Entr’acte: Lights, camera…

Okay, I promised that I was going to send you all news from the front while I was being interviewed for the documentary, and it doesn’t get any closer to the front than this: they’re setting up the light and sound equipment right now.

To be precise, I’m sitting in a hotel room designed for one person to be able to walk around in relative comfort, surrounded by two technicians and the director, who are arranging and rearranging furniture and lighting equipment in an effort to create the illusion that I am alone in an extremely well-lit room, narrating my own past to myself. As one does.

I am writing this partially to stay out of their way. I distracted them earlier by asking them to tell me the names of Argentine novelists I should be reading (other than Borges, of course; I already knew him), and apparently, in this context, asking questions that prompt people to sit down and think is not the most helpful activity. Remember this, please, when you are famous: it’s frowned-upon for interviewees to interview the interviewers. I can never help myself.

Now that I have released them from bibliographic duty, they all seem to be talking at once; a tad disconcerting, as I understand about four words of Spanish (non-consecutive). Normally, it’s only your imagination that people who are speaking in foreign tongues around you are talking about you, but when there is a boom mike, monitor, and three light poles within grabbing distance, you may be fairly sure that they ARE talking about you, at least indirectly. The sound guy keeps saying, “Hola, hola,” into various little black items, the lighting guy seems determined to rearrange every object in the room seventeen times, and never has a hotel room been this brightly lit.

Apparently, someone intends to do surgery here sometime soon. It is not conducive to interview subject relaxation.

All of you out there who are ever planning to interview living, breathing individuals for your books: do be aware that being an interview subject is quite nerve-wracking. Most people (at least the ones who are not indicted for or witness to a felony) are not expected to be able to blurt out coherent accounts of the most trying moments of their lives on a moment’s notice. Nor is it reasonable for interviewers to expect interviewees to read their minds, to search through a lifetime of complex memories to pull up precisely the anecdote that corresponds most exactly to the interviewer’s preconceived notion of an event.

Yet 99% of the time, this is what interviewers do expect. And an interview subject is very likely to notice this, because it’s not as though any question in the process is asked only once. Everything is asked four or five times, sometimes in different background environments, so they can later piece together the answer they want. From the subject’s POV, this is rather like being cross-examined. From the documentarian’s POV, I suspect it is rather like editing a novel: cutting away the extraneous in order to create plausible characters.

Oh, come on: you didn’t think those reality shows weren’t edited to create a storyline, did you?

I ask the director about editing for character creation. Since it’s the only English that’s been heard in the room for a quarter of an hour, my voice startles everyone. He laughs, then talks about the difficulties and joys of trying to be an observant spectator of a range of people whose views of events differ rather wildly. It’s hard, he says, to ask questions that will provoke revealing responses without appearing to take sides.

“That’s just what a novelist does,” I tell him, “in constructing a narrative.” This is translated into Spanish, so everyone can enjoy the irony.

Having just lived through exhaustive pre-interviews and seemingly miles of let’s-walk-around-Berkeley shots (we seriously spent an hour today following my mother as she drove familiar streets, blasting Puccini, with the cameraman hanging dangerously out of the side of the production van), I have gleaned what I hope will be a useful tip for all of you would-be interviewers out there: it might not be the best idea to tell your interview subject what all of your other interview subjects have said about her. It taints what is, after all, a meeting with an inquisitive stranger with the annoying air of a visit from unpleasant relatives.

Not that I’d be saying this from personal experience or anything. It’s not as though, for instance, people who live off the proceeds of the late Philip K. Dick’s writing have been going around making sweeping statements about a memoir they haven’t read. Since you, my fine readers, are actually implicated as co-conspirators in some of these sweeping statements, I feel that I should let you know about one of them: certain sources who are not speaking to me have been telling third parties with recording devices that I have been posting large parts of my memoir here, on this very blog, for well over a year now.

I ask you, the people who would know this best: have I?

Actually, I couldn’t have, legally: once a publisher buys the rights to a book, the contract tends to be pretty darned specific about what the author can do with the contents. Amazingly enough, publishers seem to be under the impression that what they are buying when they acquire a book is the right to disseminate its contents. And if I had not retained the film rights to A FAMILY DARKLY, I would not be able to give this interview without explicit permission from my press.

