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Purging the plague of passivity, part IV: please, please, please, please, please love me. Please?

March 31st, 2010

prosperity cat, swift

I honestly meant to continue this series yesterday, campers, but I was waylaid by my eye doctor. Those of us who read and write for a living tend not to miss our annual check-ups.

“Now, these dilating drops will leave your vision just a bit blurry for the next three or four hours,” he assured me mid-exam. “Six at the most. I’m sure your blog readers won’t begrudge you a few hours for eye health.”

Okay, so I made up that last part. But Dr. H’s estimate was equally fanciful: nine hours passed, and I was still scowling at the world through the silly eye filter you see above, pupils the size of dimes.

And if that’s not a passive protagonist in an anecdote, I’d sure like to see one.

I’m back on the move today, however. I am delighted to report that I no longer look like a startled mole abruptly dragged out of a nice, comfortable dark hole at noon.

Back to business. Last time, I stirred up the deep waters of controversy underlying the placid surface of many a novel, memoir, and creative nonfiction manuscript by suggesting (and rather forcefully, too) that submissions with scene after scene spent amongst the limpid pools of smooth, conflict-free interaction — particularly if that interaction is merely observed by the protagonist (the boat in the metaphor? A passenger in that boat? A passing seagull?), rather than caused by or integrally involving him — might be less successful, in marketing terms, than ones that set the protagonist adrift amid a storm or two. (Okay, so s/he is IN the boat. Glad we got that settled.)

Oh, heck, I’m going to abandon the metaphor (toss it overboard, as it were) and just say it boldly: passive protagonists tend to bore readers, professional and unprofessional alike. After this many posts in a row on protagonist passivity, I would hope that doesn’t come as a big shock to anybody out there.

Yet in general, aspiring writers do tend to be shocked, or even appalled, at the very suggestion that their protagonists aren’t doing enough. All too often, they hear critique of their protagonists as criticism of themselves, believe it or not — as if a dull character’s appearance in a manuscript must by extension mean its creator is…well, let’s just say non-scintillating, shall we?

Surprised by that reaction? Don’t be. It’s really, really common for writers new to the wonderful world of serious feedback to respond to it as though it were, if not precisely a personal attack, at least unkindly motivated.

Many, if not most, writers have difficulty hearing manuscript critique as critique of — wait for it — their MANUSCRIPTS, rather than of themselves, their self-worth, their talent, and/or their right to be expressing themselves in print at all. (A phenomenon I have dissected at great length in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series, conveniently available under the self-named category on the archive list at right, should anybody be interested.)

This response is equally likely, by the way, whether the manuscript is fiction, memoir, or academic book. I suppose this particular logical leap shouldn’t still give me pause at this late date. Over the years, I’ve seen writers draw similar conclusions from feedback that indicates that their work is slow-paced, too long, hard to market, or even poorly punctuated.

“Why me?” they shriek, rending their garments. “What have I done to deserve this torture?”

Okay, so that was a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit. And that’s a great pity, because a tendency to take feedback personally is unfortunate in the long-term. As personal characteristics go, it’s a difficult one to reconcile with an author’s work life.

Why? Well, being a professional writer pretty much requires not only getting used to hearing such critiques from one’s agent and editor — yes, Virginia, even an agent who adores your writing style will want you to make revisions from time to time — but being able to incorporate feedback into a manuscript. Often very quickly.

How quickly, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, it varies. Let’s just say that I’ve actually heard my agent utter the words, “Oh, you know that editor who liked your manuscript? She’d like you to give it a different ending, and I told her I could have the revised version to her in three weeks. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” and leave it at that.

Oh, dear — that wee anecdote made some of you unconsciously clutch your chests, didn’t it? “But Anne,” critique fearers across the globe whisper, darting their eyes thither and yon, “I try to take feedback as constructive criticism, but I like my manuscript as it is. So I worry that when faced with professional critique — i.e., the completely honest examination of every last syllable and comma in a manuscript, that agents and editors convey without pulling any punches — my resolve to act like a pro may wilt a trifle.”

I have faith in you, critique fearers. When the time comes, I’m sure you’ll take it on the chin. (Speaking of unpleasant metaphors…) Unless, of course, the first serious feedback you’ve ever gotten on your work comes from your agent or editor.

Why did half of you just turn pale? You weren’t planning to have the first human eyes to have the pleasure of sliding over your manuscript be Millicent the agency screener’s, were you?

A hint to those of you who are hesitating about how to answer that question: we’re talking about Millicent the Merciless here. You know, the one who just stops reading a query at the second typo — and a requested manuscript at the third? The gal that works for the agent who reserves, “Well, you’re just going to have to rewrite this to this ten-point list of specifications,” for manuscripts she likes?

If you’re thin-skinned about feedback on your writing — and what writer who doesn’t have a lot of experience hearing critique isn’t? — it’s an excellent idea to rack up some experience listening to constructive criticism of your work before you expose your baby to professional critique. Like any other muscle, the part of your psyche that enables you to keep a quiver out of your voice as you say, “Oh, lose my protagonist’s best friend and relocate the whole story from Cleveland to Madagascar? No problem!” gets stronger with practice.

Besides, if you’re going to have a meltdown — and I’ve known many relatively stoic writers who’ve suddenly gone ballistic in the face of their first professional feedback, where nothing goes unnoticed — wouldn’t you rather do it in front of your writers’ group or a trusted first reader, rather than, say, on the phone with the agent of your dreams?

Oh, it hadn’t occurred to some of you that sometimes, the response to a successful submission is, “Yes, I’d love to represent this. Let me just dig out my revision list,” followed by the sound of 17 pages shuffling into place?

While that mental image sinks slowly into your brainpan, let’s try a little critique-desensitization exercise. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and picture yourself sitting at a table in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America. The agent of your dreams is sitting across from you, about to order a second round.

“Oh, by the way,” he says casually, just as you were thanking your lucky starts that since you’ve already landed an agent, you were not at the conference to pitch, “your protagonist isn’t all that active, and it’s slowing down the book. You can pump up the energy in the next revision, right?”

Quick: how does that make you feel? Like getting right back to work on your manuscript, or as if tossing your half-finished club soda with lime into his smiling face might feel pretty darned good?

If it’s the latter, go punch a sofa cushion until that urge goes away. Repeat the visualization as often as necessary until your gut stops seizing up at the very notion of being on the receiving end of such a sweeping critique.

Or join a good writers’ group and participate like mad. Over time, it can have a similar response-numbing effect.

Your protagonist doesn’t do much, does he? seems to be an especially hard critique for many writers to swallow. I suspect that’s because so many first books, fiction and nonfiction alike, tend to be at least partially autobiographical. Not everyone is thrilled to be told that she would be more interesting (or, heaven help us, more likeable) if she were a more active participant in her own life. Or if her life were more interesting in general.

If she were a rhinoceros-wrestler, for instance, instead of sitting at home and writing a book about it.

In answer to that very loud unspoken question all of your minds just shouted at me: yes, I can tell you from personal experience that memoirists actually are very frequently told by their agents and editors that their books’ protagonists could get into the game more. And yes, even if a writer is experienced at handling critique, that can feel quite a bit like a personal attack.”

“Wait,” I found myself thinking as my editor and I worked on my memoir, “my publisher is allowed to edit my LIFE? What am I supposed to do, travel backward in time so I may pick a few more fights or join the Foreign Legion?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself; writing the real to make it more interesting on the page — without, you know, lying — is near the top of my to-blog list at the moment.

Darn — now I’ve gone and ruined the surprise. And I wanted Flag Day to be so special this year.

A slight case of identification with one’s own protagonist is not the only reason that many aspiring writers squirm at the suggestion that s/he might be a tad on the inactive side, though. Even for non-autobiographical fiction, the very notion that something that one wrote oneself could possibly be less than marvelous seems to come as an immense shock.

I’m quite serious about this. I’m perpetually running into writers in my classes, at conferences, and online who seem to believe that the publishing industry should buy their books simply because they have written them.

“Target market?” these well-meaning souls echo, wrinkling their noses at the inference that a true artiste ever considers why someone out there might want to buy his or her art. “That’s the publisher’s job to figure out.”

Um, yes, in the long term, but in the short term, it’s very much the writer’s job to figure out. How can you revise with an eye to pleasing readers if you have no idea who your ideal reader is? Or what she likes about the kind of book you write?

While writing is unquestionably art — some might argue the most inherently creative one, since the writer uses fewer outside materials than other artists to create her effects — if one has any intention of doing it for a living, it just doesn’t make sense not to think about who might buy one’s books and why.

Why not, you ask? Well, would you expect an aspiring doctor to work all the way through medical school without first ascertaining that there were sick people in the world?

Again, perhaps a too-colorful analogy. But you know what I mean.

Yet many, if not most, aspiring writers seem to have genuine trouble seeing their own books as a third party might. That’s a major stumbling-block to marketing one’s book to agents and small presses, because, let’s fact it, no matter how much a writer adores his manuscript, at least a few people other than one’s mother, spouse, and/or best friend will have to admire it at least at much in order for it to get published.

Again, that’s not too great a shock to any of my long-term readers, is it?

So it is perfectly reasonable, and even necessary, to step outside your role as author to try to view your story as an outside reader might. (If you have trouble pulling this off — and the vast majority of writers do — you might want to take a gander at the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.) Specifically, to make a valiant attempt to see your protagonist as a reader might — and from a reader’s point of view, an active, decisive character in the driver’s seat of the plot can be a mighty fine thing.

Why, that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last week, isn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

One of the first things a writer needs to accept in order to read from a reader’s perspective is that conflict is not something to be avoided — it’s to be courted, because moving from conflict to conflict is how the protagonist typically moves the plot along. Protagonists who are purely reactive, as popular as they may be in movies (the trailer for half the dramatic films released within the last few years: “Coming soon to a theatre near you: the story of an ORDINARY MAN drawn against his will into EXTRAORDINARY events…”), are frequently frustrating.

“DO SOMETHING!” Millicent is likely to shout in their general direction.

Of course, in most book categories, you don’t want to go overboard in the opposite direction, driving the plot forward so quickly that there’s little time for character development. (Unless, one presumes, you happened to be writing THE DA VINCI CODE.) Non-stop conflict can result in a one-note narrative, one with very few dramatic highs and lows punctuating the story — but in most genres, if a book is going to be consistent, it’s much better to be consistently exciting than consistently low-key.

