Getting the feedback you need, Part VII: setting the ground rules

Yesterday, I horrified the masses by taking an in-depth gander at that most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript – then keeps it forever and a day. I may be harping on it a little, but I have my reasons: although one occasionally encounters advice in writing manuals about whom to avoid as a feedback giver (it varies, but the universal no-no: spouses, significant others, POSSLQs, and anyone else who has ever spent any time in the writer’s bedroom other than to make the bed), I’ve never seen this problem discussed elsewhere, or heard it solved by a writing guru at a conference.

And this is a shame, I think, because it’s a genuinely difficult situation for the writer, the kind of experience that can make good writers swear off seeking reader feedback forever. But a writer needs feedback, and not all of us have the luxury of a well-read, genre-appropriate writers’ group meeting within a couple of miles of our domiciles, or the time to join it if one does exist. So think of this as a survival manual for trekking through the feedback wilderness.

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding a Gladys outcome. (For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, Gladys is the aforementioned remiss friend who turns your manuscript into a doorstop). Observing Tip #8 — making sure up front that the reader has time soon to read your work — and Tip #10 — ascertaining that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do, and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book – may cost you a few potential readers, but being scrupulous on these points will both reduce the probability of your being left without usable feedback and help you hold the moral high ground if your Gladys starts to dither as the weeks pass.

How does one set these ground rules in conversation, you ask, without sounding like a taskmaster? First off, take her out to coffee or lunch to discuss it (remember, she’s under no obligation to help you out here), and second, don’t save the discussion until you are about to hand the manuscript to her. Schedule it as soon as possible after Gladys has agreed to read your work – but not so soon that you haven’t had a chance to come up with a short, preferably written, description of what you would like your first reader to do to your manuscript.

Include in this list HOW you would like to receive feedback. Verbally? Writing in the margins? A separate sheet of paper? A Post-It™ note on every page where the story flags? Also, what level of read are you seeking? Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers), or just ignore spelling errors?

This level of specificity may seem a tad schoolmarmish, but having the list on hand will make the discussion easier on both you and Gladys, I promise. The catch: once you have made this list, you have an ethical obligation to stand by it; no fair calling Gladys up in the middle of the night after you get the manuscript back, howling, “How could you not have caught that the pages were out of order?”

While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. Or six weeks – you choose, but try not to make it much less or much more. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript without sleepless nights, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it. The point here is to select a mutually-comfortable date that is NOT on top of one of your own deadlines for getting work out the door.

I cannot emphasize this last point enough. If you are working on a tight deadline – say, to pick one out of a hat, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks – it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to use the feedback. (Actually, most freelance editors would charge extra for a turn-around time this short.) If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it, regard it as a great favor.

But if you thrust Gladys into that position, don’t be surprised if you never hear from her again. It’s stressful. Pick a reasonable deadline, one far enough from any imminent deadlines of your own that you will not freak out if she needs to go a week or two over.

If she gives you feedback after the agreed-upon date (you will explain kindly), while you will naturally still value Gladys’ opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it into the book before your next submission. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem. If Gladys hesitates at all, remind her that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice (even if she wasn’t), you do have others lined up (even if you don’t).

Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed. By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped. (If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity – a very common motivation – she will have realized it by now.) Set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back. Promise to take her out to lunch or to bring her chocolates – after all, she’s been doing you a big favor.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months.

Or four. Or a year.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. By taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating her with respect. If you respect Gladys’ opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. It is your job to inform her.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends – by others and by yourself. The more seriously you take it, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become. In my next post, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to get answers to problems you already know exist in the book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part IV: sometimes, you just need an accountant

‘Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world enjoy its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

For those of you joining this series late – because you have, say, lives or family and friends who might conceivably like to see you during the holidays – since neither now or immediately after the New Year are particularly good times to query or submit (half the writers in North America’s New Year’s resolutions include some flavor of, “Send queries immediately!” This leads to very, very grumpy screeners between Jan. 2 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.), this is an excellent time to get feedback, so you can revise between now and February’s submissions and contest entries. (Don’t worry, those of you who are eyeing the PNWA’s contest deadline nervously: my next series will be on contest entries.)

On Christmas Eve (hey, professional writers seldom get holidays; I wrote for hours yesterday, because I’m currently on a tight deadline), I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might not currently be die-hard book-buyers. Tip #5 is essentially different than Tip #3, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. Potential readers in your target audience may not yet have read a book like yours, however, may — for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent — need desperately to get their paws on your work.

Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously, then, can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source. If you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic, that’s a great selling point (and a more or less necessary point in any NF book proposal). Feedback from these types of people will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal.

Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise – a rather large slice of the population, I would imagine. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, because you paid attention to Tip #3, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books.

However, it would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. If you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.

Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?

Word to the wise: if you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the best last reader for your work before you submit it to an agent.

As an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s. In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may be minimal, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity and add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.

Where I would publish all of you, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.

