Author! Author! :: Anne Mini's Blog

Author! Author!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part II: consistency, consistency, consistency. And did I mention consistency?

May 29th, 2010

partial trees

A quick reminder before we get begin today’s free-for-all: this coming Monday, May 31, is the deadline for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. To allow each and every one of you to squeeze every last second of productive time out of your Memorial Day weekend, entries do not need to be date-stamped until midnight in your time zone.

I would especially love to see entries from those of you who have spent the last couple of weeks reading my super-close analysis of a reader’s opening pages and slowly turning bright green with envy: here is your chance to subject YOUR first page to similar scrutiny, free, gratis, and without charge. And not only my scrutiny, either: the quite genuinely fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the newly-released YA novel WHISPER, has graciously agreed to join me in this critiquing venture.

The complete rules, should you care to take a peek at them, may be found here. We shall now rejoin the blog already in progress.

Yesterday, as sometimes happens, the universe obligingly stepped up and provided me with a simply delightful metaphor for what we were already in the depths of talking about here at Author! Author! Accompany me, if you will, to the wildlife-harboring, honeybee-attracting, neighbor-annoying thicket of blackberry bushes that spans the wee creek running outside my house.

Okay, so maybe the snapshot above doesn’t really give you much of an idea of it. If you squint at that mass of green behind the trees, though, you may see the yellow glint of raccoon eyes.

Due to a brisk little bout of rezoning a few years back, all of the land above us on our hill has been concreted or asphalted over, so we like to keep some of our yard wild for the sake of the critters. (Also, so the abundant local rainfall has someplace to go — hasn’t anyone else noticed that as more and more land is paved and built over, overflowing rivers have less and less ground to suck up excess? Why is anyone surprised that flooding ensues?)

Not all of our neighbors are crazy about our impromptu wildlife sanctuary. Why, only last autumn, one set of civic-minded folk expressed their aesthetic opinions by flinging a large wooden pallet formerly used for their building materials into the aforementioned blackberry bushes.

I was all for moving it immediately: it was partially on public land. What if, I asked my significant other, the city suddenly took it into its collective head to cut back the part of the thicket that impinges upon the road, as it occasionally does? Once the blackberries grew over the pallet, wasn’t a sleepy public employee only too likely to run his mower smack into it? And since I was neither physically strong nor raccoon-repellent enough to extricate the pallet from its green grave myself (wildlife interprets my cries of “Shoo!” as “Here’s your dinner!”), was my SO not the logical candidate to head off that municipal disaster by moving the silly thing before, say, any city-owned machinery were permanently incapacitated and we were fined?

In the time-honored tradition of inter-spouse communications all over this great land of ours, my SO chose to regard these questions as purely rhetorical. He must have found them interesting food for thought, however, if not action, as the pitter-patter of tiny raccoon feet on wood slats prompted me to repeat these questions roughly once per month. I can only attribute his not actually doing anything about the pallet to a great and abiding love of the sound of my voice — and to an oft-expressed opinion that the neighbors should clean up their trash themselves.

Yesterday, about a month after the neighbors in question had moved away (much to the relief of local wildlife), I was startled from my daily creative reverie by the immistakable racket of heavy machinery being driven up our hill by someone rather unused to the task. The clipper attachment dragged on the ground.

I went running into my SO’s study. (Actually, I limped slowly, due to my recent back injury, but allow me a bit of creative latitude here.) “They’ve come for our blackberry bushes! Did you ever manage to move that pallet?”

He admitted that he had not; the neighbors, he said, should have taken care of it. Upon further questioning and a spirited discussion on the nature of reality vs. wishful thinking and the annoying imperatives of linear time, he was heard to opine that it was now too late now to do anything about it.

Well, as long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, quite well aware, I’ve never been a big fan of letting fixable problems just lie there. Upon my repeated urgings, he begrudgingly invested the roughly 2 1/2 minutes required to shout at the operator to stop, free the pallet, and moving to our garbage bin. He explained glibly throughout about the nature of linear time and our deadbeat ex-neighbors’ ethical shortcomings.

The municipal handyman was effusively grateful. “I never would have seen that. It would have smashed up my machine.”

“Naturally,” my SO said, with a perfectly straight face. “Anyone could have predicted that.”

What does this little domestic homily have to do with our ongoing discussion of necessary manuscript revisions, you ask? Why, I should have thought that was obvious: if you wish to please a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, there’s just no substitute for taking the time to learn the rules of grammar, spelling, structure, and formatting, incorporate them consistently into your text — and then, before you submit your manuscript, double-checking how you have implemented those rules by reading your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, that wasn’t your first thought after reading that anecdote? How puzzling. What about if I put it this way: if you know the rules but don’t implement them every time, you should expect Millicent to be annoyed when she stumbles over them in your submission.

But most of us writers don’t expect that, do we? In fact, even the submitters of the most egregiously error-prone manuscripts and contest entries are both astonished and hurt when agents, editors, and contest judges respond as though not unprofessionally-presented writing were bad writing, or as if an apparently unproofread first page were an infallible indicator of a manuscript rife with spelling, grammatical, and logic problems.

To spare anyone reading this any shocks in future: they will respond that way, predictably. In their minds, it’s the writer’s job to free a manuscript of distracting errors, rather than a professional reader’s job to try to see past those errors in order to discover new writing talent.

And it’s not enough to present your writing professionally in some parts of your manuscript and not others, either; a pallet hidden deep in the weeds is as likely to wreck the machinery as one left out in the open. But if the inflexible rules of spelling, grammar, and connective logic are the necessary foundation of a strong submission, consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice.

Just in case I’m being too subtle about what this means for submissions: the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in manuscripts, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, style, or tone — and with good reason. People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: as a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

Why is it such a rare sight? Well, think about it: very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Or memoir. Or any other type of book, for that matter. It’s not even all that uncommon for a good writer to finish the first draft of her first novel, only to discover that her voice is significantly stronger, or even quite different, at the end of the book than at the beginning.

That should not surprise us very much, should it? After all, no one is born a technically perfect writer. And even after a writer has honed her professional toolkit, consistent authorial voice requires work to produce — and usually quite a bit of revision and re-reading.

Those of you who write only when you feel inspired are squirming right now, aren’t you?

I’m not astonished by that reaction — all too often, we writers talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

Voice is more than self-expression, a way of writing a sentence, or even inspiration: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to the Frankenstein manuscript, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

A Frankenstein manuscript, for those of you joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

To forestall your getting blank looks at writers’ conferences, I should hastily add: this is my personal nickname for such a book, not an industry-wide moniker. (Although since this blog has readers in circles in circles that might surprise you, the term has been gaining currency over the last couple of years.) I assure you, however, every single agent and editor currently working in North America is aware of the phenomenon and dreads it — because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Especially, alas, a writer so excited by an agent’s request for materials that he simply prints out the latest version of his manuscript and sends it off right away. Regardless of where it might happen to be in the revision process, getting it out the door before the requesting agent changes her mind seems more important than taking the time to make sure that each and every revision has been implemented consistently all the way through the manuscript.

I won’t make those of you who have fallen into this trap, only to kick yourself later, raise your hands. You know who you are.

The fact that aspiring writers generally don’t realize that their manuscripts are uneven should not surprise us unduly, right? Writing a book takes a long time: authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK — which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: there is absolutely no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, pronto, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Again, not precisely a surprise, is it?

But for most aspiring writers, tackling an entire manuscript, even if its their own, is a rather overwhelming prospect — so much so that many simply dismiss the idea of reading their own manuscripts in their entirety, much less fixing them, as impracticable. To assuage some of those fears, let’s embrace the old-time editors’ trick of attacking only one manuscript megaproblem at a time.

Seriously, revision is a process, not a one-time deal: breaking up that immense task into bite-sized pieces and eating them one at a time is far more sensible than trying to force your psyche to think about every conceivable problem in a 400-page manuscript simultaneously. Worry about the totality of the diagnosing and revising down the line — just for now, focus on only one easily fixable gaffe and repair that.

You can read through your work, searching for only a single problem, can’t you? Piece o’ proverbial cake.

Then, after you are positive that your manuscript is perfect in that respect, pick another megaproblem and work on that — for every page of the manuscript, so you may be absolutely positive that you haven’t missed anything. Repeat as often as necessary. When you are pretty sure that you’ve systematically rooted out all of the ongoing problems, sit down and read your manuscript — wait for it — IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any remaining Frankenstein tendencies.

Sound time-consuming? It is. But it’s far, far less likely either to drive you mad or lead you to throw up your hands in despair and abandon the book altogether than trying to tackle a universal revision in one fell swoop.

Don’t shrug off the latter danger as improbable, please: revision burnout is a very real phenomenon. I’ve seen many, many more promising manuscripts tossed into trash cans by their writers out of despair over how long revision might take than out of anger at rejection.

In the spirit of incremental progress, let’s begin with a single, extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery with an eye to rooting it out of the manuscript: the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past.

In fiction, the explanation for this phenomenon is usually pretty straightforward: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one writing in the present tense of events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops. What an annoying-yet-easily-fixable problem.

Spotting this particular Frankenstein problem is great practice for sharpening your editorial eye, because once you’re on the look-out for improper tenses, they will just start leaping off the page at you. (Hint: don’t try to catch them on your computer screen; sit down with a hard copy of your latest draft and a highlighting pen.) Quite quickly, you’ll begin to regard those tense slips in the same light as Millicent does: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Fair warning: sometimes tense slips are intentional. Sometimes — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can rapidly become darned confusing for the reader. To illustrate how and why, let’s take a gander at a favorite (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example of mine, Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage. Since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

As a well-established nonfiction writer, she was, obviously, able to get away with this choice, but that does not necessarily mean that the writer of a first book could. As we have often discussed, the standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit more stringent than those for the folks already in it. So it would behoove you to consider this authorial choice very carefully before submission: when most aspiring writers slip around in time, it’s because they’re trying to mirror the patterns of common speech or believe that actions described in the present tense are more immediate to the reader.

While you are weighing your revision options, you might want to bear in mind that Millicent (a) tends not to be all that big a fan of narrative text that reads just like the spoken word UNLESS the manuscript is written in the first person singular, and (b) very few professional readers believe that ordinary readers are sufficiently now-oriented to prefer the present tense to the past. (“Wait — this isn’t happening right now? Why should I pay attention to it, then?”)

And then there’s the very real possibility that Millicent will simply assume that any slips between tenses are not a narrative choice, but a mistake. A mistake made by — chant it with me now, readers — a writer who did not bother to read his submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to make sure that the tense choices are consistent.

I like using THE WORDY SHIPMATES as an example of this dilemma, as it is one of the rare cases where reviewers were as uncharitable to a well-respected author’s efforts as Millicent would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the New York Post’s reviewer commented dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript.

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea at the composition stage. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant to the reader.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked — which irritated me, as this is an author for whom I harbor a great deal of ongoing respect. As a reader, though, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

But some of you out there share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past, don’t you? Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years (particularly short stories) that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. A reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts. Even the most minimal tense slip-up runs the risk of yanking the reader out of the world of the book and back into mundane reality.

All that being said, tense choices are entirely up to the author — if you love the present tense and feel it’s the best means of telling your story, by all means write in it. I ask only one thing, for your own sake: if you’re going to write in the present tense, do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best, and poorly revised at worst. So unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — assume that he’s going to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake, and an easily preventable one, at that.

Am I suggesting that you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer? Well, I hate to seem cynical, but it’s usually simpler to break into the book market that way. (The norms of the short story market remain quite different, I am grateful to report.) Many a well-respected literary luminary has cut his teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting, then moved on later to challenge the language.

Hey, Nobel laureate José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods. Do you honestly believe that a first-time writer could have gotten away with the same trick?

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less exacting standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Next time, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Millicent, may I introduce the Frankenstein manuscript, scourge of revisers everywhere?

May 27th, 2010

bride meets frankenstein

For the last week and a half, I’ve been going over a real, live manuscript with the same variety of fine-toothed comb that Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge so frequently pass around amongst themselves. While the experience of seeing just how closely professional readers scan manuscripts can be quite scarifying for a writer new to the game, just being aware that no gaffe, however small, is likely to pass unnoticed under Millicent’s watchful gaze can render that poor, trembling, crestfallen writer a significantly better reviser for the rest of his writing life: never again will he assume, as the vast majority of aspiring writers seem to do, that pretty good is close enough where submissions are concerned.

