I said YES. Wait, you want me to say no? Okay, then it’s no — and other less-than-stellar argumentative techniques of fictional characters.

I was thinking about you, dear readers, earlier today at an opera rehearsal — hey, I move in some pretty rarified circles. Specifically, I found myself musing about our recent discussions of plausibility in interview technique — as the singers belted their characters’ deepest and darkest toward the back wall of the auditorium. I must have been giggling under my breath, for in the middle of an aria, my SO leaned over to me and whispered, “They can’t have been reading your blog lately.”

Obviously, the composer hadn’t — not entirely surprising, as the music in question first hit the pop charts in the middle of the 17th century; I doubt its author blog-surfed much.

The moment I got home, I rushed straight to my computer and started rifling through my archives — a practice I highly encourage; there’s quite a bit of information stacked in the back room of this blog, you know — because I had a distinct recollection of having written on this very topic sometime last year.

As it turned out, I was right: my last spring’s opera intake included sitting through a classic bad interview scene. Take a listen:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

You had to be there, I guess. It was quite entertaining; the squid was played by a hand puppet. It was also not very good storytelling — and even worse character development.

This type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone TELLS him he’s wrong, without engaging in convincing argument — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

And that, unfortunately, makes the conflict seem much less important than if the characters argue the pros and cons at least a little. Usually, the result is a more compelling scene — and better character development for the arguers.

Oh, heck, I’ll go out on a limb here: it’s almost always better storytelling.

Why? Everybody chant it together now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement. Unending harmony, as delightful (and rare) as it may be in real life, can be a real snooze-fest on the page.

Even the injection of just a little good, old-fashioned passive-aggression can ginger up a scene no end.

Nor does being easily persuaded, non-confrontational, or generally — brace yourself — nice necessarily render a protagonist (or any other character) more likeable to the reader. No, not even if the reader happens to enjoy the company of such sterling souls in real life.

Why, you cry? Because endlessly making nice tends to kill dramatic tension dead, dead, dead.

That seems to come as a surprise to many aspiring writers, judging by the number of first novels and memoirs where the protagonist bends over backwards never to offend anyone — especially common in manuscripts where the protagonist happens to be female, I notice. Butter wouldn’t melt in some of these ladies’ mouths, as the saying goes.

Which pretty much inevitably results in either a relatively conflict-free plot or a passive protagonist who stands on the sidelines while the less scrupulous (and more interesting) characters act.

To give you some time to digest that particularly bitter little pill — don’t worry; I shall be returning to the problems of the passive protagonist next week — allow me to turn my opera example to another use: to show yet another way in which a screener might read an opening scene differently than another reader.

This object lesson should be a bit easier to swallow. Take this little test: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do?

I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is EXTREMELY common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. Indeed, sometimes there are so many people lurching around that the reader does not know for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

Why might confusion on this point be problematic? In a word: Millicent.

Agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1 (which is, unfortunately, how they would tend to diagnose the paragraphs above), they generally stop reading.

To use Millie’s favorite word: next!

So strategically, you might want to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. If you’re in doubt about how many is too many — no, Virginia, there is no hard-and-fast rule — there are a couple of tests I like to use.

The first, and the simplest, is a modification of the one I used above: hand the first page to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible. As soon as she’s finished, reclaim the manuscript. Then take her out to coffee and ask her to tell you who the main character is and what the book is about.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Because writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. Thus, the latter is a better barometer for submission purposes, at least for this particular issue.

Seem counter-intuitive? Think about it: your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which, as we’ve been seeing over the past few days, can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Oh, look: the question of protagonist passivity has popped its winsome little head out of its gopher hole again. Can’t imagine how that happened.

I sense some discomfort out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” some intrepid submitters protest, “weren’t you telling us just the other day that professional readers resent having things over-explained? Assuming that they’re smart enough to follow a complex plot, wouldn’t they be able to remember any character I’ve named? After all, even if Millicent forgot who Nicodemus was by the bottom of page 5, she’d merely have to flip back to page 1 to remind herself.”

Oh, I’m glad you asked this question, intrepid submitters. If you take nothing else from today’s post, cling to what I’m about to say next with the tenacity of an unusually stubborn leech:

In preparing ANY manuscript for professional submission, make it your mission to assure that a screener NEVER has to flip back to remind herself who was who or what just happened.

The simple fact is that very few professional readers will take the time to do it. Our old pal Millicent has a lot on her mind, you know — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: time is of the essence.)

No, but seriously, folks, most aspiring writers make the mistake of assuming that their submissions will be read slowly, with meticulous care. But Millicent might have 50 submissions to screen between now and the end of the day — you do the math.

The other test for a reasonable character-to-page ratio — and perhaps a better one, as it is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across: hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning. Then take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember — if she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene? Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be there, but not mentioned until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Alternatively, are some of the characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the ACTION of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three.

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live. And that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing an agency screener’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

Sometimes, less is more. Or at any rate, fewer. Keep up the good work!

Like I said, yeah: more perils of lifting dialogue from real life

Are my eyes ever bloodshot today! With good reason, too: I’ve been reading up a storm for the past couple of days, in order to polish off some promised reviews. Everything I’ve been reading has been quite well written, thank goodness — although reading a bad review can sometimes be fun, writing one seldom is — but a certain type of repetition has been making me feel an unusually high level for Millicent.

What species of repetition am I complaining about now, you ask? Let me answer that with an appeal to you: as a reader, have you ever had one of those weeks where every piece of dialogue you scan seems to be a lightly-disguised monologue? Running, perhaps, a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Sandy fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Jeff replied.

“I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”

“Um-hm.”

“You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No,” Jeff said, crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Sandy dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it? Or do you think that’s just blaming the victims?”

“Could be.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Jeff said, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Jeff serving in this conversation, other than listener? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of entirely colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious.

As you may have picked up from the subtle clues I’ve left lying around over the past week, dialogue has been on my mind for the past couple of days, because I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.”

Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual people say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”

A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) “Could be. She was supposed to be visiting her mother sometime soon. She’s not married yet, is she?”

A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”

Me: (Seeking escape route.) “Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school.” (Murmurs to boyfriend, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) “Thank God.”

A: “And how’s your mother?”

Me: “Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.”

B: “Give my regards to your mother.”

Me: (Wheeling cart away.) “I will. Remember me to Bobby.”