I’m going to make some of my higher-brow readers cringe by bringing this up, but one of the best recent examples of a protagonist who ostensibly has little control of the forces controlling his life, yet manages to fight back on practically every page is Harry Potter of the self-named series. (Don’t laugh; many of the English-reading adults currently in their twenties grew up on that series, and thus drew their ideas of exciting pacing from it.)

How did JK Rowling keep the tension high in books that are largely about a child with little autonomy going to school in what frankly seems to be an educational system intent upon punishing students? The old-fashioned way: by including some kind of conflict on every page.

But not all of it has to do with fighting He Who Shall Not Be Named. More than half the time (until the last couple of books in the series, at least), Harry is beset not by the forces of ultimate evil, but by teachers who don’t like him, a crush he doesn’t know how to handle, mixed feelings about his elders, and so forth.

All that’s conflict, too, right?

Rowling also tends to have more than one threat looming over her protagonist at any given time, as well as forces buffeting about his friends, and even his enemies. All of this contributes to a complex plot — and plenty of occasion to introduce conflict on any given page.

If you genuinely feel that it’s important to your story that your protagonist is acted-upon (true in virtually every memoir professional readers see, incidentally, as well as most first novel manuscripts), adding subsidiary action can go a long way toward pepping up the pace. Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment in a plot, for instance?

For example, consider a story set in an office with an intensely sexist boss of the “Hey, good-looking, why don’t you sit on my lap while I discuss our new policy for file-sharing” variety. Now, our heroine and her cronies could type away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them for fifty pages on end, obviously.

But what if, in addition to all of that glorious silent passivity, some of the typers happened to be going through menopause — and started responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes?

Inherently quite a bit more dramatic, isn’t it? Lots of room for ongoing conflict there.

But not everyone out there is comfortable with this strategy, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” some of you passivity-penners cry, “you told us last time that there were a lot of reasons an agent, editor, or contest judge might take a dislike to a protagonist. Even if mine is just one of several coworkers being nasty to one another, won’t they like her even less?”

Ah, that old bugbear: the belief that a character must be a nice person to be likeable on the page.

Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we fear being told that our characters are not likeable enough. So we tend to self-edit for harmony.

Translation: many writers will deliberately make a protagonist passive, on the theory that if she isn’t, this chick might not play in Peoria, according to someone in a New York agency or publishing house.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, though, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I liked the story, but I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her in X, Y, and Z ways, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

You were hoping my earlier example of an editor asking for revisions prior to offering a book contract was just an anecdotal misstep, weren’t you? How shall I break it to you?

Directly is probably the best way: it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions prior to making an offer on a novel. Agents will frequent make similar requests prior to being willing to market a novel to editors. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free.

That’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed outright at such an editorial request before a contract was signed.

Much of the time, though, the author responds to critique about character likability by making the character more passive — a very bad move, strategically.

So why do they do it? As I mentioned, it’s a common writerly misconception to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one. An interesting conclusion, isn’t it, given how often first novels and memoirs feature at least semi-autobiographical protagonists?

Which begs the question: is the common writerly obsession with protagonist likeability at some level a cry to the industry: “Love my character — and me!”?

Bears a spot of thinking about, doesn’t it? Psychology aside, it’s understandable that writers might mistake a propensity for avoiding confrontation for likeability.

Passive Paul the protagonist is a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Courteous to a fault, he’s always doing nice things for others, generally thanklessly. A good employee, fine son/husband/potential partner, he is dependable. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue.

Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. Or, better still, silently drew amorous cartoons of you in the margins of his notebook, plotting how he’s going to show up at your 10th reunion as a rock star and sweep you off your wee feet. In real life, it might take this guy until the 20th reunion and after his second divorce to work up the nerve to tell you that he ever had a crush on you at all.

On the manuscript page, Paul’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part.

And astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this! Go figure, eh?

A delightful person to encounter in real life, in short; the kind of person you might like to see serving on your city council, library board, or living next door to you in a time of natural disaster. But think of Paul from a reader’s point of view: he makes so few moves that he’s practically inert.

So why, if you’ll pardon my asking, would someone pay $25 to read a book in which he is the central figure — other than the beauty of the writing, of course?

That may sound like a cruel or dismissive question, but actually, it isn’t — it’s precisely the question that Millicent is going to need to be able to answer if she’s going to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, should read it, right? It’s also the question the agent of your dreams is going to have to make to the editor of your fantasies in order to get her to acquire it.

And isn’t it, ultimately, a question your target reader will, at the very least, find of interest between the shelf and the cash register?

Next time, I shall talk a bit more about Passive Paul — and what, short of challenging him to a duel (for which he would probably not show up, we can only assume), his creator can do to get him into the game of his own life a bit more. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part III: the many, many different translations of aloha

March 29th, 2010

palm tree, shadow2palm tree, shadow3
palm tree, shadow5palm tree, shadow
palm tree, shadow4palm tree, shadow6

Can you believe it, campers? I took an entire weekend off. Well, not off, precisely — I edited copy for two wildly different websites, walked a new author through the mysteries of blogging, and threw a gala dinner party — but the point is, I didn’t blog. Not even a little.

Except for very late last night, when I discovered that an apparently well-disposed Russian blogger had tried to leave a comment here. To be specific, I discovered it in my about-to-be-deleted spam. (What, you thought I wouldn’t log on to see if my spam-blocking program hadn’t committed some unanticipated mayhem while I was looking the other way, just because I wasn’t posting? Even when I’m on vacation, I often check in to answer readers’ questions.) Unfortunately, I don’t read Russian, but a friend who does said that it was an interesting comment. Even more unfortunately, neither my blogging program nor I is in a position to provide translation services for the fine folks who read this blog in translation. Which means, I’m afraid, that I can only post comments in English, even on the rare occasion that my spam-screening program allows me to see those in foreign languages.

All of which I felt compelled to mention late last night. What I neglected to mention was (a) the fact that my blogging program requires me to approve every first-time commenter’s post (which is why, in case some of you first-timers had been wondering, your comments may not have appeared on the blog right away) and (b) the reason that this level of scrutiny is necessary. Spamming advertisers often try to post links to their products’ websites as comments on blogs; if I did not employ my dual-level screening system, you would constantly be regaled with 40 or 50 ads, many of which for products and services that do not bear mention on a family-friendly site. (Since it’s important to me that those of you reading on computers with parental controls and/or public computers and/or work computers have unfettered access to the Author! Author! community, I actually do check links.)

So in case I haven’t said it recently: please, keep the conversation G-rated, keep it in the language of the site, and I’ll make a sincere effort to keep my spam screener from eating your thoughts. And if you’re even considering posting a link in my comments, please review the rules for posting comments before tossing ‘em up there.

Thanks tons. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last week, I gave you a heads-up about a bugbear that haunts many a novel and memoir submission, the passive protagonist problem. The dreaded PPP, for those of you who missed my last couple of posts, arises when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it — or (dare I say it?) causing it.

As I intimated last time (and the week before, and a year ago, and…), passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers. While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, at any given moment, thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks feature protagonists who do precisely that.

Often for pages and chapters at a time. It’s not necessarily that there’s no action occurring on the page; the protagonist merely seems to be an observer. Unlike the assumed other observer of the plot — the reader — the protagonist is a spectator enjoying the considerable twin advantages of being personally involved in the outcome of the struggle-in-progress and having the capacity to comment upon goings-on for the reader’s benefit. (In the language of the prevailing narrative, presumably.)

Yes, yes, I know: the latter practice is a necessity in a first-person narrative. The nature of the beast, really — when the narrator and the protagonist are one and the same, it’s pretty hard to keep the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings out of the narrative. (Although you’d be surprised at how many memoir submissions seem devoted to the losing battle of trying to keep the narrative impersonal. Just the facts, ma’am.) And in a close third-person narrative, the reader if often treated to glimpses of the protagonist’s internal mutterings.

All of that’s perfectly appropriate, of course — although as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, the proper proportion of internal monologue to external activity varies wildly by genre. An unusually chatty protagonist of a Western would be practically silent by the standards of most science fiction subcategories, for instance, and even a relatively reticent memoir narrator would strike the average thriller’s protagonist as living almost entirely inside his own head.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: there’s just no substitute for being conversant with the norms of your chosen book category. And there’s just no other way of becoming conversant with the current market than sitting down and reading books like yours that have been released within the past few years.

Category-appropriate levels of internal monologue is not what I mean by a passive protagonist problem, though. I’m talking about the kind of protagonist who watches intently what is going on around him — sometimes letting the reader in on his thoughts on the subject, sometimes not — but does not speak or act in a way that is in any way likely to change what’s going on.

The plot just carries him along, a leaf tossed into a river.

Nothing against a little quiet contemplation, but if you were screening 50 manuscripts a day, and 30 of them featured passive protagonists, it would start to annoy you eventually, too. (And in response to what half of you just thought: no, that’s not an exaggeration; if anything, the 30 out of 50 estimate is on the low side. Just ask any experienced contest judge.)

Given the extreme popularity of the passive protagonist, perhaps it’s understandable that the average Millicent’s reaction to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle, well, negative, almost to the point of being reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from blister-inducing surfaces, after all.

Already, I see a forest of raised hands. “But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” some of you call out, and with excellent reason, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?”

Excellent point, thought-huggers: that would indeed be a spectacularly good plan. However, as is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, many agents and editors are under the impression that they do tell aspiring writers about it — in fact, even form-letter rejections tend to contain some reference to the phenomenon, but not in so many words. Usually, it’s cast in terms that you’d have to read many manuscripts a week to translate accurately.

I couldn’t identify with the main character, for instance, is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome.

Was that giant thump I just heard a thousand jaws hitting the floor? Let me guess: you thought you were the only submitter who had ever heard gotten this response, right?

Would you be surprised to learn that variations on this sentiment are the most common pieces of rejection feedback writers receive? So I would imagine that quite a few of you — at least, the ones who have been querying and submitting diligently, bless your intrepid hears — have seen at least one iteration of this little number in at least one rejection letter.