Or, to put it another way: perfect formatting, impeccable spelling and grammar, and a flowing, likable narrative voice are the minimum requirements for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel to admire a manuscript, and a legitimately gripping hook, an interesting protagonist(s), and an intriguingly conflict-ridden plot are generally necessary to keep them reading beyond page 1.

This is hardly a well-kept secret, right, accessible only to those brave enough to climb to the top of Manhattan’s tallest building, turn around three times, and sacrifice 17 first editions of PEYTON PLACE on a bonfire to the literary powers that be? In these days of easy Internet access and free dissemination of information, an aspiring writer could hardly make it through the first 20 entries of a web search under getting published without learning that the competition is so fierce for agents these days that the average Millicent sees hundreds of technically perfect submissions in any given year.

Yet most aspiring writers submit manuscripts that fall short in one or more of these areas — and then are astonished when their work is rejected. Whether they admit it openly or not, they had been operating on the presumption that if the writing were stylish enough and/or the story intriguing enough, professional readers everywhere would be perfectly willing to overlook every other manuscript problem.

In fact, most aspiring writers are downright indignant when they first learn that this is not the case. I hate to be the one to break it to you (although that’s never stopped me before, has it?), but to Millicent and her ilk, technically flawless presentation of writing is simply a quality of professionalism, not the ultimate goal of a collaborative editorial process that happens mostly after a writer lands an agent.

Have I convinced you yet that proofreading before submission might be a prudent notion? Think about it: how are you ever going to know for sure how stylistically strong your writing is until it is free of distracting gaffes?

How distracting are those so-called little things, from a professional reader’s perspective? Let’s take a peek at what might happen if the first page of one of the great classics English literature if it happened to land on Millicent’s desk before she’s had her second cup of coffee?

edited-oliver-twist

See? Even a great story well told could use a little presentation help. Or at least a touch of updating: norms of literary style vary over time, like any other aesthetic trend.

I wanted to bring that up, on the off chance that any of you should be trying to land an agent for an aggressively 19th-century style novel. Or in case anyone had been casting about for a comeback for the next time that guy standing next to you at that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America starts griping about how the publishing world isn’t really interested in literature anymore. Why else, he reasons, could anyone possibly have rejected his manuscript?

Even without reading it, I would be willing to hazard a guess: the little things. And probably not just one or two of ‘em, either.

What makes me so sure of that? Well, experience: although submissions get rejected all the time for what most writers would consider nit-picky reasons, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. As we like to say here at Author! Author! — like ants, writing problems seldom travel alone.

That’s vital for a submitting writer to understand, particularly in these decadent days, when even entire manuscripts are frequently rejected with no explanation at all — or, still worse but increasingly common, rejected without even so much as a form letter notifying the writer. Because it’s so easy to guess wrong when casting about for a rationale, I would STRONGLY caution any aspiring writer against leaping to the conclusion that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. As we have seen in recent posts, Millicent’s decision to reject is often based upon quite a few reasons working in tandem.

Which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for your garden-variety Millicent, Maury, or even Mehitabel to come to believe that an improperly-formatted manuscript, or one containing a few misspellings, will inevitably turn out to be poorly-written overall. In their experience, it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be delightful if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent currently screening manuscripts, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any first manuscript at all right now.

Even, alas, very clean ones, free of formatting problems and grammatical mistakes. At the moment, no first-time author is getting a free ride. But you can bet your boots that the ones that are getting picked up are being selected from amongst the cleaner manuscripts.

But clean doesn’t mean devoid of individual style, right? Right? Do stop erasing adverbs from your tag lines long enough to answer me.

It’s most helpful, I’ve found, to think of revising your manuscript as clarifying your style, rather than forcing your story and voice into some mythical conception of perfect writing, the color of which Millicent happens to be thinking while she’s screening manuscripts. Like standard format, manuscript cleanliness is not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it.

It’s merely is a means of presenting your writing professionally, so Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

Or, to put it another way: taking the time to clean up your manuscript will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. But it’s just a fact of publishing even a perfectly clean manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

So what should a savvy submitter be editing toward, over and above minimizing the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves? Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly. A compelling narrative voice is a consistent one.

Pulling that off is a lot harder than it sounds, you know; a seamless narrative is virtually always the result of many, many careful attempts at revision. The more successful those attempts, the less labored the result will seem — and the more writers brand-new to the writing game will derive the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (they assume) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision.

That’s an unfortunate misconception, because the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency. Awfully hard. Seamlessness doesn’t happen by accident, you know.

I blame the stubbornly pervasive real talent = first draft so good it needs no tweaking myth for the fact that many aspiring writers become quite testy when even manuscript faults easily discovered in a quick proofreading are pointed out to them. “Oh, the little stuff doesn’t matter,” they insist when some kind soul takes it upon herself to explain that the period belongs within the quotation marks, not after them, or that while a .75 inch bottom margin may well shrink the length of an overlong manuscript, Millicent is quite likely to see through the ruse. “The technical problems can be cleaned up later. All a good agent (editor, contest judge) will really care about is a good story well told.”

Had that ever actually been the case in publishing history — and offhand, I can’t think of a period when these were the only criteria for getting published — a good ten percent of the manuscripts Millicent sees every year would get snapped up immediately. The author would provide the story and the overall voice, and some luckless soul confined to the bowels of the publishing house would be assigned to excise all of the misspellings, grammatical problems, logic problems, continuity problems, storytelling problems, and all other text-based snafus prior to publication.

All the author would have to do is cash the royalty checks and show up to the occasional book-signing. Unfortunately, the publishing world doesn’t work like that.

In the first place, the average agent is not in a position to pick up the 10% of submissions that are well-written — or even her 10 favorite manuscripts of the year, usually. In the current literary market, most agents are picking up just a few clients per year. Given the choice between signing a client who produces impeccably-edited manuscripts and one whose work needs extensive revision, which would you choose?

Or, to put it another way: had you considered applying to medical school instead of trying to land an agent? Your chances of getting accepted are quite a bit higher.

In the second place, as publishing profits have dropped lower and lower — and it was not all that profitable a business to begin with — fewer and fewer people are charged with shepherding a manuscript from acquisition to publication. It’s a rare editor who has the time to proofread, much less the inclination. Consequently, the value of a writer who can (and does) produce beautifully-edited pages all on her own grows greater with each passing day.

Or, to put it another way: expect to be 100% responsible for copyediting your own work — and for book promotion as well, most likely. Your editor will probably make general revision suggestions, but bringing the finished manuscript up to professional standards is ultimately going to be up to you.

I’m not bringing all of this up merely to depress you, contrary to what 2/3rds of you had been thinking very loudly indeed throughout the last few paragraphs — although frankly, given how radically speakers at most writers’ conferences soft-pedal these realities, I suspect a little well-timed depression-inducement might keep a lot of aspiring writers from assuming that the only possible reason that their work hasn’t landed them an agent is the writing quality. I’m bringing it up so writers may begin to come to terms with the reality that revising your writing is not extraneous to the writing life; it’s an integral requirement of it.

And when I say revising, I mean reworking your pages under the assumption that your target reader’s eye is as critical as this:

page 2 comments

Or, to put it another way (and if the repetition of that phrase automatically made your teeth grind this time, congratulations; you’re starting to read like a professional): it’s in your competitive interest to assume an uncharitable first reader. This places the onus for presenting your writing in its best light squarely where it should be: on you, the writer.

Yet even as I typed that last paragraph, I could feel all of this excellent (if I do say so myself) advice bouncing off the heedless many who simply submit whatever opening pages they happen to have saved on their hard disks at the moment an agent requests materials, even if those pages haven’t even been proofread or spell-checked yet. Yes, well-meant guidance ricochets straight off those people, landing instead upon the already beleaguered heads of compulsive revisers everywhere.

You know who you are: you’re the ones who gasp every time I start a new series of revision tips, scurry toward your manuscripts, and stay up half the night revising. You not only spell-check and proofread — you’ve stared at individual scraps of dialogue so long that you are no longer sure anymore whether the dialogue makes sense. You grind your teeth over battle scenes, wondering if there’s enough conflict on each page. And three days after you have submitted requested materials to an agent, you find yourself compulsively reading over your submission, searching for flaws that could scuttle your chances of making it past Millicent.

In short, you’re just like most working authors, bless your perfection-seeking hearts. We’re a worry-prone breed.

While that worry can be an outright blessing over the course of a book-long revision — what, stop halfway through Chapter 17, when there are 8 more chapters to go? — it can be something of a curse when trying to get requested materials out the door in a hurry. All too often, what chronic revisers end up sending is an uneven draft, hovering somewhere between Revision #12 and Revision #23.

How does that happen? Well, page 1 made it all the way through Revision #23, but at the time the agent of your dreams requested those first 50 pages, page 2 was still in the throes of an incomplete #17. Pages 3-10 are mostly the same as they were way back in #4, while Chapter Two is entirely new as of a week ago.

Getting the picture? The urge toward conscientious, ongoing revision — that drive for constant textual improvement that any agent in her right mind would be overjoyed to find in a new client — can often result in a submission that looks at first glance, ironically, as though it hasn’t been revised at all.

I know: bummer. I like to call it the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s made up of a part from here, a part from there…

Why is that a submission problem, you ask? Again, to put it another way: what do you think Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present, because the phone happened to ring while the writer was in mid-revision? Or a character is named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127, because the writer just didn’t have time to implement a late-breaking name change all the way through the manuscript?

Or even a problem as subtle as the unintentional perspective shift that follows, because Junior accidentally caught Sissy’s braids in the blender an hour and ten minutes after Mom realized with a shock that the story she had almost finished drafting with an omniscient narrator would work much better as a tight third-person piece focused solely upon the protagonist?

Great heavens, Edna thought irritably, isn’t anything going to go right today? First, the apple pies burned because she stayed too long on the phone with Mom, listening to her complain about her lumbago (what is that, anyway?), then it was so hot in the American Legion lodge’s kitchen that all of her carefully-applied make-up had melted right off her face and down onto her seersucker collar. Jeremy White had been so startled by her appearance when he bumped into her in the corridor that he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming aloud. She couldn’t possibly serve the veterans while sporting runny eyeliner, could she?

You wouldn’t have caught it if you hadn’t been looking for it, would you? (And in case you didn’t catch it: in three of the four sentences, the perspective remains squarely with Edna; in sentence #3, the reader is treated to what’s going on inside Jeremy’s head. Perfectly proper in an omniscient narrative, of course, but out of bounds in the tight third person with a single protagonist.)

Sometimes, the monster’s ways are subtle, as you may see, and sometimes blatant. However he may choose to manifest in the submission at hand, I must repeat my earlier question: what, I ask you, would a professional reader’s response be to any of these perfectly explicable clashes of incomplete revision passes?

“Inconsistency,” Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least (if I may be permitted to chime in here) a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

So here, my dear chronic revisers, is a revision series aimed squarely at you. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about how to transform that Frankenstein manuscript into a submission that positively glows with professionalism.

And you thought I wasn’t going to give you a Memorial Day present! Keep up the good work!

PS: speaking of Memorial Day, why not spend a few minutes this weekend sending in an entry to the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest? The deadline is this coming Monday at midnight in your time zone. Fortunate entrants will win hard-nosed professional critique of their opening pages BEFORE submitting them to Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel!

Improving those opening pages, part IV: there’s life beyond page one. Honest, Millicent, there is.

May 26th, 2010

willie wonka screaming

Willy Wonka: Don’t you know what this is?
Violet Beauregarde: By gum, it’s gum.
Willy Wonka: [happily, but sarcastically] Wrong! It’s the most amazing, fabulous, sensational gum in the whole world.
Violet Beauregarde: What’s so fab about it?
Willy Wonka: This little piece of gum is a three-course dinner.
Mr. Salt: Bull.
Willy Wonka: No, roast beef. But I haven’t got it quite right yet.

After my last post in this series, I pondered starting on a new topic altogether. After all, I reasoned, most submissions get rejected on page 1; why pursue our practical example beyond that? Surely, there’s value in realism.