I still own the film rights, though. And the foreign language rights. As I think I have explained before, what publishers usually buy from first-time authors on our continent (actually, it’s not my first NF book; I wrote a couple of travel guides years ago, but let’s say it’s my first, for purposes of illustration) are the first-time North American English-language rights only. Most of the time, if a book comes out first in hardcover, the paperback rights are sold separately; typically, a novel would need to sell in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies before a press would be interested in the paperback rights.

I have only just realized that the cameraman has been filming me writing this for the last couple of minutes, the observer of the observers being observed observing. (Try to wrap your brain around THAT one.) The sound guy has just lowered what looks like a space probe to eight inches in front of my nose, nine inches up. If I don’t stare either dead ahead or down at my computer screen, it will be very distracting.

I’m getting indications that it’s time for me to start strolling down memory lane, to recall some of the most painful and joyous moments of my life. Due to the lights and proximity of bodies in a too-small space, it is now thirty degrees hotter in the room than it was when we began. I am advised not to sweat. And to relax.

And we begin.

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XII: reading from the other side of the envelope

I’m sitting in a Berkeley espresso place right now, surrounded by people who apparently stepped directly out of either my memoir (my parents were local beatniks) or the novel currently in editorial limbo (my protagonist’s parents were local hippies). Seriously, I could cast movies of either very comfortably without walking outside into the prevailing misty fog.

Why am I here? Well, I’m waiting to be interviewed for a documentary about Philip K. Dick. My mother is in front of the cameras right now, and since, as filmmakers and physicists agree, the process of being observed changes that which is being observed, I have taken myself off to blog. This is only the second time I’ve ever allowed myself to be interviewed about Philip (contrary to what the PKD estate claims on its fan forum), and the first on film, and I’m finding the process absolutely fascinating. Naturally, any procedure that encourages my mother to drive around Berkeley with a movie camera strapped to the hood of her truck gets my vote, but now I’m thinking that I should add a short chapter to the memoir about it, the observed observing the observers.

Okay, back to business, before I am called upon to reminisce again. I think taking on the Idol rejection reasons (see my post of October 31) one by one is being very fruitful, but heavens, there are a LOT of them, aren’t there? I’m moving through them as fast as I can. I’ve gotten a lot of great questions from readers while I have been going through them, matters about which I normally would have written a post right away, but I did not want to disrupt the Idol flow. I’m anxious to get back to them!

Today, I want to deal with the rejection reasons that did not fit comfortably into general categories — the odd ducks, as it were:

39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
60. The details included were not telling.

Shaking your head over the practically infinite subjectivity of this set? There’s a good reason for that: just as one agent’s notion of fresh is another’s idea of weird, one agent’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

And this is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality? (Which, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men.) Weren’t we all ordered to write what we knew? (Which led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle class white teenagers.) Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? (Which left us all sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.)

I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I? A quick survey of my fellow espresso-drinkers here in Berkeley reveals that most of them received similar advice in their formative writing years.

Unfortunately, from an agent’s point of view, all of the good students following this advice has led to a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. (See #6, took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story’s taking time to warm up, as well as #7, not enough action on page 1.) These opening scenes may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from a marketing professional’s perspective – and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent – such an opening translates into “hard to sell.”

And, to be perfectly frank, most of them simply do not have the time or the patience to read on to see what this story IS about. Remember that burnt-tongued unpaid intern whom I told you to channel last week? She might well be a few minutes late for her lunch date for the sake of a page of gorgeous prose, but if she doesn’t have an inkling of a plot by the end of it, she’s probably not going to ignore her stomach’s rumblings long enough to turn to page 2.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, this is not how it would work if I ran the universe. If I did, all good writers would be eligible for large, strings-free grants, photocopying would be free, and all of you would be able to share the particularly delicious pain au chocolat I am enjoying at this very moment. So gooey that the bereted gentleman (yes, really) at the wee round table next to me offered a couple of minutes ago to lick the chocolate off my fingers so I could readdress my keyboard in a sanitary manner.