Let’s take a little informal poll to see how effective this common form-rejection phraseology has been at making its point. Hands up, anyone who received such a response and instantly thought, “Oh, I’d better make my protagonist more active, by gum.”

Anyone? Anyone?

To be fair, there are other a million reasons a screener (who is usually the one weeding out submissions at a big agency, by the way, rather than the agent) might not have identified with a protagonist other than passivity. But it is one of the more common. Other rejection-speak that might translate as an appeal for more activity: I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book, There isn’t enough conflict here, and the ever-popular I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book.

Since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, however, it’s often difficult to translate exactly. I have seen it mean everything from, The first paragraph bored me to I hate books about brunettes. You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of writing problem.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers fume, “this is grossly unfair! Surely, this is not a reaction that every reader would have to a slightly lackadaisical character — and in case you haven’t noticed, the world is stuffed to the gills with people who do not rush headlong into conflict at the slightest provocation. Haven’t any of you professional readers ever heard of REALISM?”

Oh, I think that this problem is all about realism — I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists far, far more than other readers do. (And just to give you a heads-up, imaginary protestors: professional readers generally HATE it when aspiring writers accuse them of having invented the marketing reality that certain books are harder to sell than others. Really.)

There’s good reason that writers tend to root for the quiet types, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before. Small wonder, then, that writers often think of people who do this as likeable, charming, interesting people, well worth knowing — and certainly lovable enough to warrant following all the way to the end of a book, thank you very much, Millicent..

So it often comes as a great shock to these writers that the average fiction or memoir agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion. Nor does the average editor of same; even those who publish books by journalists — who are, after all, trained to be primarily observers — want the subjects of those stories to be active.

For one simple reason: because such stories are, by and large, infinitely easier to sell to readers.

Yes, really — remember, we writers are far from normal readers. We buy a disproportionate share of any year’s crop of literary fiction, for instance, as well as much of the short story collections and masses of poetry. We pore over books in our chosen book category — at least I hope you do; I certainly recommend it often enough — following our favorite authors’ careers with a loyalty and intensity that others reserve for sports stars.

We are, in fact, an extremely specific niche market of book purchasers. It would be interesting to try to make the case that a particular piece of literary fiction could be marketed successfully to writers-who-read, specifically on the grounds that its protagonist does think like a writer: observing, observing, observing.

However, if you are writing in most of the established book categories, I can virtually guarantee that writers will not be your primary target audience.

And that’s something of a pity, because from a writer’ point of view, one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character.

Writers who read LOVE that.

Which is fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book. Since in the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist, this propensity sometimes results in a book centered on someone who is too busy observing others to have a life of his or her own.

Yes, you did just draw the correct conclusion there: on the page, being purely reactive seldom comes across as all that fascinating a life.

That sentiment just stirred up some pretty intense reactions out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some reactivity-lovers cry, “my protagonist enjoys a rich and full emotional life by responding to stimuli around him. His mental activity is prodigious. If that was good enough for Mr. Henry James, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?”

Well, for starters, have you taken a gander at some of Mr. Henry James’ sentences lately? Some of them are two pages long, for heaven’s sake; even Dickens would have blushed at that.

More to the point, from a regular reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is not automatically dramatic. To compound that blasphemy, allow me to add: thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading.

In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic, you ask? Because whilst the mind is churning, the entirety of protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota. At the risk of sounding like a constructor of form-letter rejections, it’s substantially more difficult to identify with a protagonist who diagnoses the problems around her with pinpoint accuracy, yet does not act upon these insights in order to rectify the situation, than one who jumps into the conversation or does something to disturb the status quo.

I’ll go even farther than that: the character who speaks up in the face of what she perceives to be injustice, even if it’s very quietly, or who takes a concrete step to gain what she wants, even if it’s a very tiny or largely symbolic one, is usually more likable than one who remains inert and resents. And before any of you creators of anti-heroes scoff at the very concept of protagonist likability, let me whip out yet another of the great form-letter euphemisms: I didn’t care enough about the character to keep turning the pages.

Harsh? You bet, but not entirely unjustified, from Millicent’s point of view. Here’s how the passive protagonist phenomenon generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

(1) The protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, so she worries about for pages at a time before doing anything about it (If, indeed, she elects to do anything about it at all.)

(2) If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters. (Or entire volumes of a trilogy, in an 18th-century novel.)

(3) When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses. Should the mean person be her love interest, she must never, ever ask him to explain himself; much better to mull his possible motivations mentally, and proceed upon those assumptions.

(4) At some point, she will probably talk it all over with her best friend(s)/lover(s)/people who can give her information about the situation before selecting a course of action. (See parenthetical disclaimer in #1.)

(5) If she is confronted with a mystery, she will methodically collect every piece of evidence before drawing any conclusions that might require action. Frequently, this requires tracking down interested parties, asking a single question, and listening passively while those parties provide her with the necessary clues.

(6) However, if the problem to be confronted is relationship-based, she must on no account simply ask any of the parties involved how they view the situation, or reveal her own feelings on the subject to them. Avoidable guesswork may in this manner frequently supply suspense.

(7) Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, she takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; she is not the type to leave her date in the lurch just because she’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

(8) When she has assembled all the facts and/or figured out what she should do (often prompted by an outside event that makes her THINK), she takes swift action, and the conflict is resolved.

Is it me, or is this progression of events just a tad passive-aggressive? Especially in plotlines that turn on misunderstandings, wouldn’t it make more sense if the protagonist spoke directly to the person with whom she’s in conflict at some point?

Gee, one might almost be tempted to conclude that writers as a group are confrontation-avoiders. Maybe we should all retreat into our individual corners and mull that one over.

Up those hands go again. “But Anne, I’m worried about the opposite problem: if I send my protagonist barreling into every available conflict, won’t that make readers dislike her, too? Not to mention getting her into all kinds of trouble — if she said out loud precisely what she thought of the people around her, they’d bludgeon her to a pulp within fifteen minutes.”

I’m glad you brought this up, hand-raisers: often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. The logic behind this choice at first glance seems solid: in real life, very aggressive people don’t tend to work and play as well with others as gentle, tolerant, accommodating sorts.

But as we’ve discussed before, what’s true in real life isn’t necessarily true on the page. An inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally less likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because, as I MAY have mentioned before, conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

More to the point, lack of conflict can slow a narrative practically to a standstill. So can conflict in which the character the reader is supposed to care most about is not integrally involved, or conflict where the outcome doesn’t matter much to the protagonist — because if the protagonist doesn’t care enough to get involved, why should the reader?

“But Anne,” the hand-raisers protest, “my protagonist cares deeply about what’s going on; that’s why she thinks about it all so much, Besides, my villains are based upon people who are just awful in real life, so it’s impossible that the reader won’t automatically root against them, no matter whether my protagonist leaps into the fray or not. So what’s wrong with letting her sit back while the bad guys expose their true colors?”

Ooh, that’s a tough one. Not the question, necessarily, but pulling off plopping characters ripped from real life into a narrative where a comparatively virtuous protagonist stands back and observes their bad behavior. While pitting kindly and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page.

Why? Well, the reader’s sense of dramatic fitness, for one thing: while it may be realistic to show a character confronting the same intractable problem or awful co-worker day after day, the mere fact of bringing the problem up generates an expectation that something will happen to change that status quo, doesn’t it? If the narrative violates that expectation, not only is the reader likely to become impatient — he’s likely to get bored.

It’s difficult to keep a reader interested indefinitely in a repeating pattern of events, no matter how beautifully they may be described. Then, too, sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying from time to time, does it?

Come on — ‘fess up; we all do it. We writers are notorious for taking revenge on the page, Rare is the creative writer who does not blow off the occasional real-world resentment, angst, or just plain annoyed helplessness by having his protagonist think pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to Millicent’s heart), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

Yes, people mutter to themselves constantly in real life; few of us actually tell of the boss in the way s/he deserves. However, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, just because something actually occurs does not necessarily mean that it will make good fiction.

What does make good fiction is conflict. Lots of it. On every page, if possible.

This is not to say, of course, that every protagonist should be a sword-wielding hero, smiting his enemies right and left — far from it. But even the mousiest character is capable of acting out from time to time.

And yes, I am about to give you another homework assignment. How clever of you to see it coming.

Whip out those Post-It notes and highlighting pens and start running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, only in thought, or simply as an observer.

Depending upon what you find in each instance, here are some possible next steps. (Fair warning: some of these are going to sound a wee bit familiar from last week’s assignment, as we’re talking about fixing the same phenomenon.)

(1) If there’s not conflict on the page in front of you, ask yourself: how could I add some? Or, if you’re trying to avoid adding length to the manuscript, are there elements slowing down the scene that you could cut? Does this interaction add enough to the plot or character development that it actually needs to be there?

(2) If your protagonist is active, pat yourself on the back. Then ask yourself anyway: is there something even more interesting s/he could do here? Something less predictable? A way that her reaction could surprise the reader a little more, perhaps? Small twists go a long way toward keeping a reader involved.

(3) If your protagonist is merely thinking her response, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand? Or — and it’s astonishing how infrequently this solution seems to occur to most aspiring writers — could she say some of the things she’s thinking OUT LOUD?

(4) If your protagonist is a pure observer in the scene, sit down and figure out what precisely the observed interaction adds to the book. Are there ways that you could achieve the same goals in scenes where your protagonist is a stronger player? If not, could there be more than one conflict in the scene, so your protagonist could be involved in the lesser one?

If you find yourself worrying that these textual tweaks may cumulatively transform your protagonist a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity into a seething mass of interpersonal problem generation, consider this: many agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. In fact, this whole argument may well seem glib and market-minded to some of you, and frankly, from an artistic perspective, that’s completely understandable.

That’s not the only perspective that’s relevant here, though, even for the artist. Remember, a submitted manuscript does not need to speak only to its author, or even to other writers: its appeal needs to translate into other mindsets. It’s the writer’s job to make sure that the manuscript can speak to both the business side of the publishing world and the artistic side.

Before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones built into your plot; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

So while you’re revising, ask yourself: how can I coax my protagonist out of his head, and into his story? How can his actions or words alter this particular moment in the plotline, if only a little?

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends; we can, however, usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought under those swaying palms, people — but not too much. Keep up the good work!

