims of the fine folks at Microsoft. The Microsofties I know are sterling human beings to a man, but they’re hardly experts on the publishing industry’s requirements.

And really, why should they be? Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, just because Word is set up to allow certain things — giving you an exact word count, for instance, or access to 147 different fonts — doesn’t mean that the publishing industry wants writers to do things that way. (And if you doubt that, consider the doubled dash vs. the automatic emdash Word favors.) Word processing programs came into use long, long after standard format for manuscripts, after all; why should agents, editors, and Millicents allow computer programmers to dictate what strikes them as professional?

Perspective, people: which makes more sense, assuming that the word count on your title page will be read by Millicent — or Bill Gates?

I cannot, naturally, speak to Mssr. Gates’ views on the subject, but here is why Millicent would care on the estimation front. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words if it’s in Times — something Millicent should be able to tell as soon as she claps eyes on the submission’s title page, right? — and 80,000 if it’s in Courier.

Wondering why anyone would estimate at all? Since word length vary, and because manuscripts shrink around 2/3rds in the transition to published book, the number of pages is actually a better measure of how much it will cost to print and bound the thing. So if your title page says that your baby is 86,250 words and it’s in Times New Roman, a pro will just assume that it’s 345 pages (345 x 250= 86,250) rather than flipping to the bottom of the stack of papers to check. If it’s in Courier, she would conclude that it is 431 pages — and that your math skills are not particularly good.

Now, in the world as we know it, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is usually closer to 115,000 words than 100,000; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject, either (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly to have been English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be these days; at around 450 pages, binding costs rise significantly.

In other words: next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today. “But Anne, why would Millicent want to estimate at all when she has a submission in front of her? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture. She has a hard job, truly. In practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, hackle-raisers: why should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writer’s perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours. Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

I’m aware that I’m running long today, but in the interest of clarity, let’s invest another few minutes in turning to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editorial nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

2 cities good

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

2 courier

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the same first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

example for spotting

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? As with our earlier title page examples, it’s exactly the same writing, but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

In all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format would strike our Millie as serious enough to cause her to toss a submission aside as soon as she noticed them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long opening sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

broken-record-150x150It’s never in your best interest as a writer to tempt a professional reader to draw the wrong conclusion about your devotion to your craft. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start racing skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to a reader’s perception, too. Her reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after. Once he was established, he could get away with more.

Unless you happen already to be famous, though, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk. (And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?)

In fairness to Millicent, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to an established Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format. Experience working with an agent or editor would discourage it. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained. We all like to be right, and propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Pulling back from one’s own perspective can be most helpful. There’s a reason that it’s called the bigger picture, people.

In that spirit, let’s take a longer view of our original photo, to situate ourselves:

sagrada familia ceiling

Substantially simpler to tell up from down now, isn’t it? Taking a broader perspective, you can see that the green light on the left is coming from a stained-glass window; on the left, there’s a decorative support beam. From the myopic tight shot, it was far less obvious that this was a cathedral.

Making sure your writing is framed properly can have a similar effect. Keep up the good work!

« Previous Entries