The locals are very friendly, apparently. And very hygiene-minded.

This (the ordinariness of characters, that is, rather than licking chocolate off fingertips) is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. “An interesting character in an interesting situation” is in practically all of their personal ads on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOTA paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie. That sort of thing.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?) An interesting character is surprising, at some level: could you work an element of surprise onto page 1, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

One of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to raise the importance of what is going on in the opening for that character – which leads us nicely to critique #41, the stakes not being high enough. “Why should I care?” is an extremely common question for screeners to ask – and if the book opens with the protagonist in an emotionally-fraught or otherwise dangerous situation, that question is answered immediately.

Yet another reason, to revisit a topic from a few days ago, that too-typical teenage characters often fall flat for screeners: a character who is trying to be cool and detached from a conflict can often convey the impression that what is going on in the moment is not particularly important. But what’s more engaging than a protagonist who feels, rightly or wrongly, that what is going on before the reader’s eyes is the most important thing on earth right now? When the protagonist wants something desperately, that passion tends to captivate the reader.

It doesn’t always work to open with an honestly life-or-death situation, of course, but far too many novels actually don’t start until a few pages in. Seriously – it’s not at all uncommon to find a terrific opening line for a book on page 4 or page 10, or for scene #2 to be practically vibrating with passionate feeling, while scene #1 just sits there. (Again, I think this is a legacy of the heroic journey style of screenwriting, which dictates that the story open in the protagonist’s everyday reality, before the challenge comes.) Choosing to open with a high-stakes scene gives a jolt of energy to the reader, urging her to keep turning the pages.

Many, many writers want to keep something back, to play their best cards last, to surprise and delight the reader later on. But for very practical reasons, this is not the best strategy in a submission: if this Idol series has made anything clear, it is that you really do need to grab a professional reader’s attention on page 1.

#39, too many generalities, is a trap that tends to ensnare writers who are exceptionally gifted at constructing synopses. In a synopsis, it is very helpful to be able to compress a whole lot of action into just a few well-chosen words; it’s a format that lends itself to a certain amount of generalization. It is tempting, then, to introduce a story in general terms in the book itself, isn’t it?

So why do agents frown upon this practice? Well, it feels to them like the writer is warming up, rather than diving right into the story. The average fiction agent is looking for good, in-the-moment sensations on the first page, visceral details that will transport her quickly to the time and place your characters inhabit. The writer is the travel agent for that trip, and it’s your job to make the traveler feel she is actually THERE, rather than just looking at a movie or a photograph of the events described.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: too many writers rely too heavily on visuals. Sensual details sell. Or, to put it another way: doesn’t your protagonist have a NOSE?

Which segues very nicely into #60, the details included were not telling. The wonderful short-short story writer Amy Hempel once told me that she believes that the external world her characters inhabit is only relevant insofar as it illuminates the character’s mood or moves the plot along. I’m not sure I would put it quite so baldly, but I think there is a lot to this. If a protagonist is sad, I want to hear about the eucalyptus trees’ drooping leaves; if she is frenetic, my sense of her heartbeat will only be enhanced by the sound of cars rushing by her as she jogs. And, of course, if I’m going to be told about her shoes – which, I must confess, don’t interest me much as objects – they had better reveal something about her character.

Few good short story writers would think to take up space with unrevealing details, but even very good novelists frequently get bogged down in description for its own sake. (See the Idol list for abundant evidence that this is not the best strategy on page 1 of a book.) But if the description is peppered with revealing details, it is hard for it to feel extraneous to what is going on.

For instance, I could tell you that the café I currently inhabit is brightly-lit, with windows stretching from the height or my knee nearly up to the ceiling, small, round tables with red-varnished wooden chairs, and a pastry case full of goodies. A young and attractive barista is making the espresso machine emit a high-pitched squeal. I just held the door for a woman on crutches who was wearing a yellow rain slicker and a green scarf, and four of us here are working on laptops.

That description is accurate, certainly, but what did it tell you as a reader? I could be in virtually any café anywhere in the world; it is probably raining outside, but my reader does not know for sure; you don’t even know the sex of the barista.