A quick word to those of you reading this blog in a language other than English

March 28th, 2010

Hello, non-English-speaking members of the Author! Author! community –

Lately, I have noticed that a number of you have been attempting to post comments in your native languages. I realize that my site is available in translation, but unfortunately, my spam-screening program reads any comment written in a language other than English as spam.

I realize that this creates a difficulty for those of you reading in translation, especially bloggers who have been kind enough to link to this site. (I do occasionally try to follow the links back when a website is listed, so I know that there are bloggers around the globe who have tried to leave comments here.) However, since it’s very, very common for spam comments to be written in languages other than English, if I shut down the screening program, my readers would be inundated with hundreds of advertisements on each post.

As a result, only comments in English may be posted here. My apologies for the inconvenience to those of you reading this in, say, Russian, and I hope the day will come soon when a more advanced screening program (or a blogging program with two-way translation capacity) will allow us to exchange thoughts more freely.

For the rest of the guidelines for posting comments here, please see my post on the subject. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, and other Millicent-pleasing self-editing practices

March 25th, 2010

Cheri Blair yawning

Last time, I was talking about ways a passive protagonist can slow down a plot through, well, doing nothing in the face of a challenge, even an ostensibly unsolvable one. Whether it’s in a novel or a memoir, readers like to see the hero(ine) struggle against fate, learn to work through liabilities, and overcome the odds.

“Drawback, shmawback,” the hero(ine) cries, flinging aside the crutch he’s needed to walk for the past 27 years. “I’ll cross the desert before me on my elbows, scale the wall at the end of it using only my earlobes and a ladder cunningly fashioned from my last 17 hairs, and rescue my kid sister/the love of my life/the President of the republic armed only with my wits and this half-box of toothpicks! On the way, perhaps I’ll learn an important lesson about myself that will convince me to give up womanizing and settle down, or at least overcome my genetic color-blindness!”

Okay, so maybe not every intrepid protagonist is quite that foolhardy deluded resourceful. Usually, the active protagonist achieves her goals in a quieter manner: by finding the courage to face up to the schoolyard bully, perhaps, or deciding to place considerations of personal safety aside to figure out what happened to her vanished best friend after the police have given up the search. Maybe it’s something as small as faithfully lighting a candle in the window every night for her brother, even though the shipping news said he was lost at sea two years ago, or baking a birthday cake for the kid down the block whose pastry chef mother perished in that tragic fifteen motorcycle pile-up last month.

Struggling against the difficult renders these protagonists sympathetic, right? The reader wants them to win — and the more question there is about the outcome, or the more vitally important the stakes to the participants, the more the reader roots for the protagonist. In fact, it can add considerably to the dramatic tension if the reader can see for himself just how difficult the barriers are to overcome by the simple narrative expedient of having the protagonist fail the first few times. Or showing others mowed down in the attempt.

Hey, there’s a reason fairy tales so often burdened the pretty princess with a series of seemingly impossible tasks before she could win the handsome prince, and vice versa: getting the reader invested in the outcome. When the wicked witch pours the pitcher of milk into the ashes and says, “Have this all back in the pitcher by morning, or I’ll turn you into a frog,” even if the princess’ two older sisters are already croaking around at her feet, the reader has faith that she’s going to find a way to achieve the impossible.

Hey, there aren’t any more princesses left back home. The third time just has to be the charm. (Ribbet, ribbet.)

I see that forest of raised hands out there. I know half of you are eager to point out that while fairy tales are frequently charming, and action films often do boffo box office, reality isn’t really like that. Many writers, maybe even most, are attracted to the idea of capturing reality on the printed page — holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

And reality, as I mentioned last time, can be pretty lousy at plot construction and character development. Holding the same job for fifty years? Who thought up that storyline? Quietly dealing with the day-to-day crises of four children while placing one’s own happiness second? Well, what else happened? Breaking out in a yawn as she listens to what must be the 17,000th speech she’s heard in the course of her husband’s political career?

Okay, that one’s sort of funny, but what happened next?

But these kinds of activities are the stuff of life as it is actually lived, are they not? And of course, it’s possible to write entertainingly, insightfully, and even beautifully about the mundane: capturing the sides of a quiet life that a casual observer would not notice, for instance, or making the characters as quirky and conflictual as even relatively normal people are in real life. (Perhaps especially relatively normal people; when’s the last time you met an axe murderer with a genuinely interesting hobby?) Or that perennial favorite of writers everywhere, the ordinary happening, interaction, or object illuminated by an unusual metaphor or gorgeous description.

All of these methods can make for a good manuscript. The problem comes, usually, when those trenchant insights and gorgeous sentences are embedded in a plot that does not seem at first glance to be going much of anywhere. Unless, our old pal Millicent the agency screener wonders, the fact that the protagonist stops and notices three pages’ worth of fascinating details about the roses in his true love’s garden is the plot?

No matter how poetically those aphids are depicted, Millicent’s going to want the observer to do something in that scene other than observe them. In fact, she’s going to want him to do something, period.

Or, to put her desire for plot development another way, which is the more interesting subject matter for pages 272-314, this –

train in motion

Or this?

train crash

There’s the rub, right? Chugging along consistently, slow and steady, is the reality 99% of the time. But would it make an interesting plot for a book?

Surprisingly often, the answer is a resounding YES, at least among aspiring writers — or so Millicent assumes, from the sheer number of passive protagonists she sees in novel and memoir submissions. Especially if her agency happens to represent literary fiction, the book category where the beauty of the writing most often subsumes plot development. If she’s been at it a while, she’s read enough anguished internal monologue about the slings and arrows of everyday life to gasp in surprise if a protagonist expresses an opinion out loud.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But that doesn’t mean that when she stumbles upon a manuscript full of closely-observed details and complex character development that also contains conflict on every page, she isn’t at least tempted to tap-dance with joy.

Because, frankly, a submission exhibiting all of those characteristics is as rare as…well, a train crash.

We’ve all read books starring the passive protagonist, right? He’s the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist as the plot put-puts along, rather than his internal drives moving the plot. Activity may happen, but he’s on the outside of it; he wants something, but it’s not important enough to him to take action to try to get it. The stakes are low, so it doesn’t matter very much if he doesn’t grow or change much in response to what’s going on around him.

Yet very, very frequently, the narration will tell us that he’s better, smarter, and kinder than the people he’s observing — and almost invariably the one who knows best how to solve the problem at hand. If only someone actually involved in the plot would think to ask the guy sitting in the corner, observing what’s going on.

If this were a fairy tale, he’d be waiting for his fairy godmother to show up, whack him on the head with her wand, and transform him into a different kind of person, the kind who could slay the dragon. Since it’s not a fairy tale, but a novel or memoir submission, Millicent might have the same impulse to whack the protagonist with a stick, but for a completely different reason.

“DO something, already!” she mutters over the page. “Next!”

She’s not the only one who tends to react this way to passive protagonists, either. As I mentioned last time, the average reader turns off to passive characters, protagonists in particular, with a speed that would make a cheetah sob with envy. Because professional readers — such agents, editors, contest judges, and dear old Millicent — see the same kinds of manuscript megaproblems over and over in submissions, their response is even swifter; think space travel speeds.

The near-universality of negative response to passive protagonists is not due to any anti-literary hatred of interior monologue, as aspiring writers fond of slow-moving plots tend to assume. It’s a matter of pacing, plot momentum, maintaining interest — and yes, protagonist likability. It’s hard not to resent a protagonist who seems to be getting in the way of the reader’s finding out what’s going on; at minimum, lack of activity tends to make him less likable.

That’s right: I said LIKEABLE, not just more marketable. Oh, it would be easy to blame professional readers’ dislike of passive protagonists on an inability to think of novels and memoirs in non-marketing terms — as works of art, for instance, or something that adds to the human experience. It’s even easier to justify the rejection of a slow-building plot upon Millicent’s much-vaunted tendency to reject submissions on page 1, or even in paragraph 1 — or, as many aspiring writers like to think of it, a tendency to get bored at a speed to rival a four-year-old’s attention span. Or a gnat’s.

The fact is, though, this is a legitimate manuscript megaproblem, something that tends to bug non-professional readers, too. Which places the responsibility for fixing it squarely upon the writer.

What, no cheering at the prospect of talking about a submission problem it’s entirely within your ability to resolve? Given how very little about the agent-seeking and publication contract-landing process is actually under a writer’s control, the prospect of tackling a problem a frustrated aspiring writer can solve on his own should make him rejoice, shouldn’t it?

And even if it doesn’t, after the formatting specifics of the past few weeks, watching me recommend universal-yet-nitpicky presentation fixes, I thought it might be something of a relief to sit back for some conceptual editing. Let’s talk about editing to make your characters more active, both to improve your manuscript’s pacing and to make your protagonist more likeable.

If a book’s tension starts to lag due to protagonist inactivity — or, heaven help us, extended periods of feeling sorry for himself — readers often begin to find the him less sympathetic than in periods of activity. In fact, if that character ripped from reality sits around and feels sorry for himself, or consistently thinks instead of acting, or is even polite at the expense of saying or doing anything to advance the plot — all things that real people unquestionably do, right? — the reader may even start to dislike him pretty intensely.

Yes, even in literary fiction — and even, although I tremble to say it, in memoir. Just as not every real-life situation is either convincing or interesting on the manuscript page, not every person who is likable in real life inspires the same sentiment in a reader.

Since you brought up marketability (hey, I was planning to focus purely on art today, but then all the blaming started), let me share a secret: any screener, agent, editor, editorial assistant, and/or contest judge who has been at it more than a week automatically rolls his/her/its eyes when such a protagonist lumbers his way across the pages of yet another submission.

Because, you see, a similar malaise plagues the lead in, oh, 85% of the manuscripts they see. At least in a scene or two.

So tell me: how are they usually going to react to a submission whose first chapter features a passive protagonist? Or whose first five pages do?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” some frightened frequent submitters protest, “what if the manuscript in question is by a market-savvy writer, someone who realizes that most rejections occur, if not actually on page 1, then certainly within Chapter 1? If the opening 50 pages are quickly-paced and open with a good hook, I — I mean, the hypothetical writer in question — can rest easy, right?”