Then, after a couple of days, the writerly part of my brain began to rebel against the limitation. Realism, shmealism, my creative psyche cried: let’s go ahead and turn the page, already.

Besides, there’s a line on page 2 of our real-life example that would not only cause Millicent the agency screener to burn her lip on her too-hot latte; she would choke, gag, and have to be pounded on the back by the screener in the next cubicle. Here are the first two pages of our sample submission; see if you can spot the choke line. (If the type is too small for you to read, try holding down the command key while hitting the + key to increase the magnification.)

page 1 example wrong
page 2 example

Remember, we’re talking a real coffee-down-the-windpipe-inducer here, not just merely the normal Millicent pet peeves. But now that you’ve brought up the more common pet peeves — you just couldn’t resist, could you? — let’s quickly run over the Millicent-distracters on page 2, just to get them out of our field of vision, so to speak. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The incorrectly-formatted slug line, with the page number on the wrong location on the page

Yes, I wrote this up as several infractions last time — but as you already know about them now, I thought I’d skim over them quickly.

Except to say: I’ve been seeing quite a few manuscripts lately with inappropriate spaces between the elements in the slug line. Just to make absolutely certain that everyone’s aware of the proper format, a slug line should not contain any spaces between the slashes and the words. So in our example above, the slug line should read: Wantabe/Wannabe Novel/2, not Wantabe/ Wannabe Novel/ 2.

Everybody clear on that? Good. Let’s press on.

2. An incorrectly-formatted ellipsis on line 2…and again on the last line of the page.

I’m kind of glad to see this one crop up here (twice!), because it’s quite a common punctuation gaffe. When an ellipsis appears in the middle of a sentence, there should not be spaces at either end. Thus, the rather funny line

Emma did not have more money than God … but she could call that loan in any day now.

should instead read:

Emma did not have more money than God…but she could call that loan in any day now.

Naturally, this is not the only context in which a writer might choose to use an ellipsis. For a run-down on how to employ them properly, please see this recent post on the subject.

3. A misspelled word in line 5, and another in line 11.

Oh, you may shrug, but most Millicents will stop reading at the first misspelling; the rest will stop reading at the second. The same basic rule applies to graduate school applications, by the way. College application essays tend to be read a bit more leniently: their screeners often will not stop reading until the fourth or fifth misspelling.

Yes, seriously.

The moral: NEVER submit ANY writing to a professional reader without proofreading it — preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. While you’re at it, it never hurts to run a computer spell-check.

It especially never hurts to re-run a spell-check after you’ve made revisions in a scene. As we shall be discussing later in the week, even writers with sterling spelling and grammatical skills often end up with errors in their submissions simply because they forgot to proofread between Revision A and Revision B.

“Oh, I’ve already submitted an earlier draft of this scene to another agent,” revisers murmur blithely to themselves. “I’m quite positive that I spell-checked before I submitted. Since all I’ve made is a minor tweak or two to the scene, I don’t really need to proof it again…”

Bite your tongue, revisers: you most certainly do need to proof it again before you submit. Half-finished revisions are very, very common in submissions, as are misspelled words. Diligent re-checking is the only means of preventing this type of completely preventable error.

4. Single-sentence paragraphs in paragraphs 4 and 6.

This one has been on the rise, too, so I’m quite pleased to have the excuse to talk about it: in English, at least two sentences are technically required to form a narrative paragraph. In a paragraph of dialogue, only one is required. So while

“You don’t say!” Edgar exclaimed.

is a perfectly acceptable paragraph, one that would not give Millicent a microsecond’s worth of pause,

Going through grade school as “Casey Jones” was also that trainwreck-kind-of-interesting.

usually would. While this rule is not as closely observed as some others, when coupled with quotation marks around words that are not actually attributable to anyone (more on that later) and two words stuck together as one (trainwreck instead of train wreck), even a fairly tolerant Millicent might start to frown.

Some of you have been jumping up and down, hollering, trying to get my attention for this entire section, haven’t you? “But Anne,” single-line paragraph lovers everywhere pant breathlessly, “I see single-line paragraphs in published books all the time, and you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without being positively overwhelmed with them. So isn’t it safe to assume that this rule is, you know, obsolete?”

In a word, no — at least, not if you happen to write literary fiction, high-end women’s fiction, or aspire to the more literary end of most fiction categories, where the better-educated agents and editors dwell. Lest we forget, even people on the business side of publishing tend to go into it because they love good writing; scratch a Millicent at a prominent agency, and you’re very likely to find a former honors English major from a minor Ivy League school.

So you might want to ask yourself: is the impact of any given a single-sentence paragraph worth the risk of Millicent’s disapproving of my having broken the rule? Or, still worse, of her concluding that I simply am not aware of the rule, and thus every subsequent syllable in my manuscript should be scrutinized with unusual intensity, lest I run grammatically amok again?

While you’re pondering that one, I should concede: in AP format (you know, the standard for newspapers and magazines), single-sentence paragraphs are considered quite acceptable these days — which is why, in case you had been wondering, you will see even highly literate nonfiction authors dropping the occasional single-line paragraph into their books. Since journalists write so many books, journalism’s standards have (unfortunately, according to some) bled very heavily into the nonfiction literary market.

We could all sit around and blame Joan Didion, but I, for one, have better things to do with my time.

Some of you single-line lovers are flailing about again, are you not? “But Anne, I’ve seen it in fiction, too. What do you have to say about that, huh? Huh?”

Well, for starters, I sincerely hope that those authors’ old English teachers don’t know what liberties they’ve been taking with the language. It might kill anyone who got her teacher training prior to 1950. Second, and more seriously for our purposes, it has become (begrudgingly) increasingly acceptable for fiction writers to use the OCCASIONAL single-sentence paragraph for emphasis.

You know, when the information revealed in it is genuinely going to surprise the reader. As in:

The town certainly knew how to throw a good funeral; nobody, not even the grim Sisters Katzenberg, denied that. For even the poorest departed citizens, the locals would throw a potluck of the Stone Soup variety: everyone brought what she happened to have in her pantry, and somehow, out of that chaos was born a meal for several hundred grieving souls.

Or it had, until the time the grizzly bear family decided to drop by and pay its respects.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? Breaking off that sentence into its own paragraph emphasizes the twist. Not only does that format imply a pause both before and after the sentence, setting it off from the rest of the narrative, but it is also significantly more likely to be caught by a skimming eye.

That’s the most reasonable use of the single-sentence paragraph: rarely, and only when introducing a legitimate surprise.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of writers radically over-use it, incorporating it for rhythm’s sake when the actual content of the sentence doesn’t justify it. All too often, it’s simply used automatically for a punch line, as in today’s example:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore.

Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: a joke needs to be pretty uproarious in order not to be deflated by having its punch line offset like this. Especially to Millicent, who sees hundreds of offset punch lines in any given screening day, there’s no apparent reason that the narrative should not run like this:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore. Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Hasn’t really lost anything by being made grammatically correct, has it? Save the dramatic paragraph breaks for moments that are actually dramatic; the device will have a greater impact that way.

5. Use of the passive voice in paragraph 7, line 2.

Before anyone starts to panic at the invocation of the passive voice, let me hasten to point out that generally speaking, a narrative usually needs to have many sentences in the passive voice on a single page in order to ruffle Millicent’s nerves. Admittedly, if more than a couple should appear on page 1, some Millicents might become antsy.

And then there are the Miliicents who will automatically stop reading upon encountering a single such a sentence. Suffice it to say that no type of sentence annoys a broader array of Millicents in a broader variety of ways than one in which things apparently happen all by themselves — or at any rate, by actors relegated to subordinate clauses:

The coat was brown.
Traffic prevented Trevor from keeping his appointment with Maurice.
The candle floated around the room, carried by unseen hands.
Karen was stunned into silence.

You may have stopped jumping out of sheer shocked depression, oh hand-wavers, but I can tell that you still have a question to ask. “Seriously? There’s a type of sentence so toxic that Millicent won’t read it at all? In heaven’s name, why is she so afraid of the passive voice?”

For one exceedingly simple reason: she has been taught to regard it as style-free writing, at least in fiction. Nor are screeners the only ones who harbor such opinions: ask any ten agents, editors, contest judges, or even writing teachers for the shortest possible definition of lazy writing, and five of them will instantly spout, “The passive voice.”

You must admit, they have a point: writing a sentence in the passive voice is seldom the most interesting way to convey information. Most of the time, it’s relatively easy to work the information into a more complex sentence, particularly if those details previously appeared in the dreaded X was Y) structure.

Unseen hands carried the candle from tabletop to mantelpiece, pausing in the dead center of the room. Stunned into silence, Karen hugged her brown coat around her shoulders. Dimly, she could hear the normal sounds of ordinary life passing by the window: birds chirping, pedestrians chatting, traffic whizzing toward a collective destination. Fleetingly, she wondered if Trevor had been able to fight his way through the rush-hour crowds to keep his appointment with Maurice.

Okay, so I took a few creative liberties in that revision, but isn’t it more interesting now? With that qualitative shift in mind, let’s revisit the use of the passive voice in page 2 of today’s example. Actually, let’s take a gander at this whole section. If you were Millicent, would it give you pause?

Emma was in there. She wanted to talk. This was frightening.

I’m not going to second-guess our generous example-provider by reworking this, but I’m quite confident that there’s a more interesting way to express Casey’s thoughts and fears in this moment. The emotion here feels real, but it’s not fleshed out: the reader is told how Casey feels and what she fears, rather than showing those thoughts and fears in action.

Actually, that’s a pretty good revision rule of thumb: if an emotionally important moment summarizes the protagonist’s feelings (This was frightening.), ask yourself: is the narrative telling, not showing here? Is there a way I could convey that my protagonist is frightened, instead of just stating it in the passive voice?

6. Use of a cliché in paragraph 7.

Remember the ten professional readers we asked to define lazy writing? The five who didn’t immediately mention the passive voice instantly thought of clichés.

Agents, editors, and contest judges will not pick up your manuscript expecting to read other people’s voice — they are hoping to be wowed by yours. By definition, clichéd phraseology is not going to achieve that goal: phrases that everyone uses are, after all, not original.

Which is precisely why they roll so easily off the narrative tongue, right? They seem so natural — which is why a writer can occasionally (VERY occasionally) get away with incorporating them into dialogue. But think about it: in a narrative paragraph, what are the chances that Millicent is going to read a stock phrase like world enough and time and think, “Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Roughly nil, I’m afraid. Avoid clichés like the plague; keep an eagle eye out for them while revising, and always let your conscience be your guide. Remember, a stitch in time saves nine.

Annoying, isn’t it? Multiply that by a few hundred per day, and you’ll see why even the hint of a cliché will set an experienced Millicent’s teeth on edge.

7. Placing words within quotation marks that are not in fact quotes.

This one is such a common professional readers’ pet peeve that I remain perpetually astonished that agents and editors don’t run screaming into writers’ conferences, bellowing, “Don’t stick quotation marks around those words unless someone is actually speaking them!” at the top of their lungs. In a submission, the mere sight of misused quotations (particularly the odious advertising practice of placing words within quotes simply to emphasize them) is usually enough to make even the most hardened Millicent turn green.

Reserve quotation marks for when people are actually speaking. In a pinch, you can sometimes get away with the common use of quotation marks to indicate so-called (“What do you think of this “Louis XIV” table, Gerald?”), but as with any other tone in dialogue, it’s unwise to rely upon punctuation to convey every possible conversational nuance.

Generally speaking, italics are the safest way either to indicate verbal emphasis or to set off words from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate the difference using in the last paragraph of today’s example, this is likely to annoy virtually any Millicent:

If you looked up “hole in the wall” and cross-checked it with “Corpus Christi, Texas” you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

But what about this version?

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

Actually, that was a trick question: one spelling mistake and two punctuation errors still remain. Did you catch them, or could you use a bit more proofreading practice?

To help sharpen your eye, here is a version that Millicents everywhere would approve:

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas, you might find a photograph of a little yellow restaurant named the Halyard.

8. And then there’s the conceptual stuff.

All of those little points aside, the second page of this example exhibits one very common structural reason that submissions get rejected — and one very specific content problem that writers occasionally include innocently. They don’t mean to fluster anyone, but pop goes the envelope, and before you know it, Millicent’s latte is all over her nice ivory-colored blouse.

