Let’s hear it one more time! (Or maybe not.)

Nixon on peter pan ride

Did my odd mid-week hiatus leave you wondering if I had slipped off for some holiday merry-making? No such luck; just swamped with work. That, and being comatose with depression over some recent news, international, national, and personal. I doubt 2009 is a year I shall remember fondly.

Or that writers in general will: this was the year that advances plummeted, especially for first-time authors. I was reading only just today that in the UK, advances as low as £500 on debut novels are now considered acceptable, even from major publishing houses. Lest those of us on this side of the pond are tempted to feel superior, the average advance for first-timers has dropped between 30 and 50%, although advances to authors already on the bestseller lists continue to spiral upward.

As the old-timers used to say: don’t quit your day job until someone other than your mother is buying copies of your work. To which I would add the latter-day caveat: and that work is your fifth book.

Sorry to be the bearer of such awful news, but I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers with completely unrealistic expectations about what publishers are willing to pay for brilliant writing. Many sincerely believe that it’s routine for writers who have successfully sold a first book to quit their proverbial day jobs the next day, but honestly, it’s been true for a long time that advances, especially on first novels, tend to be more in the new car range than the retire-for-life range.

And recently, they’ve been in the used car range, unless the manuscript happens to be one of the few that sells at auction. That’s just what it says on the box: if more than one publisher is interested in a book — a logistical impossibility for novels agents choose to submit, as many do, to only one editor at a time — then they will bid against each other for the rights. If the competition is fierce, that price can go quite high, of course, but for a first-time author, that’s pretty rare.

Why? Well, think about it: publishers can make educated guesses about what readers will buy, but there’s no way to know for certain, short of hopping on a time machine, what’s going to be the hot book a couple of years from now, right? So given the choice of shelling out up front for a book by an author who already has an established readership and one whose work is brand-new to bookstores, they tend to opt for the former.

All the more so in the last couple of years, when authors are increasingly being held responsible for promoting their own books, something considerably easier for an established author to do. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, wait a minute — if advances are dropping like stones, where is the small-but-serious author to get the resources to promote her own book?” congratulations; you’re understanding the current dilemma of many an exceptionally talented published author.

Starting to see why most published authors don’t quit their day jobs? And why staring glumly at the Senate health care debate on C-SPAN might have seemed like the least depressing way to spend a few hours than blogging about writing?

So how do the authors making a living at it make a living at it? For fiction, usually by having a number of books out. And teaching. And promoting the heck out of their books. Or by writing in different book categories, up to and including nonfiction.

For nonfiction, the picture is a trifle less grim, and remains so. That’s largely because (a) historically, it’s been easier to sell nonfiction than fiction, except for memoir, (b) a nonfiction writer doesn’t have to write the entire book before selling it, and thus can potentially market proposals for several different books in any given year, and (c) unlike fiction, which is typically sold on a finished manuscript, nonfiction writers are often paid to write the book before they’ve written the book (see point b). Yet even there, publishers are becoming increasingly cautions, even to the point of canceling long-established book contracts — especially the later books covered by multi-book contracts — if they’re not absolutely positive that the books in question will sell well.

See earlier comment about advances rising for bestselling authors. We writers often forget just how much greater a gamble taking a chance on a new writer actually is.

I mention all this not because misery loves company, but because writing a novel is so many day-job-having writers’ plan B. And plan Bs — and Cs and Ds and Qs — tend to get trotted out in a slow economy. Which, perversely, means that there’s simply more competition for the increasingly few publishing slots in any given year, both at the publishing house and agency level.

Translation: it’s been harder than usual to find an agent or sell a manuscript this year in the English-speaking world. Significantly harder. Just ask all of those published authors toiling away at their day jobs.

So please, as the year and the decade wind down, don’t fall into the trap of judging your writing purely by the yardstick of whether an agent fell in love with it, or an editor was able to move an editorial committee to cough up a couple of thousand dollars for the rights. Plenty of good books, plenty of brilliant books, even, got rejected this year.

Keep your chin up, literarily speaking, and remember: there will be other years. Recessions don’t last forever.

So what does a savvy-but-depressed writer do while waiting for advances to rise again? Why, the same thing one does during the annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s publishing world slow-down: work on one’s craft. And revise, revise, revise, so one’s manuscript’s chances are even better in the year to come.

Let’s hear some enthusiasm, people. I, for one, am raring to go.

Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. The screen goes wavy, and I see it all before me: I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all brown eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. Not that I was particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story, even then; the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean. Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives remained dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride; it was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. And the longer we stood in line, the less enthused I became.

Why, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!” After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions.

By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth; it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, walk into a popular café during a midwinter cold snap and count the variations on, “Wow, I’m cold?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to incessant repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up and excise all of that ambient redundancy.

Okay, not really. But it does make Millicent the agency screener mutter into her too-hot latte, “I KNOW that. Move on!” more than the average submitter might like.

At base, conceptual repetition is another trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.

Who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being an astronaut or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a depression-avoidance project for a rainy winter day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.

Okay, it’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

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