What was that again? Or, I did not know it then, but a Gila monster was about to come of a clear blue sky and change my life forever

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I passed through two different airports today, my friends — more travel on behalf of the Grumpy Relative, who continues to ail, alas — so I can state with authority that metal detectors in at least two states are cranked up farm far past normal levels of scrutiny. How do I know? Because in both airports, rows of busty women were being re-scanned while those with dinner plate-sized belt buckles were waltzing through security.

That’s right, folks: underwires are setting off metal detectors again. I tremble for democracy.

Back to business, now that I’m home again. For the past week or so, I have been talking about ways to self-edit your work in order to pick up the pace. In pursuit of that estimable goal, I went on a tear yesterday about redundancy, particularly word and phrase repetition. And you, bless your persistent souls, bore with me through it.

Today, I shall shift gears a little, to focus on another pet peeve that makes Millicent the agency screener poke her pen through the page where it appears because she just can’t help herself: concept repetition.

Again and again (and again in manuscripts, good narratives get sidetracked by a compulsion to explain what has just occurred, even if the original telling was quite clear, as though the author did not believe that the specifics of an incident, exchange, or character revelation could possibly have conveyed his intention for the scene. Like so:

Herman blanched. “You can’t possibly mean that, Susan. You wouldn’t go to the police.”

“Yeah?” Susan drew herself up to her full seven and a half feet. “Just watch me, Bozo.”

Herman was frightened — really frightened, even more than the time when his ex-wife had threatened to season his veal stew with liberal dashes of arsenic if he repeated that joke about the guy who walked into a bar with a duck on his head just one more time. What if Susan really meant it this time? What would he do? What would he tell the police? More seriously, would the police arrest him on Susan’s word alone? Strange, how the mere fact that she was glaring down at him left him even more frightened.

See the problem here — or rather, the problems? This excerpt utilizes yesterday’s faux pas, word repetition (Herman’s sure frightened a lot, isn’t he? And how many ways does the reader need to be informed that Susan is freakishly tall?). It also, from Millicent’s perspective, adds conceptual insult to literal redundancy by devoting a paragraph to explaining an emotional response that was already clear from blanched in line 1: Herman was scared.

From an editing perspective, that means almost half of the verbiage here could be cut without affecting the meaning of the passage at all. More than half, if the person doing the editing trusted the reader enough to assume that the mere mention of telling the police something implies the possibility of subsequent arrest:

Herman blanched. “You can’t possibly mean that, Susan. You wouldn’t go to the police.”

“Yeah?” Susan drew herself up to her full seven and a half feet. “Just watch me, Bozo.”

What if she really meant it this time? Would the police take her word over his?

Not as much fun as the original version, perhaps, but you must admit that it gets the job done, plot-wise. In a scant 47 words, rather than 126.

Out of context, that may not seem like a significant reclamation of page space, but to an aspiring writer whose magnum opus is 401 pages when his brand-new agent insists that she cannot possibly sell the book if it breaks the infamous 100,000 word barrier (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman in standard format), a several-line cut this easy to achieve is going to seem like manna from heaven.

Pop quiz: did you catch the other type of conceptual redundancy that sets professional readers’ teeth on edge in that last paragraph? No? Well, perhaps Millicent’s reaction will help you find it: “Oh, for Pete’s sake! Where ELSE does manna come from?”

Yes, professional readers’ hackles often are that easily raised; remember, these people are trained to read CLOSELY. And since it’s Millicent’s job to narrow down the potential client pool from amongst the many, many submissions her agency receives to a small handful, it’s not uncommon for even a single flash of annoyance to be enough to knock a submission out of the running.

While you’re hyperventilating over that last one, I might as well add: the same holds true of contest entries. If anything, contest judges tend to take umbrage a trifle more quickly than Millicent.

Why the hair-trigger rejection impulse? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and join in our perennial chorus: because any well-respected literary contest, like any well-established agency, will receive enough perfectly-formatted, well-written manuscripts free of typos, logic problems, and redundancy that those screening them can afford to read with an unforgiving eye. Seldom, if ever, are contest judges, agents, or editors looking for fixer-upper manuscripts; they want something already in excellent shape.

Depressing? Heck, yes — so why am I risking ruining your day by bringing it up? Because an aspiring writer who walks into contest entry prep or submission to an agency aware of these facts is far more likely to succeed than one who does not. If s/he acts upon that information in the revision process, at least.

