The Short Road Home, Part III: always let your conscience be your guide — except when you shouldn’t

Did you miss me, campers? I’ve been hiding under the covers of both a good book and my bed for the past few days. Why, you ask? Well, I can take a hint: the last time I poked my nose outside my front door, I sprained my ankle and caught a cold.

Clearly, Somebody Up There is harboring a preference for my staying put. With my foot in the air and a mug of hot tea clutched to my chest.

I am venturing forth this evening, however, to reignite our discussion of the Short Road Home, my pet term for a scene that introduces a potential conflict, only to resolve it so quickly that the reader barely has time to notice an increase in ambient conflict. Short Roads Home have been the downfall of many a submitted novel, for a small handful of exceedingly simple reasons: such scenes almost invariably tell rather than show, minimize inter-character conflict, and let the tension of the story lag.

So why, you might well have spent last week wondering, do Short Roads Home remain immensely popular in manuscript submissions? Much of the time, the writers who construct such shortcuts are not even aware that they are doing it.

That, I think, is both unfortunate and unnecessary. Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it.

As in right now. Or at least before you send your baby out again.

Why the urgency? Because the Short Road Home is so very common, an experienced pro might not even have to read more than a couple of lines of a scene to identify it — and shove the submission into the rejection pile. In fact, it’s in the interest of a time-strapped Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, or Mehitabel the veteran contest judge to be on the lookout for this phenomenon: it’s a pretty good indicator that a manuscript has not seen very many critical first readers.

As such, M, M, and M tend to assume, the book is probably at least one revision away from being polished. Or, to put it as they would, “Next!”

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb appear above your heads somewhere in the course of those last two paragraphs? Did it occur to you as if archangels suddenly appeared and shouted the news into your awed ears that, as with nonstandard formatting, the appearance of an ultra-frequent megaproblem in a manuscript might actually be a welcome sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or, more to the point, without investing further reading time?

If so, congratulations — you now have a much, much firmer grasp of how submissions work than a good 95% of the writers currently slapping stamps on SASEs across the English-speaking world. It’s one of the great paradoxes of being in a position to discover new writers: in order to unearth that great undiscovered talent, they have to read a lot of, well, everything else. So the faster they can sift through the rest and reject the bulk of what they receive, the more time and energy they have to devote to that elusive perfect book.

Which is great, if your manuscript happens to be that needle in a haystack. It’s substantially less great if your project is a pin that merely needs a bit more sharpening and an eye installed before M, M, and/or M will recognize it as what they have been seeking.

Was the refreshing breeze that just wafted across my elevated foot the collective result of all of you agent-seekers sighing gustily? I’m not surprised: polishing a manuscript to professional standards is hard work, and not something that is going to happen all by itself. As much as the artist in all of us would like to believe that each and every sentence to fall off our fingertips onto a keyboard is camera-ready, more than talent is typically necessary to bring a wonderful story to publication. It takes inspiration, yes, but it also takes craft and an acquired knowledge of how the publishing industry expects good writing to be presented.

And half of you sighed again. But honestly, if you were setting out to be a professional baseball player, would you expect to hit the ball out of the park the first time you tried? Even a natural benefits from training.

But as M, M, and M can tell you to their cost, that’s not the prevailing notion of how books get published. Quite the opposite: most aspiring writers new to the business leap to the unwarranted conclusion that an agent or editor will be so delighted by a fresh voice that s/he is automatically going to be willing to ignore other problems in the manuscript until after the contract is signed.

In practice, this doesn’t happen much, even for manuscripts with minor problems. Certainly not for those with pacing or storytelling problems.

Out comes the broken record again: when submitting your writing in any professional context, it is not safe to assume that it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, this manuscript certainly needs work, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix it.”

And never, alas, does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along and maintaining tension, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist for the three or four years it will take her to learn to correct these problems.”

As delightful as it would be if they did habitually express such sentiments — better still, if they routinely acted upon them — this just doesn’t happen for writers who don’t already have a solid platform (i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to a book). As a non-celebrity writer, you can safely assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons to weed your work out, rather than reasons to accept it. At least for the first half of the book or so. Millicent and her ilk don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

Until then, they’re hoping that those great ones will take a hint, stop submitting, and polish their manuscripts before approaching the pros again. Oh, and becoming a celebrity in the meantime would be a selling point, too.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars, I notice — don’t like to talk much about this hope. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control.

As far as I’m concerned, megaproblems are very much within the writer’s control, as are the other rejection triggers we’ve been discussing over the last few months– but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission. So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up the subtle Short Road Home.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home crops up frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character — or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket — will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length. Case closed!

Not sure what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a common example: when a protagonist apparently shows up to a scene purely in order to comment upon it as an outside observer, rather than participating actively in it.

“I did not press the panic button!” James insisted.

Barnaby pointed to the city skyline melting into a fluorescent puddle in the distance. “The warhead didn’t launch itself!”

Etienne listened to the argument swirling around him, knowing it wasn’t really about who bombed what when. Anybody could see that the rapidly-disintegrating city was just an excuse for James and Barnaby to snipe at each other, a transparent mask laid delicately over the face of their unadmitted mutual passion. He wished that they would just rent a motel room and get on with it, so he wouldn’t have to listen to their bickering — assuming, that is, that James’ little slip of the finger had left any motels standing.

See the problem? Essentially, the protagonist is acting as the reader’s translator here: no need to draw one’s own conclusions while Etienne is on the job. No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader turning pages.

Even when these helpful characters are not therapists by trade (although M, M, and M have seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis: “I realize that you’re upset, Cheryl, but aren’t you displacing your underlying dissatisfaction at being laid off at the lumberyard onto your boyfriend? After all, it’s not his fault that pastry chefs remain in such high demand. If you were not envious of his job security, would you really have minded his torrid affair with those Siamese twins?

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

“But Anne,” I hear many an amateur Jiminy Cricket protest, “I don’t understand. Don’t my explanations move the plot along? Don’t they provide necessary character development? And isn’t my spouting them a fabulous way of making sure that the reader doesn’t miss any critical nuances?”

Why, yes, Jiminy, your running commentary can indeed perform all of those functions — but by definition, your pointing them out to the reader is telling, not showing.

I’m not just bringing that up to sound like your 10th grade composition teacher, either. While no one minds the occasional foray into summation, both characters and situations tend to be more intriguing if the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

It makes for a more involving narrative. Hyper-analytical protagonists seldom surprise; they’re too thoroughly explaining what’s already gone on, what’s going on now, and what is likely to be going on in future to allow a twist to sneak up on the reader.

Also, when the instant-analysis device is overused, the reader can become jaded to it pretty quickly. After the third or fourth instance — or after the first, if the reader happens to be a professional manuscript-scanner — the reader is apt to become convinced that that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist.

Why bother, if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed? Which, correct me if I am wrong, completely prevents the reader from enjoying one of the great joys of getting into a novel, trying to figure out what is going to happen next.

Besides, as we saw last week, instant analysis can relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on while it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments?

In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling, incidentally. Memoirists just adore foreshadowing — because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented as the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

A great structural rule of thumb for memoirs: show first, conclude later.

But what’s that you say, Great Hinter in the Sky? That burgeoning swelling in my ankle means I should stop for now? Thanks for telling me — I wouldn’t want to risk drawing the wrong conclusion from the evidence, after all.

I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject tomorrow. In the meantime, make sure those protagonists stay active, concentrate on giving the reader enough information so s/he may draw the correct inferences about what’s going on, and keep up the good work!

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