What do you mean, I have to describe my 400-page novel in under two minutes? Or: how to stop worrying and learn to love to pitch

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Happy Bastille Day, everyone! Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for me to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript!

Try to contain your excitement — or at any rate, don’t start cheering until I tell you that this year’s series will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon, answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find it on the category list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

But soft! Do I hear some grumbling out there? “But Anne,” a few scattered grumblers point out, “I’m a WRITER; I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

I must admit, oh grumblers, that you make a pretty good point. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer should give very serious thought to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if she were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage entirely — in fact, it could be said that a pitch is an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft. It can give you an edge.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it. Sorry.

So perhaps the title’s suggestion that you would learn to love doing it was a bit of an exaggeration. Survive it with your dignity intact may be closer to the truth — but hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, today we launch into the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. Writers tend to waltz into conferences with high expectations and nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Could the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions. (And for those of you seeking guidance in how to put together a submission packet, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right before you seal that envelope.)

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally good; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

However, truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but since I was too busy to post yesterday, let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy, but don’t tense up. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching. (Again, sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they?

See why I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams?

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides (for some tips on how to use these, please consult the AGENCY GUIDES category at right). Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do what they’re representing these days.

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come. Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Keep those expectations realistic and those hopes high. You can do this, honest. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part VI: professor, how can I make my dialogue more realistic?

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Did everyone have a nice Fourth of July? In order to teach me a lesson about realistic dialogue, apparently, Someone Up There arranged for me to spend it with a bevy of college professors. Nice people, all, full of charming chat about…

Wait a minute; I’ll bet I can read your minds. 90% of you have already decided that the conversation was stuffy, learned, and generally uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t happen to be conversant with particle physics, James Joyce, and/or the Bourbon Dynasty, haven’t you?

What makes me leap to that (in your case, possibly unwarranted) conclusion? Reading manuscripts for a living, that’s what. Rare is the professorial character who walks into a bar, sits down, and doesn’t immediately start spouting the greatest hits from his latest lecture. Usually right before he does something spectacularly absent-minded.

Seriously, the prating professor is one of the great unsung stereotypes of the literary world. Just ask any professional reader (agent, editor, contest judge, writing teacher, Millicent the agency screener) who happens to hold an advanced degree herself: it’s bound to be her pet peeve.

And with good reason: even manuscripts that conscientiously eschew the sulky teenager, the ditsy flight attendant, the corrupt politician, and the unattractive computer genius have been known to embrace the ever-lecturing lecturer with a vim that makes one wonder just how many aspiring writers were bored to death in college. Or high school. Or merely have never had the good fortune to hobnob with doctorate-holders at a social function.

The ugly, ugly result: like many a reader before her, a Millicent with a master’s degree is fated to roll her eyes over unrealistic dialogue.

Why, we were talking about that just the other day, weren’t we? If memory serves — and I’m quite positive that it does — just before I elected to ski down the slippery slope of dissecting all of the problems Hollywood narration can bestow upon a manuscript, I was already perched upon a soapbox, pointing out the pacing, voice, and storytelling dangers inherent to sneaking too much background information or physical description into interview scenes early in a novel submission.

Today, I’m clambering back up on that soapbox. Because, honestly, I’m reading as fast as I can, but I’m just not going to be able to read every manuscript in the English language before it lands upon the always-crowded desk of our old pal Millicent.

No doubt spilling her too-hot latte on her master’s hood, like the ones depicted above. Because, naturally, like everyone who has ever earned an advanced degree, she never takes of her robes, right?

While I’m adjusting my purple velvet doctoral tam — yes, really — allow me to recap a bit for those of you who missed the earlier posts in this series: an interview scene is one where a character, generally the protagonist, obtains information critical to the plot and/or character development from another character, extracted through dialogue. An inefficient interview scene is one in which, as is all too often the case in submissions, the narrator is not a particularly good interviewer. Or thinks that s/he is being clever by not just coming out and demanding the information s/he has ostensibly walked into the scene to collect.

Can you blame a reader for becoming a tad impatient with an interviewer who NEVER ASKS THE LOGICAL FOLLOW-UP QUESTION or JUST SITS THERE WITHOUT ASKING ANYTHING, waiting for the interview subject to spill his guts spontaneously?