As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?

If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.

Which leads me to Tip #6: solicit MULTIPLE first readers, not just one – and let your first readers know that each is one of several.

Unless you are dealing with a seasoned professional (such as yours truly), asking a single person, however well-qualified, to give you feedback loads too much weight onto every critical grunt and positive eye gleam. It’s intimidating to the reader, and thus usually harmful to the quality of the feedback. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, many otherwise conscientious folks placed in this position panic: one will drop the book like a live coal the instant they spot a grammatical problem, another will spend a week straight filling your margins with soul-searing arguments against the way you’ve chosen to tell the story.

Besides, your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader? Which brings me to:

Tip #7: Find different readers to meet your book’s different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. I, for instance, am no fan of golf (I dislike plaid in virtually all of its manifestations), and thus would be a terrible first reader for a book about any of its multifarious aspects – but my buddy Mary, who has written a terrific musical called FAIRWAYS currently gracing your better country clubs across the nation, would probably eat it up. Yet we’re both inveterate readers and writers with long histories of giving excellent feedback. (This should NOT be construed as my urging you to send her your golfing manuscripts, incidentally.)

Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal – although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character – I know a lot of teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.

And so forth. Specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude.

More tips follow tomorrow, of course. A heads-up to folks with questions on these and other matters: I may be a bit slower than usual getting back to you over the next couple of weeks. As some of you already know (especially those of you who were within complaining distance of me at any of last week’s many seasonal festivities), an editor at a major publishing house has asked me to revise a novel of mine fairly extensively between now and a mid-January editorial meeting. (For those of you who have been keeping track, this is the second such requested revision within the last three months.) Obviously, this task is sucking up most of my time and attention at the moment. But don’t despair: I shall get to your questions and comments as soon as I can.

Happy Boxing Day, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need — and deserve

Given that from now until after the last New Year’s hangover has receded into memory is a publishing world dead zone, a time of internal reassessment when query letters are seldom read, to be followed by the annual avalanche of New Year’s resolution query letters in January, now is a lovely time to take a break from querying. It’s a great time to be revising your own work with an eye to sending it out afresh to agents, editors, and conferences, to clear it of those little gaffes that make you smack yourself in the head when you catch them AFTER the submission’s in the mail.

It’s revision time, boys and girls.

This, I know, will make some of my long-term readers giggle. When, you may well be wondering, does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?

Yes, yes, I am the high priestess of manuscript perfection, but as I find it a trifle difficult to believe that anyone who has been reading this blog for a while isn’t aware by now WHY I preach that particular gospel, I shan’t explain again. But I shall reiterate: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

In this effort, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors – mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re – and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.”

Spell check, by all means, but I implore you, do not let that be your only means of proofreading. There is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a printed page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as any editor will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, making you skip an error.

Yes, even if you have a simply massive computer screen – this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at the text. It is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits – most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in automatic turndowns from professionals. Like misspelling your own name or address on the title page – which happens more than you might think.

Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. The result: for many writers, the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who followed me through the November list of rejection reasons know, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Not, in any case, feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions.

Select wisely your first reader wisely, preferably another writer, rather than a friend, lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member. Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs.

No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Since holiday time is notorious for prompting one’s relatives to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” I thought this might be a good moment to remind you of this unfortunate fact. The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity – and no, smart people are not exempt from this rule. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Nor should they have to, really. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Gladys says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no. Do it politely, of course: “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by a professional editor that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Gladys, but I have a writing group for feedback – what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies – and are often expected to use those for promotion – it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Get Aunt Gladys used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Promise to sign it for her instead.

But I digress. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; if a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work, the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right.

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

However, Iuntil you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN YOUR GENRE. (No matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.) However, not all of us have those kinds of connections or resources. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field. (And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first.)

In a pinch, you can always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and uses “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” – its time-honored meaning – AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne…unless you have a serious death wish.)

In tomorrow’s post, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (If you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.) Until then, keep up the good work!

Get your characters into the game!

My, how conducive having one’s computer out of the house is to intensive reading:  even during the last few days’ power outages, I have been spending much of my time huddled by a window or endangering my eyebrows by bending over a sputtering candle, in an effort to throw enough light upon my book.  I’ve been feeling like Abraham Lincoln, studying in his log cabin.

Windstorms, the source of the recent, lengthy power outages in my neck of the woods, were very common in the small vineyard town where I grew up.  (A child’s living a mile and a half from the nearest potential non-sibling playmate is also very conducive to intensive reading, as it turns out.)  Wind-toppled live oaks took out fences, garages, etc, all the time.  Consequently, I always know where my candles are, and how to find the matches in the dark.

When I was a senior in high school, one especially salutary windstorm brought a tree branch down upon the object I hated most in the world:  the 20-foot-high sign that I, as the luckless Commisioner of Publicity and Assemblies (the things we’ll do for college application candy, eh?) was doomed to mount with a ladder every week to post notices of upcoming football games, musicals, spelling bees, and other events not likely to be of interest to the tourists driving along Highway 29, searching for wineries with offering free tastings.  The morning after the storm, the sign was such a mangled mess that I could not even wrest most of the hand-high metal letters off it.