Everyone with me so far? I’m going to assume that all of that hyperventilating out there indicates a yes.

Which renders this a dandy time to bring up a less common but still worth mentioning type of conceptual redundancy, summarizing what is about to happen BEFORE the scene occurs, often in the dramatic-sounding historical future tense: Little did I know that this was my last day of work or What was to come was still worse, and similar transitional sentiments.

Why is beginning a scene or story with this kind of sentence problematic in a submission? It’s jarring to the editorial eye, because it’s telling the story backwards: conclusion first, followed by how one gets there. It’s hard to build suspense if the reader already knows the outcome, after all. Do it too many times in a row, and the narrative risks yanking the reader out of the story altogether.

Memoirists are particularly fond of this sort of foreshadowing. As in this sterling example:

I had no way of knowing that the events of the next day would shatter my childish innocence forever. When I got up in the morning, the sun seemed to be shining upon me beneficently.

I ambled downstairs to the breakfast nook, as usual, blithely unaware of the horror that was going to befall me before I finished my bowl of cornflakes decorated with fresh strawberries hand-sliced by the kindly soul I knew at the time as Mom. Or was she?

I was soon to find out. “Sit down, Georgie,” she said, pouring milk over my breakfast. “I have something particularly shocking to tell you.”

Enough, already: by now, no reader on the face of God’s green earth is going to find what comes next surprising. The build-up has been too great.

And frankly, totally unnecessary, from an editorial perspective. Like most professional readers, I like to be surprised when childish innocence is shattered — don’t warn me in advance.

And is there really a reader out there who needs to be told that a character got up in the morning to have breakfast? Tell me if it’s the dead of night or 5 pm, but if it’s not, trust me to be able to put two and two together and not come up with the square root of 2,367.

How might a savvy self-editor streamline in this passage to avoid letting the proverbial cat out of the bag about the genuine surprise while not over-explaining the obvious? Hint: virtually any revelation is more startling, not less, if it comes out of a relatively clear blue sky:

When I got up, the sun was shining upon me beneficently. I ambled downstairs to the breakfast nook.

As usual, Mom was decorating my bowl of cornflakes with hand-sliced fresh strawberries. “Sit down, Georgie,” she said, pouring milk over my breakfast. “I have something particularly shocking to tell you. I’m not your mother; in fact, I’m not even human. I’m a Gila monster that attained the ability to speak English through the freak radioactivity accident that claimed the life of your real mother.”

Come on, admit it: you didn’t see that coming, did you?

See a pattern developing in the before versions vs. the after versions? At base, unnecessary narrative summary, before or after the fact, are indicative of writerly insecurity. How so? Well, to a professional reader’s eye, they demonstrate that the writer is having a hard time believing that his target reader can follow the prevailing logic.

In other words, the writer just doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence, so he explains more than once what is going on, just to be sure. As in:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. It offended her sensibilities as a civilized person. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.

I may be leaping to unwarranted conclusions here, but I would assume that the number of potential readers whose sensibilities would NOT be offended by the sight of a human sacrifice is small enough that a contemporary writer might safely regard their critique as negligible. Personally, I am apt to assume that my readers are not given to sacrificing human, goat, or anything else that wiggles, so I would trim this passage accordingly:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.

Has the passage genuinely lost meaning through this edit? I think not — but it has lost a line of text. And on the day when your agent calls you up and tells you, “The editor says she’ll take the book if you can make it 5,000 words shorter!” you’ll be grateful for every single expendable line.

Sometimes, the author’s mistrust of the reader’s level of comprehension is so severe that she goes so far as to recap a particular set of facts’ importance as if the paragraph in question were in the synopsis, rather than in the text. For example:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew,” Doris said, wiping her nose for the tenth time. She was prone to allergies that stuffed up her nose and rendered her vision blurry; moving here with her husband, Tad, her two adorable children, Newt (6) and Stephanie (8), and their pet ocelot Rex into a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers, then, had probably been a poor idea.

While such a paragraph might work very well in a synopsis, serving as an agent or editor’s first introduction to Doris and her family, but in a manuscript, it reads awkwardly. (Don’t believe me? Try reading it out loud.) Since so much information is crammed into so few lines, it does not flow very well, so this passage would be a poor choice for the opening of a novel, or even the beginning lines of a chapter.