A: “Well?”

B: (Sighing.) “Still no wedding ring.”

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right?

Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “haven’t we already talked about this, and recently? Just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is SELDOM character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect.

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response — and fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well.

But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Without reader feedback, the writer almost certainly wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in a book.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah.”

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Now, since the dialogue in her published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. Because, like I said, if it isn’t either interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

Keep up the good work!

L’amour, l’amour…wait, did I just doze off amid all that harmony?

\"If you call me darling ONE more time, I\'ll turn you into lover tartare.\"

For the last week or so, I have been yammering on about the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different problem.) Within this context, I asserted — perhaps rashly — that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers ROUTINELY engage in this sort of banter: people in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

“Wow, your eyes are SO blue, Snuggums!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?”

Or the ever-popular:

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. Do YOU love ME?”

“How can you even doubt it? I love you twice as much every time I blink. You can’t possibly love me even half as much as I love you.”

“That can’t be true, because I already love you five times more than anyone has ever loved anyone else.”

“Oh, darling, what a wonderful thing to say. I love you so much.”

“And you know what? I love you.”

Zzzz…oh, pardon me; I must have been indulging in a well-deserved nap until something actually happened during this love scene.

Do I sound cynical? Actually, I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, and most of the human race.

But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Snuggums and Muffin themselves.

Why? Well, it’s just a TAD conceptually repetitious, is it not? Not to mention the fact that entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other and count the seconds until the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads.

And I would bet as much as a nickel that the rest of the conversation won’t be significantly more scintillating.

It can be equally deadly on the page — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation.

Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

“Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition — when we swam beneath skies of azure…”

True, someone MIGHT conceivably say something like this in real life, but let’s not kid ourselves here: you’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull off a speech like this without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike.

Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue. Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty (anyone? anyone?), one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6″, even if that is indeed the case.

In fact, mentioning the latter fact in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors about which the average person is most likely to — well, let’s be generous and not call it lying; how about equivocating?

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application— but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form?

While we’re on the subject of doubting self-serving statements, aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, and yet asserts that she is three years younger now?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer — he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes for romantic effect?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other?

Such a scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing — and more interesting to the reader — than the transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

If a writer REALLY wanted to get tricky, the narrative might not even make it clear in the moment precisely how and why Lover A is choosing to lie to Lover B. Conveying a subtle sense that there’s something more going on in this scene than meets the enamored eye is a great to increase tension.

Provided, of course, that the narrative doesn’t immediately stab the rising conflict in the heart by explaining in minute detail precisely what’s going on. This has been the death blow to many a promising love scene.

What do I mean by this, you ask? Let’s take a look at a scene where mixed motives have been handled with restraint.

Angelica backed off slightly, instinctively when Desmond kissed her, but lips pressed to hers, he failed to notice. Or if he did, any qualms he may have had were soon quelled by her enthusiastic embraces.

After a few minutes’ slurping passion, she loosed her lips enough to ask, “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

He toyed with the come-hither straps of her meter maid uniform. “Not until half-past one. And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule.”

Angelica sighed, pulling him closer. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security.” She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Gives a pretty strong impression that Angelica’s motives in pursuing the tryst might not be identical to his, doesn’t it? The slight tension between her actions and her words convey that easily, without a lot of heavy-handed justification or acres of internal monologue.

Which, alas, is how many manuscript submissions would have approached it. Here’s a sample — note all of the named emotions, explanations through thought, and just how quickly the reader’s ability to speculate about what might be going on evaporates:

Oh, God, Angelica thought, stunned by the onslaught of Desmond’s cologne, not again. Didn’t this lummox ever think of anything but sex, sex, sex? Still, she had been ordered to keep him here until after the President had been assassinated, and if a little nookie was the most pleasant way to achieve that, well, so be it.

She hoped that it would not take very long; her husband, Ivan, would be expecting her home soon.. “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

“Not until half-past one,” Desmond panted. “And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule. It’s not as though anyone out there is planning to perch atop the Washington Monument during his speech on the Mall and shoot him with a crossbow in front of 210,000 people!”

Angelica stiffened with fear. How on earth had he ferreted out the details of their plan? Had she been betrayed by a careless or treacherous fellow spy? Was Desmond merely toying with her, in order to extract further information?

She pulled him close. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security,” she whispered, shuddering inwardly at the irony of her own words. She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock; if only she could keep him here until after Reginald had charged the herd of maddened elephants into the assembled throng, all might still be well. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Kind of stops the tension dead in its tracks, doesn’t it? See how the suspense builds naturally when the narrative merely hints at the underlying plot, rather than screams it from the rooftops?

The same technique also works beautifully in anti-love scenes, by the way: if you want to ramp up the tension, try both muddying the players’ motivations a little and conveying those mixed emotions through action, rather than having them say precisely what they mean at all times.

Yes, yes, I know: your tenth-grade composition teacher told you that good dialogue should be able to convey all of the emotional nuances of a scene without additional narration. Let me guess — s/he came up with that pearl of wisdom while either trying get you to read Hemingway or to stop relying so heavily upon adverbs to express a character’s feelings, right?

I tend to doubt that s/he intended it as a lifetime embargo upon certain parts of speech. Adults don’t let ten-year-olds drive Mac trucks, either; one needs to be trained to use dangerous tools safely before running amok with them. In case you’re curious, The kind writing s/he was trying to avoid with her prohibition probably ran a little something like this:

“I can’t pay the rent!” Polly exclaimed distressedly.

“But you must pay the rent,” dastardly Donald declaimed determinedly.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she wailed helplessly.

“But you must pay the rent,” Donald insisted violently.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she sobbed unhappily.

“I’ll pay the rent!” nattily-dressed Nathan called helpfully.

“My hero!” Polly cried relievedly.

“Curses,” Donald said morosely, “foiled again.”

I seriously doubt that s/he was hoping you would never use another adverb as long as you lived, just that you would use them with discretion.

But as with so many of the old writing saws, the creaky old chestnut has mutated over time in the conversation of the literal-minded from don’t use adverbs to describe how every speech was said; how about letting the dialogue itself show tone? to it’s bad writing to use an adverb ever, under any circumstances. Purge your manuscript NOW of all -ly verbs, or you’ll tumble into a pit of burning pitch.

Just a SLIGHT different between those two iterations of that rule of thumb.