Gravity is sometimes a very lovely thing.  It took weeks for the school to erect a replacement sign.

That was not the only miracle that occured during that particular windstorm.  Another occured at the religious retreat center just outside of town. (Or, to be accurate, at ONE of the religious retreat centers, the establishment owned by the same church that until fairly recently owned a monk-administered winery in town, not the Moonie encampment or the former commune inhabited by a guru who, a few short years later, would abscond to Tahiti with most of the ashram’s money and one of his youngest devotees.) A charming clearing in the midst of a thicket of oak and eucalyptus trees housed a marble statue of — well, let’s just say Somebody’s Mother.  The morning after the sign-destroying windstorm, the tidying groundsman walked into the clearing to discover that four trees had fallen into it. 

Somebody up there must be awfully fond of statuary, or at least like it a whole lot better than garages, for all four missed Good Ol’ Mom by a matter of inches.

I’ve thinking of that pale little statue over the last couple of days, just standing there, pensively witnessing the carnage around her, helpless to do anything to save herself from falling timber — and not just because of the windstorms.  No, she popped to mind as an exemplar of a common companion issue submissions with my last post’s Manuscript Megaproblem (show, don’t tell) often have as well:  the protagonist who remains passive in the midst of plot-moving action and/or character-revealing conflict, merely observing it.

Or, to put it in the language of the Idol rejection reasons (see October 31rst’s post, if that reference means nothing to you), that little statue was afraid to speak; she opened his mouth, but nothing came out; she didn’t trust herself enough to reply; she sat there, waiting for the information to sink in. All of these phrases are common enough signposts of a passive protagonist that, as we saw on the Idol rejection, they are now regarded as cliches in their own right.

This is not to say that passivity does not frequently occur in real life — it undoubtedly does.  TV, sports, and movies have certainly encouraged us all to be mere observers of life around us. But that doesn’t mean that it will work on the printed page. 

In fact, it usually doesn’t.  A protagonist who is more of an observer than a doer can slow a novel’s pace down to a crawl — and in the early pages of a submission, a plot’s not maintaining at least a walking pace can be fatal. 

And the sad thing is, writers seldom make their protagonists passive on purpose, any more than they tend to wake up in the morning, stretch, and say, “You know, I think that I should be telling rather than showing in my writing today!”

Here’s how it usually happens in otherwise solid, well-writen submissions.  The writer has established the protagonist as an interesting character in an interesting situation — well done.  The protagonist encounters a thorny problem that requires thought or discussion to solve.  (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So the protagonist dons her proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, she’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting.  Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred.  Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.


Or the protagonist encounters another character, one with whom there is genuine, organic conflict — again, well done.  But instead of speaking up, the protagonist just THINKS about how annoying/wrong/murderous the other character is, effectively deferring the conflict to another scene.  So instead of the protagonist’s anger/rightness/suspicions fueling the scene in a way that moves the plot along, the protagonist watches as the plot moves past him.

Um, shouldn’t the protagonist have caught that bus?

In both cases, action happens TO these characters, rather than the characters’ passions influencing the action, driving the plot along.

Agents, editors, contest judges, and even members of book groups complain frequently and vociferously about passive protagonists —  and as an editor, it’s a pet peeve of mine, too, I must admit.  I suspect this feeling is shared is shared by many bloggers:  for every thousand readers of a post, perhaps 4 or 5 post comments — and of those, at least two are commercial links to other websites. As a result (and if you visit many writers’ sites on the web, you’ve probably already noticed this), bloggers tend over time to gear their content to the responders more than to the more passive members of their readerships.

If a blogger posts in the middle of the woods, and nobody responds, did the post make any noise? 

But I digress. Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to being mere observers: life happens to them, and they react to it.  Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again!  How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, agents, editors, and contest screeners are not noted for being fond of reading for pages and pages to find out where the plot is taking them.  Try to avoid toying with their impatience for too long.  Remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat:  true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

When in doubt about how long is too long, ask yourself this:  is there something my protagonist could DO here, however small or misguided, that would affect the status quo?  If I had him do it, would the part where he thinks/talks/worries about the situation for X lines/pages/paragraphs be necessary, or could I cut it?

I hear some grumbling out there (we bloggers have to develop superhuman hearing in order to hear those of you who don’t post comments, you know):  yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time. 

But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this:  how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?  Written by first-time novelists?  Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many?  If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists.  They see beautiful writing where not much happens more than you might think.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an agent out there who would be fascinated by a well-written, first-person narrative from the point of view of that little marble statue in the middle of that wooded retreat.  Her thoughts as she stood there, motionless, as hundred-year-old oaks crashed down around her might well be priceless.  However, at some point, even the most patient agent — or editor, or contest judge, or screener — is going to want her to get the heck off her static pedestal and DO something.