Yet if it appeared later in the text, wouldn’t the reader already know that Doris was married, had two children and an ocelot, and had moved recently? Wouldn’t this information be redundant, in fact? And if that weren’t reason enough to do some serious trimming here, as any comedian can tell you, nothing kills a good joke so quickly as too much explanation.

Such global statements pop up in mid-text more often than you might think in submissions, though. To be fair, there’s a reason you probably wouldn’t think it, if you read a fair amount: editors at publishing houses tend to leap upon this particular species of redundancy with all the vim of Rex pouncing upon a nice piece of red meat; as a result, one doesn’t see it much in published books.

All the more reason to excise similar passages from your submissions, I say. Look how much snappier poor Doris’ plight is with the background trimmed:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew.” Doris wiped her nose for the tenth time, ruing the day she had bought a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers. It doesn’t matter if the scenery is magnificent when your eyes are too blurry to discern either distant mountains or your own driveway.

Partially, I think, reiterative over-explanation turns up in manuscripts because our ears have been trained by movies and TV to expect a certain amount of conceptual redundancy. Almost any important clue in a screenplay will be repeated at least once, and often more, just in case some poor slob in the audience missed it the first time.

There is a long theatrical tradition of this stripe of redundancy, of course: in ancient Greek drama, a chorus provided frequent recaps of what had happened so far in the play. My college classics professor opined that this handy service, a sort of 5th century BC Cliff Notes, made it easier for spectators to nip out to have compact affairs with temple dancers and their neighbors’ wives; they could always catch up on the plot when they returned.

It’s amazing what one retains from long-ago lectures, isn’t it? You should have heard what he thought those figures cavorting on the sides of vases were doing.

But readers have an important advantages over the audience of a play — or at least they did before TiVo and rewind-able videotapes: books these days are cleverly designed so you may turn pages forward OR backward. Thus, if a reader has forgotten a major fact already mentioned in the text, she can flip back and look for it.

The moral: trusting in your reader’s intelligence — or at any rate her ability to figure out where to find information revealed earlier, even if she cannot recall it in detail — is an important step in becoming an effective self-editor. If your plot requires additional explanation here or there because you’ve moved too swiftly, believe me, an agent or editor will be happy point it out to you.

More tips on weeding out invidious pace-slowers and Millicent-annoyers follow in posts to come. Assume an intelligent and easily-miffed readership for your submissions, folks, and keep up the good work!

Getting out of your protagonist’s head and into the — text?

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Sorry about the sporadic posts of late, campers — the Grumpy Relative’s health woes continue, and I’ve been trying to spend as much time with GR as humanly possible of late. Turns out that keyboards are surprisingly noisy when someone is trying to sleep.

Tonight, though, I may bang on the keys as much as I like. That’s fortunate, because I’ve been eager to get back to our ongoing discussion of techniques to tighten up a sluggish manuscript.

Standard disclaimer: because every manuscript is as different as the proverbial snowflake, there’s no way to come up with a list of pacing rules that applicable to every one. As I mentioned last time, every writer has preferred means of slowing down or speeding up text.

Thus my asking you to take marking pens to your manuscript. To identify what could use trimming, you need to recognize your particular writing patterns. So let’s get back to the nitty-gritty, shall we?

In my last post, I asked you — politely, I hope — to sit down with some of your favorite chapters throughout your book and differentiate by colored markings abstract vs. concrete statements of characterization.

You remember the difference, right? Abstract statements bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, actions: Pierre felt morose, Jerry was sexy, Maura was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc. Such sentences can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that’s a technique that can come in very handy. When an action scene, for instance, suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl. Or in a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements (and generally speaking, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically polished), the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Sound familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both, and the appropriate ratio of abstract to concrete varies quite a bit by genre. Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I cherish that.)

That’s one of the primary reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see. (Some other popular reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.)

Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear. Context matters — and so does book category.

How, you ask? Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership (not a bad definition of literary fiction, incidentally) written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily. (Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?) There’s just no substitute for familiarity with one’s chosen book category.

Hey, here’s a hint to pass along to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: how about stuffing a grateful writer’s stocking with the five best books released within the last year in his or her book category?

(Note to those of you being driven mad by my frequent use of the term: there’s no such thing as a published book in the United States market that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. That’s simply how publishers and booksellers think of books. For some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right.)