Let’s take the structural reason first. Go back to the section break on page 1, then read on. Notice anything about the pacing?

If you instantly shot your hand into the air and shouted, “By gum, the plot seemed to stop cold while the narrative gave us backstory!” give yourself a gold star for the day. First novels — and memoirs, too — are notorious amongst Millicents for establishing conflict in an opening scene (or part of a scene), then setting the conflict on the proverbial back burner while the narrative tells about what has gone on before, what the participants are like, how they got their names…

That’s a whole lot of telling, rather than showing, isn’t it? Little does Millicent know that the original version of many of these stop-and-go novels featured seven pages of backstory before the plot even began; that opening half-scene prior to the three-page digression was just a teaser, added because somebody told the writer that Millicent likes to see conflict on page 1.

News flash: she likes to see conflict on EVERY page. So does her boss — and so do editors and contest judges. Keeping that opening momentum going is a great way to win friends and influence people at agencies.

Unfortunately, even very promising manuscripts often start with a bang, then peter out almost immediately. Partially, this problem may be traced to how introductory writing teachers push hooks. Most fledgling writers learn about opening with a hook — a grabber that draws the reader into the story at the top of page 1 — without learning that in order to sell a book, a writer has to keep the reader hooked for a long time. Digressing from the story for paragraphs or even pages at a time in Chapter 1 is seldom the most effective means of keeping the tension high.

The good news: if the opening scene is compelling and character-revealing enough, including backstory usually isn’t necessary at all. Instead, save it, then reveal it in increments, later in the book.

Stop shaking your head — or at least try writing an opening scene unencumbered by backstory before you insist that it’s not possible. Concentrate on the conflict; keep your characters focused on what they want in the scene and how they are going to overcome the obstacles to getting it.

I could go on for days and day about the ubiquitous early tension-sagging phenomenon (and probably shall, in the weeks to come), but I’m already running long for today. Before I sign off, though, I should ask: did anybody catch the line of text that would have sent Millicent’s coffee flying?

No? Try this on for size:

She worked as a literary agent. God knew why. Casey certainly didn’t.

Didn’t jump off the page at you, did it? It would to Millicent, for the same reason that an orchestra conductor’s eyes light up when someone she meets at a party suddenly starts talking about piccolos: this story is apparently set in the world she knows. And because it does include types of characters she knows intimately in real life — in this case, an author and an agent — she’s going to increase her scrutiny a thousandfold, eager to catch lapses in realism.

Were this submission a meticulously-researched exposé of conditions in the publishing industry, that hyper-intense gaze might prove helpful to the writer: if he got everything right, no reader is going to appreciate that more that Millicent. But had I mentioned yet that this book is a fantasy?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that the writer in this instance has done all of the necessary research to present an agent and her client believably to those who know them best. Take another look at the paragraph where Emma’s vocation is revealed — can you spot any reason Millicent might take umbrage at it?

Here’s a very good reason: not only is the Emma character presented as unreasonable (and, to some readers, unlikable) in these opening pages, but this paragraph implies either that (a) Emma is entirely unsuited to being an agent, for reasons not divulged to the readers, or — and this is the one most likely to occur to Millicent — (b) the narrative is implying that no one in her right mind would want to pursue that line of work.

See the problem, when submitting to people who have chosen to devote their lives to that line of work? Who are, in fact, sensitive human beings, longing to be treated with respect, like everyone else? Whose feelings might conceivably get a trifle bruised by an insensitive portrayal of someone like themselves?

You hadn’t thought of Millicent as someone whose feelings could be hurt by a submission, had you? Sort of changes how you think of the submission process, doesn’t it?

Don’t be disappointed, if you didn’t catch the negative implication. Many, if not most, writers who have not yet had the pleasure of working with an agent probably would not have caught it — or did not think that it might have ruffled Millicent’s feathers. It may even have struck some of you at first glance as humorous.

To someone working within the publishing industry, though, that paragraph of text would have come as something of a shock. Over-sensitive? Perhaps, but in a way that it’s certainly possible to predict and plan a way around, no?

Next time, I shall begin talking about a completely different set of submission perils, pitfalls into which even the most conscientious of self-editors often tumble. Keep plowing forward with those revisions, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: lights, camera — revisions?

May 21st, 2010

spotlights2

A quick reminder before we begin today: entries for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest must be in by midnight in your time zone on May 24th — or, as we like to call around here, the point at which next Monday becomes next Tuesday. The exceptionally easy-to-follow rules may be found here.

I’m hoping that many of you will enter the first pages of your manuscripts, but I’d especially like to encourage those of you who write YA to seize this opportunity: the lucky winners of the YA category will win a first-page critique by no less a storytelling-for-youth authority than YA author Phoebe Kitanidis. I’m excited about judging in the adult category myself, of course, but I’m also really looking forward to hearing her insights on your work!

Okay, that’s enough contest promotion the nonce. Let’s get back to work.

All this week, I’ve been taking a fine-tooth comb, a magnifying glass, and a huge grain of salt to a real, live reader’s real, live first page, pointing out the nit-picks, large and small, that might cause our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to become distracted from the inherent beauty of the writing, originality of the story, or any other selling point a writer might wish her to notice instead. As those of you who have been following this series may have noted with alarm, I’ve been talking for three days straight about potential sources of distraction in what is, frankly, a page 1 that would not have raised most readers’ eyebrows in the slightest.

Just in case you haven’t been keeping score, Millie’s cumulative remarks would have looked like this, had she been noting them on the manuscript page:

marked-up page 1

That’s not an unusually high level of feedback for professional critique, by the way: the pros read closely. While some writers might find facing that level of scrutiny a trifle intimidating, jumping on every last little manuscript error is considered perfectly normal amongst agents and editors. Why, they reason, would a good writer want not to know how to improve her manuscript?

In fact, extremely nit-picky feedback is considered indicative of respect in publishing circles: trust me, they don’t bother to jump all over manuscripts that they do not believe to be worthy of publication.

The moral, lest the combination of the image and that last insight not have driven it home with sufficient force: despite the fact that it’s Millicent’s job to screen submissions in order to find exciting stories and fresh literary talent, it’s also her job to read manuscripts critically. Many submissions (and contest entries, come to think of it) get knocked out of consideration not because of a single mistake, but due to an array of small, avoidable missteps.

What practical lesson might we derive from that? Perhaps that it behooves a writer (or literary contest entrant) to scan his manuscript as closely as Millicent would before submitting it, rather than assuming — as most aspiring writers do — that an agent seriously interested in literature would readily forgive technical mistakes, reading ten, twenty, a hundred pages before deciding whether this is a book she wants to represent.

But Millie is not paid to read with a charitable eye, nor should she; she’s well aware that if anything, her boss is more likely to reject a manuscript on technicalities than she is. (Yes, really — it’s significantly less time-consuming to represent a client whose self-editing skills are demonstrably immaculate.) Because the agent doesn’t have time to read every submission in its entirety, she employs Millicent to narrow the field down to a few manuscripts already of publishable quality AND likely to sell in the current market AND packages professionally.

Or, to put it another way: the little stuff matters. Quite a lot, as a matter of fact.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professional readers — screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges, to name but a few — do not read like other people. Instead of reading an entire scene or page before making judgments about the story and the writing, they judge each line as they encounter it. Typically, when Millicent encounters a line of which she does not approve, she does not read on in the hopes of finding one she will enjoy more — she generally will simply stop reading.

What does this mean for most submissions, in practical terms? Well, take our example from yesterday, the manuscript that opened with an unattributed piece of dialogue. The vast majority of submitters would assume that Millicent would see the page like this:

page 1 example wrong

Whereas what Millicent is likely to see for evaluation purposes is this:

first line page

What makes me think she might choose to stop reading at that point — and not, say, immediately after spotting the unusual slug line or odd pagination? As I mentioned earlier in this series, small formatting errors are seldom instant rejection triggers; presentation gaffes may affect how seriously Millicent reads the text (see my earlier comment about how much more time-consuming it is for an agent to represent a client who doesn’t know the self-editing ropes), but it’s rare that she would dismiss it entirely on cosmetic grounds alone.

She may reasonably be expected to read what follows with an a slightly jaundiced eye, though, if not an outright expectation that the writing will not be polished up to professional standards. Which is precisely what happens in our example: manuscripts that open with unidentified speakers are a notorious Millicent pet peeve.

Actually, cutting the narrative off here gives us a sterling insight into why. Take a gander at the first sentence (and first paragraph) of this manuscript, forgetting that you know anything about the story to follow:

“It’s your ex, hon.”

What does it tell us, stripped of context? We already established last time what this opening doesn’t tell us: who the speaker is. Or who the listener is, for that matter, beyond the fact that s/he has evidently participated in a relationship prior to the beginning of the story. It also doesn’t tell us whether the speaker or the hearer whether is male or female, anything about his/her tone, what the environment is like, the speaker’s motivation in bringing this information to the listener’s attention…

We don’t even know how crucial this statement is to the actors, whether it’s the key to the story to come or merely one line of dialogue amongst many. Standing alone, this speech could serve equally well in the mouth of a bored operator transferring the thirtieth perfectly mundane call from a civil ex and coming from the lips of a horrified onlooker who has just spotted an axe murderer standing behind her best friend.

Even more serious from Millicent’s perspective, it also doesn’t really give us any hit about who the protagonist is or what conflict s/he faces — which are, lest we forget, questions that she fully expects a well-written page 1 to answer, at least provisionally. While naturally, it would be a tad unreasonable to expect the first paragraph of a manuscript to answer both of those questions (which form, presumably, the basis for a 350-page book), is she so wrong to expect that first paragraph to whet her appetite about the story to come?

Bearing all that in mind, let me ask you: in Millicent’s shoes, would you keep reading?

A forest of hands just shot into the air. Yes — you in front? “I wouldn’t keep reading,” an inveterate conference-goer points out, but not because I was confused about who was saying the speech, or because I was not sufficiently intrigued by it as conflict introduction. No, if I were Millie, I would have stopped reading as soon as my gaze hit that first set of quotation marks: I’ve heard agents say at conferences/in interviews/on their blogs that they just don’t like to see manuscripts open with dialogue on the first line.”

I’ve heard this one from time to time, too. Usually, one agent sitting on a panel will begin a critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like to see dialogue in the first line.” Almost invariably, the agent sitting next to him will turn to him and say, “Really”

It’s not a universal pet peeve, in short. As simple observation of the literary world will tell us: a lot of very good books open with dialogue. That being said, I would certainly advise a writer who hears an agent express such an opinion immediately to make a mental note never to send that agent a manuscript that opens with dialogue. That’s just basic prudence.

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it.

Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

Unfortunately, the writer of our ongoing example is quite unlikely ever to find out whether the Millicent who passed on her submission harbored a lingering resentment against opening dialogue, or didn’t like the unattributed dialogue, or indeed, any other actual cause of complaint against the manuscript itself. These days, it’s quite rare for a rejection to contain any concrete reason at all. Most of the time, queries and submissions alike are rejected with the same form letters filled with stock phrases: we’re sorry, but it did not meet our needs at this time; I just didn’t fall in love with this protagonist; I don’t feel I can sell this book in the current market.

Which makes it rather hard to learn much from the rejection experience, admittedly. All an aspiring writer can do is keep pushing ahead, polishing her craft in private, until she finds the right agent. Keeping an eye on what’s been published lately in her chosen book category can’t hurt, either.

Yes, persistent hand-raiser off in the corner? “Okay, Anne, I understand both that it’s a good idea to avoid opening a manuscript with an unattributed piece of dialogue, and that since there are a few agents out there who will reject submissions with dialogue in their first lines, attributed or not, I cannot please all of the people all of the time if I want to keep my initial dialogue. But let’s say that I just love my opening quote, and I’m willing to trust my luck that it will land on the desk of someone who doesn’t hate initial dialogue. How would you suggest I present it without running afoul of your second critique from last time, over-using tag lines? Or, to take advantage of our ongoing example, how would you suggest changing it to be more appealing to Millicent?”