Tomorrow (or whenever the local windstorms allow me the necessary electricity to post again), I shall talk about how to tell if your protagonist needs to get a more on.  In the meantime, watch out for falling trees, everybody, and keep up the good work!


Details, details…

There’s nothing like trying to write on somebody else’s computer set-up to make you understand the value of ergonomics, is there?  While my beloved laptop is in the shop, I’m working on the system of a kind soul who is 6’2″, and boy, does his workstation reflect it.  I’m not tiny, certainly, but women whose genes hail from small Mediterranean islands inhabited primarily by goats and basil are not infinitely stretchable, after all.

No matter what your cheapskate boss has been telling you:  it’s bad for the human body to type in a workstation designed for a much larger body.  Or a much smaller one.  If you have to look down to see your computer screen, for instance, rather than straight ahead, it is absolutely predictable that your neck is going to start taking exception to it after a while.

Fortunately, I know a good chiropractor, one who deals often with writers and other computer-users stuck in ergonomically trying situations.  (Yet another potentially tax-deductable business expense for those who file Schedule Cs as writers; ask your tax advisor about it.  You see, I’m already thinking ahead to April for you.)  It would, however, probably be a better investment (and equally tax-deductable) for a serious writer to hire an ergonomics expert for an hour or two to personalize the workstation, to eliminate problems before they start.

Maybe, if you ask nicely, Santa will stick an ergonomist in your stocking this year.  I’ve certainly asked Santa for stranger things.

I seldom plug products here (in fact, I think this may be the first time I’ve done it), but if you use a laptop, or even a computer with a detachable keyboard, and you think Santa might be, well, persuadable, Levenger carries a floating keyboard/laptop desk that’s adjustable to absolutely the perfect height for anyone.  This desk positively saved my wrists when I had repetitive strain injuries — I rely upon it so heavily that I once had it shipped to an artists’ colony where I was shortly to be in residence, because I couldn’t imagine writing for a whole month without it.  (For those with less blandishable Santas, Levenger also carries good, not-very-expensive lapdesks, for those who prefer to work on their laptops in easy chairs.)

Enough about furniture.  On to gloating:  one of my dissertation editing clients just passed her doctoral exams today.  Congratulations, Pam!

Writing a dissertation is a tremendous exercise in rule-following:  every margin, every footnote has to conform with an absolutely inflexible set of formatting rules.  (Sound familiar?)  And, to make the process more exciting, dissertators are frequently not TOLD what these rules ARE until after they’ve already taken their books through several professor-reviewed drafts — and sometimes not until after the final draft has been approved.  It is not unheard-of, for instance, for a dissertation to be rejected at the last minute because its maps were on the wrong kind of paper, or its bibliography was in the wrong format.

Admit it:  doesn’t it make you feel just the teensiest bit better to hear that there are luckless souls out there whose pages are given even tighter scrutiny than agency screeners give yours?

If it does, then the final stage of the disseration process should make you feel downright lucky.  Picture this:  after jumping through every other hurdle to earn a doctorate (and there are plenty, believe me), the dissertation-writer is forced to sit in a room with a fiend incarnate who flips through the dissertation in front of the writer, searching for minute formatting flaws.  If even a single one is found, BOOM, back it goes to the writer for revisions.  Diplomas have been known to mold, or even crumble into dust, during such revisions.

You, however, do not have to be in the room when minions of nit-picky powers pore over your manuscripts, looking to find reasons to reject them: you merely have to live with the results.  And because you do, and because PLENTY of good manuscripts, like well-argued dissertations, get rejected on technicalities, I am going to walk you once again through the rigors of standard manuscript format.

Stop groaning, long-term readers; I know I did it only a couple of months ago.  But contest-entry season will shortly be upon us, and since the publishing industry is more or less shut down until after New Year’s, anyway, what better time to make sure YOUR work does not suffer from these common maladies?

So, for those of you who do not already know: standard manuscript for manuscripts is NOT the same as standard format for books, and agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not). In either case, an improperly-formatted manuscript seldom gets a fair reading by the aforementioned cabal of literary power.  In fact, improperly-formatted manuscripts are often not read at all.

Why? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Don’t give ‘em half a chance. The more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by people within the industry. Period.

Don’t be surprised if not all of these rules are familiar to you:  my extended family has been writing professionally since the 1930s, and there were a couple of them that were news to me when I first started submitting.  I, for one, don’t think it’s fair to judge writers by standards that are not widely known, any more than it’s fair to judge a dissertation’s success by the width of its margins.  But I, as I believe I have mentioned once or twice before, do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Those of you who have lived through my harping on them before, please do not skip over the rest of this post.  I promise, you will learn something new this time around.  These restrictions honestly do need to sink into your blood, so you won’t make a mistake someday when you’re in a hurry.