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. That being said, however, it is worth noting that on any given reading day, the average agent, editor, or contest judge sees a whole lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking, if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off in most types of submission.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in what you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s go ahead and dig up those yellow-and-red pages from last time. But this time grab a third color of pen –- let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate — and…

1. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so bear with me through a small scene. The sentences destined for marker overcoats are in caps:

I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT, BERTRAND THOUGHT.

WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Emintrude asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”

OH, WOULD ONLY THAT HIS ONGOING DISSATISFACTION WITH THEIR MARRIAGE STEMMED FROM A SOURCE AS SIMPLE AS NAUSEA. WAS HIS WIFE HONESTLY SO SOULLESS THAT SHE COULDN’T FEEL THEIR WELL-MANICURED LAWN CREEPING UP THE DOORSTEP TO SMOTHER THEM IN SEDUCTIVE NORMALCY? “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

Finished? Okay, now humor me a little and get a fourth color of pen — purple, anyone? — and…

2. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from last time around, but plow ahead nevertheless, please.

Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what “Get out of your character’s head!” means, at least not most of the time. Generally, it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a telling detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you: show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more popular with professional readers like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses. And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive.

To put it bluntly, a novel that conveys protagonist response in other ways a significant proportion of the time will enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so VERY common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.) Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud.

That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, most submissions in practically every book category would be better received by Millicent if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Ermintrude was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Bertrand’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Bertrand!” Ermintrude’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How green is it? How heavy purple is that prose?

Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and purple-marked sentences – note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or green between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or green, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the four-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

Stellar self-editing takes bravery, my friends – but I know you’re up to it. Keep up the good work!

Trimming that overstuffed manuscript down to size

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Before I launch into today’s musings, here’s a heads-up for Washington writers: applications are due December 7 for the 2010 EDGE Program for Writers, sponsored by the Artist Trust. Designed to help working writers at all levels of their careers expand their professional acumen, the EDGE program provides six weeks of intensive professional development classes, including topics such as:

*professional presentation on paper, on the web and in live readings
*how to research and take advantage of funding resources and opportunities available to writers
*how to prepare a successful grant proposal and budget
*time management, goal setting and developing a brand as a writer
*how to identify key audiences and determine marketing directions for literary works
*financial management; legal issues such as copyright and intellectual
property, and working with and as independent contractors

Not to mention the ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) value of winning a place in this prestigious program! For a full description and printable application, click here.

While I’m at it, a quick reminder about an ongoing contest right here on this site: there are just a few short aphorism-gathering days left in the the share your favorite inspirational writing-related quote contest. Specifically, entries will be accepted through midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, December 6.

This is a fun and easy opportunity not only to share your favorite keeping-the-faith quote with the rest of the Author! Author! community, the one that keeps you going through those dark nights of the soul when the muses seem to have left the building permanently — and to win a free copy of LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS.

A description of the latter and substantially more encouragement to enter the contest appears here, of course, but here’s a recap of the rules:

1. Pick your all-time favorite proverb or quote about writing.

2. Figure out why you love it so much, and write a paragraph about why it inspires you. (Keep it under 100 words, please.)

3. E-mail the quote and your paragraph, along with the quote’s original source (if you know it) and your name to anneminicontest@gmail.com by midnight Pacific Standard time on Sunday, December 6th.

4. Wait in eager anticipation for me to announce the winner, when I’ll post the most stirring quotes.

There endeth the public service announcement portion of the day’s proceedings. Let’s get back to talking about revision — specifically, about how to tackle revising with an eye toward picking up the pace.

Why, some of you may be asking, might a savvy aspiring writer want to take some steps make an exciting plot — or an unexciting one, for that matter — go just a touch faster before subjecting the manuscript to the ever-critical eye of Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and/or their Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge? One very, very simple reason: as Millicent, Maury, and Aunt Mehitabel are all quite aware, slow manuscripts make editors grind their teeth and agents shake their heads in sorrow.

I won’t even tell you what pacing that drags makes the celebrity judges brought in to pick the winners amongst the finalists at literary contests do; this is a family-friendly blog, after all. Suffice it to say that a story or argument that crawls along is not typically the best way to impress Millicent or any of her relatives enough to cause them to long to read the rest of the book.

Antipathy toward being bored by submissions is virtually universal amongst the professional readers of this world, yet astonishingly few writing books and seminars address the issue at all. Except, of course, to opine that for the purposes of submission, a faster read is, on the whole, better than a slower one.