But what if I told you that in order to work, I have had to turn my back to the glass doors keep sending fog-chilled blasts past my skirt as patrons shed their coats in the doorway? That gives you both seasonal detail and information about me: I am concentrating; I am wearing a skirt despite the cold weather; I am not expecting to meet anyone I know here. Or that the barista’s three-day stubble reminds me of a Miami Vice-loving guy I dated in college? That both describes the guy in my peripheral vision and tells the reader my age, in rough terms. Or that I am bouncing my leg up and down at roughly the same rate as the fresh-faced girl in sweats across the room, scowling into a sociology text book? That conveys both caffeine consumption and the fact that I’m near a university.

Get the picture?

Now how much more do you feel you are here with me if I add that the air is redolent with the smell of baking cheese bread, the oxtail soup of the flat-shoed retiree at the table next to me, and the acrid bite of vinegar wafting from her companion’s I’m-on-a-diet salad? What if I mention that I have been moving my cell phone closer and closer to me for the past 15 minutes, lest the clanking of cups, nearby discussions of Nancy Pelosi and the war in Iraq, and vintage Velvet Underground drown out my call to flee this place? What about if I tell you that the pony-tailed busboy currently unburdening the overflowing wall of meticulously-labeled recycling bins – a receptacle for glass, one for plastic, one for newspaper, one for cardboard, one for compostable products — a dead ringer for Bud Cort, of Harold & Maude fame, put down his volume of Hegel to attend to his duties, and ran his beringed hand across the Don Johnson clone’s back as he passed?

All of these details help set a sense of place, and of me as a character (rather nervous, I notice from these details; must be the coffee) within it.

All right, I’ve outstayed the beret-wearing finger-lover, so I am going to venture out onto the street now. My call may come at any minute, and I probably should not drink any more coffee.

Keep up the good work!

PS to Matthew: I answered your (very good) question via that same June comment; I try to respond to questions actually on the site as much as possible, so folks later reading those posts may see the response, too. I’m going to try to write a blog on the subject next week, too, though — I suspect that you’re not the only one in that particular boat!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VI: fabricated suspense and other ways to annoy an agency screener without really trying

Sorry I missed posting yesterday — an editing client had a last-minute deadline rush. I’ll do an extra-long post today, the kind that will more than make up for that unpaid overtime your boss made you work last week, to make up for it. (Oh, as if no one ever surfed the net at work. It’s what we Americans get instead of coffee breaks.)

Dealing with other people’s deadlines is just a fact of life in the freelance editing business, and, indeed, in the publishing world in general. Much to the chagrin of plan-ahead people like me, sudden “Oh, my God, I need it by Wednesday!” deadlines abound in the industry. The publishing world is a serious underwriter of overnight shipping.

So it seems like a good time to remind you, my friends: cultivate flexibility. And really fast-typing fingers. You’re going to need both in spades, if you’re going to stick around the industry for the long haul.

After my last post on opening paragraph problems, a reader was kind enough to pass along an amusing factoid, gleaned from a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer trivia spot: the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST apparently contains 98 words, seven commas, and three semicolons. Somehow, I doubt any of the Idol panelist agents would have made it even halfway through!

Speaking of the list of Idol rejection reasons, let’s get back to it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, please see my post for October 31.) Going over it is providing a lot of useful insights, isn’t it? More than I expected, I have to admit: the fact is, the first pages of our novels are not what writers tend to sit around and talk about when we get together. And all of us would like to think that an agent who liked our pitch or query well enough to request the first 50 pages would have the patience, if not the courtesy, to commit to reading at least the first 5 of those pages…

Ah, well, live and learn. I’m sure that some great cosmic record-keeper in the sky is keeping tabs on which side of the book-producing process is the more courteous. Go, Team Creative!

Today, I would like to concentrate upon the rejection reasons that have to do with how that latte-drinking, lunchtime date-awaiting, radically underpaid agency screener who is only doing this job for a few years to learn the business does and doesn’t get drawn into the story. (Yes, yes, I know: from a writer’s point of view, talking about how much a reader could possibly get pulled into a story between, say, line 2 and line 3 of page 1 is kind of ridiculous. Bear with me here.) Specifically, I would like to introduce you to the oft-cited concept of being pulled out of the story by something in it.