If the reader in question happens to be Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or her Aunt Mehitabel the noted contest judge (hey, they’re a literary-minded family; advanced degree-holders, all), the consequences are usually even more serious: if s/he loses interest in the manuscript before her, she tends to stop reading.

In other words, “Next!”

How may a writer avoid this grisly fate? Here’s a good rule of thumb: while not everything that people say in real life makes good dialogue, it’s an excellent idea to make sure that all of your dialogue is in fact something a real person MIGHT say.

And here’s a secondary rule of thumb — a rule of forefinger, so to speak: that goes double for any dialogue that sounds anything remotely like Hollywood narration. Yes, if you have heard with your own tiny, shell-like ears a real person speak that way.

Remember, please, that dialogue is not automatically realistic just because a real person has at some point uttered it. As I have been pointing out none too gently throughout this series, real human beings tend not to tell one another things they already know — except, of course, about the weather (“Some heavy rains we’ve been having, eh?”), the relative progress sports teams (“How about them Red Sox?”), and tidbits from the latest celebrity death scandal (in the interests of moving this along, I’ll spare you all my eulogistic renditions of Ben and I’ll Be There, despite the fact that they happen to fall smack in the middle of my flute-like soprano range).

In print, such iterations of mundane issues are notably primarily for their soporific value. (Translation: zzzzz.) As storytelling, such homely gems just tend to slow down the action of the scene.

Interestingly enough, adhering to these two rules while revising almost always results in trimming interview scenes substantially. This is particularly true for interviews that provide the opening conflict in novels, where Hollywood narration and dialogue stuffed to the gills with visual clues about characters tend to congregate — and thus are likely to do the most damage.

I sense some shifting in seats out there. “Yeah, yeah,” the impatient are murmuring. “You already yammered at us about this last week, Anne. Cut to the chase, already.”

Funny, that last sentence is precisely what Millicent is often heard muttering over interview scenes. Without the last week part, that is.

But you have a legitimate point, impatient mutterers. However, in my earlier discussion of the phenomenon, I left out one of the primary reasons Millicent tends to have that particular knee-jerk reaction: if the first couple of pages of text are a bit heavy-handed, agency screeners, contest judges, and other professional readers usually leap to the conclusion that the ENTIRE text reads the same way.

An assumption, as you no doubt have already guessed, that conveniently enables Millie and her ilk to reject the descriptively front-loaded submission immediately and move swiftly on to the next.

I have seen a LOT of good manuscripts done in by this tendency. Because this is such a common problem, as an editor, one of the first places I look to trim is that first scene — which, as I mentioned a few days back, is very, very frequently an interview scene. My editing antennae perk up particularly strongly if the opening scene relies far more heavily upon dialogue than narration.

Why, all of you interview-writers ask in trembling tone? Well, see for yourself, in this piece of purple-tinted prose:

“Don’t you go rolling those large hazel eyes at me, Thelma,” Marcel warned. “It hasn’t worked on me since our days in the chorus twelve years ago, in that bizarre road company of Auntie Mame. And you can save the eyelash fluttering, too. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “That’s a fine criticism, coming from a man wearing false eyelashes. Just because you’re a drag queen doesn’t mean you can’t dress with some taste. I mean, bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

“What about you?” Marcel shot back. “In your puce bathrobe with purple magnolias dotted all over it still, at this time of day!”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. “Because you’re my best friend in the world, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: you’re too heavy-set for a miniskirt now, darling. Certainly if you’re not going to shave your legs. What are you now, forty-five and a size twenty-four?”

Marcel smoothed down his Technicolor orange wig. “At least at six feet, I’m tall enough to wear Armani with style. Your cramped five foot three wouldn’t even be visible on a catwalk.”

Admittedly, the banter here is kind of fun, but a judicious mixture of dialogue and narration would convey the necessary information less clumsily, without rendering the dialogue implausible. Try this moderately snipped version on for size:

Thelma rolled her large hazel eyes. Even ensconced in a ratty puce bathrobe that barely covered her short, round form, she carried herself like the Queen of the Nile.