Not necessarily, alas. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but amongst submissions that have made it to the whole manuscript request stage in recent years, a storyline’s slowing down somewhere around page 50 is a rather well-known phenomenon — for precisely the reason you pointed out: many writers now know that for those first 50, every sentence has to pass strict scrutiny.

After that, revisers tend to relax. Sometimes to the point of being comatose.

Resulting, often, in a manuscript megaproblem known in the trade as sagging in the middle — so called because many manuscripts pick up again in the last 50 pages. (We writers do like our endings, don’t we?)

But wait, the news gets even worse: as those of you who have been slaving to perk up your openings already know, a protagonist does not need to be passive for very long to be diagnosed as such. Or even particularly passive.

Again, try not to think of this as the industry’s problem, or as the noxious result of Millicent’s notoriously low thresholds of boredom: that would be a passive response, to a genuine obstacle to the creation of a compelling narrative.

Instead, I find it’s more helpful for a reviser to think of it as an activity level problem: it’s hard for a reader to continue to sympathize with someone who is purely acted-upon without pushing back, at least in some miniscule way.

It’s no accident that romance novelist and early screenwriter Elinor Glyn (she who discovered Rudolf Valentino, Clara Bow, and first identified the elusive quality of It) advised those who would create screenplays never to allow their heroes to feel sorry for themselves for more than a minute on film.

She meant a literal minute, by the way, not a figurative one. However, her advice easily translates into a page for our purposes here.

If there’s an ongoing plot problem — and there should be, in a well-constructed narrative; if characters face problems more or less constantly throughout a story, it helps keep the pacing tight — audience members and readers alike prefer to see the protagonist DOING something about it than SAYING or THINKING something about it.
Even, surprisingly, if that action is completely misguided. Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it is completely misguided; poor life choices for a character are often great fun for the reader, right? One of the quickest ways to add complexity to a two-dimensional character is to have her act out of character at some point early in the book.

To be fair, the majority of protagonists are not uniformly passive (and for good reason: it’s a challenge to construct a storyline around a completely static character). In many manuscripts, the hero lapses only occasionally into total observation mode.

Unfortunately, they often do so while trying to track down information vital to moving the plot along. Passive protagonists are notoriously poor interviewers.

Don’t believe me? See if this plot sounds at all familiar: our guy Jerry is on the trail of a secret that could bring down City Hall while his brother, Arnold, is sitting on death row, accused of a murder he didn’t commit that was — mirabile dictu! — actually committed by someone at the bottom of THAT VERY SECRET. Jerry has been rushing all over town, dodging bullets, in order to seek out answers, yet anytime he bumps into someone who might be able to shed light on the matter, he just sits there while the source spills his proverbial guts.

Even, amazingly, when the source has just spent the last 50 years in excruciating emotional pain, keeping that particular portion of his guts inside. Frequently, Jerry doesn’t even have to ask a single question beyond, “What do you know about it, old timer?” to provoke this innard exposure.

Passive protagonists’ skin apparently secretes some sort of truth serum. Millicent is violently allergic to it, and frankly, like most professional readers, so am I.

The poor interviewer + spontaneous secret blurter scene is a well-worn cliché, and should be avoided as such. Unfortunately, such scenes may be hard for a self-editing writer to spot, as TV and movies have inured most of us to this kind of spontaneous truth-telling. It has seeped into our collective consciousness to the point that it seems almost normal.

Why, just the other night, I was tapping away on my computer while my SO Rick was watching the season finale of one of the five million LAW & ORDER franchises. By the time I had finished my post and sat down next to him, there were only ten minutes left. A harried-looking woman was on the witness stand, being grilled about a long-ago rape. Apparently, she’d kept the identity of her rapist a secret for the past 26 years.

I got up to fix myself a sandwich.

“How can you leave at such an exciting point?” Rick asked.

I yawned. “Because she’s about to blurt out that she was raped by her father. Are you hungry? There’s enough cucumber for two.”

That’s how common this kind of interview scene has become: the instant we in the audience learn that a character is hoarding a great big secret, we expect the whole truth to pop out of her mouth within minutes. (And on the original LAW & ORDER, if a victim survives a rape and is female, she usually is an incest victim. Or invented the whole thing, despite the fact that in real life, the false report rate for rape is no higher than for any other crime. Annoying. And predictable. But I digress.)

The point is, passive interview scenes are now ubiquitous — which should set your marketing antennae wiggling automatically. Pop quiz: what do we know about how Millicent tends to respond to any literary phenomenon — be it a plot twist, formatting error, or cliché — that she’s seen 20 times already this week?

That’s right: “Next!”

Again, this isn’t because Millicent is peevish: novels and memoirs (or, really, any book) featuring a passive protagonist are going to be harder for an agency to sell in the current market. In fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as sufficient reason to reject a submission.

Yes, you read that correctly: more than a page. And in the opening scenes of a novel, often even less than that. (Hey, what are you complaining about? It’s longer than Glyn’s minute of screen time.)

You can feel your homework assignment coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s not going to be as bad as you think.

1. Go through your manuscript, scene by scene. No need to read for specifics; the general sense will do. If your protagonist is not the primary actor in any given scene, mark it, as well as any scene where she is observing action around her rather than participating in it.

2. Employ different kinds of markers for these two types of scenes; top and bottom folded page corners or Post-It™ flags will do. If you really want to be thorough, you can make a list of scenes as you go, marking them accordingly.

3. After you’ve rated the scenes, go back and revisit those where the protagonist is not the main mover and shaker. Could adding a line or two here or there beef up her presence in the scene? Could she ask some of the questions currently in the mouth of a third party, for instance, or take a more aggressive stand against a villain? Or against her mother?

Could you, in short, inject some conflict into every page of the scene? How about every half-page?

The conflict need not be earth-shattering: it can be something quite small. Many aspiring writers make the mistake when trying to increase conflict of being too literal about it, inserting actual arguments, assault, battery, etc. all over their texts, thinking this must be what the pros mean by conflict.

Yes, all of these things are conflictual, but so is the protagonist’s saying something pleasant whilst thinking something evil in a first-person or close third-person narrative, potentially. Or the protagonist’s doing something insignificant to subvert his tryingly anal-retentive boss — moving the paper clips to the wrong side of the storage cupboard so they’re harder to find, for instance, or surreptiously kicking up a corner of the rug every time he walks into the boss’ office. Sneaking into the break room after hours to rehang all of the photos of the company picnic slightly askew. De-alphabetizing certain segments of the file cabinet on alternate Tuesdays.

There are countless ways to introduce conflict, if the author is willing to try. Ordinary life is stuffed to the gills with it.

4. Next, take a gander at scenes where everyone is being polite. Courtesy is predictable, and thus comparatively dull on the page: is there a way that you could make these exchanges less so?

5. Now turn to the scenes where the protagonist is watching what is going on. This one is going to sting a little: ask yourself honestly, without weighing in the balance how much you like the writing in this section, whether this scene is actually essential to the book.

If not, could you cut it?

I know, I know: some of my favorite scenes in published books are quiet, too. But it’s often apparent to an outside observer (like, say, an editor) that a protagonist is merely observing a scene because it’s not central to the plot or to her character’s development. If it were more central to what’s going on, wouldn’t the protagonist be, you know, involved in it?

When a scene adds to neither the plot or character development, it’s a prime candidate for trimming. Because, really, in a submission, there’s no room for filler. (And don’t bother to start listing published books that are filler-fests; as I’ve said time and again, the standards for a manuscript breaking into the biz are substantially higher than what an established writer can get published.)

Well, those revision tasks ought to keep you busy for a while, I imagine. So when I return next month…

No, but seriously, I shan’t leave you hanging for that long. Next time, I shall delve into the nitty-gritty of ferreting out protagonist passivity. Unless I stub a toe or break a nail or something, because that sort of thing brings my life to a grinding halt. Maybe I should just sit here and think about it for ten or fifteen minutes…

Keep up the good work!

Spicing up your plot, or, that’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles

March 23rd, 2010

fortune side one fortune side two

These, believe it or not, are the two sides of the single fortune I found tucked into my end-of-the-meal cookie last night: a tactfully-phrased prediction of my future happiness — by mail, no less! — accompanied by a terse statement about my general standing in the world. Had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I rearranged vegetables and yogurt containers in preparation for fitting my leftover asparagus in black bean sauce and Hunan pork into my overstuffed refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the Constitutional obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, in a real-life fortune cookie-consumption situation, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Miranda warnings printed on Mars bars, for easy distribution at crime scenes? The First Amendment immortalized in marzipan, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly whilst purchasing fresh macaroons?) Had the protagonist in a novel or memoir stumbled upon this chatty piece of paper, however — and let’s face it, less probable things turn up on the manuscript page all the time — it would have seemed pretty significant, wouldn’t it?

Any thoughts on why that might be the case? Could it be that this bizarre means of communication is one of those telling details I keep urging all of you to work into the opening pages of your manuscripts, as well as the descriptive paragraph in your queries, synopses, verbal pitches, and contest entries? Could the paragraphs above be crammed with the kind of fresh, unexpected little tidbits intended to make Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge suddenly sit bolt upright, exclaiming, “My word — I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Hint: since I’m opening our foray into craft with it, chances are pretty good that I’m showing you some telling details. Or, to put it in terms the whole English class can understand, choosing to incorporate that wacky fortune cookie into the narrative shows, rather than tells, something about the situation and character.

How can a savvy self-editing writer tell whether a detail is, in fact, telling? Here’s a pretty reliable test: if the same anecdote were told without that particular detail, or with it described in (ugh) general terms, would the story would be inherently less interesting?

Don’t believe that so simple a change could have such a dramatic subjective effect? Okay, let me tell that story again with the telling details minimized. To make it a fair test, I’m going to keep the subject matter of the fortunes the same.

These, believe it or not, are the two sides of the single fortune I found inside a fortune cookie last night: a prediction of my happiness, accompanied by a statement about my standing in the world. Had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I worked my Chinese food leftovers into my refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the legal obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Police advising the arrested of their rights by given them candy? The First Amendment immortalized in baked goods, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly?)

It’s not as funny, is it, or as interesting? I haven’t made very deep cuts here — mostly, I’ve trimmed the adjectives — and the voice is still essentially the same. But I ask you: is the story as memorable without those telling details? I think not.