“Wha–?” I hear many of you cry.

Being pulled out of a story is industry-speak for when you are reading along, happily following a story line — and then you encounter something that you do not like. A jarring or anachronistic element, for instance, or an unexplained switch in perspective or tense; it is very much in the eye of the beholder. Whatever instigates it, the reader’s mind starts wandering off the storyline and onto other matters — usually, to the fact that this particular element is annoying and distracting.

Let me give you a concrete example, so you may recognize the phenomenon when you spot it in the wild: “Caleb Williams stood on the still-smoldering deck of Her Majesty’s Ship Wasp, contemplating the ruins of the ship that had sheltered him since he was a cabin boy. What had become of Beatrice, his long-suffering fiancée? He peered through the smoke, shouting for her, but the dying man clinging to his leg was slowing his search efforts considerably. Impatiently, he drew a Ginsu knife from his Georgio Armani tool belt and slit the man’s throat, so he could move forward unimpeded through the brine seeping up from below. Too soon, however, he tripped over a bloated mass floating before his knees: Beatrice, his heart cried, or just another bos’un’s mate?”

Okay, I know it was subtle, but was there a point where you stopped following Caleb’s saga, wondering for a nanosecond or two what the author was thinking? Yup. In that moment, you were pulled out of the story.

Universally, agents, editors, and their screeners cite being pulled out of the story as a primary reason to stop reading a submission on the spot. This is why, in case you’re curious, agents at conferences so often give the same tired suggestion for evaluating where to revise a novel: “Take a pen,” they advise, “or better yet, have a reader take a pen, and run it vertically down the side of the page as you read. Every time you look up, or your mind starts to wander, make a horizontal line on the page. Then, after you’ve finished reading, go back and revise any spot with a horizontal line.”

Now, in my rather lengthy editing experience, this does not work particularly well as a pre-revision technique; basically, all it spots are boring bits and places where you’re pulled out of the story, and it penalizes those of us who like to read our work in public places (Oh, yeah, like you don’t look up when someone cute walks by) or who live near firehouses. For a good revision, you need to pay attention to more than just flow.

However, it is an incredibly good way to try to see your submission from an agent’s point of view. Instead of drawing the horizontal line, however, just stop reading. Permanently.

Obviously, then, you would probably like to avoid including elements that will pull the reader out of the story on your first page. Here are the reasons on the Idol list most closely affiliated with this phenomenon:

16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph can be a long time).
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than with what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.

The last two, #28 and #29, are fairly self-explanatory, aren’t they? Basically, these are pacing problems: the agent wanted to find out what was going to happen with the story, but the narrative insisted upon describing every third cobblestone on the street first. (I’m looking at YOU, Charles Dickens!) Or the narrative gave too much background between pieces of action or dialogue (don’t you try to slink away, Edith Warton!), or our old bugbear, the narrative stopped the action cold in order to describe the room, what the protagonist is wearing, the fall of the Roman Empire, etc., in between showing the plot in action. (You know I’m talking to YOU, Victor Hugo!)

The others on the list are a trifle more subtle. Pop quiz, to see how good you are getting at thinking like an agency screener: what underlying objection do all of the remaining reasons have in common?

Give up? They all reflect a serious aversion to being tricked by a manuscript. While a casual reader might not object to early-on plot, structural, or naming choices that encourage him to guess what is going on, only to learn shortly thereafter — gotcha! — that those assumptions were wrong, an agent or editor is more invested in the storyline (and, arguably, dislikes being wrong more). So that gotcha! moment, instead of impressing them with how very clever the author is, tends merely to pull them out of the story.

And we all know what happens when that occurs, right? Straight back into the SASE for that submission. Moral of the story: folks in the industry like being right too much to enjoy being tricked.

Go ahead, have that inspiring axiom tattooed on your mousing hand, so you will never forget it. I’ll wait.

So why, given that your average agency screener loathes first-page bait-and-switches with an intensity that most people reserve for thermonuclear war and tax day, do so many writers elect to trick their readers early on? Unfortunately for our team, many of us were taught at impressionable ages that lulling the reader into a false sense of security, then yanking the rug out from under him, is a great format for a hook. It can work well later in a story, certainly, but as a hook, it tends not to catch many fishes at an agency, if you catch my drift. (My, I am being nautical today, amn’t I? Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!)