Ooh, that’s a tough question, persistent hand-raiser. As you point out, the easiest way to correct the first problem would be simply to add a tag line, identifying the speaker:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

It’s not a very creative solution, though; it neither adds much interest to the paragraph nor gives the reader much insight into who Emma is, what her primary conflict might be, etc. Also, this approach might be problematic if Casey turns out to be the protagonist — as, indeed, Millicent would have assumed from the original submission.

And why would she have leapt that conclusion, you ask wearily? The same answer as before: selective reading. Here’s the point in the text where she would have made up her mind on the subject:

second line

Generally speaking, Millicent will assume the first named character on page 1 of a novel to be the protagonist until proven otherwise — especially if that character is the most active one in the opening scene. Since she doesn’t always appreciate being informed later in the text (or even on the page) that she was wrong about that, you might want to construct your opening scene accordingly.

Let’s assume for the sake of example, though, that Emma, and not Casey, is the protagonist, since it’s entirely possible that this was the author’s intended implication by having her speak first. (At least I assume that it is Emma who speaks first in this scene, rather than someone in the background.) What our exemplar’s quickest revision options for steering a middle course between no speaker identification in the first paragraph and applying tag lines indiscriminately?

Why quickest, you ask? Oh, you’ve never caught a manuscript problem ten minutes before you were about to stuff it into an envelope — or two minutes before hitting the SEND button? Lucky you.

No, but seriously, folks, it’s been my experience that once an opening scene hits a page, many, if not most, aspiring writers are rather reluctant to change its structure or even its wording much. Writers can get extremely attached to their opening sentences and paragraphs; even those tinker endlessly with mid-book phraseology are often downright defensive about their initial scenes.

We all imagine future browsers lovingly pulling our books off shelves years hence, you see, sitting down to devour our first pages at a glance. Who wants some third party, even one as advantageously placed to help you get your book published as Millicent, to dictate the first impression we will make on our as-yet-unborn fans?

Back to the problem at hand. Identifying the speaker in a separate sentence within the first paragraph is the method most editors would suggest, as it provides ample opportunity for providing context for an opening comment, giving characterization hints, introducing the protagonist as active, and so forth.

It’s also, if you play with the running order a little, a dandy way to side-step the perils of running afoul of opening-dialogue-hating agents. You simply have the narrative sentences come first.

What might this look like in practice? Instead of simply using a tag line to identify the speaker, like so:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

The reviser could add some action to the opening — ideally, action that sets the tone for the scene to follow. Since the line of dialogue follows immediately thereafter, the direct implication is that the primary actor in the first paragraph is also the speaker.

Emma dodged the knife-wielding maniac, escaped, panting, down the hallway, and collapsed at her best friend’s usual lunch table. “It’s your ex, hon.”

No doubt about who is speaking there, eh? Or that the protagonist is an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Beefing up a dialogue-bearing opening paragraph can also provide a great opportunity to introduce physical characteristics of both protagonist and place. Be careful in what you choose to put here, though — mundane descriptors tend to imply rather ordinary protagonists. Telling details, however, can be worked in beautifully. Borrowing from lower on our example page:

Emma’s collection of silver rings danced under restaurant track lights. “It’s your ex, hon.”

I see a few more raised hands waving frantically at me. “But Anne, the reason I’m starting my manuscript with a piece of dialogue is that I feel that the spoken words themselves are important — so much so that I genuinely like seeing them all alone at the top of the page, as in the example. What you’re suggesting seems to water down their impact a little. Couldn’t I just, you know, add a tag line with an adverb attached, providing enough information that Millicent won’t jump down my throat, but still preserving the opening sound that I like?”

Well, you could, oh frantic ones, if you minimized the tag lines throughout the rest of the scene AND you happen not to be writing in a book category where tag lines are positively to be avoided (literary fiction, for instance, eschews them to a remarkable extent). If the initial statement is crucial to the scene — as it should be, if you’re opening with it; as in a screenplay, the first thing the protagonist says in the book sets up the reader’s idea of what kind of a person she is — it might well make sense to highlight a particularly startling statement that reveals character or conflict in a surprising or original manner.

In other words, don’t try it with an everyday statement; it’s probably not worth the risk.

If you’re going to incorporate a tag line in the first sentence of your book, make sure it pays off. There’s just no getting around the fact that adding a tag line might not pass muster with a Millicent who believes that tag lines are always avoidable (as they almost invariably are, with some rhetorical gymnastics), but if you feel that it’s the best means of kicking off a conflict, go a head and give it a try. It helps if you choose an interesting speaking verb, instead of the prosaic and ubiquitous said:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma spat, slamming her tray down on the tiny, slick table.

Casey Winter blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

You want to read on, don’t you? That’s because these initial lines jump straight into a conflict. (One that I have no reason to believe exists in the manuscript as it is currently written, but work with me here.)

Still, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to maintain a similar energy while trimming the tag line. Implication is the writer’s friend, after all.

Emma swerved her way through the crowd of tray-wielding lunchers, slamming her tray down loudly on Casey Winter’s table. Gossip boiled in her system, and she could hold its hot fire inside no longer. “It’s your ex, hon,”

Casey blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

Up go those hands again. “But Anne, what if Casey, and not Emma, is the protagonist? How would you suggest revising the opening then?”

That’s a good question, talking hands — frankly, in that case, I would be reluctant to allow Emma to speak first. I would be easy enough to move the content of the initial piece of dialogue into her mouth, after all. I would, however, trim her reactions so that they all take place inside of her (as opposed to blanching, something Emma might see from the outside), to ramp up the intensity of the opening:

“My ex?” Casey Winter’s stomach twisted into snake-knots. She had a psychosomatic ache in her face and temple and a not-quite-so-matic one in her right knee. She wanted to tap on something, a glass, the tabletop, maybe Emma Parker’s skull, and bleed some of her tension out. “What does he want?”

Emma leaned forward…

My overarching point, should you care to know it: good revision — on the stylistic front, at least — is less about applying hard-and-fast rules than making choices. Nowhere is that more true than on page 1 of your manuscript, for once a reader gains an impression of your protagonist (even if it’s an incorrect one), that’s going to inform how he responds to the rest of the book.

Page 1, in essence, is your story’s introduction to the world. How do you want it to appear?

And, of course, Millicent’s decision whether to keep reading or reject is based entirely on page 1, necessarily. She will be deciding line by line, sentence by sentence, whether to push on or reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

At the submission stage, then, there’s no such thing as a throwaway line on page 1 — or page 2, or page 15, or in the first 50 pages. Grabbing and keeping the attention of as nit-picky a reader as Millicent requires not only telling a good story well, but also paying attention to the details.

Practically nothing escapes her notice, you know. But isn’t that ultimately a very gratifying reader to have for your work, one who notices and appreciates all of your fine work, all of your intelligent choices?

Sort of strange to think of ol’ Millie in that light, isn’t it? Give it a ponder — and, of course, keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: and then there are Millicent’s page 1 pet peeves

May 19th, 2010

woman tied to a train tracklion and tamertommygun1

How have you been enjoying this week’s series on editing page 1 of your manuscript, campers…or is enjoying too strong a word? I’ve been getting such a varied response (ranging, understandably, from thrilled to horrified) from such a wide spectrum of writers (straight nonfiction, memoir, every stripe of fiction) that I’m already toying with making this a regular feature — the first page of the month, perhaps — to give us time and a great excuse to dig deep into the peculiarities and joys of various book categories.

All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions, after all; what is expected in one may seem downright poky in another. A passive female protagonist might well be a drawback in a mainstream fiction manuscript, for instance, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon.

Doubt that? Okay, to a peril-seeking reader, which would be the more exciting rescue object: the lady tied to a train track while menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun, or the bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down who always carries large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack?

I’ll leave you to ponder that cosmic mystery on your own. Let’s get back to analyzing our sample first page.

So far, we’ve talked about how Millicent the agency screener might respond to the way this page appears on the page (formatting issues, punctuation, grammar), what clues about the rest of the manuscript she might derive from certain authorial choices (italics usage, word choice, repetition), and book category appropriateness. Today, I want to concentrate on matters of style — which, on the first page of a submission, requires some consideration of the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Already, I see some hands raised in the air, clamoring for my attention. “But Anne,” rules lawyers everywhere cry with one voice, “since Millicent is a composite character, the fanciful Author! Author! personification of professional readers’ attitudes toward submissions, how meaningful could it possibly be to talk about her pet peeves? Are they not by definition personal, and thus variable from reader to reader?”

Yes and no, rules lawyers. Yes, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living harbors at least a couple of individual dislikes — it drives me nuts, for instance, to see She graduated college on the page, as opposed to the more grammatically correct She graduated from college. Have you noticed how common it’s become to ignore the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs? Not to mention the vicious, civilization-dissolving practice of transmuting perfectly innocent nouns into verbs, presumably to save a couple of characters per sentence — why, just the other day, my weary eyes were insulted by The institute tributed director X in a fairly respectable local newspaper. Would it have killed the article’s writer or his editor to adhere to the longstanding norms of the English language by coughing up the extra character for the less nonsensical The institute paid tribute to director X? And whose bright idea was substituting tonite for tonight, anyway? What great contribution to Western literature do abbreviators believe they are going to be able to achieve with those two saved characters?

Those of us who read for a living tend to cherish our personal pet peeves, as you may see, but there’s not very much an aspiring writer can do to protect herself from running afoul of any given Millicent’s. Or, indeed, from annoying her with your subject matter.

“Oh, God,” Millie mutters, “another romance set in Paris? That’s the third one I’ve seen this week!”

You’re scowling, aren’t you? I’m not at all surprised. Of all of the many aspects of the submission process over which the writer has no control whatsoever, the role of who happens to be screening on the day a particular manuscript arrives in an agency is one of the least understood and most resented by writers. Perhaps with good reason: we’d all like to believe that our manuscripts will receive a fair, impartial reading, regardless of the pet peeves or mood of the screener.

However, there’s just no denying that if you have written a semicolon-heavy literary fiction piece about the many loves of an airline pilot, and the agent of your dreams has just hired a Millicent who simply loathes semicolons, is a dedicated monogamist, and was jilted yesterday by a pilot, the best writing in the world probably is not going to prevent her from rejecting your submission.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you — but an aspiring writer who is aware of the role that personal preference and chance inevitably play in whether a manuscript gets rejected or accepted is, in the long run, going to be significantly happier than one who believes that all Millicents read identically. Ditto with contest entrants; every contest judge brings a few personal preferences to the table. Assuming, as virtually every aspiring writer does when first submitting, querying, and/or entering, that any individual professional reader’s reaction to his work is representative of what EVERY professional reader’s opinion would be is just, well, wrong.

It’s also a strategy notoriously likely to depress aspiring writers into not querying, submitting, or entering widely enough to get their work into publication. If every professional reader’s opinion is identical, fledgling writers are all too apt to reason, why shouldn’t a single rejection — or two, three, or forty-seven — be taken as if it were the entire publishing industry’s reaction to the book in question?

There’s a very good reason, as it happens: screeners are individuals, with personal opinions. So are agents, editors, and contest judges. Keep sending out your work until you find the one predisposed to love it.

But that didn’t answer the rule-mongers’ question, did it? “That’s all very pretty and inspiring,” they concede. “Does that mean I don’t need to worry at all about Millicent’s pet peeves?”

Well, no — certain pet peeves are shared by most professional readers, simply because they turn up so often in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Spotting even one non-doubled dash on a manuscript page leaves many a Millicent gasping with indignation, for instance; a submission without indented paragraphs renders many positively apoplectic. And if you really want to ruin a pro’s day, try submitting something with unnumbered pages.

Hey, standard format is standard for a reason.

Most of the ire-inducing gaffes above are relatively well-known (but if any of them came as a surprise, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right, if only for the sake of Millicent’s blood pressure). I was delighted to see, however, that our sample page 1 included several of the lesser-known ones. Discussion gold!

Okay, so perhaps delighted isn’t a particularly normal response. Had I mentioned that reading manuscripts for a living radically alters how one reads?

Here is our example again; don your Millicent mask and try to ferret out three common screeners’ pet peeves we have not yet discussed. If you want a hint: two of them are dialogue-related.

page 1 example wrong

How did you do? The third in particular might be a tad hard to spot if you didn’t happen to have spent the last six hours reading first pages; certainly, it would be significantly harder to get excited about it. To give you a sense of how exorcized Millicent might have gotten about all three, allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your quick scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

If it’s the latter, don’t be embarrassed — very few readers would have, at least consciously, and self-editors. If you’re caught up in the characters’ lifeworld (as Millicent hopes you will convince her to be by the bottom of page 1), none of these questions is likely to occur to you. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her.