Some of you are still not convinced, I can tell. Okay, let’s take a more radical approach to cutting text, something more like what most aspiring writers do to the descriptive paragraphs in their query letters, the story overviews in their verbal pitches, and/or the entirety of their synopses, to make them fit within the required quite short parameters. Take a gander at the same tale, told in the generic terms that writers adopt in the interests of brevity:

Last night, I cracked open a fortune cookie at the end of my meal and discovered something I had never encountered before: a two-sided fortune, one side predicting I’d receive something good in the mail, the other reminding me that it was important that everyone be counted for the census. Since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was happy that I’d already filled it out.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet done so — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my form. As I rearranged food containers in my refrigerator, so I could fit my leftovers inside, I would have kept wondering: is the census the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand what the census is for, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?” Admittedly, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder)

Not nearly as much of a grabber as the original version, is it? Or the second, for that matter. No one could dispute that it’s a shorter version of the same story, but notice how in this rendition, the narrator seems to assume that the reader will either picture the incident so clearly that no details are necessary — or, even more common in memoir manuscripts and comic scenes in novels, presume that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the details, not the writer’s.

If you ever plan to submit your writing to Millicent or Mehitabel, there’s something you need to know: as far as professional readers are concerned, it’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the story in a way that provokes the intended reaction in the reader, not the reader’s to guess what the writer meant.

In other words, a professional reading is seldom anywhere near as charitable as the average submitter or contest entrant hopes it will be. Blame it on the intensity of competition created by literally millions of aspiring writers seeking to get published: Millicent knows that if the well-written submission in front of her does not provide her with the reading experience her boss the agent believes will sell right now, chances are good that one of the next thousand submissions will.

According to her, then, it’s your job to draw her into your story so completely that she forgets about all of that. It’s your job to wow her with your storytelling, regardless of the category of your book.

As some of you may already have suspected, I am not bringing this up at the beginning of our discussion of craft by accident: being aware of the imperative to tell the story well, rather than merely present it in a series of well-written sentences, gives an aspiring writer a significant advantage in preparing a submission or a contest entry. Heck, I’ll go even further: one of the best rules of thumb an aspiring writer can adopt is construct and revise your manuscript assuming a critical reader who wishes to be entertained, rather than an indulgent reader who is looking for writing potential.

This is particularly good advice — and I suspect that this will come as a surprise to some of you — if you happen either to be writing memoir or a novel with scenes based upon your personal experience. All too often, reality-based narrators rely upon the fact that something really happened to render it interesting to a reader, regardless of how skillfully that story may be told. All that’s really necessary is a clear telling, right? Or that the kind of terse narrative that works so well in a verbal anecdote will inspire the same reaction if reproduced verbatim on the page.

How well do either of these extremely common theories work out in practice? Well, let me ask you: did you prefer the first version of the fortune cookie story, the second, or the third?

More importantly for submission purposes, which do you think would grab Millicent the most as the opening of a manuscript? Or Mehitabel as the first few paragraphs of a contest entry?

Uh-huh. As we’ve seen, the difference between those three renditions was not the voice (although a case could be made that part of the voice of the first was created through the selection of the details) or even the writing quality (although the last version did get a mite word-repetitive), but the narrative’s willingness to include telling details — and unusual ones at that.

Allow me to suggest a radical interpretation of these facts: what if the entertainment differential between the three lay not in an authorial failure of imagination in composing the last version, but in a failure to recognize that the point of including this anecdote is presumably to entertain and inform the reader? In telling the story as quickly as possible, can a writer sometimes defeat the purpose of including it at all?

Ponder those questions for a moment, novelists who make things up from whole cloth. I’m going to take a moment to address the billows of anxiety wafting from those who write the real.

“But Anne!” memoirists and reality-based novelists protest nervously. “The things I write about actually happened — I can’t just make up pithy little details, can I? I have to stick to what happened!”

True enough, anxious truth-tellers: if you are writing the real, you cannot control the facts. What you can control, what any writer must control, is how you present them to the reader. No matter what you write, the success of your narrative is going to depend largely upon your storytelling skills — they’re what separates your account of a particular incident from anybody else’s, right?

Frankly, this isn’t an easy task, even if dear self doesn’t happen to be the protagonist; it’s hard to represent the real world well on the page. And let’s face it, reality is sometimes a lousy storyteller.

Oh, your life has never been trite or obvious or just plain perplexing, even for a minute? Okay, all of you English and Literature majors, tell me, please, how the following 100% true anecdote rates on the symbolism front.

A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to give a eulogy for a dead friend of mine — a writer of great promise, as the pros used to say — at our college reunion. Because several of my classmates had, unfortunately, passed away since our last get-together, eight of us were to give our eulogies at the same event. Because I am, for better of worse, known to my long-time acquaintances as a teller of jokes, I was under substantial pressure to…how shall I put this?…clean up the narrative of my late friend’s life a little. Or at least tell a version that might not offend the folks who didn’t happen to know him.

No, that’s not the symbolic part; that’s all backstory. Here’s the symbolism: my throat was annoyingly, scratchily sore for the entire week that I was editing the eulogy.

Now, if I saw a parallel that obvious in a novel I was editing, I would probably advise cutting it. “No need to hit the reader over the head with it,” I’d scrawl in the margins. “Yes, it’s showing, not telling, but please. Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?”

(And yes, now that you mention it, I am known for the length of my marginalia. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but explanation is often the soul of clarity.)

Now, if my life were a short story written for a high school English class, the voice loss in that anecdote might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: outsiders move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel or memoir, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced, or even trite. Certainly, it’s unlikely to make Millicent drop her latte and scream, “Wow, I never saw that coming!”

As I believe I may have mentioned, oh, four or five hundred times before in this very forum, just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction. My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo.

Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over the years since my friend’s death, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, in storytelling terms, if our protagonist had dealt with all the different input with aplomb, not coming down with strep throat until scant minutes before she was to speak? That way, in fine melodramatic style, she would have to croak her way through her speech, while her doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make the writerly heart swoon, don’t they?

Just think how long it would extend a funeral scene if a eulogizer were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the deceased’s secret admirer creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words.

Heck, just think of the dramatic impact of any high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist IS silenced. That’s just so…literal.

Besides, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if our protagonist had been not spoken about her friend since he passed away (which, in a sense, is quite true: I was unable to make it across the country for his memorial service — that could be transformed into an interesting flashback), then she would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now. Or if he and she had shared deep, dark secrets she had sworn never to reveal (no comment), how telling a slight sore throat might be on the eve of spilling the proverbial beans, eh?

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Taken too far, it might even make the protagonist seem like a wimp.

Readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long — at least, not if his problems rise to the level of requiring action to fix. Simply put, most readers would rather see a protagonist at least make an attempt to solve his problems than spend 50 pages resenting them.

I can feel authors of novels and memoirs where characters sit around and think about their troubles for chapters on end blanching, can’t I?

Frankly, you should, at least if you intend to write for the U.S. market. Domestic agents and editors these days expect first-time author’s plot to move along at a pretty good clip — and few characteristics slow a plot down like a protagonist’s tendency to mull. Especially in a first-person narrative, where by definition, the reader must stay within the worldview of the narrator.

Some of you blanching souls have your hands raised, I see. “But Anne,” these pale folks exclaim, “I’ve always heard that the real key to keeping a reader’s interest is to introduce conflict on every page. Well, most of my protagonist’s conflict is internal — she can’t make up her mind where to turn. Surely,” the pallor deepens, “a professional reader like Millicent wouldn’t dismiss this kind of thinking as whining, right?”

That’s a good question, blanchers, and one that fully deserves an answer. The short one is that it all depends on how long the equivocation goes on, how repetitive the mulling ends up being — and whether the protagonist (or the plot, for that matter) is doing anything ELSE whilst the wheels in her brain churn.

The long answer, of course, is that in order to formulate a really good answer to that particular question, you would need to go out and read a hefty proportion of the tomes released in your book category within the last couple of years. Not EVERY book, mind you: those by first-time authors, because the already-established have to impress fewer people to get a new book into print.

In recent years, most fiction categories have moved pretty firmly toward the action end of the continuum. As opposed to, say, virtually any novel written in English prior to 1900, most of which hugged the other, pages-of-mulling end of the continuum.

This preference isn’t limited to the literary realm, either — we often see this philosophy in movies, too. Don’t believe me? Okay, think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair.

No examples springing to mind? Okay, how about if the protagonist is the victim of gratuitous discrimination, or even just simple bad luck? I’m talking about serious drawbacks here, not just everyday annoyances, of course. ( For some reason, whining about trivial problems — “But I don’t have the right shoes to wear with a mauve bridesmaid’s dress!” — seems to be tolerated better by most readers and audience members, provided that the whine-producer doesn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt until she finds those shoes.)

Got a film firmly in mind? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes:

(a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled/unemployed/otherwise unhappy protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself,

(b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist (job counselor/spouse/friend) telling the protagonist that the REAL reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso/total lack of resources/loss of the love of his life, but his lousy ATTITUDE, and/or

(c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life?

In fact, don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers of books, too — routinely expect their characters to become better, stronger people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? Generally speaking, pain does not make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns.

Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky. Yet dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance.

Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is later seen to be crying so hard over the stain that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief.

Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.

So where does that leave us on the telling detail front — or the storytelling front, for that matter? Should we all shy away from giving our protagonists big problems, in favor of more easily-presented small ones?

Well, I’m not going to lie to you: there are plenty of writing gurus out there who would advise you to do precisely that. Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register. How trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

So why, you may be wondering, am I about to advise you not only to depict your protagonists (fictional and real both) with many and varied problems, as well as significant, realistic barriers to achieving their goals? Have I merely gone telling detail-mad?

Not by a long shot. I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. In conference presentation after conference presentation, they’ve been advising that writers should give their protagonists more quirks.

It’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable, after all — and it enables the inclusion of lots and lots of luscious telling details. Give ‘em backstory. If you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy.

Provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal. Interesting delay creates dramatic conflict; resignation in the face of an insuperable barrier, however, is hard to make entertaining for very long.

In other words, feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems. Just make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems — or show her coming up with clever ways to make those liabilities work for her.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking writing that people read for pleasure here. We’re talking drama.

We’re talking, to put it bluntly, about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Erica, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your father’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Erica buried her beloved father only a couple of weeks before.