Mostly, though, I think most writers don’t think of these strategies as reader-tricking at all. Take, for instance, #27, opening the book with a flashback, rather than in the present reality of the rest of the book. Now, there might be many perfectly valid narrative reasons to do this, right? (A word to the wise: if you are going to flash back briefly first, don’t italicize the flashback to differentiate it from the rest of the text: most screeners will automatically skip over openings in italics, on the theory that they aren’t really germane to the opening scene.) You’re making an interesting commentary on the nature of human memory, perhaps: no one of at least average intelligence, you probably think, is at all likely to be tricked by this.

Not to cast aspersions on anyone in the industry’s smarts, but frankly, they just don’t see it this way, because — actually, no: you take a shot at thinking like a screener, for the practice. On your marks, take a sip of that scalding latte, and GO!

If it occurred to you that the screener might resent being drawn into the action of one scene (the flashback), then expected to switch gears to become involved in another (the present of the book), give yourself high marks. If you also thought that the screener might get a tad testy because, after getting comfortable in one timeframe (the flashback), the time shifts to the present of the book, give yourself extra credit. But really, if you came up with any flavor of, “Hey, this narrative tricked me! I hate that!” or “Hey, that switch pulled me out of the story!”, you’re doing pretty well.

Now that you’re getting the hang of it, figuring out the problem the screener would have with #19, an unnamed character (usually “she”) wandering around the opening scene, should be relatively simple. Here’s a hint: this one usually pulls the screener out of the story the second time the pronoun is used. Why?

Oh, you’re getting so good at this: a gold star to those of you who realized that what pulled the reader out of the story in this case is the reader’s own annoyance with the character’s not being identified by name. “Who is this chick?” the screener cries, eyeing her watch as her lunch date ticks ever-closer. “And why the heck can’t I know her name?”

Which brings me to the most popular reader-tricking tactic on the list, the creation of false suspense (also known as non-organic suspense, if you want to get technical) by the narrative’s withholding necessary information from the reader. Again, this can work as a long-term plotting strategy (and is one of the reasons that many novelists find maintaining tension easier in a first-person narrative, as the reader learns things at the same rate as the narrator, thus necessitating withholding information from the reader), but done too early in a book — in this case, on the first page — it can come across as a trick.

And we all know by now how agents and editors feel about those, right?

Again, in most submissions, tricking the reader is the farthest thing from the author’s mind: usually, she’s just trying to create a tense, exciting opening scene. Yet consider the following rejection reasons, and think how these well-meant tension-building techniques went awry:

16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something slimy in her shoes, something dead in the back seat of her car, a particularly hateful program on the TV set in the room…) for more than a paragraph without saying what the responded-to thing IS.
17. The characters talk about something (a book, another character, a recent trip one of them took to Antarctica, or, the most popular option of all, a recent trauma or disappearance) for more than a line without describing what the discussion topic IS.
20. Some salient-yet-crucial fact being kept from the reader for several paragraphs, such as the fact that the protagonist is on trial for his life or that Rosebud is a sled.

Place yourself in the tattered jeans of that agency screener, my friends, then chant along with me why all of these choices are problematic: they pull the reader out of the story, in order to wonder what IT is.

But that response — which is usually what the agent gives as a reason for rejecting tactics like these — tells only half the story. Engendering reader speculation can be a very good thing indeed, so what’s the real objection here? Simple: the agent fears that she is being set up to be tricked later on.

She doesn’t like that, you know; worrying about whether she is guessing right tends to pull her out of the story. Keep her in it as long as you possibly can — and keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part III: will someone hold this massive grain of salt for me?

The last couple of days’ posts have been kind of in-your-face, haven’t they? Sorry about that – it’s the nature of the beast, when the ruling out of submissions is the subject. It makes us all feel as if we’ve been mauled by wildebeests.