A word to the wise:  the more successful you are as a writer, the more often you will be in a hurry, generally speaking.  No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable.  Santa Claus himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on flying reindeer.  (If that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your agent-speak.)

(1) All manuscripts must be typed in black ink and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise. No ecru paper, no off-white.  Yes, it can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason that bright white paper tends to be taken more seriously:  very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.  You’d be amazed at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions.

So make sure your printer cartridge is relatively full, okay?

Why the heavier paper? Well, they won’t reject you outright for this, but it’s prudent.  A submission often passes through three or four hands in the course of its road to acceptance — often more, at a large agency or publishing house. Lower-quality paper will wilt after a reading or two; 20-lb or better will not.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page (unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise).
Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the millions of pages of submissions that run through the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; the only reason agencies started accepting e-mailed queries at all was because of the anthrax-in-envelopes scare. (I swear I’m not making that up.)

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be given seven hours each week more than other mortals, free domestic help, and a freshly-baked pie on Truman Capote’s birthday every year. But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe, we all just have to live with the status quo.

The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

(3) The text should be left-justified ONLY.
A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.  These are not mandatory, but experience has shown that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously.
Translation:  a manuscript in one of these typefaces looks more professional to agents and editors than the same manuscript in other typefaces.

The industry’s affection for these plain, not-too-pretty fonts, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, is a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in only two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent, 10 letters per inch) and elite (Times; 12 letters per inch).

If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

Don’t run that risk.

(5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and size.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, INCLUDING YOUR TITLE PAGE.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term in the industry for title pages with 24-point fonts and fancy typefaces. 

It’s “high school book report.”

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.
You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in bold.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.  The first page of the first chapter is page 1.
Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.”   It is generally an automatic rejection offense, in fact.

Why do they hate it so much? Gravity, my friends, gravity. Because manuscripts are not bound, and they have been known to get dropped from time to time.  Trust me, no one currently working within any aspect of the publishing industry is going to be willing to waste twenty minutes figuring out from context which unnumbered page you wanted to follow which.

The standard way to paginate is in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page…about which, see point 8.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/page #.

Colorful term, isn’t it?  But it doesn’t have anything to do with the beasties wiggling around in your flower beds: in typesetter jargon, a slug is a 30-character collection of type, bound together for multiple uses. (See?  I told those of you who had gone through this list before that you’d learn something new.) 

If you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep it to that 30-character limit (yes, I know, printing isn’t done this way anymore, but we’re talking about a very tradition-bound industry here).  For example, my latest novel is entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces.  Since my last name is short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:


If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters, including dash, I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

Most professional slug lines are left-justified (i.e., in the upper-left margin), but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. Just make sure that it is not much longer than 30 characters in length, andAnd the header, for those of you who don’t know (hey, I’m trying to cram as much information into this as possible), is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

Whoa, I got so carried away trying to cram new and interesting information into this list that this post is becoming positively Dickensian in length.  More rules of standard format follow tomorrow.

Keep up the good work!


As I lay dying…or at least as my hard drive did…

A requiem, please, for my computer’s (well backed-up, thank goodness) hard drive:  after days of clinging valiantly to life (and occasionally allowing me access to e-mail), it succumbed this morning to the fate that awaits us all.  A well-deserved rest, certainly: many, many manuscripts — my own, members of my writing groups’, and editing clients’ — have passed over its faithful screen.  It had a lot of miles on it, both literally and figuratively.

Farewell, old friend.  You had a better memory than I did, Gunga Din.

Which means, among other things, that I won’t be able to get back into the files containing the blogs I had stored up for you for another week or two, when the necessary parts arrive (perhaps from the North Pole Apple store, where Santa presumably shops for iPods) to install.  Thus, I need to put those potential posts out of my mind for the time being, because trying to recreate them from scratch will only end in tears, and just move on to other topics.

Actually, it’s been fascinating to watch myself NOT being on a computer full-time for the last few days — over the past couple of years, it’s truly an anomoly.  Not only do I have work in my head that I want to see on a screen, but my body keeps gravitating toward my studio, and not, I think, merely because it’s the room with the full-spectrum lights. Every part of me wants to be writing again.

(I had told you about that trick, hadn’t I?  If you’re having trouble getting yourself to write in the winter months — a VERY common phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest – stock your writing space with full-spectrum lights, and your body will be happier there on a gray day than anywhere else in the house.  Don’t be surprised to find your pets drawn to the room, too.)

Writing honestly does become a body habit, if you do it consistently, just like drinking 8 glasses of water per day or exercising regularly. Once your brain accepts that you will be sitting down to do creative work at predictable intervals, it can get pretty nonplused if it misses a session or two.  Think about it:  who is more depressed than a writer who has no time to finish a novel that’s already complete in her head?

Of course, I’ve known writers who can binge-write successfully — that is, walk away from their projects for large periods of time, then lock themselves up in a cave for a month and crank out chapter after chapter before the next long hiatus — but in my experience, predictable, regular bouts of writing tend to lead to less writer’s block, as well as more consistently-met deadlines. 