That’s not a guideline; that’s an aphorism. (But not a very inspiring one. I wouldn’t recommend entering it in any contests.)

There are a couple of good reasons for this genteel avoidance of an unpleasant subject, I suspect. First, editing for length and pace is an unpleasant subject for contemplation where dear self is concerned, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but most of the writers of my acquaintance (including, I’ll admit it, yours truly) get kind of annoyed when an agent or editor says, “I absolutely love your writing! How about giving us 15% less of it?”

Or, to take what used to be a stock agents’ pronouncement a decade ago, when we were all flatly told that a first novel should be no more than 100,000 words, regardless of what might actually work best for the text. (That’s 400 pages in Times New Roman, by standard estimation techniques; if you don’t know how to estimate word count, or why any sane person would want to do so when MS Word will simply tell you how many words are in a manuscript, please see the opaquely-named WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right. ) The truism on the subject has become a little more lax in the past couple of years, thank goodness: now, pronouncement-mongers tend to say anywhere between 80,000 (320 pages) to 120,000 (480) is usually fine.

Unless you happen to be submitting to someone who thinks it isn’t. To be on the safe side, I’d try to keep it as closer to 100,000 than 120,000, unless you happen to be writing in a book category where longer is routine; above 500 pages or so, printing costs leap dramatically.

As someone who attends quite a few writers’ conferences in any given year, I, for one, was pretty darned relieved when the wisdom du jour changed. During the arbitrary 100,000 period, I always hated that inevitable moment when someone stood up at the agents’ forum and asked how long was too long for a manuscript. The air of gloom that descended upon the room at the reply was palpable.

As much as I object to arbitrary standards – 125,000 words strikes me as less arbitrary, because binding costs do get higher at that point – I have to say, like most of us who edit for a living, I’m a fan of the tightly-paced manuscript. I practice what I preach, too: in the novel currently in my agent’s hands, I cut 20 pages entirely through eliminating individual lines.

So believe me, I feel your pain, self-editors. But like most people who read manuscripts by the score, that doesn’t mean that I don’t start muttering, “Get on with it, already!” when a plot begins to drag. Sorry.

The second reason I think the issue of manuscript-tightening doesn’t get much attention in conference classes, writing seminars, and publications aimed at writers is that just as it’s genuinely difficult to say with any precision how long a book one has never read should be, it’s also hard to give general advice about pacing that applies to every single manuscript that might conceivably fall off a gifted writer’s fingertips onto a keyboard.

Every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text. Which is precisely why it’s so vitally important to examine your own manuscript to learn what yours are.

You can feel me about to ask you to do something, can’t you? Don’t worry — it won’t be too painful; I’m not going to ask you to kill your darlings, at least not today.

Why in heaven’s name not, as writing teachers all over North America have been shouting at their students to axe their favorite bits of prose since practically the moment the classic piece of advice fell out of Dorothy Parker’s well-rouged lips sometime during Prohibition? Well, in my experience, most talented writers — published and as-yet-to-be-published alike — actually have a pretty good sense about the little things that shine in their manuscripts.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Those telling little details that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges everywhere when they appear nestled in a manuscript – particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” causing Millicent to sit up straight for perhaps the first time that screening day and cry, “By gum, maybe I should NOT toss this one into the rejection pile.”

As lovely as eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. But an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Was that chill I just felt the cumulative effect of all of you first page-perfecters out there going pale? “I just spent eight months on my first five pages,” I hear these wan wraiths stammer. “If I brought the entire book to that level of polish, I would need to live to be 112. I doubt that I’ll still be up to a book tour by then.”

I hate to be the one to tell you this, oh pale ones, but most writers revising for submission stop the high-gloss treatment far too soon. Around page 50, on average, because we’ve all been told that’s the first chunk an agent will ask to see.

The result is a whole lot of manuscripts that raise tremendous expectations in screeners’ breasts — only to lapse into what is fairly obviously less worked-upon writing around page 52. It’s so common a phenomenon that professional readers have a pet name for it: sagging in the middle.

While it is true that having brilliant early pages is one of the best calling cards a book can have, consistency is a far more appreciated writerly skill than writing advice-givers tend to admit. (And before the quote-mongers who emblazon famous thoughts on calendars start shouting that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, let me remind you that the early part of the quote is almost always omitted: the original read, “A FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Just in case anyone has proverbs on her mind or anything.)