Still, there’s no need to despair: to succeed in this business, all you need to do is make your initial pages technically perfect, fresh without being weird, and not hit either any of the pet peeves listed on the Idol list (see Halloween post) or personal ones that the agent in question might have. Your characters need to be original, your premise interesting, and your plot riveting, beginning from Paragraph 1. Oh, and you need to be lucky enough not to submit your brilliant novel about an airline pilot on the day after the agent/screener/editorial assistant/editor has had his/her heart broken by one.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, my work is done here. Let me know how it all turns out!

Okay, so it’s not such a piece of cake: it’s a genuinely tall order, and a long list of don’t can be very, very intimidating. Before you throw up your hands in despair, let’s break down the Idol list of rejection reasons into bite-sized chunks.

The first thing to realize about this list of agents’ pet peeves is that some of them are, in fact, personal pet peeves, not necessarily industry-wide red flags. The trick is recognizing which ones. Right off the bat, a cursory glance at the list identified these as probably personal, rather than endemic:

15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life.
25. The first lines were dialogue.
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
37. The story is corny.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
46. The story is written in the second person.
47. The story is written in the first person plural.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.

How do I know these are not widely-shared rejection criteria? Well, experience, but also, critical analysis. Allow me to explain.

Before I start dissecting them, however, one caveat: just because these particular pet peeves are agent-specific does not mean that you should simply disregard them. If you are planning to submit to any of the agents on that particular panel, it would behoove you to take them very seriously indeed: one of the reasons that savvy writers go to conferences, after all, is to pick up information about the specific likes and dislikes of particular agents, right? Use this information strategically, to help target your queries and submissions to the agents most likely to enjoy your work.

When you’re listening to such a panel, there are a couple of signals that will alert you to something being an individual’s pet peeve, rather than a general rule. First — and this happens surprisingly frequently — the person uttering it will actually say, “Maybe it’s just my pet peeve, but…” or “It really bugs me when…” It’s a pretty safe bet that what is said next is a personal preference.

I know: it’s subtle.

Also — and this happened on the Idol panel — sometimes an agent will express an opinion, and the other agents will guffaw at him, fall over backwards in surprise, slap him across the face and tell him he’s an idiot, etc. Again, all of these are pretty good indicators that we’re not talking about a widely-recognized agency norm here.

Take, for instance, #25, when agent Daniel Lazar’s having flagged a submission because the first lines were dialogue. Now, this is a pretty sweeping criticism, isn’t it? A lot of very good books open with dialogue. So how did the people in the Idol audience know it was his pet peeve? Well, he began his critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but…” And after he said it, the agent sitting next to him turned to him and said, “Really?”

Starting to get the hang of this?

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if you’re your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it. Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

This can be very, very tough for writers who have just spent a small fortune on a conference, pitched to five agents, and had requested materials rejected to do. Yet at even the best conference, no group of agents small enough to fit in the same room, much less on the same panel, are a representative sample of how the entire industry will react to your work. I know it’s discouraging, but it just doesn’t make statistical sense to throw up one’s hands after a single round of rejections.

To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for an agent to submit a client’s work to as many as 50 different editors. If #48 says yes, that’s a win, just as surely as if #1 did. Should you really be any less tenacious in marketing your book to agents than you would expect your agent to be in marketing it to editors?

Now that you know why it is so important to differentiate between what you absolutely must change on your first page and what you should change for a particular agent’s eyes, let’s go back to our list of rejection reasons. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Why is that particular one problematic?” Often, the most obvious answer will be that it’s the agent’s personal opinion.

Let’s apply this test to #15, the opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. On the panel, Rachel Vater cited this reason quite often, but neither of the other agents mentioned it. (Did that make your personal-preference antennae perk up, campers?) She gave those who were listening another clue: a couple of times, she cast this objection as, “Well, I’VE never done what the character does here…” Ding ding ding!

Even if she had not been kind enough to flag this as a personal preference, we probably could have figured it out. In this context, she specifically singled out a character who shook his head to clear an image or bring himself back to reality, as in, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.” Now, as an editor, I do have to admit, this is an action that one sees occur with GREAT frequency in manuscripts; in fact, I suspect one could make a pretty good case without trying very hard for labeling it as a cliché.