Unfortunately for her dignity, her icy hauteur act had grown old for Marcel twelve years ago, three weeks into their joint chorus gig in that chronically under-attended road tour of Auntie Mame. “You can save the eyelash fluttering, sweetheart. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “You’re a fine one to talk taste. Bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

His thick, black false eyelashes hit where his pre-plucked eyebrow had originally been; his current fanciful impression of an eyebrow swooped a good four inches higher, threatening to merge with his Technicolor orange wig. Even for a career drag queen, his moue of surprise was a bit overdone. “Will you be getting dressed today, darling?” he asked brightly. “Or should I just get you another bottle of gin, to complete your Tallulah Bankhead impression?”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. He was getting too heavy to wear fishnets every night; still, not bad gams, for a forty-five-year-old. “If you insist upon wearing a miniskirt, my sweet, you might want to consider shaving your legs.”

Same information, but more naturally presented, right? By having the narration take over the bulk of the descriptive burden, a rather amusing narrative voice has emerged, conveying a point of view distinct from either Marcel or Thelma’s.

I can hear my mutterers muttering again, can I not? “Okay, so the second version has a stronger narrative voice,” they concede. “But even so, all of that physical description makes the scene drag a bit, doesn’t it?”

Yes, and that brings me back to my closing question from earlier in this series: other than the fact that television and movies have accustomed us all to having an instantaneous picture in our heads of a story’s protagonist, is there a reason that a narrative must include a photographic-level description of a character the instant s/he appears in the book?

I’ll go ahead and answer that one myself: no, there isn’t; TV and movies have simply accustomed us to the notion that our first impressions of any character should be visual, just as in radio, we first hear him speak.

In a visual medium, there’s plenty of reason to give the audience a snapshot, but books are not visual media; narratives can appeal to all of the senses. So the next time you sit down to ponder revising the first few pages of a novel, it’s worth investing a moment or two in pondering the possibility that there is no such reason.

Consider it, perhaps, while sitting with a hard copy of your first few pages in your hand. Is there backstory or physical description in your opening dialogue that could come more gradually, later in the chapter — or even later in the book?

Or – and this is a possibility that occurs frequently to professional readers of interview scenes, let me tell you — is that Hollywood narration or description-laced dialogue the book’s way of telling us that perhaps the book opens at the wrong part of the story?

I hope that didn’t make anyone out there faint; my kind of doctorate doesn’t allow me to resuscitate the fallen with impunity.

Might, for instance, we learn more about Thelma and Marcel in a more graceful manner if, instead of beginning the novel with the dialogue above, it opened with a short prologue showing them twelve years ago, bright-eyed, innocent, and slim — and then jumped ahead to this scene, to show how they and their relationship have changed?

Dramatic, eh? One might even say character-revealing.

Of course, front-loading an opening scene with physical description is not necessarily an indicator of a structural problem. I suspect that often, writers who use this technique as a means of introducing description are driven primarily by a panicked sense that the reader must be told what the characters look like the instant they appear in the text – combined with a recollection that their high school writing teachers said that too-extensive physical descriptions in the narrative are dull. So they’re sort of trying to, you know, sneak the physical description in when the reader isn’t looking.

Trust me, a professional reader is ALWAYS looking. It’s her job.

Looking specifically, in the case of an agency screener or editorial assistant plugging through a mountain of submissions, for a reason to reject the manuscript in front of her. By avoiding the common twin traps of overloading the first scene with crammed-in backstory and physical description, a manuscript stands a much greater chance of cajoling Millicent into reading on to scene #2.

And we all want that, don’t we?

I sense more impatient shifting in the peanut gallery. “Um, Anne?” these fed-up folks say. “Isn’t this the same point you made above? I get it, already: don’t use dialogue to have characters describe one another. Have you considered that there might not be a reason to keep telling us this?”

Ah, but you’re assuming that I’ve already made my primary point. Far from it; like other doctors, we book medicos bill for our advice by the hour. Relax; we’ve still got some time left in our session.

So here comes some professional wisdom: after a screener has had the privilege of scanning a thousand manuscripts or so, it becomes pretty clear that many aspiring writers don’t really understand what the writing gurus mean when they urge us all to open with a hook.

A hook, for those of you new to the term, is a grabber located within the first paragraph of a story or book — preferably within the first sentence, according to some writing teachers — that so intrigues the reader that s/he is instantly sucked into the story. (This is not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a one- or two-sentence pitch for a script or book. See the so-named category on the list at right, if you are curious about the care and feeding of the latter.)