I know I’m going out on an editorial limb here, but I suspect you’ve progressed enough as a writer to be trusted not to over-use adverbs, don’t you? There, I absolve you: from now on, you’re allowed to use all available parts of speech, if you do it with discretion. Fly on your merry way, allowing your shackles to fall to the ground.

Just don’t start using adverbs to describe how every character says every speech, okay? Oh, and while you’re at it, you don’t need to add a tag line (he said, she avered, they bellowed) to every line with quotation marks. Use them sparingly, just enough to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking when.

Which means, in case your tenth-grade composition teacher forgot to mention it to you, that in a two-person exchange where the opinions expressed are not identical, simply alternating speeches after the text identifies who is saying what initially is usually sufficient.

If you feel ready to implement a more advanced writing technique, try varying the tone a little throughout confrontation scenes; watching two characters spit vitriol at each other unceasingly can get a little old rather fast. For instance:

“I hate you, Ted Fairfax, more than any human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a message for you, Tammy: I haven’t been able to stand you since high school.”

“But you and I dated in high school!”

“Precisely.”

“Ooh, you’re a jerk, Ted.”

Perhaps I’m an overly-critical reader (actually, I’d better be, or I wouldn’t be good at my job), but a little bit of barb-trading goes a long way for me. Call me zany, but I would rather be shown Tammy and Ted’s mutual loathing through action, rather than merely hearing it in their words.

Ted could, for instance, be lying about his feelings in high school. That would automatically render their relationship more complex — and thus more interesting — than simple mutual hatred. In fact, mixed emotions are almost always more intriguing on the page than simple, straightforward feelings.

Especially if, as we’ve seen in pretty much all of today’s examples, the characters are going around bellowing about their feelings as if they were traipsing about in the last act of La Bohème — and expressing those emotions with a pinpoint accuracy that would make living and dead poets alike turn bright green with envy.

Allow me to make a subversive suggestion: people aren’t always telling the truth when they say that they’re in love. Or in hate, for that matter.

Occasionally, they have been known to change their minds on the subject. Some are reluctant to name their emotions at all, and still others are prone to aping the emotion that they believe the person sitting across from them expects them to be feeling.

Here’s a shocker of a revelation: human beings are complex critters, far more so than they appear in the average interview scene in a manuscript submission. Individuals have even been known — sacre bleu! — to mislead total strangers who show up, demanding information about that set of sextuplets who fell down the well thirty years ago.

Or DID they?

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you,” or “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his once-lucrative sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

After all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers regularly show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what certain well-known deceased writers were REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions just accept that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Yet in an interview scene — again, especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There’s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, despite the success of the Greek chorus narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: interpersonal conflict is, generally speaking, far more interesting than pages at a time of harmonious agreement.

Let your characters disagree; let them quibble. And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

Keep up the good work!

Avoiding the bad laughter, as well as a few more good choice words about Hollywood Narration

    

Before I launch back into dissection of the all-too-pervasive Hollywood narration phenomenon, I should amend an oversight from last time: I brought up the concept of bad laughter without really talking about why it can be death to a manuscript submission. Rather than leaving those new to the concept whimpering in confusion, I’m going to revisit it briefly now.

A bad laugh, for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, is a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. It typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, most commonly, just a really, really bad line of dialogue. It can spring from many sources, but in the moment it occurs, it invariably shatters the reader or viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief, causing her to stand, however briefly, outside the world created by the story.

That’s bad.

Hollywood narration is NOTORIOUS for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!”

Openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins. Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning PRECISELY what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance.

We’ve all grown accustomed to this, right? Yet there’s actually seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: as I have undoubtedly pointed out before, TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately, I gather that my view on the subject is not shared by all movie producers.

How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin in the Sky told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals? Here’s a very common gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, tend to think such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too.

I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf, proto. It’s immeasurably better.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past.

If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory. You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the say; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but then, it was the ’70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, we’ve all become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

“Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

“Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that.”

Well, in a book, there’s PLENTY odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe. I can’t make screenwriters do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on.

By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed. It pains me to tell you this, but I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that an over-reliance upon Hollywood narration is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know.

There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

To professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration?

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny doesn’t mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

For self-editing, try this little trick: flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that. Reexamine these sentences to see whether they should be cut, or at any rate reworked into more natural dialogue.

Another good indicator: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least give you a start. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, OTHER than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered no to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader REALLY need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Worth a bit of mulling over, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

In which I lose my struggle to stop myself from condemning Hollywood Narration yet again

Before I justify that rather Dickensian title, allow me to a little something to those of you reading this outside the confines of the United States, its territories, and wherever its military happen to be traipsing about these days: today is Memorial Day, the national holiday originally established to honor the dead of our Civil War, but expanded in an effort to conserve holiday time after World War I to include perished servicepeople of all of our wars and police actions.

In a similar conservation push, the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln were collapsed into a single day in February. And nowhere is the birthday of the late Millard Fillmore celebrated at all, except perhaps in his hometown.

So why, you may be wondering — and who could blame you? — have I seen fit to commemorate the day with a close-up shot of Montana ledge stone?

Because, it may shock you to learn, people who don’t happen to be addicted to writing frequently use three-day weekends for home improvement projects. And mattress sales, apparently.

Anyway, it’s pretty, isn’t it? What more do you people want from me?

Last time, I introduced you to the Short Road Home’s glamorous first cousin, Hollywood Narration, the all-too-common phenomenon of one character’s telling another things they already both know, purely for the sake of filling in the reader. Hollywood Narration is when information is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having this conversation at all.

As in this little gem of human interaction:

“So, Tim, how was your work at the steel mill today?” Sally asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Sammy, fell off the handlebars of Tim Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills — I imagine you sometimes get sick of the daily grind. But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers — for our Christmas tree.”

Tim shook his graying head ruefully. “Ah, I remember; I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Betty, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. As you know, Sally, I am committed to working hard to support you and the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Selma, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

“Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

“What would I do without you, honey?” Tim put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

“Oh, Tim, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Tim did not respond; he was kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Gladys, all sixty-four years of her, always points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen Hollywood Narration almost this bald. Make no mistake: this is telling, not showing in its baldest form.

The term Hollywood Narration is mine, of course; due to its widespread unpopularity, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue. Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry AND the screenwriters’ guild.