1. Opening with an unidentified speaker.
I’m really glad that our generous example-provider chose to open the manuscript this way, because it’s a very, very popular choice: depending upon the fiction categories Millicent’s boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages. So when they pick up page 1, they’re looking for some pretty specific information.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me ask the question that Millicent would almost certainly be asking herself by the middle of the third question: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by NOT identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Trust me on this one: a Millicent in a hurry tends to dislike guessing games, especially on page 1. Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. In fact, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as, well, old-fashioned. Not to mention unnecessary. Which leads me to…

2. Including unnecessary tag lines.
Unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines — he said, she asked, they averred — aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Let’s face it, quotation marks around sentences are pretty effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

So why include them, in instances where any reasonably intelligent reader would already be able to figure out who the speaker is?

That’s a serious question, you know. Most editors will axe them on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts.

So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism. Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well: a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited.

Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully. Take another gander at it then ask yourself: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the next one. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a legitimate narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely.

Sort of changes your mental picture of how and why the average submission gets rejected on page 1, doesn’t it? Professional reading doesn’t miss much. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors; every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1′s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

3. Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about.
This is a really, really common problem for first pages — and first chapters of both novels and memoirs, if I’m being honest about it. A lot of writers like to take some time to warm up…so much so that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4.

Then, too, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anyone spot a SLIGHT drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary. The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way, I think), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? We’re not going to get into the next scene until next time.

So let’s stick to our moral for the day: since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense. Remember, Millicent is looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict — appearing as soon as possible in the manuscript. You might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page gives all that to her.

Just a suggestion. Or three. Keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part II: preparing your manuscript for its first target reader

May 18th, 2010

public market sign

Last time, I posted an honest-to-goodness reader’s honest-to-goodness page one and began to examine it as any professional reader — an agent, say, or editor, or contest judge — might. As those of you who joined me in that endeavor no doubt recall with a shudder, what a pro would consider a fairly cursory examination of presentation issues would strike most aspiring writers as a no-holds-barred critique.

Why would I do such a thing to a perfectly nice manuscript, other than to drum up enthusiasm for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest (entry deadline next Monday, in case anybody’s forgotten)? For starters, to encourage all of you self-editors out there to start to look at your work not like a writer, or even like your ideal reader, but like an agency screener.

You know, the person who culls the hundreds of queries and dozens of submissions the average agent receives in any given week down to the happy few that the agent actually has time to read. Here at Author! Author!, that dreaded first line of defense and most critical first reader is known as Millicent.

Learning to read through Millicent’s eyes is an exceedingly useful skill for an aspiring writer to develop; in fact, for a writer intent upon landing an agent in North America, it’s a necessary skill. No matter how delightfully apt a manuscript may be for its intended ultimate readership — you know, the fine folks who are going to buy your book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, take it home, and cherish it for the rest of their reading lives — if a submission can’t please the Millicent screening for the agent of your dreams, you’re bound to be out of luck.

With that dire warning ringing in our collective ears, let’s take another gander at yesterday’s example, shall we?

page 1 example wrong

Last time, I mentioned in passing that the italicized part would raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript. While indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider this correct:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking I should have known. I should have known.

Of course this would happen today.

depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking: I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

or:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

The trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

Bearing in mind, of course, that there are quite a few professional readers out there — yes, including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Reginald!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

There’s another reason an aspiring writer might want to be sparing in his use of italics, especially on page one. It’s very, very popular to use italics on an opening page to highlight a brief opening scene or image.

Everybody knows what I’m talking about, right? In theory, the italics are intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the ACTUAL opening scene that follows immediately thereafter. On the manuscript page, it usually looks a little something like this:

Ima's italics

One often sees this done in published books, right? Unfortunately — feel free to chant along with me now, long-time Author! Author! readers — manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Still more unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit.

The usual result? Well, we saw a bit of it yesterday, didn’t we? Instead of treating the deviation from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters hope. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

In other words, she tends to regard block italicization in much the same way as she would any other deviation from standard format — if she doesn’t happen to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening. As many, many agents do, I’m afraid.

How would that affect how Millicent would read such an opening? 99% of the time, like so:

italicized opening

In response to that vast collective gasp: yes. The vast majority of Millicents will simply skip over italicized opening text, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript.

My, the group’s gasping a lot today. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? Published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

page 1 example wrong

Any luck? Actually, to Millicent’s eye, the problem is pervasive throughout the entire page. Here it is again, with the words that would jump out at her highlighted.

Ima's first with reps

Easier to see the word and phrase repetition now, isn’t it? (Although the slug line seems to have vanished mysteriously in the transition, I notice.) Trust me, Millicent would swoop down on each and every one of ‘em like a bird of prey.

Why is she so much more likely than the average reader to notice word and phrase repetition and be bugged by it? Like most professional readers, Millicent’s eye for redundancy has been sharpened not only by years and years of reading manuscripts, but also by training: textual repetition is one of the first things fledgling editors are taught to spot.

Why might a savvy submitter want to avoid tripping her delicate redundancy sensors on page one? Because of an underlying assumption necessary to justify quick rejections: almost universally, professional readers will assume that the writing on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing throughout the entire book.

Which it usually isn’t, in practice. Most first-time writers improve as they work their way from Chapter One to The End, so it’s not all that unusual for the sentence style and word choice to be quite different in Chapter 2 than in Chapter 18. It’s also quite common for writers to revise sporadically, resulting in a highly polished Chapter 6 followed by a virtually first-draft Chapter 7. And don’t even get me started on the number of submissions in which the first ten pages are impeccable (possibly because their writers had heard someone like me point out that unless the opening pages are buffed to a high shine, Millicent is unlikely to read past them), while the rest of the text remains largely unrevised.

Be that as it may, Millicent has a LOT of submissions to get through in any given day — and it’s her job to narrow the field of applicants for the post of agency client, isn’t it? So while she may decide to keep reading past the bottom of page 1 to see if the writing becomes less repetitious, or more exciting, or more genre-appropriate, or more anything else she knows that her boss is looking for in a new client’s work, structurally, there isn’t a great deal of incentive for her to invest the extra minute or two.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your best interest to revise the opening pages so that they reflect your most polished writing style. If page 1 doesn’t wow Millicent, page 2 may not get a chance to impress her.

Fortunately, redundancy can usually be removed at little or no cost to the meaning of a paragraph, and without even much effort. Take a peek at our example after roughly 43 seconds of revision:

example no reps

Do I spot a few eagerly-raised hands out there in the ether? “But Anne,” a few sharp-eyed souls point out, “that’s not the same text as before — it’s a few lines longer.”

Well spotted, sharp-eyed ones. More space on page 1 to show off your good writing is a dandy fringe benefit that often results from minimizing repetition. Don’t say I never gave you a present.

I have quite a bit more to say about this first page as a submission, believe it or not, but let’s save it for next time. Then, if we’re very brave indeed, we may take the plunge into page 2!

Clearly, we like to live dangerously here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VIII: taming the many-headed beast, or, what do you mean, you want me to sum up a 12-protagonist novel in a single page?

May 2nd, 2010

gargoyles at Mirapoix2

The very title of today’s post made most of you cringe, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. Although they require great care and effort in construction, they’re not documents that one’s fans are ever likely to see, after all: they are used purely to market one’s books to agents, editors, and, frequently, contest judges.

In short, anyone who might be inclined to judge your manuscript without reading it. Hard to imagine why any writer would resent that, eh?

But our feelings about synopses run even deeper than disliking their potential substitution value, don’t they? As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces. That, too, is understandable: obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to 1, 3, or 5 pages.

Does all of that bated breath out there indicate that those of you who have been following this series on juggling protagonists are hoping that I’ll tell you that you don’t even have to try?

Sorry, my dears: not this time. If one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time.

The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. Distract your mind from trying to visualize it by looking at the pretty picture of gargoyles above, please. (Oh, you thought I included all of these photos just to separate the posts?)

The bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s also the basic goal of the query letter descriptive paragraph and any length of pitch. Unlike a query or pitch, however, the synopsis needs to show the entire story arc, not just the premise of the book.

If you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect may seem quite daunting. If you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done.

Once again, the key lies in telling the story of the book, not the protagonists. Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option.

Before I elaborate upon that horrifying thought, I should set a few ground rules. Since I’ve gone over the ropes of short-short synopsis-writing in some depth in this forum (for a few dos and don’ts for writing a 1-page synopsis, please see the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right. Or if you dug up this post in the archives in the midst of a frantic last-minute search, try starting here), I don’t propose to start from scratch here.

What I would like to do instead is talk about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. (Is it more helpful or terrifying to think of it that way, do you think?) Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in our protagonist-juggling series? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

In a single-page synopsis, the goal is to tell what the book is about. So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere protest, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. To answer it, write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the book. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript. Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story briefly may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most aspiring writers to try. Do bear in mind, though, that opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — in chronological order, for instance, if your narrative jumps around in time, or by leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book. Just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags, trying to regularize your breathing again: believe me, this suggestion is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically, though: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of a synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may strain your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts. “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that showing off that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of the synopsis?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this series. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short. Which brings me back to another suggestion from a few days ago.

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more strategy in the writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. And there’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which isn’t for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel, but bear with me here; it’s what I have on hand):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complex plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the second example exhibits in spades but the first avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses. Don’t be afraid to do some trimming, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

April 23rd, 2010

Attwood book cover shaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part III: a few ways to make Millicent’s day, or, the living are nice, too.

April 20th, 2010

Mother Goose's grave

Why open one of my normally quite friendly posts with such a grim image, you ask? A couple of reasons: first, according to several official-looking placards scattered about the Boston graveyard where I took this photo, this stone marks the final resting place of Mother Goose, of fairy tale fame. What writer wouldn’t be glad to have readers remember her name more than three hundred years after her last book came out?

Second, I begin today with a horror tale. A few years back — right around the last time I ran an entire series on constructing multiple-perspective narratives, if memory serves — I sat through a movie that seemed calculated specifically to appall the editors in the audience, a crowd-pleasing independent horror film called CRIME FICTION. Even presented within a film festival that positively gloried in depictions of violent death, the kind where protagonists shooting their girlfriends were the norm, this was a standout. (Okay, so one of the films killed the girlfriend off with an overdose of ecstasy, and she did get to come back as a zombie, but honestly, after the sixth dead paramour in a row, who is making fine distinctions?)

In CRIME FICTION, the protagonist killed his girlfriend (of course), but her gory death wasn’t what made me cover my eyes and scream. Nor did the premise — an unsuccessful writer of spy novels becomes jealous when his doomed-because-she’s-in-the-picture girlfriend’s beautifully-written memoir gets a great review from the NYT Review of Books — chill my blood too sharply. Naturally, violence was going to be in the offing, given the focus of the festival.

I didn’t freak out at these developments primarily because I had been queasy since one of the first scenes in the movie. In it, the protagonist sat down to write, and…oh, it’s almost too horrible to describe.

Okay, deep breath: I can convey this. He already has a published book out, but when the audience sees his freshly-written first page, IT’S NOT IN STANDARD FORMAT.

Oh, the humanity! I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. The 3/4-inch top margin! The uncentered chapter title! The too few skipped lines before the text began! And — avert your eyes, if you have a sensitive stomach — the paragraphs were not indented!

After that level of debauchery, frankly, I was barely surprised when he shoved his girlfriend out a window. Clearly, the man had no regard for the norms of civilized society. But then, later in the movie, another, more successful author’s first manuscript page fills the screen, and guess what? It isn’t in standard format, either!

I spent the rest of the film peeking through my fingers, hyperventilating. Would the paper-generated terror never end? Could the second writer’s killing spree be far behind?

Even after several years of seeing manuscript-free movies where positively no one’s girlfriend gets slaughtered, those two scenes of improperly-formatted pages still make me cringe; think of all the poor souls lead astray by such careless imagery choices! (If that last thought does not make you instantly picture Millicent the agency screener shouting, “Next!” I STRONGLY recommend that you review the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before sending off your next submission.)