Often, aspiring writers will interpret the advice to open with a hook to mean that a storyline must open with violent or even bloody action, a mystery that the reader will want to solve, or a conflict-ridden scene. While admittedly Millicent sees a whole lot of manuscripts that open with a bang (with or without gushes of blood), all of these strategic choices can indeed work, if handled well.

Although let me tell you, they are such common choices that it’s a downright relief to most professional readers when a writer elects to open with a powerful visual or sensual image instead.

What’s even more common than the book that kicks off with conflict? An beginning that insists that the reader must be 100% up to speed on the plot and characters by the bottom of page 1 — or page 5 at the latest.

Again, that vexing question rears its ugly head: is this strictly necessary?

Brace yourselves, because I’m about to suggest a revision technique that may shock some of you: just as an experiment, try removing the first scene of your book.

Not permanently, mind you — and certainly not without having made a backup copy of the original first, in case you decide after mature and careful consideration that what I’m about to suggest next was a stupid idea: cut it just long enough to find out whether the story would make sense to the reader without it. If it can fly that way, consider cutting the scene entirely and starting fresh slightly later in the plot.

I’m quite serious about this — you wouldn’t believe how many good manuscripts don’t actually begin until a couple of scenes in, or that allow absolutely gorgeous opening sentences or images to languish on page 4. Or page 15.

Or the beginning of Chapter Three.

Yes, I know: what I’m suggesting is potentially pretty painful; as we discussed in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series (still conveniently accessible in the category list at right, in case you missed it), many, many aspiring writers regard the approach of the reviser’s pen with every bit of the fear and loathing that the published writer feels for governmental censorship. But it’s just a fact that when we’re first constructing a narrative, we writers are not always right about where the story should begin and end.

If you don’t believe this, I can only suggest that you take a gander at THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, an undoubted masterpiece that could have lost most of the first 200 pages without bugging the reader much at all.

(That’s a professional opinion, by the way. One of the great fringe benefits of having walls lined with diplomas from prestigious institutions is the ability make sweeping judgments like that about classics without fear of sounding ignorant. While I’m at it, allow me to add: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is a stupid play, and I found A TALE OF TWO CITIES far-fetched. So there.)

Try to keep an open mind while you’re revising. Be willing to consider the possibility that your story might be more effective — and hook the reader better — if you began it at a different point. Or at least do a little field testing to rule it out.

Believe me, you’ll sleep better at night if you do.

How do I know this, you ask? Because now, I’ve planted the doubt in your mind. As much as you might pooh-pooh the idea that all or part of your opening could be snipped away without fundamental harm to the storyline, you can’t be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s a stupid suggestion without going back over it pretty rigorously, can you?

You’re welcome — and I mean that very seriously, because an aspiring writer who is willing to examine and reexamine her writing before she submits it is going to have a much, much easier time coping with editorial feedback later on in the process.

Trust me; I’m a doctor. That diploma over there says so.

By the way, what the group of professors were discussing when I walked into the Fourth of July party was Charles Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE. After I laughed and told them that this was precisely the type of conversation people who didn’t know any professors would write for them, one of them said, “Yes, and the funny thing is, this is a conversation we normally wouldn’t have outside a Dickens conference.”

I rest my case. Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part V: Hollywood Narration, poor public communication, and what’s the difference between a narrative voice and a voice-over, anyway?

Aspiring writer on the job, keeping the metropolis safe from Hollywood Narration

Aspiring writer on the job, making the world safe from Hollywood Narration

You know how I keep saying that real life perpetually volunteers examples at just the point I could really, really use them on the blog? Well, it’s happened again: I was actually writing yesterday’s post on Hollywood Narration and how annoying a poor interviewer character can be, when the phone rang: it was a pre-recorded, computerized political opinion poll. Now, I don’t find polls much fun to take, but since I used to do quite a bit of political writing, I know that the mere fact that the polled so often hang up on such calls can skew the accuracy of the results.

Case in point: the number of percentage points by which most polls miscalled the last presidential election’s results.

So I stayed on the line, despite the graininess of the computer-generated voice, so poorly rendered that I occasionally had trouble making out even proper names. A minute or so in, the grating narrator began retailing the respective virtues and aspirations of only two candidates in a multi-player mayoral race — neither of the candidates so lauded was the current mayor, I couldn’t help but notice — asking me to evaluate the two without reference to any other candidate.