Why?  Well, if you save up all of your writing energies, as many aspiring writers do, for when you have big chunks of time to devote to it, you raise your expectations pretty high, and that can lead to performance-anxiety-induced writer’s block.  “Oh, no!” your beleagured psyche thinks, “this is my only writing day in three months!  I just have to make up for all that lost time!” 

Pretty good prescription for panic, isn’t it?

If, on the other hand, you have proven to your psyche over time that (a) you do not need to write an entire chapter in a single writing session, and (b) that you will sit down to write again tomorrow, or the next day, or at the same time next week, your brain is a lot less likely to go into stress overload.  If tomorrow honestly is another writing day, when you’re blocked, you can afford to spend today’s writing time brainstorming.

But writer’s block is not what I wanted to discuss today.  My psyche — nay, every fiber of my being — longed to sit down today and talk to you about the common writing mistake that gives the impression of too many things happening simultaneously.

I refer, of course, to the extremely popular construction, “As Protagonist was doing X, action Y occurred.”

Naturally, there are many situations where this construction is perfectly valid:  during the Civil War, President Lincoln was assassinated, for instance.  As one is opening a car door, one could conceivably also be humming a jaunty tune.  And so forth.  Singly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of sentence.

The problem, to the eyes of those of us who read many, many manuscripts in any given week, is not so much the fact that so many writers are extremely fond of this construction as the FREQUENCY with which any given author tends to use it in any given manuscript.  Or in any given chapter.  Or, in many cases, in any given paragraph.

Seriously, I’ve seen paragraphs that have consisted of NOTHING but “As X was happening, Y occurred” sentences.  Why is this problematic?  As with any over-repeated sentence structure, it can become pretty tiring for the reader.  Take a gander at this sterling example of the breed:

Jenny was plowing the back forty when Gertrude came running out of the house, screaming.  As Jenny descended from the still-purring tractor, she wondered what her sister wanted.  Before she had reached the end of the furrow, Gertrude was already shouting orders.  Jenny threw her arms around her to stop the flow of words, saying, “Gertie, what’s happened?”

Now, a non-professional reader might not find this construction repetitious:  after all, it’s not as though every sentence begins with the same phrase.  However, agents, editors, and contest judges, who see masses and masses of prose, tend to regard the over-use of this type of construction as a sort of back-handed writing trick to increase the tension of a scene.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now:  how much do agents and editors like to be tricked?  Not much at all.

So, those of you who survived the entire Idol rejection reason series (see post of October 31):  how wise do you think it would be to use more than one of these constructions on the first page of your submission?

It is very, very common for books to begin with such a sentence.  Haven’t we all seen some flavor of, “As the fire roared behind her, reducing her childhood home to charred bits of rubble, Tatiana stood dry-eyed” open books, both published and unpublished?  Presented singularly, followed by a differently-structured sentence, there is nothing wrong with this sort of opening, of course.

But remember that agency screener I asked you to conjure for the Idol series, the one scanning 300 submissions per week on an intern’s salary?  Okay, now picture her reaction to reading her 23rd first page of the day that begins, “As X was happening, Protagonist did Y.” 

Not pretty to imagine her impatience, is it? Now channel her again, and sit in her uncomfortable desk chair, the one located under the bad fluorescent lighting, and experience her reaction to the 8th submission that day that opens with three or four similar sentences in a row. 

To place her probable reaction within this construction:  as Tanya’s bloodshot eyes fell upon the dreaded sentence yet again, her too-hot latte seemed to curdle in her stomach.  Before she had reached the end of the first paragraph, she was already reaching for the SASE to return it to its author.  “Why me?” she demanded of an apparently deaf universe, as she sealed the envelope and the author’s doom in one swift swipe of her tongue.

Okay, okay, I concede that it would be a pretty good trick to say anything out loud whilst licking an envelope.  But I do not admit for a second that this particular rejection wasn’t avoidable.  While you are revising, keep an eye on how frequently you have used this type of sentence:  in the long run, you will be happy you did.

Yet another rejection reason it would be nice if agents and editors happened to mention a little more often.  As my computer lay dying, I thought it might be a good time to bring it up.

Keep up the good work!


Make back-ups now!

Grr and grr again, campers:  there I was, minding my own business (and my clients’), when a not-very-computer-savvy friend of mine asks if he can use my computer to transfer the contents of his holiday music collection (immense) to his brand-new IPod.  Well, the next thing I know, my computer is in the shop, my friend is begging my forgiveness — and I don’t have access to the blog post I had already written for today!

So I am writing this from elsewhere, on an unfamilar keyboard, one of those so-called ergonomic jobs that actually encourage nerve problems by providing a wrist rest that more or less requires a bent wrist to use.  (Yes, yes, I know:  you’re not supposed to rest your wrists on a wrist rest while you’re typing, only in between bursts of literacy.  But since I would need to have the chest and arm muscles of Conan the Barbarian to make using this angled keyboard comfortable, I foresee wrist-resting in my future.) 

