Pet peeves on parade, part IX: how can I possibly get from here to the door without a guide?

Last time, I brought up in passing the dreaded Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem, a scene or paragraph in which a character does something, but the narrative gets so bogged down in detail that the important action gets watered down — and the reader gets bored. Instead of narrowing down the steps to complete a project to only what’s necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on, a WATR text mentions everything that happens.

If you were one of the many, many readers who responded to that last statement by muttering, “Well, not everything that happens — surely, few writers go down to the molecular level when describing relatively straightforward actions,” allow me to introduce you to Millicent, the intrepid soul charged with screening each and every query and submission all the writers in the English-speaking world are aiming at the agent of your dreams. She would be only too happy to tell you that she regularly sees descriptions that range from the itty-bitty:

The boss had only just begun lecturing the staff, but almost without noticing, Zelda found herself itching all over. Not just on the top layer of her epidermis, the stuff that separated her from the rest of the microbe-infested world, but right down to the dermis holding her together. Indeed, even her hypodermis felt like it was crawling with minuscule bugs. She pictured the very nuclei of her cells needing to be scratched.

to the grandiose:

After the magma cooled to form the valley, life slowly began to emerge from the primordial ooze. First small, cold-blooded creatures barely able to wrest themselves from the slimy waters that gave them birth, then warm-blooded animals that hid in terror from the giant lizards stomping outside their burrows. Gradually, ponderous dinosaur immensity gave way to grazing placidity and hunting ferocity. Late in the game, man came, in packs and tribes, and eventually, in covered wagons.

Close to where the first settlers had carved out sustenance from the unforgiving ground, Arnie made a latte for his seventeenth customer for the day. Ten minutes into his shift, and the café was already packed.

Mostly, though, our poor Millicent is overwhelmed by the obvious, descriptions so loaded down with the self-evident and the unnecessary that she begins to wonder how aspiring writers believe readers make their way through the world. Surely, if readers actually needed directions this specific, we’d all be in trouble.

Liza did a double-take. Was that her long-lost Uncle Max on the other side of the fairway, about to hand over his ticket, push open the small gate, and walk up the angled walkway to the Tilt-a-Whirl? She would have see for herself, but he was so far away, and the crowd so large! Summoning her resolve, she set off in the direction of the carnival ride, walking firmly, but stepping aside to let others pass as necessary.

When she bumped into people in her haste, she stopped and apologized to them. She veered around children waving cotton candy, lest she get it on her favorite tank top. That would be all she needed, meeting her mother’s favorite brother with a great big stain on her shirt!

Suddenly self-conscious, she paused in front of the funhouse to take a peek at her hair and make-up in the mirrors. They distorted her form and face so much that she could not tell if her stockings were straight. Sighing, she resumed her quest, but not before rummaging around in her capacious purse for a comb with which to set her hair to rights and lipstick to redo her lips.

I’m going to stop Liza’s trek to ask you something: do you still care whether she catches up to her uncle? Indeed, has the narrative’s constant digression into unimportant matters convinced you that Liza doesn’t particularly care if she catches up with him?

And while I’m asking questions, what would one do with lipstick other than apply it to one’s lips? Doesn’t the writer believe that the reader is smart enough to spot the word lipstick and draw the correct conclusion?

“Specifically,” Millicent asks with some asperity, “does this writer think I’m not smart enough to make that simple a connection?”

Oh, she might not hiss this question through gritted teeth upon encountering such over-explanation in her first few manuscripts on a typical Tuesday morning. If she hadn’t been too overwhelmed with the post-weekend avalanche of queries the day before, she might well be feeling benevolent as she sips her first latte. When she encounters the same phenomenon in her 37th manuscript of the day, however, she will probably be feeling less charitable — and by the end of a long day’s screening, she might be so sick of submissions that seem to be talking down to her that her ire is raised by sentences that indulge in relatively minor over-explanation, such as When the light changed, he walked across the street.

Even that slight provocation could make all of those lattes boil within her system. “How else would a pedestrian cross the street?” she growls the page. “And don’t tell me when a character does something as expected as crossing with the light — tell me when he doesn’t! Better yet, yank him out of that tedious street and have him do something exciting that reveals character and/or moves the plot along!”

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. Yes, it’s a trifle unfair that the last manuscript (or contest entry) to make a common error on that day would be judged more harshly than, say, the third one that did it, but it’s certainly not hard to understand why. There’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

That’s necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you had already spotted the same easily-fixable error 50 times today (or, heaven help you, within the last hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #51 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

And do try to develop some empathy for her, if only to make yourself a better self-editor. If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, ubiquitous writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? Good — you’re in the right frame of mind to consider trimming your pages of some extraneous explanation and detail.