In politics, this is called a push poll: although ostensibly, its goal is to gather information from those it calls, its primary point is to convey information to them, both as advertisement and to see if responders’ answers change after being fed certain pieces of information. In this poll, for instance, the inhumanly blurred voice first inquired which of nine candidates I was planning to honor with my vote (“I haven’t made up my mind yet because the primary is a month and a half away” was not an available option, although “no opinion” was ), then heaped me with several paragraphs of information about Candidate One, a scant paragraph about Candidate Two, before asking me which of the two I intended to support.

Guess what they wanted my answer to be?

Contrary to popular opinion, although push polls are usually used to disseminate harmful information about an opponent (through cleverly-constructed questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate X if you knew that he secretly belonged to a cult that regularly sacrifices goats, chickens, and the odd goldfish?”), the accuracy of the information conveyed is not the defining factor, but the fact of masking advertisement under the guise of asking questions, In a well-designed push poll, it’s hard to tell which candidates or issues are being promoted, conveying the illusion of being even-handed, to preserve the impression of being an impartial poll.

Yesterday’s call, however, left no doubt whatsoever as to which local candidates had commissioned it: the list of a local city councilwoman’s attributes took almost twice as long for the robot voice to utter, at a level of clarity that made the other candidates’ briefer, purely factual blurb sound, well, distinctly inferior. Even his name was pronounced less distinctly. To anyone even vaguely familiar with how polls are constructed, it was completely obvious that the questions had, at best, been constructed to maximize the probability of certain responses, something that legitimate pollsters take wincing pains to avoid, as well as to cajole innocent phone-answerers into listening to an endorsement for a political candidate.

To be blunt, I haven’t heard such obvious plugging since the last time I attended a party at a literary conference, when an agent leaned over me in a hot tub to pitch a client’s book at the editor floating next to me. In fact, it’s the only push poll I’ve ever encountered that actually made me change my mind about voting for a candidate that I formerly respected.

Why am I telling you fine people about this at all, since I seldom write here on political issues and I haven’t mentioned who the commissioning candidate was ? (And I’m not going to — the pushed candidate is someone who has done some pretty good things for the city in the past, and is furthermore reputed to be a holy terror to those who cross her — although something tells me it may crop up when I share this story with my neighbors at the July 4th potluck. Unlike the polling firm, I’m not out to affect the outcome of the election.)

I’m bringing it up because of what writers can learn from this handily-timed phone call. True, we could glean from it that, obviously, far too much of my education was devoted to learning about how statistics are generated. A savvy interpreter might also conclude that cutting campaign expenditures by hiring polling firms that use badly-faked human voices is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But most vital to our ongoing series, it’s important in an interview scene to make it clear who is the information-solicitor and who the information-revealer.

If the interviewer’s biases are heavy-handedly applied, he/she/the computer-generated voice appears to be trying to influence the content of the answers by how the questions are phrased. (As pretty much all political poll questions are designed to do; sorry to shatter anyone’s illusions on the subject, but I’ve written them in the past.) While a pushy interviewer can make for an interesting scene if the interviewee resists his/her/its ostensibly subtle blandishments, the reader may well side against a protagonist who interviews like a push poller.

The moral of the story: impartial questions are actually rather rare in real life. When constructing an interview scene, it’s vital to be aware of that — and how much interviewees tend to resent being push-polled, if they realize that’s what’s happening.

Got all that? Good. Because the plot is about to thicken in an even more instructive way. Let us return to our story of civic communicative ineptitude, already in progress.

Being a good citizen — happy Fourth of July, by the way — as well as having more than a passing familiarity with how much a poorly-executed campaign ad (which this poll effectively was) can harm an otherwise praiseworthy candidate, I took the time out of my busy schedule to drop the campaign manager an e-mail. I felt pretty virtuous for doing this: I was probably not the only potential voter annoyed by the pseudo-poll, but I was probably the only one who would actually contact the campaign to say why.

You know me; I’m all about useful feedback.