Here are some facts to chill creative blood: while the vast majority of submissions are in fact rejected prior to page 5, with a hefty percentage dismissed by Millicent before the bottom of page 1, a book’s audition period can — and generally does — go on for most of the manuscript. An excellent agent of my acquaintance, for instance, tells me that he reads the first 185 pages of any manuscript he is considering actively looking for reasons to reject it. Beginning on page 186, he is looking for reasons to ACCEPT it, because he’s already invested so much time in it.

So, naturally, whenever I meet a writer who is planning on querying him, I say, “Psst! Make sure your pp. 150-200 are magnificent!”

Why might a professional reader toss aside a book after having loved it for, say, 190 pages? Usually, a lack of consistency in the writing: great writing early in the book raises expectations for the writing later in the book, necessarily. In the industry, a book that achieves this difficult feat is declared to have lived up to the promise of its first chapter.

Naturally, this is a little unfair, but after one has read approximately 7 million early chapters chock-full of telling little details, one has generally become resigned to seeing their frequency diminish later in the text – but not like it. It’s kind of a letdown, like when that the terrific conversationalist with whom you had three great dates blurts out on Date #4 a glowing paean to a politician whom you have considered for years at best a corrupt megalomaniac.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.

I must admit it: as an editor, once I have seen evidence that a writer possesses the twin gifts of observation and the ability to handle detail deftly, I have been known to mutter angrily at the manuscript before me, “You’re a better writer than this! Give me your best work!”

So now that I have scared you to pieces about the importance of consistency, how can a revising writer tell if, say, the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to start enough to displease a professional reader’s eye?

Glad you asked. Try this experiment:

1. Print out three chapters of your manuscript, the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book.
Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often.

2. Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.
Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of you with young children gladdening your daily lives, but this isn’t relaxation: this is work. So don’t you dare feel guilty about taking the time.

3. While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form.
I’m deadly serious about this. Mark everything from Angelique felt envious to Georgine was a shop welder of immense proportions to “Edward was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.”

4. Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood.
Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — what you are looking for are passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like. To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include:
Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin

or Georgine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop

or even Edward was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.

Beginning to see some patterns here? Good.

5. Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted.
Such summaries tend to lurk in their environs. When you find them, ask yourself, “Self, is this summary absolutely necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say? Could it in fact be cut, and would the manuscript be both shorter and better for it?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page he has written himself — from a writerly perspective, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — we may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing who dote on telling little details.

Okay, I need to sign off for today, but please don’t throw those marked-up pages away: I have more plans for them — and their little dog, too.

Yes, going through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb is a whole lot of work, but believe me, when your book is on the uphill side of page 185, and the agent of your dreams is trying to decide whether you have the consistency of style to pull off an entire book, you’ll be very, very glad you bought those marking pens.

Maybe you should ask the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver to sneak some more into your stocking later this month. Keep up the good work!

It was a dark and stormy night, perfect for — revising?

a dark and stormy night

Sorry about the unusually long hiatus between posts, campers. I shan’t bore you with long-winded justifications; suffice it to say that the Grumpy Relative is once again home from the hospital, and thus so am I. Many thanks to those of you who sent good wishes during the last few weeks.

Now that my head is back in the game, so to speak, I’m all ready to hunker down for a nice, lengthy winter’s foray into matters of craft. There’s nothing like a dark and stormy night for manuscript revision, I always say.

Stop cringing — revision is a necessary phase of the writing process. But let’s face it, nobody likes being told to re-work a manuscript, but if you ever hear any professional writer say that his first drafts regularly get published as is, well, you might want to muffle your laughter as you back swiftly away from him. Because as any pro could (and should) tell you, revision frequently takes up most of the writing time the author devotes to a published book.

Cool compresses applied to the head will help reduce the urge to curl up into a ball and moan at the very thought.

Frankly, I understand that reaction: it would be genuinely marvelous if all a talented writer had to do was to wait until inspiration hit, take dictation from the muses, and mail the result off to an agent or editor. It would be equally fantastic if agents routinely said to their clients, “You know, I would like to see a few changes in this manuscript you’ve just spent a couple of years slaving over, but hey, the editor who picks it up will probably have a different opinion, so let’s go ahead and send it out as is, okay?” And it would be downright miraculous if the third editor handling a book project (because the editor who originally acquired it has moved since to another publishing house and the second was laid off last week) was satisfied with the changes editors 1 and 2 had already convinced the author to make before the book joins the print queue.