For today, I had planned to leave my brief warning to this: when you are scanning your submission for this type of dialogue — and you most assuredly should; I’m not the only professional reader it drives completely nuts — try VERY hard, please, not to imagine those fine actors you’ve mentally cast in the movie version of your book (c’mon, every writer does that) reading these lines.

Why? Well, due to the unfortunate ubiquity of Hollywood Narration in movies, it might just sound logical to you.

I meant to leave it at that; truly, I did. But on Saturday night, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a GHOST STORY; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can remember it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not so long ago. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled, THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration and turgid poetry of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dead. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem here: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems, it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other delights we saw above.

As we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood Narration have abounded still more in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg.

Oh, don’t get me started — but since you have, let me suggest something radical: readers tend to be pretty smart people. They are often, bless their respective hearts, quite capable of looking at an opening like this and remarking, “Hey, wait a minute: real people would have no reason to say these things to each other. Isn’t it just possible that the author is placing this dialogue into their mouths merely so I will know what’s going on?”

And you know something? They would be right. But that’s not all that’s going on here.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood Narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Next time, I’m going to talk a bit more about this form of sleight-of hand and why so many aspiring writers seem to be so very fond of it. In the meantime, if you find yourself standing in front of a wall of drawers in a Korean morgue, keep your hands to yourself, okay? Maniacally-laughing, high C-singing spirits tend to be a trifle hard to shake once wakened.

Keep up the good work!

Laying the foundations of plot so they don’t fly up and hit passersby in the nose

What did you expect me to be taking pictures of while workers are crawling all over my yard for months on end — rainbows and cattle?

Last time, I wrote about how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED IT THAT WAY.

Strange to say, even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in interesting ones.

Which is to say: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. And let’s face it — almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor. It’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.

Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth. At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am — discover me, already!”

As we all know, though, an agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end — so it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind I just heard the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene?

I’m guessing so; an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a phone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà , an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least a decade now, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with over conflict. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know in order to provide the audience with needed data. As in:

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know purely in order to provide the audience with background information.

Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for this. As in:

“So, Molly, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Tad, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“Well, Molly, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Brian — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

Since I have lectured so often on this VERY common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. Suffice it to say that about the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the cry, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Molly for making the mistake we discussed earlier this week, over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature.

And as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did.

Besides, it’s not a very telling detail.

Hear me out. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

Out comes the broken record again: it’s never a good idea to assume that ANY conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes. Or worldview.

Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said immediately, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Molly know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call — this is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Link glanced over at his wife. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Gloria snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Link reached over to pat her on the head. “As your hairdresser, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

Why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would NOT know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length.

The only reason this information could POSSIBLY appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party. Like, for instance, the reader.

That’s a pretty good test for Hollywood narration, incidentally: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go.

If you also said that Link and Gloria are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary. My SO has just walked into the room, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, your eyes are green,” despite the fact that his eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want a reader to know it.

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out he already knew.

There you have it — several more excellent reasons to read your manuscript OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you submit it, my friends, and an even better reason to have a third party read it before you send it off to an agent or editor: to see if the dialogue sounds like something a real person might actually say (as Hollywood narration doesn’t), and to check that it is interesting enough to keep a reader moving from line to line in those interview scenes.

More on dialogue spiciness next time — that is, if I can resist the burning desire not to take another run at Hollywood Narration. Must…remain…strong…

Somehow, I suspect that I’m going to lose this particular battle. Keep up the good work!

A beautiful picture — and a few tips on increasing your protagonist’s interview skills

Isn’t that photo GORGEOUS? It’s by one of my favorite art photographers, Lana Z Caplan, from her new book, Sites of Public Execution. Here’s a description:

SITES OF PUBLIC EXECUTION: Photographs and stories of former sites of public execution around the world.

Paired with interesting facts and stories of the events that took place in these public places, sepia-toned photographs, shot in Beijing, Paris, London, Florence, Rome and Massachusetts, present the contemporary appearances of locales used for hangings, beheadings, and burnings, some in the transient fury of revolution, some in long-term state-sanctioned spectacles.

For a PDF preview of the book, please visit Lana’s website.

Normally, I wouldn’t post an announcement about a book of photography here on Author! Author!, but Lana’s work moves me deeply — so much so, in fact, that I have one of her pieces hanging where I can glance up at it frequently while I write. We met at an artists’ colony several years ago; then, the provocative work-in-progress hanging in her studio made me downright giddy.

And yes, I HAVE been posting quite a few announcements of new releases lately — for some reason, I know many, many talented people bringing out books this spring. I can only conclude that publishing houses have started weighing connections to me heavily in their considerations.

Or perhaps I just know a heck of a lot of writers. In any case, this spring has certainly enriched my bookshelves, let me tell you.

Okay: on to the topic du jour.

As we’ve been going through various common narrative problems, I’ve noticed something: either due to my excessive saintliness or a desire to save the best, if not for last, at least for later in this series, I’ve been concentrating for the most part upon avoiding some of the more notorious agency screeners’ pet peeves, rather than merely upon what tends to annoy me in a text. For the next week or so, however, I have decided to cut loose and lay bare the narrative problems that make me foam at the mouth, professionally speaking.

That’s right: for the next little while, it’s going to be all about me, me, me.

Today, I’m going to concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite kinds of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

I heard that tittering out there. Seriously, a protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know – and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know.

Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

It tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Reginald claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Janet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Fezziwig. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Reginald detached their clasped hands so quickly that Janet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Janet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Fezziwig bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why would an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader like me? Mostly, because it’s a lost opportunity for interesting conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Actually, writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a trifle impatient.

Why? Well, in essence, the protagonist becomes the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After awhile, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview would give the whole plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

However, before I do, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it tends to fall very, very flat with readers.

Why? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by DELIBERATELY withholding information from the reader.

As in details that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. Think about it: it’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain at least one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else.

Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are you already warming up the highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

This is true, incidentally, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not get across the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is – YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it NOT be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation.

Or, to be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches?

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy that would make Hamlet himself start looking at his watch.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

And that’s what makes secrets interesting, right? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are.

Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict? Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How? By making the information-imparter more reluctant — which automatically both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult.

Automatically, this small switch makes the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

A couple of fringe benefits: your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable. As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

So eschew the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills.