It will require concentration, because these manuscript problems are frequently invisible to the writer who produced them. Yet they are glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

Let’s begin with that most eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

Caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph is an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in the following novel opening. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting + to enlarge the image.

obvious example 1

How did you do? Is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with, other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm. Have I spent my life blind to all of those toes that aren’t on feet?

Seeing a pattern? Or are you merely beginning to hear Millicent’s irritated mutterings in your mind?

If you immediately added mentally, “That would be the mind in your head,” then yes, I would say that you are beginning to think like our Millie. That’s going to make you a much, much better self-editor.

Why? Well, once you are attuned to the possibility of this reader reaction, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. In fact, let’s go ahead and state this as a revision axiom:

Any statement in a submission that might prompt Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger. Therefore, all such statements are prime candidates for cutting.

I heard a few jaws hitting the floor during the first sentence of that guideline, so allow me to elaborate: and yes, even a single “Well, duh!” moment might result in rejection, even if the rest of the submission is clean, perfectly formatted, and relatively well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject — which is, presumably, why there are more words on the page. I’ve put them there in the hope that you will read them.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

I feel you losing empathy for her, but remember: when someone is reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — one is inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows, possibly somewhere in the vicinity of the ears. I’ve heard rumors that eyes have been spotted on the face.

To a professional reader in such a state hyper-vigilance, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

As luck would have it, we have already discussed some of the more common species of self-evidence, have we not? To refresh your memory, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

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

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

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

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

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance, or the cessation of that hail of bullets/lava/space locusts that has been following them around for the last reel, or the pile of bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

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

Or — if we’re thinking like Millicent — the protagonist whose first response to the sight of flames (vividly rendered in the narrative, of course) is to shout, “Fire!” What’s he going to do next, suggest to the firefighters that they might perhaps want to apply something flame-retardant to the immediate environment?

Trust me: the firefighters already know to do that. And Millicent is quite capable of contemplating a paragraph’s worth of smoke, embers, and licking flames and concluding there’s a fire without the protagonist wasting page space to tell her so.

Taken one at a time, naturally, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding triggers – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Let’s take a gander at a WATR problem in its natural habitat — and to render it easier to spot in the wild, this one literally concerns walking across a room.

obvious example2

See why a writer might have trouble identifying the WATR problem in her own manuscript? Here, the account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process. As narrative in a novel, however, it would be quite dull for the reader, because getting that blasted door answered apparently requires the reader to slog through so many not-very-interesting events. Yet that requirement is purely in the writer’s mind: any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it another way, is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity?

If we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, all the revising writer would have to do is allow the narrative simply to jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic. The result might look a little something like this:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Quite a saving of page space, is it not? Yet do you think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text lingering on the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Take another gander at the first version of Jessamyn’s story: every detail is presented as equally important. So how is the reader to supposed to know what is and isn’t important to the scene?

Seem like an odd question? It should: it’s not the reader’s job to guess what’s crucial to a scene and what merely decorative. Nor is it Millicent’s.

So whose job is it? Here’s a good way to find out: place your hands on the armrests of your chair, raise yourself to a standing position, walk across your studio, find the nearest mirror — if necessary, turning on a nearby light source — and gaze into it.

Why, look, it’s you. Who could have seen that coming?

There’s another, more literary reason to fight the urge to WATR. What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it. As we saw last time, a list is generally the least interesting way of depicting anything.

So why would you want Millicent to see anything but your best writing?

Where should a reviser start looking for WATR problems? In my experience, they are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore. Humanity is saved!

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details swamp the story — and since they appear on page 1, the story doesn’t really have a chance to begin. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Besides, didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you protest, desperately rubbing your eyes (in your head) to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making extravaganza. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In a revised manuscript, at least. In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans. “Next!”), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week. Next!”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop — my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement. Next!”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting all such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you feel morally positive that your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

“What do you mean?” writers of the obvious protest indignantly. “I’m merely providing straightforward explanation. Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed? Maybe we ought to add that he lifted the glass with his hand, just in case there’s a reader out there who might be confused.

In fairness to the beer-describer, the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin, especially when describing a common experience or everyday object. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

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

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

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

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every word counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so. In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look for it specifically.

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

It’s late now, so I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

Heavens, I lead an exciting life. Keep up the good work!

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