I am writing while I am in a superlately annoyed mood, absolutely the wrong time to give any advice whatsoever to anyone.  Except this:  make back-ups of your work as frequently as possible. 

As in more than once in a blue moon.  Since I have a technology-suspicious disposition, I back up my hard drive every other day.  My geek friends laugh at me about that, but at times like this, it pays off.  (Unfortunately, I hadn’t done a back-up since writing what was supposed to be today’s blog, so it may be gone forever.)

I learned the value of compulsive back-up generation young.  When I was in college, my undergraduate thesis advisor was working on his dissertation.  Fearful not only of computer malfunction but of fire, earthquake, and civil disaster, he used to present me with a disk containing his latest draft once per week, every time we met. 

To be on the ultra-safe side, he asked me to keep each week’s version in my dorm refrigerator, just in case my dorm AND his entire suburb were somehow simultaneously engulfed in flames that miraculously spared both of our lives.  “The insides of refrigerators seldom burn,” he explained, “unless someone opens them during the conflagration.”

So remember that:  if you want to keep your milk and Chinese takeout leftovers safe from fire, don’t snack until after the firefighters have finished dousing things.

Even though I did, in fact, keep his work in my tiny fridge, I used to smile secretly at the intensity of his fear that his work would disappear.  Until I was in graduate school myself, and I was approached by a knife-weilding mugger on my way home from the library.  “Give me your backpack,” he advised, none too gently.

“No,” I said, astonishing myself.  I then explained at great length that I had a draft of my master’s thesis in my bag, and that it was positively covered with hand-written notes and footnotes-to-be that I had not yet entered into my soft copy.  It would take me weeks to recreate all of that material.  Would he accept the contents of my wallet instead?  What if I made the cash my gift to him, a little token of my thanks for leaving my thesis intact, and didn’t file a police report?

The mugger, who apparently had never attempted a major writing project, was quite astonished by my vehemence; I gather he thought I simply did not understand the situation.  He reminded me several times throughout that he could, in fact, kill me with the knife clutched in his hand, and that only a crazy person would risk her life for a bunch of paper.

But tell me:  if you were holding the only extant copy of your book, would you have been similarly crazed?

The story ended happily:  I ended up with both a whole skin and my draft.  And to tell you the truth, I no longer remember if he got my money or not.  (I do, however, remember him asking me to stop telling him about the argument in my thesis — I had become embroiled in an especially juicy part of Chapter Two — and admitting that he would, in fact, just be dumping the manuscript into the nearest trash can rather than turning it in for credit.)

I back up onto CDs these days, having become disillusioned with the stability of Zip disks, but many writers prefer an off-site back-up method, such as saving to storage space online (check with your internet provider).  My brilliant friend Phoebe has an even more convenient method:  she e-mails copies of her works-in-progress to herself as attachments, effectively making her ISP her offsite storage space.

Whatever method you choose, it’s a good idea to save both before and after copies of revised manuscripts.  Yes, it takes up space, but as most of us who have lived through serious revisions, it’s not all that uncommon to decide a week, month, or year down the line that a cut scene is necessary to the work.

Off to count the hours until my beloved computer returns to me, hale and hearty again.  Make some back-ups, and keep up the good work! 

Is that dialogue I see before me?

I was called in as a last-minute replacement contest judge — yes, it happens; regularly-scheduled judges drop out all the time – at a time I shall simply designate as recently, so it will not be apparent which contest it is. (But it was really, really recent.) I highly recommend stepping up to judge a contest from time to time; there’s nothing like spending a long weekend with a small mountain of entries to get a very tangible sense of what agency screeners face each and every day.

I refer, of course, to the constant joy of revelation. Oh, and so much repetition that spontaneous combustion starts to seem marginally attractive, just to have some diversion.

I was in a fiction category this time, not my usual donnybrook. Most of the time, I step up for NF categories, because, generally speaking, it’s far harder to find experienced judges for NF. But this time, it was a couple of dozen 15-page (max) novel excerpts. After such a lengthy short chapter orgy, I felt I could not exist another instant on this terrestrial sphere without passing along the following piece of gleaned wisdom:

It is a whole lot easier than one might suspect to bore someone who has just read twenty manuscripts. All your really have to do, should you aspire to it, is to write like everyone else. The easiest way to do this, apparently, is to construct dialogue.

Remember a month or two ago, when I went on a rampage about the drawbacks of the ever-popular dialogue-only scene? (Okay, I could be referring to several different posts here: this is a pet peeve of mine as an editor and as a blogger.) I suggested gently, if memory serves, that such scenes tend to be frowned upon by many professional readers: if you want to make your points entirely through dialogue, the industry wisdom runs, write a play.