What does any of this have to do with crafting a multiple-perspective narrative, you ask? Glad you brought it up.

Last time, we discussed structural means a savvy writer can use to help alert the reader to perspective shifts in multiple-protagonist manuscripts. Separating points of view by chapter, section breaks, or even paragraph breaks can go a long way toward preventing reader confusion.

Which should be a primary narrative goal in a multi-protagonist novel, right? Unfortunately, sometimes structural signals are not practicable, or even a good choice.

Take, for instance, a scene where two or more of protagonists interact. Often, as I mentioned a few days ago, it works beautifully to pick the more active character’s perspective and stick to it. But what about the case where the primary interest of the scene is the difference in Protagonist A and Protagonist B’s views on what is going on?

A thorny problem, you must admit. Let’s take a look at the same scene, told first from a single perspective, then in a narrative that shows both points of view.

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? I do seemed unlikely to be the universal solvent of thick-headedness.

She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish dessert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

“See you at dinner, my pet.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this exchange, right? It’s a tad tell-y (as opposed to show-y), but it demonstrates both perfectly good reasons for Delphine’s annoyance and Charles’ lack of response to it. So far, so good.

Yet if the reader has been following the latter’s perspective for half the book, it might make sense to add a counter-current to the scene by including his perspective as well. Take a gander:

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled automatically, remembering too late the blackberry seeds that must be embedded between his widely-spaced teeth. He hid his mouth behind his napkin, remembering the vicious look she had cast him at the state dinner with the Prince of Wales. The offender had been strawberry mousse that time. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish desert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

She was beautiful when she was worrying about core meltdown. “See you at dinner, my pet.”

Yes, I have brought a structural device into play here (alternating perspective by paragraph), but I have included a stylistic one as well: making the tones of the respective protagonists’ thoughts distinctive enough that the reader can easily tell who is thinking at any given point. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) still won’t like it, but at least it’s clear which perspective prevails when.

There are a number of ways to render perspectives distinct from one another. Content, as we have seen here, is the most obvious, but worldview and tone form a close second and third. One sees this type of differentiation in novels about families all the time. If Sister A is an introvert, Sister B is bound to be loud and bouncy; if Brother C is a bookworm, Brother D’s usually good at sports. Given these different orientations, all of these protagonists are likely to see the world around them in disparate ways, so the reader would simply understand by a few chapters into the book that the quiet observations are most likely Sister A’s and the rampant baseball analogies Brother D’s.

Pop quiz for those of you currently engaged in self-editing: does your manuscript reflect that expectation?

To put it another way, if you picked a narrative paragraph at random from your manuscript and it did not contain the protagonist’s name, would a reasonably careful reader of the book so far be able to guess whose perspective it contained? Or is the primary difference between Protagonist A’s chapter and Protagonist B’s that they are participating in different events?

Care to guess how often Millicent sees the latter? Uh-huh.

Do make sure, even if your protagonists’ perspectives are broken up by formal breaks — by chapter, section, scene, or even paragraphs — that their perspectives vary enough to be plausible as separate people’s perceptions. Trust me, Millicent has seen thousands of multiple-perspective novels where the thought patterns of Protagonist A and Protagonist B are so similar that they might as well be the same character.

“Why,” she wonders, sliding the latest into the reject pile, “did the writer bother to go to the significant trouble of establishing multiple perspectives if they were all going to have the same voice?”

You have a point there, Millie. There’s a reason for this phenomenon, of course: all of the characters in the book are the product of the same mind, and so even though the structure of the book may dictate that Chapter 3 should reflect a different mindset than Chapter 4, they’re frequently written in identical voices.

And that, dear friends, can lead to precisely the kind of point of view confusion that makes the POVNs feel justified in dismissing the entire multiple-protagonist ilk of novels. So here is your first homework assignment for the day:

1. Think about how your protagonists differ — especially any differences that could potentially affect not only recorded thought, but descriptive passages in their various chapters or paragraphs.

Do keep in mind as you ponder that the great pitfall of relying upon broadly-drawn characteristics to differentiate perspectives is the ease of falling into stereotypes — and I’m not just talking about genre tropes like dead girlfriend stories. What are the chances, for instance, that Brother D, the sports enthusiast, is going to be an insensitive boor, captain of both the school’s football team and the crowd who goes around shoving kids like Brother C into lockers? And what are the chances that the agency screener — who has, after all, read a hundred submissions in this genre already this week — will be able to guess that the jock is a jerk the instant he appears on the page?

To put it in terms the entire festival audience can understand, if Millicent were screening movies for film festivals, she would probably be exclaiming by two minutes into each, “Oh, terrific: another dead girlfriend. Next!”

The horror, the horror. But I’m not going to cover my eyes again: you’re not going to spring either a stereotype or a deviation from standard format on me, are you? Good; let’s move on.

2. Make a list of your protagonists and their major characteristics, likes, dislikes, areas of sensitivity, and so forth.

No, you may not skip this step or do it in your mind, but thanks for asking. Get it all down on paper, so you may refer back to it mid-edit.

3. Review the lists, circling any characteristic that might conceivably cause a particular character to misperceive or embellish upon what’s going on around him. Pay particular attention to any condition that might affect the workings of his eyes, ears, nose, tongue, sense of touch, sense of humor…well, you get the picture.

4. Read through your manuscript, searching for a place where perspective is not entirely clear. Whip out your list: would incorporating any of the circled characteristics in that section make plain whose perspective is dominating it?

5. Repeat Step 4 as often as needed to individualize every murky scene.

This is a terrific technique for keeping perspective shifts snappy, of course, but is also is a marvelous means of increasing character development for your various leading characters. The more protagonists you have, the more helpful this exercise is, potentially.

It’s a great way to get you brainstorming about ways that your protagonists’ respective sections of the narrative could reflect their different mindsets, worldviews, prejudices, charms — in short, subtle means of making it clear to the reader which chapter (or subsection, or paragraph) is focused upon which character. Rather than relying solely upon different events and brazen markers like names and job titles to signal the reader when perspective had changed, try a closer marriage between language and character.

Before anyone starts barking at me, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, if I’d wanted to write a multiple first-person narrative, I would have!” hear me out. There are quite a few excellent reasons to consider differentiating a tight third-person narrative by character being followed at any given moment.

First, and probably most important for character-driven novels, many protagonists equaling only superficial development for each is a classic downfall for multiple-protagonist novels in both the third and first persons. By incorporating worldview and personal quirks into the narrative itself — showing Natalie’s vision blurring as a result of her allergies to the roses Bevis insists upon bringing every time he visits, rather than just telling the reader that Natalie’s allergic to them — a writer can open up many more possibilities for interesting character development.

Second, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the marketing value of making your protagonists’ sections unique, if only for the sake of freshness. Narrative that never varies its tone, vocabulary, type of observation, etc. as it moves from perspective to perspective is actually the norm for multiple-protagonist novel submissions. Thoughtful variety, on the other hand, is so exceptional as to be practically unique.

And what have we learned about what usually happens to manuscripts that exhibit common weaknesses? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: they tend to get rejected rather more quickly than those that exhibit less ubiquitous failings, because the more an agent or editor sees a particular writing problem, the faster she can categorize it.

Think about it: which do you think is easier for the average doctor to diagnose, the flu that everyone in town has or the bubonic plague?

Uh-huh. Let’s talk about ways to stave off that flu that’s going around.

To do so, let’s revisit a rhetorical question from our earlier list: if you read a randomly-selected mid-book section aloud, is it apparent within a paragraph whose point of view it is? If so, how can you tell?

Because Harry is the subject of every sentence? (A popular choice.)

Because other characters keep saying, “Hi, Harry,” to him? (Reminiscent of the old Bob Newhart show; still quite common.)

Because the protagonist is going over the company books at 3 a.m., and Harry is a forensic accountant? (A close third.)

All valid — but let me suggest a more interesting possibility. What if Harry noticed things about ordinary situations that none of the other protagonists would — and those kinds of details only appeared in the parts of the narrative focused upon him?

I’m not talking about heavy-handed introduction of backstory, here, just little tweaks to descriptive passages. Obsessively detail-oriented accountants are kind of hackneyed, but what if Harry put himself through college and graduate school as a car mechanic? Wouldn’t he naturally observe passing traffic differently from, say, co-protagonist Maurice, who spent his teenage years tending his mad great-aunt’s collection of prize orchids? And wouldn’t Cecily’s abusive college boyfriend have left her with a sixth sense for when someone near her might be about to flip out?

Harry might, for instance, automatically diagnose a slipping fan belt from the sound of an anonymous car darting through an intersection as he is arguing with his boss. The squeaky belt would not be the primary focus of the scene, naturally, but it would lend a Harry-specific tone to the moment, wouldn’t it?

Maurice would never catch on to that — but then, he would probably be able to tell a co-worker almost without thinking about it which florist operating within the five blocks from the subway stop to the office habitually displayed the freshest flowers, or why the receptionist’s African violet produced only leaves, but no flowers. Harry wouldn’t have a clue, and Cecily might have developed a violent aversion to roses, because her hideous ex used to cover her dorm bed with them after he socked her.

The possibilities really are endless — and a fabulous way to increase the quotient of sensual details in a book’s descriptive passages, which in turn will make your writing stand out from the crowd. Remember, the vast majority of the descriptions our gal Millicent sees in a given week of screening are visual- or sound-based. Blame the fact that the average person now gets upwards of 85% of her information about the world around her visually (computers, anyone?), or snipe at my favorite bugbears, TV and movies, which can tell stories only through sight and sound, by definition.

However you explain it, Millie’s kind of starved for input from the other senses. She is, after all, typically trapped in a miniscule cubicle, reading under stultifying fluorescent light. A truly original description of a sea breeze might just make her day.

Too few submitting writers use this sad fact to their advantage. Harry’s nose would pick up a malfunctioning catalytic converter half a block away; Maurice would be far more likely to begin nibbling upon a dandelion in the park than someone who did not know that they were edible.

The more protagonists there are, the better this technique works, generally speaking. Protagonist Emily’s years of making gnocchi with her grandmother would certainly heighten her fingertips’ awareness of the texture of wallpaper as she leaned against it, crying because Harry has just been mean to her, and co-protagonist Cecily would be tasting some salt on her lips as she ran out onto the beach, to get away from that weird guy munching dandelions. Infusing the narrative in Harry’s section with his type of observations, and Cecily with hers, will lend both Millicent-tempting depths to the text and render their respective perspectives unique.

Not a bad payoff for the addition of a few details here and there, considering that their inclusion will also develop character in subtle ways, too. Particularly if you — hint, hint — start to regard how a character responds physically to the world around her as a means of revealing herself to the reader, rather than relying exclusively upon showing her thoughts, words and deeds.

A word to the wise about sensual detail: when the sense of smell does make a cameo appearance in a manuscript, the results are usually described only vaguely (The air in the cell stank.), or as if the aroma were invariable to the substance described (The room smelled like cheese).

What kind? Cheddar? Gouda? That nose-assailing goat cheese that nearly gets the protagonist thrown out of boarding school in HEIDI GROWS UP?

Most of the time, the reader is simply left to imagine; the protagonist simply wrinkles her nose and moves on. This is a real missed sensory opportunity, I think. Scents in manuscripts are almost always awful, terrible (as in garbage or a burning building), or intoxicating, gorgeous (as in flowers or perfume), with no further descriptors.

But why shouldn’t that awful garbage be redolent with the aromas of cast-off cheese, warm bananas, and bleach, and that terrible burning building reek of charcoal, soggy linens, and sharp chemicals? Why shouldn’t the flowers intoxicate with the bee-seducing odors of raspberry and honey, and the perfume bite the back of the protagonist’s throat with a whiff of pepper and magnolia essence?

Millicent would thank you if they did, I’m sure, if only as an alternative to the pervasive office odor of stale coffee and cast-off paper. Make her day with a few perspective-defining, character-developing details. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Plot flares, or, what have you got in that bag, and why is it meowing?