However, this is not how the rejection reason was phrased, was it? No, it was cast as “this is something a normal person would not do.” Unless we’re talking about psychopathic behavior, a statement like this is almost certainly based upon personal experience. Everyone’s opinion of normal is different.

So what this critique is really saying is, “People in my circles and from my background don’t do such things.” Fine; good to know: now we can target the submission away from the agent who cannot imagine doing such a thing and toward an agent who can.

Getting the hang of this yet?

The same logic test can be applied, with the same result, to #33 (agent can’t identify with the conflict shown, which is obviously based upon personal taste) and #37 (the story is corny, which must be based upon the observer’s background and worldview). Note the preference, and move on to the next agent.

If you get the same response from a few different agents, it might be worth a second look at your opening pages for plausibility. For the sake of your future success, it is probably worth bearing in mind that an awfully high percentage of agents and editors are from upper-middle clad backgrounds, and thus graduated from rather similar English departments at rather similar liberal arts colleges, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. Their brothers (and sisters) dated one another’s sisters (and brothers). If you can’t imagine reading from such a point of view, it might behoove you to find a first reader who can, to subject your manuscript to the Minor Ivy Plausibility Test.

The personal preference test, believe it or not, can also be applied to reasons associated with voice choice. Yes, I know: since it’s a technical matter, it seems as though rules should govern whether it’s acceptable, right? Not really. There are plenty of agents and editors who don’t like the first person voice much, and, as we saw on the list, other voices may raise hackles: 46. The story is written in the second person; 47. The story is written in the first person plural. What could such statements be OTHER than personal preferences?

#48 (the narrator speaks directly to the reader, making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story) is also a personal preference about narrative voice, albeit a more subtle one: for some readers, including the agent who cited this rejection reason, a first-person narration that breaks the third wall is jarring, a distraction from the story. However, there are plenty examples of published books that have used this device to great comic or dramatic effect: I would not send the agent that expressed this preference THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, for instance.

Now, I suspect that those of you intrepid souls out there devoted enough to literary experimentation to write a narrative in the first person plural (like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) or second person (like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY) are probably already aware that your work will not be to everyone’s taste, any more than excellent fantasy writing will be to the taste of an agent who prefers hard-bitten realism. But this doesn’t mean that the experiment isn’t worth trying, is it? Just choose your querying targets accordingly.

I should wrap up for today, but before I do, I want to take a quick run at another group of reasons, #42 (the opening scene is too violent), #43 (the opening scene is too gross), and #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). The first two are obviously in the eye of the beholder: a quick look at any bookstore will tell you that there is no shortage of violent material. So it can’t possibly be an industry-wide rule, right?

However, pay close attention when an agent draws a line about this: this is not an agent to query with a violent piece, and he’s doing the people who write violent pieces a favor by being up front about it. (For instance, an agent who asks that I do not mention him here — see post of May 10, 2006 for explanation — routinely tells conference attendees not to send him children-in-peril stories; he doesn’t like them.) Do be aware that although most of us have had writing teachers beat into our brains that a story needs an opening hook, to draw the reader in, it is possible to go to far.

And because 99% of the writers out there have had this advice beaten into their brains, too, agents see a LOT of shocking things on first pages. A super-violent opening scene, then, will not necessarily make your submission unique.

Which is why I slipped in #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). Yes, this is a matter of personal preference — how much violence is too much and how much is just right is in the eye of the beholder, just as much as ideal porridge temperatures were on the tongues of the Three Bears — but this one happens to be a preference that at LOT of editors share, and for good reason: it can be very hard to market a book that features a lot of violence against wee ones. And don’t even get me started about how hard it would be to sell a cozy mystery with a dead cat in it…

My overall point has, I hope, become clear. Everyone chant together now: “Never kill off the detective’s pet kitty.”

Well, yes, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb, but I was really thinking of a broader point about submission and conference lore: not everything that pops out of an expert’s mouth should be regarded as a hard-and-fast rule. Use your judgment, or you might end up staggering under the weight of such a heap of pronouncements that you’ll be terrified of breaking a rule every time you sit down at your keyboard.

I’ll try to demystify more of the Idol rejection reasons tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!