It would also be great if cows gave chocolate milk to passing children, long-battling neighbors spontaneously realized that their deep-seated differences were unimportant, and my cats stopped staring at me indignantly because I went out of town (for a good cause, felines!), instead devoting themselves to more worthy pursuits like being comforts and joys, scampering merrily, or finding a cure for cancer. Yet somehow, I don’t think any of these things are likely to become the prevailing reality anytime soon.

Try not to take it personally. Having to revise one’s work in order to please others is, both unfortunately and fortunately for writers everywhere, simply a fact of life for a working author.

I know, I know — embracing the necessity of revision (or, for some aspiring writers, the imperative to write not only to please oneself, but a potential reader) is easy to advise, hard to pull off. Yet since writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s tempting for those of us who advise, teach, and otherwise cajole the aspiring into presenting their words and ideas professionally to forget that writers are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s genuinely hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop by an unexpected request to change something fundamental in our manuscripts.

Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, to be thrown, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

As a freelance editor, I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read. I have been exchanging chapters with my own first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on. The vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping an author incorporate a revision request from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not interfere too much with the original vision.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) Recently, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job — or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving — to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: as any of my clients could tell you, it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the biz refers to me affectionately as the manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet the Chapter Two-producer informed me that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of reams and reams of glowing praise. And although it pains me to point it out to writers as open-minded and eager to improve their craft as my readership, it’s not at all uncommon for writers inexperienced with feedback to respond in this manner.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her.

Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Or even not respond to a submission at all.

Their stated reason for form letter responses — or non-responses — to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. Fair enough, or if not, at least understandable. It’s harder to make the case in favor of form-letter (or no letter) rejections of requested partial or full manuscript submissions, because, obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved.

Or, as insightful and curious reader Jenyfer pointed out in the comments recently:

Why it is that once an agent asks to see the material and the material is actually sent, the agent can’t be bothered to respond? It’s one thing to ignore an unsolicited query / partial, but if they actually request it, you would think they could at least say “thanks, but no thanks” if they aren’t interested. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to?

No, Jenyfer, you’re most certainly not, and it’s an excellent subject for writerly speculation: non-responses are rapidly becoming not only acceptable, but in many agencies, the norm. And even those increasingly rare agents who do respond with a direct yes or no seldom give a specific reason for rejection beyond I just didn’t fall in love with this or the ubiquitous this material does not meet our agency’s needs at this time.

This may seem like a cold, impersonal, or even jaded response, but to be fair, there is a pretty good reason many professional readers don’t want to give writers specific rejection reasons: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Don’t believe that’s a realistic possibility? Try suggesting to a sensitive soul that his Chapter Two could use a little work, then duck.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, the fear of a very negative reaction is perhaps overblown. Certainly in the case of agencies that simply do not respond at all if the answer is no. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it — and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway. Although I’d be lying if I didn’t add here that sending out form-letter rejections is quite a bit less expensive and employee time-consuming than mailing or e-mailing off individually-crafted nos — and that not responding at all is undoubtedly cheaper still.

If that seems like an affront to art, please remember: agencies make no money at all from screening queries, or even submissions. (Not a reputable agency, anyway, one that does not charge to consider manuscripts. For some insights on the other kind, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category on the archive list at the lower right-hand corner of this page.) Agencies make money when they sell their clients’ manuscripts to publishers — and receive a percentage of royalties after the books have made enough to cover the advance. (If that made no sense to you, or if you were not aware that advances are pre-payments of royalties, and thus no further royalties are paid until the publisher has made back the advance, please see the posts under the aptly-named ADVANCES category at right.)

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, you might want to greet the first emergence of any revision request with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.”

Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in the moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not recently been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a super-defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

For working writers — especially those who would like to make something resembling a decent living from their keyboards — a muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. After all, all of us who write works longer than a postcard must inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone moan about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t stick around for very long, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn novels. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself whenever I complained about the revision process. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. Nor was it that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself trapped in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time.

No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything will work, as long as it gets your eyes off your own words for a while.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad experience with that Chapter Two-hugger. Naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?”

Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger. She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia.

Keep up the good work!