So I sent it off and thought no more about it — until this morning, when the campaign manager sent me the following e-mailed reply:

Dear Dr. Mini,

Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the feedback on any of our voter contact and outreach efforts. In everything we do, we want to make the best and most professional impression. You are right that automated surveys are cost competitive {sic}. In this situation, the need for feedback from voters was important {sic} and we hope that almost everyone was able to hear the questions clearly.

I have included the following link to an article on what push polling is {sic} (address omitted, but here’s the relevant link). I assure you that our campaign does not and will not ever be involved in push polling.

Thank you for supporting (his candidate) for Mayor {sic}.

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly polite, if poorly punctuated, response, doesn’t it? He acknowledged the fact that I had taken the time to communicate my critique, gave a justification (albeit an indirect one) for having used computerized polling, and reassured an anxious potential voter that his candidate’s policy was to eschew a practice that I had informed him I found offensive.

On a second read, he’s saying that he’s not even going to check in with the pollsters to see if my objections were valid, since obviously I am stone-deaf and have no idea what push polling is. Oh, and since push polling is bad, and my candidate is not bad, therefore no polls commissioned on her behalf could possibly be push polling. Thank you.

In short: vote for my candidate anyway, so I may head up the future mayor’s staff. But otherwise, go away, and you shouldn’t have bugged me in the first place.

To add stupidity icing to the cake of insolence, the article to which he referred me for enlightenment on how I had misdefined push polling confirmed my use of the term, not his: “A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud – and thus still a ‘push poll’ – even if the facts of the ‘questions’ are technically true or defensible.”

Wondering again why I’m sharing this sordid little episode with you? Well, first, to discourage any of you from making the boneheaded mistake of not bothering to read an article before forwarding the link to somebody. An attempt to pull intellectual rank is never so apparent as when if falls flat on its face.

Second, see how beautifully his resentment that I had brought up the issue at all shines through what is ostensibly a curt business letter, one that he probably thought was restrained and professional when he hit the SEND key? If any of you is ever tempted to respond by e-mail, letter, or phone to a rejection from an agent or editor, this is precisely why you should dismiss the idea immediately as self-destructive: when even very good writers are angry, they tend not to be the best judges of the tone of their own work.

And when a writer is less talented…well, you see the result above.

Another reason you should force yourself not to hit SEND: such follow-ups are considered both rude and a waste of time by virtually everyone in the industry. (For a fuller explanation why, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Like a campaign manager’s telling an offended voter that her concerns are irrelevant for semantic reasons, it’s just not a strategy that’s at all likely to convince your rejector that his earlier opinion of you was mistaken.

Trust me: I’ve been on every conceivable side of this one. Just hold your peace — unless, of course, you would like the recipient of your missive to do precisely what I’ve done here, tell everyone within shouting distance precisely what happened when you didn’t observe the standing norms of professionalism and courtesy.

Yes, it happens. As you see, the anecdote can be made very funny.

Okay, back to the business at hand. Last time, I sensed some of you writers of first-person narratives cringing at the prospect of minimizing the occurrence of Hollywood Narration — when one character tells another something that both parties already know, purely in the interests of bringing the reader up to speed — in your manuscripts.

Oh, don’t deny it: at least 10% of you novelists, and close to 100% of memoir-writers — read through my excoriation of Hollywood Narration and thought, “Oh, no — my narrator is CONSTANTLY updating the reader on what’s going on, what has gone on, other characters’ motivations, and the like. I thought that was okay, because I hear that done in movies all the time. But if Hollywood Narration on the printed page is one of Millicent the agency screener’s numerous pet peeves, I’d better weed out anything in my manuscript that sounds remotely like screenplay dialogue, and pronto! But where should I begin? HELP!”

Okay, take a deep breath: I’m not saying that every piece of movie-type dialogue is a red flag if it appears in a manuscript. What I’ve been arguing is that including IMPLAUSIBLE movie-type dialogue can be fatal to a manuscript’s chances.

Remember, in defining Hollywood Narration, 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. It’s immeasurably better — and much closer to the rough cut that Philip K. Dick saw himself before he died. Trust me on this one.)

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 way; 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 fledgling 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 while he’s waiting for his book to hit the big time. 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, as we discussed yesterday, most of us have 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. In film, it’s an accepted narrative convention.”

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 –or political operatives — 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, if only for the novelty of it. And I don’t know if you noticed, but wasn’t it far more effective for me to allow the campaign manager to hang himself with his own words, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about his communication skills and tact levels before I gave my narrative opinion of them, rather than the other way around? Trick o’ the trade.)