While a sympathetic soul might reasonably ask, “Um, why should she have gotten over it already, if she’s not completely heartless?”, strategically, even the deepest mourning should not cause the plot to stop moving altogether.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that professional readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings. They just see far, far too much wallowing in submissions and contest entries.

Why is that a problem, you ask? Well, in a short story or novel or screenplay, people who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s point of view. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in Millicent’s parlance: next!

The plague of the passive protagonist is a very, very common manuscript megaproblem, one about which agents and editors complain loudly and often. What’s a passive protagonist, you ask? One who habitually stops the plot in order to think things over, rather than taking swift action. Or who stops to talk the problem over with another character, rehashing the background information that the reader already knows.

Whenever you spot these pondering scenes in your own work, even if the project in question is the most character-driven literary fiction imaginable, pause and consider: could the piece work without the pondering scene?

Often, it can, and brilliantly.

A more subtle form of this megaproblem is the protagonist who waits patiently for all of the pieces of the mystery to fall into to place before taking action. Why, the reader is left to wonder, did the protagonist NEED to know the entire historical background of the problem before doing something about it?

Because the author thought the background was interesting, that’s why. Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: from a storytelling point of view, “because the plot requires it” should never be the only reason something happens in a story.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and substantially more active, if the protagonist acted on partial information, and then learned from the results of what she had done that she needed to learn more? In the midst of manuscripts where 2/3rds of the book is spent hunting down every last detail before the protagonist acts, I often find myself wondering: is it really such a good thing that HAMLET is so widely taught in high schools?

Yes, yes, many of the speeches are mind-bogglingly lovely, but here is a protagonist who more or less sits around feeling sorry for himself and not acting until the final act of a very, very long play — is this really the best exemplar of how to construct a plot, sometimes the sole example shoved under the eyeballs of high school students? Yes, it’s beautifully written, but honestly, by the middle of Act III, don’t you just want to leap onto the stage, shake Hamlet, and tell him to DO SOMETHING, already?

Oh, yeah, right, as if I’m the only one who’s had that impulse…

Don’t panic, please, if in the dead of night you suddenly find yourself thinking, “Hey, Anne raised a whole lot of troubling points today — but what about strategies for dealing with them?” You may sleep peacefully, knowing that next week of posts is going to be devoted to precisely that.

Today was just to whet your appetite — a fortune cookie at the beginning of the meal, as it were, rather than the end. Keep those protagonists active, my friends, and of course, keep up the good work!

The objectively subjective question of subjective objectivity, and other issues our teachers raised that may have left us wanting to ask follow-up questions

March 22nd, 2010

nike in my yard

Another snapshot directly attributable to my having played hooky in my yard last weekend, observing Nike, the winged goddess of victory, overseeing the annual triumph of the narcissus over the early tulip. The more of these I post here, the less those few hours seem retrospectively like a holiday. Which means, I suppose, that I’ve been blogging long enough that devoting time to you fine people, however frivolously, has become a sort of guilt-deductible activity: the more I do it, the less time devoted to my other vices cost, ethically speaking.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t actually see blogging as a vice. That’s my agent’s job. He would prefer that I devote roughly, oh, 100% of my waking hours to remunerative writing. And he’s not all that happy about having to limit that preference to my waking hours, either.

So in order to render today’s post at least potentially a money-making proposition, I open today with a question for all of you Pacific Northwest-based writers: if I added some extra sessions to my already-booked April and May classes — this year, one on book proposal crafting, one on query and submission packet troubleshooting, and one on crafting and perfecting a killer pitch — would any of you be interested in attending?

I don’t normally advertise my classes here at Author! Author! (mostly because they tend to fill up pretty quickly), but this year, I have received so many requests from my excellent readers to cast my eye over their proposals, queries, synopses, and opening pages that it occurred to me that some of you might potentially be interested in spending a day in a seminar where — wait for it — I guide a few writers (8-15, usually; I prefer small classes) through their proposals, queries, synopses, and/or opening pages. In the pitching class, we begin from scratch, but the proposal and query/submission classes, we will be working with already-written text. Typically, students arrive with proposals at least roughed out and/or query letters and opening pages in hand, so that we may have at ‘em.

It’s a great way to spend half a weekend, as well as a fabulous way to double-check your submissions before sending them out. Over and above reading them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course.

Oh, you thought I was going to stop harping on that advice, now that we have finished going over standard format? My friends, if the Millicents of the world had any say in the matter, I would never cease shouting out that particular set of bon mots.

If spending a day engaged in in-depth face-to-face discussion of any of these subjects sounds like just your cup of tea, please drop me a note in the comments or drop me an e-mail, and I’ll send you more information. (If you prefer the comments route, don’t post your contact info for all to see; the blogging program stores commenters’ e-mail addresses.) Make sure to let me know which class interests you most — or heck, put your bid in for all three. Oh, and don’t forget to mention whether Seattle or Portland would be more convenient for you; I’m planning to teach in both this spring.

There’s the day’s non-blog business out of the way. On to the goal of today’s post: a graceful segue between the formatting issues of recent weeks and our long-anticipated foray into craft.

Fortunately for all of us, sharp-eyed reader EuroPorter recently asked the perfect question to propel us from one to the other. Although thanks largely to readers’ questions, I had devoted quite a bit more of our latest foray into the mysteries of standard format to dealing with numbers in the text, EP’s aforementioned perceptive peepers noticed an oversight in my overview:

Hey, Anne, great post, as ever. And while I’m reading my material here IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD to myself, I’ve handled my numbers per your and Les Millicents’ rules, but ran into a question. Let’s say a character is speaking about some very large sums of money. Because the numbers appear in dialogue, is it still correct to express them in numerals (100 and above), rather than writing them out? An English teacher of mine back in the 17th Century told me that spoken numbers needed to be written out because “people do not speak numerals, young man.”

By what divine inspiration she knew this, I have no idea, but she seemed dreadfully sure of herself on the point. What say you? In dialogue — still numerals for 100 and higher? Or write them out? THANKS!

Before I answer EP’s intriguing question (and believe me, I’m looking forward to tangling with that 17th-century schoolmarm) let me first pause to thank all of you who have written in to ask probing questions about numbers in manuscripts. I’d honestly had no inkling that aspiring writers might have been experiencing some confusion on this point, or that the rules required more examples for clarification; one of the mixed blessing of working for so many years in standard format is that I’ve developed an almost visceral sense of what’s proper on the page.

So if you intrepid souls had not brought numeral-wrangling to my attention, I might never have thought to clarify the issue. In your honor, I’m inaugurating a new category on the archive list today, so future readers may benefit from your bravery: NUMBERS IN MANUSCRIPTS.

The moral, as always: keep asking those good questions!

Back to the emphatic assertion of EP’s 17th-century schoolmarm. Before we weigh it in the scale of probability, let’s first recap what we already know about how numbers should appear in standard format. so far, we know both the basic rule:

All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

and the date caveat:

Full dates, as well as specific times, are rendered in numeric form in manuscripts. Thus, 12:45 a.m. on November 3, 1842 is correct; twelve forty-five a.m. on November three, eighteen hundred and forty-two is not. (It would, however, be perfectly permissible to include quarter to one in the afternoon on November third.)

EP, however, enraged his schoolmarm by calling upon the currency conundrum:

Since specific amounts of currency over a dollar are expressed a three-character combination ($2.34), accompanied by symbols ($, £, etc.), they are usually treated as a number over a hundred and written as numerals: $2.34 would be correct in a manuscript. Two dollars and thirty-four cents, however, would be questionable, but technically permissible. However, the former is the typical form.

If, however, a general number or one with only one or two elements may properly be written out: a million dollars is correct, but so is five dollars or a buck fifty.

In other words, the question of whether the number in question was arithmetically greater than 100 is not the only issue here; decimal places may factor into the decision as well. The same logic holds true for non-monetary amounts expressed in decimals, by the way: it’s proper to speak of one-tenth of an inch in standard format, but if we’re talking about .1098 inch, that level of specificity is best expressed in numerals.

Everyone happy with that? Apparently, EP’s schoolmarm was not.

Let’s take a gander at why she might have blown her top. If EP was referring in his dialogue to an uneven amount — for the sake of argument, let’s assume it was $12,456,981.01 — he was perfectly correct in presenting it in numerals in the text. And if you’ll have the goodness to imagine how much room twelve million, four hundred and fifty-six thousand, nine hundred and eighty-one and one cent would have taken up on the manuscript page, it’s not hard to see why Millicent would side with him on this one: it looks darned odd in print.

But if his protagonist was talking about three million dollars, was Dame Pickypants right, or was she merely expressing a personal preference? (Perhaps belonging to a former teacher of hers, since she presented it as a Law Inviolable; have you noticed how often teachers new to the game will not make that particular distinction?)

Actually, she was half-right. On a manuscript’s page, it would have been permissible to write either three million dollars or $3,000,000, but a case certainly could be made that the former is the more elegant expression of the amount. My guess would be that her headmaster (born in the late 16th century, no doubt, when men were men and rules were rules) rapped her on her noggin for inelegance at some crucial point in her development, and voilà! His preference is magically transformed into a hard-and-fast rule.

Thank goodness that never happens these days, right?

But what of her claim that the rules for numbers in dialogue are inherently different than numbers in narrative text, because dialogue should be a reflection of the spoken word? Purest poppycock, as far as standard format for book manuscripts is concerned.

Numbers are numbers in a manuscript — but as we have seen, not all numbers are treated equally. Take a gander, for instance, at all of the different numbers that appear on this page of text, every single one of them correctly.

numbers in MS

Everybody clear on why each of these numbers is presented the way it is? As always, if not, please speak up.

Speaking of dialogue — and of graceful segues — our approaching foray into craft issues reminded me of a screenwriting seminar I took a few years ago from an estimable playwright and screenwriter, Mark Troy. Not that I harbor any particular aspirations to writing for the screen myself, per se; I just like to hear what folks in other parts of the writing biz are up to from time to time.

Halfway through the day-long seminar — we’re just bursting with connections to earlier parts of this post now, aren’t we? — Mssr. Troy asked a question bound to startled a novelist.

“What is the most important line of dialogue in a movie?” he asked rhetorically, as if everyone in the room should already know the answer. I racked my brains, anticipating a trick, but his answer was perfectly straightforward: “The first line the audience hears the main character say, of course.”