April 14th, 2010

candles at Lourdes

I meant to post yesterday; honestly, I did. Then I got sucked into a conversation that a lot of us affiliated with the publishing industry have found ourselves having over the last year and a half: a debate about the presumed imminent demise of traditional publishing with people who frankly wouldn’t be all that sorry to see it go.

Specifically, in this case, with people who did not grow up cherishing the hope that sometime, someday, if they worked really, really hard at their craft, they might actually get PAID for their writing. (Hey, my SO has friends, too.) To the gleeful consumers of e-books who invaded my living room last night, the question of how — or even whether — the author of the story they’re enjoying so much will be remunerated was simply not all that interesting. They were too busy licking their chops at a vision of a world where they would never have to pay $25.00 for a hardcover again.

How could I tell that they weren’t particularly sympathetic to the authors’ plight? Well, let me put it this way: if I had one piece of bread for every time one of my guests airily voiced some dismissive iteration of, “Oh, the really good books will make money for their authors” (presumably through some magical process overseen by the Tooth Fairy’s older and more organizationally-minded sister), I’d make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for every writer I know. And I go to a lot of writers’ conferences.

To those of us who’ve been listening to the blithe declaration, “Oh, good writing will always find a home at an agency or publishing house!” for any length of time, this argument is eerily familiar, isn’t it? Most people’s faith in the inevitable discovery of every single talented writer who has ever lived borders on the intensity of a five-year-old’s confidence that Santa Claus is coming down that chimney to deliver presents, not to filch goodies from under the tree.

The possibility of disappointment just doesn’t occur to them.

The inevitability argument always makes me cringe, because its flip side is so harmful to aspiring writers. It runs a little something like this: if every good manuscript will necessarily be snapped up by the publishing industry (or an admiring web-browsing public, in my guests’ worldview), then by logical extension, if a writer’s having trouble getting a book published or finding an agent, the book couldn’t possibly be good.

It’s just not true. But writers hear this theory so often from the lips of non-writers — and even from other writers — that they can come to believe that if they were really talented, they wouldn’t have to struggle at all. So why keep pressing forward, if the Tooth Fairy’s older sister has already passed judgment on their books and found them wanting?

But try explaining that to a roomful of non-writers. Suffice it to say that after an hour and a half, I thought it might not be the world’s best idea to inflict my mood upon all of you, dear readers.

I’m more chipper tonight, though. Let’s get back to work.

Last time, I suggested — and none too gently — that while a writer is reading through his manuscript (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD) with an eye toward making his protagonist more active, it might behoove him to consider revising scenes where secondary characters are either passive or mirror the protagonist’s reactions. Not to mention looking to vary those characters’ reactions, so they do not become too predictable.

I’m bringing it up again, because most writers’ instinct is to cultivate reaction repetition, not to minimize it. All too often, writers proceed on the assumption that consistency is the way to make a character believable. The result? Generally speaking, the less complex the character, the more predictable he will become over the course of a book, because the writer keeps showing the reader the same reactions over and over again.

Why is this so common? Authorial fear, mostly, I suspect: fearing that readers may not recall important plot points or characteristics, many aspiring writers repeat such information throughout the book.

How common is this practice? Well, let’s just say that most of us who read for a living see the first repetition of a trait or plot point and say immediately, “Oh, okay — THAT little tidbit is going to be crucial to the climax.”

I like to call those tidbits plot flares, significant repetitions and emphatic little asides that the writer inserts early in the story so that the eventual plot twists won’t come entirely out of the blue. In your English classes, the teacher probably called it foreshadowing.

Plot flares can be a huge problem in a submission or contest entry, far more than most eager foreshadowers suspect. Millicent the agency screener is a pretty savvy reader, after all; like her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, she’s trained to pick up on foreshadowing. And when someone whose hint-discovery skills have been honed on page after page of similarly-themed manuscripts for years on end — as is almost invariably the case for an experienced agency screener or contest judge, since both agents and contests tend to specialize in certain book categories — encounters a less-than-subtle hint of what’s to come, she’s likely to draw conclusions about the rest of the book.

Which is not necessarily a drawback, if those conclusions are favorable. But if those conclusions include a sense that she’s read a similar foreshadowed twist recently, or that now that she knows what’s to come, she’s less inclined to keep turning those pages, we all know what her next decision is likely to be, right? “Next!”

Now, I have nothing against a little light foreshadowing — far from it. As a reader, I find it very satisfying if the villain’s main henchman’s nervous breakdown in Chapter 11 was suggested by a bevy of neuroses introduced with ever-increasing intensity in Chapters 2, 7, and 10, or if the protagonist’s long-lost father, known to the reader as the proprietor of the local haberdashery, evinces the occasional slightly-too-intense burst of emotion when the protagonist purchases a hat. That’s just good story construction.

Foreshadowing can devolve into plot flares when the narrative repeats same reaction, character trait, or even factual statement so that the reader is more likely to notice it. Instead of providing a subtle build-up for what’s to come, plot flares blare it.

Like so many manuscript megaproblems, the over-use of plot flares is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies and television shows: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. If the heroine is going to have to shoot the villain at the climax as her Own True Love lies bleeding and weapon-free, for instance, she will almost invariably make a statement about her (a) loathing for guns, (b) aversion to violence, and/or (c) having witnessed some incredibly graphic murder during her formative years during the first act.

Ostensibly so we poor viewers can understand why anyone might have an aversion to, say, picking up a gun and shooting someone in cold blood, or some other hard-to-grasp concept like that.

In novels, creative nonfiction, and memoirs, foreshadowing of the denouement often happens within the first 50 pages — or even the first chapter. Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for an actual SCENE from the climax to open the book as a prologue, with the plot jumping backward in time immediately thereafter to figure out how our hero ended up there.

Or, to put it in cinematic terms: “Rosebud.”

From the author’s perspective, these hints may seem quite subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t awfully subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it.

And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

There are, of course, the classics common to both the silver screen and the printed page. If the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy about to be called to action, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless.

Pathos, pathos. And at this point in storytelling history, predictability, predictability.

It’s not just lowbrow entertainment that embraces this strategy, either. These clichés transcend genre or even writing quality: that last example about the dead wife and child was the backstory for both half the action films Charles Bronson ever made and the Sidney Poitier character in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (courtesy of a car crash), as well as for the Antonio Banderas character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list of such common plot flares is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more to hire to play the part than the other actors?) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Christopher Walken, and/or a well-known British character actor in a US-made action picture — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re supposed to think did it, so the twist can be that somebody else did.

Wait — the Alan Rickman character doesn’t have an evil, dark secret in his past? Who saw that coming?

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry can continue to produce scripts featuring plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a completely forgettable thriller where one of the actors had, unfortunately, shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the final plot twist.

When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, your humble narrator), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer ‘had a tough childhood.’ The screenwriter might as well have erected a neon sign with a big arrow that read ‘psychopath here.’”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed, straight-faced.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film from the all-too-deserved charge of predictability. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack.

However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges are extremely unlikely to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

And that’s a problem, because, as I mentioned above, so many aspiring writers just love foreshadowing. They think it’s clever — so clever that they often fall prey to the temptation to repeat the clue. They wouldn’t want a skimming reader to miss it or anything.

If you feel you must foreshadow, keep it low-key. If you don’t trust the reader to remember the salient information later on, try introducing it in a different manner the second or third time.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, if it’s vital to the plot that the reader know before Chapter 15 that the protagonist’s best friend, a florist with a heart of gold, is prone to sudden violent bouts of allergy-induced twitching, you could show one — one! — incident early on in the book, say in Chapter 5. Or have a couple of different characters tease her about it in Chapter 8. Or have the protagonist reflect on an earlier allergic attack in Chapter 3, then have the florist rush into Marcie’s wedding late in Chapter 11, bright red from head to toe, muttering about her recent trip to the hospital after an inadvertent brush with a freesia.

What you should NOT do, that unless you’re writing fairly broad comedy, is having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.”

Not only is this brick-through-a-window foreshadowing, but the presentation doesn’t render this statement particularly memorable — not exactly the goal of foreshadowing, no? And can anyone out there give me even one good reason that a professional reader like me shouldn’t regard that statement about Harry as a glaring instance of telling, rather than showing?

Because it is, to my eye: the author has chosen to tell the reader point-blank that Harry has the qualities that would lead one to expect him to be president, rather than showing him exhibiting the individual characteristics through action.

Once again, Harry’s creator doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony…or the pathos, or the twist to come. (Harry’s going to enter politics? Who saw that coming?) Instead, it’s usually more effective to allow the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp aloud.

If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance. If s/he keeps turning the pages long enough to find out.

To avoid engendering the dreaded oh, I saw that coming a MILE away reaction, try to introduce the relevant facts or characteristics in such a vivid way the first time around — showing them, perhaps, instead of simply telling the reader about them — that you have no need to repeat them. If the initial scene is memorable, the reader may be safely trusted to recall 300 pages hence that the protagonist’s sister is allergic to the beets that are going to kill her on p. 423.

Tell me honestly: were you more or less surprised by that last sentence, given that I’d mentioned allergic reactions no fewer than five times earlier in this post?

Did that sudden stabbing sensation in my mid-back mean that some of you found that last observation a trifle harsh, or do I merely owe my chiropractor a visit? “But Anne,” the repetition-fond point out, “readers honestly do forget details — my first reader/writing group/my agent/my editor keeps writing in the margin, ‘Who is this?’ when I reintroduce characters toward the end of the book, or even, ‘Whoa — this came out of nowhere!’ when I’d thought I’d laid the groundwork in the first third of the manuscript. I’m just adding the repetition to address these concerns, because, frankly, unless the reader has that information, the conflict loses some of its oomph.”

You could do that, repetition-mongers, but I would translate this feedback differently. If your first readers are not recalling certain salient facts introduced early in the book by the time they reach the closing chapters, isn’t it possible that the earlier introduction is at fault? Rush back to the first mention of the information in question to see if it is presented in a memorable manner. Or if the reader is presented with so much information that the important bits got buried.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go back and double-check anytime you notice yourself repeating information. Is there a reason that you’re assuming that the reader won’t remember it if it’s mentioned only once?

Yes, that would require going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, now that you mention it — and an excellent idea that is. I’ve noticed that writers are very frequently unaware of just how much their manuscripts DO repeat themselves. There’s a very good reason for that, of course: repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time.

Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well. Most of us become inured through years of, yes, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Richard – cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist with a summa cum laude from MIT, Evelyn, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

I’m sensing some squirming in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear some consistency-mongers protest, “doesn’t the fact that we are all accustomed to being spoon-fed the information we need when we need it mean that we writers should be assuming that our readers will have some memory problems? Especially somebody like Millicent, who might read the first 50 pages of my novel, request the rest, then continue reading a month or two later? Surely, I should be including some reminders for her, right?”

Good question, squirmers. But it may not be the same Millicent who picks up your full a few months hence, and even if it is, she’s likely to begin at page 1. She may jump ahead if she remembers your earlier submission vividly, but don’t count on it; she reads so many manuscripts that she may just have a vague feeling that she’s read this story before.

Why might she feel that way, even if six months have passed between readings? Because people who read manuscripts for a living are substantially more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Pop quiz for those of you who were with me throughout the GETTING A BOOK PUBLISHED BASICS series earlier this year: just how much control does the average submitting writer have over the other manuscripts Millicent might have already scanned that day before getting to hers??

That’s right: absolutely none. So while following the cultural norm for repetitive storytelling might not annoy a reader who curls up in a comfy chair with only your manuscript, if your tale repeats twice something similar to what the submission before yours saw fit to convey 37 times in 22 pages…

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

Ever.

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

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

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s lifting lines doesn’t mean that Millicent won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it inadvertently from time to time. The rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are. Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance, something they apparently didn’t do before the 1930s.

But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting — or not come across as hackneyed — translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. It’s not only a great way to render your manuscript more original; it’s a fabulous means of minimizing plot flares. If you don’t allow yourself to repeat a character trait or relevant outright, you’re going to need to find another way to make sure the reader is aware of it before that crucial scene in Chapter 27, aren’t you?

However you decide to work that information in, keep those advance hints subtle. If there’s a cat in that bag, you’re going to generate far more suspense by keeping it there until it’s startling for it to pop out.

There’s no need to have it meowing constantly for a few hours first. Keep up the good work!

« Previous Entries Next Entries »