Take, in short, a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up. The more difficult they are to find, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

More interviewing tips follow next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Trusting the reader to extrapolate (or interpolate) the obvious

Millicent after her third latte of the morning

I’m rather tired today, but since we’ve been talking about such important, fundamental issues lately — showing, rather than telling; constructing a narrative; narrative voice; increasing tension and conflict — I’m eager to push ahead.

I know that many, if not most, came first to Author! Author! looking for guidance on marketing issues such as querying, pitching, and submission, so the Spring of Craft might come as a bit of a surprise. As a book doctor, though, I have to regard craft issues as integral to marketing — after all, a cliché-ridden first page or a storytelling glitch on page 5 has spelled the doom of untold submissions under the ever-watchful eye of Millicent the agency screener.

Basically, I think it’s important for writers to pay attention to both the craft and marketing sides of the equation — and that those bizarre implications we’ve all heard at conferences that a good writer can focus on one to the exclusion of the other are just wrong.

Most of the time, the latter argument veers toward the craft side (as in, a good book will always find a home, apparently magically, regardless of how or even if its author promotes it), so much of the time, I blog under the assumption that my readers already have a pretty firm grasp of the artistic side of the equation. Think of the recent spate of posts as my attempt to balance the equation a little.

I assure you, I haven’t abandoned more overt marketing concerns permanently — and if you’re looking for advice on how to write a query letter, synopsis, etc., before I veer back in the other direction, never fear: you’ll find fairly specific categories in the lengthy list on the right-hand side of this page, under the monthly listings. Also, this blog is searchable for specific terms — check out the wee box in the upper right-hand corner.

For the sake of long-term planning, though, let me ask a question: are many of you planning to pitch at conferences in the months to come? To put it another way, how many of you would LIKE for me to devote a few weeks’ worth of posts to pitching tips between, say, now and the Fourth of July?

I ask because I’ve blogged quite a bit about pitching over the last couple of years (see the many, many categories on it in the list at right), and while I usually like to take a run at it again in early summer, I don’t want to bore my long-term readers into a collective stupor. Especially if that means cutting this jolly interesting series on craft shorter than I’d like.

So if you have a strong opinion either way about a run-down on pitching, please leave a comment, so I can get a sense of popular opinion.

All right, back to craft.

Today, I shall be dealing with a manuscript problem that is frequently invisible to the writer who produced it, yet glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to our pal Millicent: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about those most cut-able of sentences, statements of the obvious. If you’ll take the trouble to read on, I shall give you an example.

I just heard some of you out there chuckle — you caught me in the act, didn’t you?

Give yourself a gold star for the day if you caught it: the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of a self-evident proposition — and thus could have been cut with absolutely no cost to the text. Knowing that I am a writer addicted to giving examples, where else would my faithful readers look for further explanation other than later in the text? To the PREVIOUS paragraph?

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to an innocent line of text, allow me to give you a peek into the professional reader’s world: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do, faced with mountains of submissions — you’re inclined to get a mite testy. Occupational hazard.

Why? Well, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of hyperirritable reactivity. (You thought it was EASY to continue to care about comma placement enough to wax poetic in the margins about it?)

To a professional reader in such a state, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull; the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of some things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the damage eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

*In response to the innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words He shrugged still standing in the text.)

*In response to the innocent statement She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

*In response to The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. Assertions of the obvious on a larger scale that send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

We haven’t, have we? I missed the last Writers’ World Domination meeting, and no one seems to be able to find the minutes.

Much of the time, self-evident statements are the brainchildren of that niggling authorial anxiety that has kept rearing its under-groomed head throughout much of our recent discussion of narrative construction, not trusting the reader.

In this case, not trusting the reader to be intelligent enough to figure out what’s going on without extensive and meticulous explanation. As in:

As Alison walked into the crowded movie premiere, she noticed that there were so many people there that few seats were left. She would need to move fast to grab the necessary three for herself and her two friends still parking the car in the garage, Georgette and Petunia. She hurried, scanning the rows for empty seats.

Fortunately, this was a movie screening in the greater Seattle area: people had seated themselves in a sort of mohawk down the middle of the theatre, in chairs so directly under the geometric center point of the room that had some enterprising engineer dropped a plumb line from the ceiling and measured seating distribution, the exercise would have revealed a pleasing symmetry on other side of the line beginning four rows back. People could not have seated themselves more evenly had they been posing collectively for a Rorschach ink blot.

Passing down the side aisle as swiftly as the packed throng allowed, she found three seats together in the front row, just in front of the podium where the film’s director would no doubt be speaking with in a few short minutes, when the event actually began. She sat down, spreading her coat over the seat to her left and placing her purse in the seat to her right.

The bespectacled youth in the seat beyond that glanced up from his film festival program, which listed all of the features with which a greedy theatre-goer could conceivably gorge himself over the next three weeks. In response to Alison’s query about whether the seat between them was taken, he replied somewhat cryptically, “Have you seen the new Indiana Jones film yet?”

Since it had been released only that day, she had not; she wondered how young he was, to still attach value to seeing a blockbuster a few hours before anyone else. “No — wouldn’t I have to be seeing it now?”

“I saw it,” the young man said smugly. “At ten o’clock this morning. I got up at eight so I could stand in line.”

Not a particularly scintillating story, is it? Partly, it’s because it’s a fairly accurate description of a few minutes of my evening — I’m just returned from the Seattle International Film Festival’s screening of THE BATTLE IN SEATTLE; if you guessed it was about the WTO protests, you’re the kind of reader an author may safely trust to extrapolate the extremely likely correctly — and if you guessed that this might have been the world’s most sympathetic audience for this particular story, take two gold stars out of petty cash.

But mostly, what weighs down this anecdote is the unnecessary explanation. At the risk of creating my own Rorschach pattern, here’s the same passage as a professional reader would see it, with the extraneous obvious crossed out. Just for fun, I’m going to add in bold what Millicent would be muttering under her breath as she read:

As Alison walked into the crowded movie premiere, she noticed that there were so many people there that{how could it be crowded WITHOUT a whole lot of people there?} few seats were left. She would need to move fast to grab the necessary three for herself and her two friends still parking the car in the garage{what else would they be parking — and is the reader honestly supposed to be astonished by the choice of parking venue? Where were they supposed to park, in the coat check room?, Georgette and PetuniaShe hurried, scanning the rows for empty seats.