Trust me, when Millicent is pondering submissions, you want your manuscript to fall into the novelty category, not the far more common reads-like-a-movie-script pile. Which, as often as not, also serves as the rejection pile.

No, I’m not kidding about that. By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed — so much so that the vast majority of Millicents are trained simply to stop reading a submission when it breaks out into Hollywood Narration. In fact, it’s such a pervasive professional reader’s pet peeve that I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

Funny to observe? Yes — unless you happen to be the aspiring writer who submitted that dialogue.

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. As a general rule of thumb, one bad laugh is enough to get a submission rejected.

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 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? (And in the story about the campaign manager, didn’t you find it just a trifle refreshing that he didn’t speak exactly like a character on THE WEST WING?)

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?”

So can any other good first reader, of course, if you’re not into joining groups, but for the purposes of catching Hollywood Narration and other logical problems, more eyes tend to be better than fewer. Not only are multiple first readers more likely to notice any narrative gaffe than a single one — that’s just probability, right? — but when an aspiring writer selects only one first reader, he usually chooses someone who shares his cultural background.

His politics, in other words. His educational level. His taste in television and movie viewing — and do you see where I’m heading with this? If you’re looking for a reader who is going to flag when your dialogue starts to sound Spielbergish, it might not be the best idea to recruit the person with whom you cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Spielberg flick, might it?

I just mention.

One excellent request to make of first readers when you hand them your manuscript is to ask them to 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…”

Ask them to consider: should the lines that follow these statements be cut? Do they actually add meaning to the scene, or are they just the author’s subconscious way of admitting that this is Hollywood Narration?

Another good indicator that dialogue might be trending in the wrong direction: 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 get you into the habit of spotting them. 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?”

Flagging the warning signs is a trick that works well for isolated writers self-editing, too: once again, those highlighter pens are a revising writer’s best friends. Mark the relevant phrases, then go back through the manuscript, reexamining the sentences that surround them to see whether they should be reworked into more natural dialogue.

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 “By gum, 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?

Okay, that’s more than enough homework to ponder over a holiday weekend, I think, and enough civic involvement for one day. Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, part III, in which I stop resisting the urge to nag novelists about Hollywood narration and just get on with it, already

superman-in-pink

Last time, I introduced you to that most pervasive killer of dialogue realism, Hollywood Narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. To save you confusion in future critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should hasten to add that the term Hollywood Narration is mine; due to the phenomenon’s 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.

What’s so wrong with it? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is an interview scene with no interviewer but the author. Leaving the reader to wonder: why the heck is that character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it?”

As we discussed yesterday, the reason’s usually quite simple: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood Narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show the phenomenon in action, wouldn’t it?

It isn’t always easy to catch in revision, you know. Hollywood Narration can be very subtle, as in this dialogue excerpt:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it? Clark is telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for five years?

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Roger pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Sandra shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Tina came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Martha managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after old Doc Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Arnold said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Arnold didn’t ask Sandra for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue — nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Don’t all shout the answer at once; the narrative itself gave a major clue here. To a professional reader, the fact that Arnold said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once. This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information.

In other words, the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s pitch. (And if the logical beauty of that statement didn’t make you smack your head with wonder, don’t worry: we’ll start talking about pitching next week.) Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that advice? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “yesterday, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader?”

Good question, up fronters. How about by placing them in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot of the book — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a thought.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel like a satisfying way to cram a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, it’s actually one of the weakest kind of openings — so much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he dislikes manuscripts to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing all week, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

How do I know that, those of you currently clutching your chests demand? One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that exaggeration and sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see that open with this type of dialogue. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common. The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first page:

”So, Arnold, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Bertha asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man chuckled ruefully. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Penelope, fell off the handlebars of Arnold 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 like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Andrews, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Andrews’ rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Bertha sighed. “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. “How could I forget? 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. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or 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?” Arnold 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, Arnold, 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?” Arnold 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 most easily-identifiable form.

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.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership just spontaneously decided to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

Next time, I’ll give you a few pointers on ferreting out Hollywood narration, bad laughter, and other inadvertent dialogue mishaps. In the meantime, keep up the good work!