Novels, on the other hand, have been known to include such decorative details as character development and environment description. Little things like that. Yet most of us were taught at some point in our writing development that GOOD dialogue should reveal so much about the characters from whose mouths it is ostensibly falling that description is, well, kinda superfluous.

As someone who spent quite a few years teaching, let me let you in on a wee teaching secret: exaggeration is often a very effective way to make a point. You might want to take tutorial truisms with a grain of salt, therefore. As in one that you might purchase at Costco, and a forklift would deliver it to your car.

To put it another way, if you had just finished reading your 1500th 10th-grade story where every character says things angrily, sadly, or scornfully, you might well feel that some extreme measures were called for to reduce the sheer number of adverbs your eyeballs might be forced to scan in future. You might conceivably say tell your students to avoid them like the proverbial plague.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying here: many, many dialogue-only pushers are not motivated merely by a love of spareness, or even a hatred of intra-text description. Much of the time, they are trying to cut down on all of those adverbs – and the tag lines they grace. (You remember tag lines, right? They’re the he said and she exclaimed part of the dialogue. A surprisingly high percentage of the time, most professional readers will tell you, they’re not necessary.)

In running full-tilt from the Scylla of over-reliance upon adverb-laden tag lines, however, many writers run smack into the Charybdis of over-terseness in their dialogue. As in pages at a time where there is nothing but dialogue as far as the eye can see. No softening indications of tone or body language; no indications of the room where the dialogue might conceivably be taking place, or indeed that the conversation is taking place in a tangible location at all; not even a hint that every speaker might not be telling the truth 100% of the time.

Because, of course, in real life, everyone speaks in a monotone while holding perfectly still, standing in a featureless, all-white room while doing it, and says everything that crosses his mind with perfect candor. Can’t throw a cupcake at a single party in North America without hitting someone engaged in THAT type of conversation.

And heavens, does this make contest entries (and submissions) similar! I hate to break anyone’s bubble here, but I have it on pretty good authority that after the fifth or sixth such dialogue scene in a row, the underdeveloped characters in one might conceivably start to seem a heck of a lot like the underdeveloped characters in the next. In fact, it is not at all hard to imagine a situation where such characters might begin to blur together after a while.

I’m not saying that every judge or screener would read so quickly that this would happen, of course. Just the ones with, you know, lives. Think about it: what professional reader has time to take a 15-minute break between reading projects to clear her head?

Actually, I think play-like dialogue in novels has quite a few significant drawbacks, over and above how common it is. First, it encourages the kind of real-life exchanges that, while undoubtedly a reflection of how people speak in authentic situations, is deadly dull on the page. Unless you’re Samuel Beckett (who wrote PLAYS, people!), you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to get the average reader (let alone a professional one) to sit through sterling exchanges on the order of:

Sonia: Is the tea ready?
Simon: Yeah.
Sonia: I had to buy the tea myself today, you know. Didn’t you see the note on the refrigerator?
Simon: No. Isn’t there any sugar?
Sonia: No, there isn’t, because time, in case you haven’t noticed, is not infinitely flexible. I do not have the eight extra hours in the day you seem to think I have, nor do I have jet packs installed in my feet. You, on the other hand, work in a grocery store. Is it too much to ask for you to reach into Aisle 2 from time to time to grab a tin of tea?
Simon: Ah. Good tea.

Second, as I mentioned above, it pushes narrative character development out of dialogue-based scenes, which strikes me as something of a waste of a good scene. Third, such dialogue rests upon the logical fallacy that human beings just blurt out everything relevant about a situation in ordinary dialogue. (I would explain the problem with this, but in the interests of space conservation, I shall instead refer my readers to anyone who has ever had a conversation with an unpleasant boss, a coworker with B.O., a relative with political views different from oneself, or who has ever heard a eulogy or a toast at a wedding. Absolute truthfulness is simply not the norm for human interaction.)

The fourth reason is really a corollary of the third: as a matter of craft, dialogue-only scenes render depicting undercurrents between people, if not impossible, then at least far more difficult than it needs to be. As the Idol agents pointed out, scenes that have more than one thing going on in them are far more eye-catching (and interesting) than those that deal only in the obvious.

Dialogue-only scenes convey the impression that there is precisely nothing going on between the discussants but the subject of the conversation. The reader may well know different from earlier, non-dialogue parts of the book, but within the context of the discussion shown, the speakers have no bodies to speak of, apparently, no emotions worth mentioning, evidently, and no motivations, ulterior or otherwise, that they would not be more than happy to bellow at the nearest bystander.

Personally, I have never been in on such a conversation, but hey, they must exist: recently, I read fifteen of them in a row. I can’t imagine where. Or how recently.

Regardless of whether such conversations do actually occur in real life, or whether you (or your revered writing teachers) are fond of seeing them in print, consider this: is reproducing such an incredibly common writing technique really the best way to make your contest or submission stand out in the crowd?

I leave it up to you to decide. In the meantime, keep up the good work!