Fortunately, this was a movie screening in {how many times do we need to be told this?} the greater Seattle area: people had seated themselves in a sort of mohawk down the middle of the theatre, in chairs {on what else would they be sitting in a theatre?} so directly under the geometric center point of the room that had some enterprising engineer dropped a plumb line from the ceiling and measured seating distribution, the exercise would have revealed a pleasing symmetry on other side of the line beginning four rows back. People could not have seated themselves more evenly had they been posing collectively for a Rorschach ink blot.

Passing down the side aisle as swiftly as the packed{If the narrative says one more time that there were a lot of people in the room, I’m going to throw my mug of coffee across the room.} throng allowed , she found three seats together in the front row, just in front of the podium where the film’s director would no doubt be speaking with in a few short minutes, when the event actually began. She sat down, {implied in what happens next, surely} spreading her coat over the seat to her left and placing her purse in the seat to her right. {Yawn. Wake me when something happens.}

Add here so we can tighten the next paragraph: “Is this seat taken?” she asked.

The bespectacled youth in the seat beyond that glanced up from his film festival program, which listeding all of the features with which a greedy theatre-goer could conceivably gorge himself over the next three weeks. In response to Alison’s query about whether the seat between them was taken, he replied somewhat cryptically, {show it being cryptic instead} “Have you seen the new Indiana Jones film yet?”

Since it had been released only that day, she had not; she wondered how young he was, to still attach value to seeing a blockbuster a few hours before anyone else. “No — wouldn’t I have to be seeing it now?”

“I saw it,” the young man said smugly. “At ten o’clock this morning.”

That’s quite a lot of omission-worthy verbiage, isn’t it? Take another gander at what Millicent wanted to cut, and it’s clear that the problems here go beyond unnecessary explanation: the edited bits slow the story considerably, are virtually conflict-free, and, taken as a group, aren’t particularly interesting. No one would miss them if they were cut, and Millicent would cry, “Hosanna!”

The omittable obvious is particularly common in dialogue — and, as is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples for our edification.

Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance or the cessation of gunfire or the bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events — but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission, they can be deal-breakers for Millicent.

You’re better off cutting ALL of them — and yes, it’s worth a read-through (IN HARD COPY, anyone?) to search out every last one. Yes, even if your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often.

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record: remember, you have absolutely no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that Millie will kindly overlook it amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? If not actually goring them with her horns.

The trouble is, virtually always, these obvious statements appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. But provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin.

I’ve been using bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear on a page:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Magruder ate his pie with a folk, alternating bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Magruder’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood. But see how much of it could actually be cut by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Magruder alternated bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry pie with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Magruder’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 85-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every cut counts. And the shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that generally speaking, people eat pie with cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

This is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, do. And not casually, either: this requires some advance preparation.

As if all preparation weren’t in advance by definition.

Hand your first reader the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask her to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my computer, which is sitting on my desk. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. You never can tell.

Believe me, Millicent can — trust her to do it. Keep up the good work!

Guest blogger Joel Derfner: I need permission to what?

Hello, gang –

Anne here. In writing yesterday’s post, I think I strained something while stretching to make yesterday’s analogies work. My credulity perhaps, or yours. That will teach me not to rush off and write a post the instant after I receive bad news, eh?

The timing couldn’t be better for me to take a day off, though — FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Joel Derfner, better known to us here as witty commenter and fabulous blogger Faustus, MD has graciously written us a guest post for today.

And on a lulu of a topic I seldom address, too: getting permission to quote songs in your book.

Was that giant sucking nose I just heard your collective gasp at the realization that you might conceivably need such permission — and that obtaining it might be the author’s responsibility? Read on, MacDuff.

But first, for those of you who missed my crows of joy last week, Joel’s second book, Swish: My Quest to Became the Gayest Person Ever has just been released by Broadway Books, a division of Random House. And hoo boy, has it been garnering some enviable reviews. Lookee:

“Whether recounting his stint at New York’s cheerleading squad or the eye-opening week he spent undercover at a North Carolina “ex-gay” ministry, his inner terrain of hope and devastation is recognizable to anyone who has felt the scrutiny of peers. In one typically sidesplitting passage Derfner leads his step aerobics class, seemingly with unflappable confidence, while harboring private fantasies of boosting student morale with a tray of homemade brownies.

“‘I have these moments of insecurity quite often,’ Derfner admits. ‘If you can point to your flaws in a way that reveals them to be universal, then your flaws are not unattractive — just human.’ Whether he’s the next Noël Coward or a male Bridget Jones, one thing is clear: Queer America needs Derfner. In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit.” — Out.com

“These witty, fun and poignant essays knocked me on my ass more than once. I desperately want to hang out with him.” — Booksplosion!

“The ultimate swish-quest, indeed, though it makes for more than a delightfully breezy, campy read, for the humorous anecdotes morph into movingly evocative memoirs when, for instance, he recalls his liberal, civil-rights-activist parents’ response to his teenage coming out: Not At All Good. His mother never accepted it, and he and she never achieved more than an uneasy détente. Thus this superficially facile book becomes more than the sum of its parts, as Derfner indicates when he observes, ‘Writing about my quest to become the gayest person ever led me to realize I was actually on a quest to become myself.’” — Booklist

May all of our books be greeted with such delighted enthusiasm. (And make sure to let me know when they do — I love gloating over readers’ successes.) Both Swish and Joel’s hilarious first book, Gay Haiku are available on Amazon, or for those of you who prefer to deal with independent bookstores, Powell’s.

Take it away, Joel!

 

You know how you open a book and there are quotes from song lyrics all over the place? And how you figure the author just sent the manuscript in and somebody at the publishing company took care of getting permission to quote those lyrics?

You’re wrong.

I mean, you may not be wrong as far as, say, Stephen King is concerned. I don’t know. But excepting extraordinary cases the author is usually contractually obligated to get licenses for anything s/he quotes. (S/he is also contractually obligated, by the way, to pay for licenses for anything he quotes.)

Okay, I thought when I discovered this as I was finishing my book, that’s a hideous miscarriage of justice, but worse things have happened in the world. I mean, it’s not like I have to go camping or anything. It was in this frame of mind that I submitted my manuscript, which quoted lyrics from nine songs. I’d even taken the time to footnote songwriters and publication dates, just so Random House would see how diligent I was being.

But when my editor gave me his feedback, one of the things he said was, “Getting permissions can sometimes be tricky, so you might want to cut some of these. Actually, you might want to cut all of them.”

To appease him I went through the manuscript and cut as many of the lyrics as I could, replacing them with non-copyright-infringing prose references to the songs in question. Of course I knew he was worrying needlessly, but I am nothing if not accommodating (okay that’s totally a lie I’m not accommodating at all but I worry that if I don’t obey him he’ll stop giving me chocolate every time I show up at his office), so I didn’t have a problem doing this. In the end there was only one lyric I felt couldn’t be cut without doing real damage, “Without You” on pages 115-6.

THANK ^%$*ING GOD.

I tell you, I might as well have been trying to get my hands on the Hope Diamond.

At first it wasn’t so difficult. After a half hour or so with the Internet I figured out that the copyright was owned by a company (we’ll call it Company A) in Britain. My editor’s assistant called them (because I live in the ghetto and have a ghetto phone plan that would sooner let me destroy its headquarters in a rain of fire than allow me to call a country in Europe) and got the name of the guy I needed to talk to about permissions.

So far, so good.

I e-mailed the guy— I’ll call him Guy A, though over the course of time I would find many more names for him—asking him what I needed to do. He e-mailed back the next day and said I needed to get in touch with Company B, which managed Company A’s licensing in the U.S. I went to Company B’s website and put in a licensing request on their convenient licensing request page.

A week later I’d heard nothing. I was not particularly concerned; I assumed that the workings of Company B, like the workings of most companies, functioned at the speed of stalactite creation. But since I hadn’t even gotten an automated response I figured I might as well check in. “Oh, you’ll hear back a week or two from now,” said Guy B when I called.

Three weeks later I’d heard nothing. “You’ll hear back soon,” said Guy B. When I asked whether I could speak to the person in charge of licensing just in case, he said, “Okay, I’ll transfer you to Gal C.” I ended up leaving a very friendly message on Gal C’s voice mail asking her to call or e-mail me.

Two weeks later, no word.

I e-mailed Gal C again.

Nothing.

I cced Guy A at Company A asking him whether he had any suggestions. His response was, “I’m sorry, I have no ideas for you.”

Guy A can go jump in a lake, I thought.

Finally I e-mailed Gal C and cced Guy A, hoping that he was in some nebulous position of authority over her and that this move would inspire her to action. Whether because of my e-mail or not, she wrote back and asked for a few pieces of information, which I sent immediately.

I e-mailed again a month later.

And again a week and a half later.

I called again a week after that but when Guy B answered the phone he said, “We’re moving offices, so she doesn’t have a phone now.”

“Well,” I said, “can I just leave her a voice mail?”

“She doesn’t have voice mail either. Can I take a message for her?”

I left one, not believing for a moment it would do any good.

A few weeks later, I was visiting friends in Los Angeles and had the brilliant idea of actually going to the physical headquarters of Company B and asking to speak with Gal C. She wouldn’t be able to ignore me if I was standing in front of her.

So of course the office was closed. Nobody was there. At 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday.

I e-mailed Gal C again a week later (ccing Guy A again)—oh, God, you know what? This is so incredibly tedious I can’t even bring myself to go on. Suffice it to say that I finally got permission from Gal C at Company B to use the lyrics (for $300).

Then like two months before publication I got an e-mail from my editor’s assistant saying that so-and-so in the legal department wanted to know whether this permission applied to Canada as well or just the United States. Company B said no, it was just for the U.S., and they had no idea who I should talk to for Canada. Company A said the same thing.

In the end I had to call Guy D and Gal E at Companies C and D in the U.S. (neither of them knew the answer to my question, and Gal E actually began explaining the basics of copyright law to me as if I were twelve, except she kept getting things wrong). Then I called Guys F, G, and H at Companies E, F, and G in Canada.

By this point it was too late to make any changes to the book, so all I could do was show that I was making a good-faith effort to secure permission, so I asked Gal I from Company G to have Gal J e-mail me saying that they’d received my request. Gal J did so and I forwarded the e-mail to my editor’s assistant.

To get permission to quote twelve lines of one lyric has taken me six months, countless phone calls, and probably two years of my lifespan. And $300 plus whatever Company G says I owe them.

I am never, ever, ever going to quote any copyrighted material in anything I write ever, ever again.

Addendum:

I just got an e-mail from Gal J at Company G. I have permission to use the lyrics in Canada.

Once I send them $755.

Remember that I had to pay Company B $300.

Right now I have $34.62 in my bank account.

On the one hand, I believe that Company G is much, much better at its job than Company B.

On the other hand, Company G’s superiority obviously consists not only in communicating much more responsibly but also in getting its clients much more money.

I am never, ever, ever going to quote any copyrighted material in anything I write ever, ever again.

  

Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and Gay Haiku author Joel Derfner is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts.

Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise). In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he joined Cheer New York, New York’s gay and lesbian cheerleading squad, but eventually he had to leave because he was too depressed. In desperation, he started knitting and teaching aerobics, though not at the same time. He hopes to come to a bad end.

  

R.I.P., Mr. M — and a few thoughts on marketing

My mother called me with some sad news today: Bob Mondavi, one of the grand old men of my childhood, passed away a few days ago. He was 94, so it wasn’t precisely a surprise, but while normally, the death of a nice little old man would be primarily a matter of local mourning, in this case, pretty much everyone who has ever drunk a glass of good American wine should be just a little saddened by Mr. M’s passing.

Why? Because Robert Mondavi was to a great extent responsible for Napa Valley wines becoming respectable. If you’ve ever paid more than $10 for a bottle of American wine, you might want to drink a toast to his memory.

Oh, there had been good wine coming out of the region for decades before he broke off from his family’s Charles Krug Winery to form the Robert Mondavi Winery (viticulturists are not known for their retiring egos) in the mid-1960s — in the 1890s, my great-uncle and great-grandfather won European awards for a wine grown in what is now known as the Carneros — and there were certainly much better wines being made than at RMW throughout my formative years.

Yet Mr. M was one of the first to see that it wasn’t enough just to make good wine — the world needed to know about it.

Sound familiar? This was someone who understood marketing.

How well, you ask? Well, as hometown legend has it, for years and years, it was extremely difficult for Californian winemakers to sell Sauvignon Blanc to restaurateurs. Not because it isn’t a perfectly lovely varietal — Mike Grgich, another of the grand old men of my childhood (perhaps even grander because he liked to sport a rakish beret year-round), has been making one of the best liquids to accompany fish available on earth since I was in pigtails — but because, I kid you not, people weren’t sure how to pronounce Sauvignon.

So they felt uncomfortable trying to say it out loud in front of a waiter.

How did Mr. M handle it, you ask? By changing the name of the wine.

Seriously — RMW was the first to release Sauvignon Blanc under the much easier-to-pronounce moniker Fumé Blanc. The switch was so successful that within a few years, one of the easiest ways to tell if the would-be snob across the table from one on a date knew a grape from a raisin was if he insisted that Fumé Blanc was actually the name of the grape.

Which it isn’t — and couldn’t be, as both of the words in question are adjectives: Sauvignon is the varietal, and thus a noun, but fumé means smokedblanc means white. By a certain stretch of tastebud definition, a Sauvignon Blanc could be said to have some rather smoky undertones.

But really, what people started ordering in restaurants was a kippered pale thing — which could refer, logically, to anything from a cigarette to sole. But heavens, does it roll off the tongue!

In latter days, like so many family wineries, RMW became the possession of a corporation while retaining the our-kids-and-grandkids-work-here façade. The old winemaking names stick to the the buildings and land long after the flesh-and-blood people who bore those names are long gone. (Which is why, in case you were curious, there’s hasn’t been a Chuck making Two-Buck Chuck for quite some time now.) To outsiders, the Mondavi name, like so many others, is just another brand.

But it was a sad day for a lot of locals when the Mondavis left the Robert Mondavi Winery, the end of an era of winemakers who still remembered having to fight the stigma that used to attach to any American wine.

Mr. M founded RMW the year I was born, and I was graduating from middle school before people stopped laughing at the phrase Californian fine wine. Those grapes have come a long way, baby.

So goodbye, Mr. M. The winemaking — yes, and the wine-drinking — world is poorer for your loss. I hope the angels pulled up something grand from the cellar in honor of your arrival.

And yes, Virginia, I am going to tie all this into advice on your writing career. Just watch me.

How? Well, like it or not, querying is marketing.

A writer has only a very, very short amount of time to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter or a pitch, especially in an e-mailed query. It’s imperative, therefore, to label your book correctly — and that means learning to define it in the terms used by the industry.

Yes, I AM talking about book categories.

Stop groaning, long-time readers — judging by the average query letter, many writers simply don’t know that the industry runs on book categories.

But think of it from the other side of the desk. It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label — in an agent’s pitch, it’s usually mentioned before either the title or the premise. And since no agency represents every kind of book, or even every kind of novel, category is the typically the first thing an agency screener is trained to spot in a query.

Knowing that, think about Millicent’s mood immediately after she’s burnt her lip on that latte: how likely is she to feel charitable toward a query that makes her search for the category or — sacre bleu! — guess it?

Some writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting the book type, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napoléon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent does not know where the book mentioned will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, she’s not going to ask to read it.

Do I see some raised hands out there? You, in the front row: “But Anne, not all books, particularly novels, fall into obvious categories! What if I’m genuinely not sure?”

Good question, You. Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time. However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, so you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

Part of learning to market your writing well involves developing the skills to describe it in terms the industry will understand. When in doubt, pick the category that coincides with what the agency (or, better still, particular agent to whom you are addressing your query letter) represents.

If you found the last paragraph mystifying, please see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. Scroll down until you find the entries on how to decide which is for you, and study it as if it were the Rosetta Stone.

In a sense, it is: book categories provide terms of translation between the often mutually incomprehensible conceptions of manuscripts held by their authors and the people they are asking to represent them.

Think of your query letter as a label for the bottle of wine you’re trying to sell.

Stop laughing; it’s not all that far-fetched a comparison. Just as a wine connoisseur expects the label to tell her what kind of grapes were used to produce the bottle she’s considering serving with her dinner, to try to figure out if it’s the kind of wine she tends to like, Millicent and her ilk want a query letter or pitch to inform them up front what kind of a book the querier is offering.

That’s not so unreasonable, is it?

Or, better yet, think of it as a personal ad. (Oh, come on, admit it: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing yourself to someone with whom you are hoping to have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have close relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent — and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

This is a serious question. Look at your query letter and ponder: have you, as so many personal ads and queries do, been describing yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or have you figured out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spelled it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.

Yes, it really is that basic, in Millicent’s world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a historical romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Not very effective marketing, is it? Other than provoking idle speculation about precisely what kinds of activities would logically fall into the whatever category, appealing to both the beach-walker and the javelin-thrower, labeling this vague just isn’t all that intriguing.

Trust me, to the eyes of the publishing industry, this particular type of complexity doesn’t make a writer look interesting, or a book like an innovative genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.

Again: just how cordially do you think Millicent is going to respond to an invitation to play a guessing game with a total stranger? And don’t you want to know before you order a glass of wine whether it’s a white or a red?

Be specific, and describe your work in the language Millicent will understand. Because otherwise, you run the risk that she’s just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind should be grateful to read it.

And please, don’t allow a handful of rejections to convince you that you don’t have a marketable book. Remember, there was a time that wine sellers laughed whenever anyone said that good wine was being produced in the Napa Valley.

Ask the shade of Bob Mondavi: it took a whole lot of convincing — yes, and giving away a whole lot of sample tastes — to establish the region’s reputation to the point that a Napa Valley wine meant something specific in the potential buyer’s mind. About fifteen years’ worth, in fact.

Not a bad parallel for an established author’s quest to market her latest work vs. a first-time writer’s, eh?

Stop giggling; it’s true. If the potential buyer is already familiar with a winery’s reputation, it’s far easier to cajole him into taking a chance on its most recent vintage than if he’s never heard of it. It might take some persistent marketing to convince him to taste what’s in the bottle and judge for himself whether the wine’s any good.

Think about it: whose book are you more likely to pick up in a bookstore, a brand-new author’s first book or the latest from an author you’ve been reading for years? And how likely are you to look for a thriller in the romance section of the bookstore?

Label your work well. You want Millicent to ask to taste what’s in the bottle, don’t you?

Next time, I’ll get back to craft issues. Keep up the good work!