Well, apparently, everyone who has ever given passing consideration to writing a screenplay already knew this, but in a writer’s typical conference state — sleep-disenabled, moisture-deprived, and highly caffeinated — this struck me as a pretty profound question to ask about a novel.

Oh, I’ve been in (and taught) more craft classes than I can shake the proverbial stick at where we all obsessed about how important the first sentence is to the success of a novel. In a particularly memorable one, the seminar leader gushed for twenty minutes about the first sentence of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, in her opinion the greatest first line — nay, first several lines — ever:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

A grabber of an opening for a novel, you must admit, although not my absolute favorite by a long shot. (Yes, yes, we’ll get to that.) When a few of us in the audience attempted to suggest a few other great openings, the seminar leader crushed our hopes of fruitful discussion flat: no, the opening to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was the best opening, ever, period. As an editor at a fashion magazine whose most creative work was a positively fawning biography of the then-governor of New Jersey, she let us know in no uncertain terms, we were not to dispute her opinion on this point — or any other, evidently.

Now, I’d be the last to deny that it is indeed a remarkably evocative opening sentence, but the third time that she referred to that particular sentence as “the greatest opening sentence in the history of the English language,” I felt compelled to speak up.

“You ARE aware that it was originally written in Spanish, right?” I offered in as neutral a tone as I could manage. “So you’re actually showing it to us in translation.”

She did not speak to me, or call on me, for the rest of the conference; she must have been descended from EP’s 17th-century schoolmarm. My right arm turned positively blue from waving about in the air, trying to reintroduce myself into the conversation.

My original point (and I’m relatively sure I have one, over and above the suggestion that an inflexible teacher wrong about something can make a perfectly marvelous foil for a spunky protagonist) was that I have literally never heard any discussion in a writerly context about the importance of the first sentence that a novel’s protagonist says OUT LOUD, as opposed to the first line of narration.

Perhaps it’s because we only hear our protagonists speak in our minds — unless, of course, we are conscientious enough to read every draft of our manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)

The more I thought about Mssr. Troy’s question as it applied to novels — or memoirs, for that matter — the more intrigued I became. It’s pretty easy to see why the first line a character speaks in a movie would set the tone for the character, but often, the protagonist of a novel is introduced lines, paragraphs, or even pages before she speaks. She often thinks before she speaks, in fact, or feels sensations, or even narrates.

But actually, the first words a protagonist speaks are often the way she is introduced to the other characters to her fictional world, isn’t it? It honestly an important moment, dramatically speaking, and I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to making those first words count.

Here’s a modest proposal: why not use the opportunity for character development?

Naturally, as soon as the class ended, I rushed to my laptop, to see whether the first thing the protagonist of the novel I was revising at the time was, you know, catchy. Much to my surprise, what she says first is not only character-revealing, but positively integral to her character: the very first words within quotation marks are, “What can I do to help?”

I patted myself on the back so hard that I started to cough. My protagonist in that novel was a pediatrician who specialized in treating abused and neglected children — and who had spent her entire life bailing various members of her extended commune-dwelling family out of their various self-induced messes.

I felt awfully darned clever, let me tell you.

But then I started to wonder: perhaps we all know subconsciously that the first line a character speaks is important; maybe most of our first lines of dialogue are pretty apt. Perhaps — hard as this is to believe — many of us have been making those first few words count without (gasp!) being told to do it by some writing guru.

At least, I would like to think so. Which is why I am going to turn the question over to you, both for your commentary and your composition consideration: what is the first line of dialogue YOUR protagonist speaks in your novel? And is it character-revealing?

If not, how could you change it to make it so? Could it show who your protagonist is, just a little, rather than just saying it? Could it, like the opening to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, include telling details that Millicent is unlikely to see in any other piece of character-revealing dialogue this month?

If beginning this discussion with an incisive question from a reader to me and ending it with a series of probing questions from me to you isn’t the most graceful of symmetry, it is, in my experience, a lot more likely to get good writers thinking than simply barking a set of rules in their general direction. Particularly if those rules happen to be, as so many so-called firm rules of writing turn out to be, personal preferences all dressed up in the robes of authority.

Did that get you all revved up to start talking objectively about topics that are inherently subjective? I know I am.

Next time, we leap into craft with both feet, flying arms, and, we hope, the blessings of Nike, goddess of victory. Feel the excitement building, campers, and keep up the good work!

Partials, part III: “Wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?” and other cris de coeur of submitters and contest entrants

March 20th, 2010

neighbor's tulip tree

No, I shan’t be writing about tulip trees today — I just wanted to share my favorite of my latest batch of yard-in-bloom photos, for the benefit of those of you in stormier climes. While I was setting up this shot, I did invest a few moments’ thought to how I could possibly work these outrageous blooms into this post as a metaphor.

That’s the problem with metaphors: they actually have to relate to something.

In non-floral news, I’m feeling especially virtuous this evening: my excuse for running outside with my camera on this beautiful day (other than searching for images to divert you fine people, of course) was that I finally finished incorporating my first readers’ EXTENSIVE feedback into my recently-completed novel. Yes, even writers who edit for a living solicit opinion, technical and otherwise, from readers before showing their work to their agents.

The smart ones do, anyway; professional critique is so cut-and-dried that emotionally, it just doesn’t make sense to have an agent be the first soul on earth to read your work. (Hear that, aspiring writers planning to submit before showing those pages to anyone local?) Not to mention the practical pluses of good feedback — contrary to popular opinion amongst the shy, even the most battle-hardened pro can benefit from objective critique.

Emphasis upon objective, of course. Long-time readers, whip out your hymnals and sing along, please: no matter how extensively your kith and kin happen to read in your book category, by definition, people who love you cannot give you completely objective feedback on your writing. Even if your significant other is a published author, your best friend a Pulitzer Prize recipient, and your father the chief librarian of an archive devoted exclusively to your type of book, it is in your — and your manuscript’s — best interest to hear the unvarnished opinions of people who do not love you.

Trust me on this one. The sterling soul who gave birth to me has been editing great writers for fifty years, and even she doesn’t clap eyes upon my manuscripts until I’ve incorporated the first round of feedback. (Not that she hasn’t asked.)

I’m bringing this up at the end of our mini-series on partials not merely to celebrate polishing off that always rather taxing job — if any writer actually enjoys working critique into a manuscript, line by line, I’ve never met her — but also to remind those of you planning to rush those requested materials off to the post office that it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, as if I would let an opportunity to slip that golden piece of editorial advice into yet another post. Why repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why?

Specifically, those of you who huffed impatiently at that last paragraph. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read those pages 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you changed every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you – if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail? Or since you popped your last submission into the mail?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden.

And for those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s weary eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

While I’m hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript — or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter!”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. Its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week, since she couldn’t find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and if that seems paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Yes, I said stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. Generally speaking, agencies will not use a stamp-free SASE. (If you’re interested in the rather convoluted logic behind that one, I would refer you again to the SASE GUIDELINES category. Otherwise, moving swiftly on…)

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the entire manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected. (If that last bit came as any sort of a surprise to you, I would strongly urge you to peruse the posts under the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category at right before you comply with any request for your manuscript.)

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; when they take the time to do their homework, irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.) Much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping: first-time submitters frequently don’t know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check if my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

It’s not pretty. Neither is Mehitabel’s, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it?

Another major mistake that dogs contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce a writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

Everybody clear on all that? Now would be a marvelous time to ask a question, if not — I want to make absolutely, positively sure that every single member of the Author! Author! community not only understands these two separate concepts to be separate concepts, but can explain the difference to any confused fellow writers he might encounter.

Are you wondering why am I being so very adamant about this one? A deep and abiding dislike for seeing good writers waste their time and money: being unaware of this distinction trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year.

How, you ask? Sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the novel. Sometimes, these hapless souls take the misunderstanding one step further, sending in a few pages from Chapter 1, a few from Ch. 8, perhaps a couple of paragraphs from Ch. 17…in short, they submit a bouquet of writing samples.

Understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time. Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, however, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for feedback from an independent-minded first reader, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. In fact, I always advise my editing clients to read the guidelines once — then, on the second read, make a checklist of everything you are being asked to do. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate.

Then, and only then, put together the submission or entry, checking off each item as you place it in the envelope. Re-read the original guidelines or letter before you even think of sealing the envelope. If you’re not much of a detail person, you might also want to hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

Partials, part II: slicing the pie attractively and stuffing it in a box. Or envelope.

March 18th, 2010

slice of pie3slice of pie4slice of pie 6
slice of pie2slice of pie 5slice of pie

We open today with two pieces of bittersweet news from the embattled world of brick-and-mortar bookstores. First, a local tidbit: this weekend would be a phenomenal time to hurry on in to Seattle indie stalwart Elliott Bay Books, because in preparation for their relocation, all used books are 80% off though Monday, March 22; EBB’s last day of business in its beloved Pioneer Square location will be March 31. Booklovers need not despair, however: EBB plans to reopen in its new (smaller?) Capitol Hill location by April 14th.

In other creative-response-to-a-wildly-changing-market news, the Borders chain has just instituted a policy of offering free meeting space to book groups — and no, they’re not going to dictate what books the groups so housed will read. (A policy they tried out last year, I’m told.) I think this is a stupendously smart idea: hang a medal on the marketing executive who stood up in a meeting in the best Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney tradition and cried, “Wait! We’ve got a bookstore…and they love books…let’s put on a show!”

So now would be a great time for those of you currently congregating in an overstuffed living room to relocate. It’s unclear whether the megastores would be equally open to hosting, say, a weekly or monthly writers’ group, but it couldn’t hurt to track down a manager to ask the next time you’re in your local Borders, could it?

And to any indie bookstore owners who happen to be reading this: if you would willing to match this offer — or, better yet for the Author! Author! community, to host a writers’ group on a semi-regular basis — please feel free to leave a comment with your location, the link to your website, and the person whom local writers should contact at the end of this post. Let’s see if we can’t hook you up with some serious writers looking for a home to commune over craft.

Okay, that’s enough matchmaking for one day. Back to the business at hand, talking about how a savvy writer should respond to a request for a partial manuscript.

REQUESTED MATERIALS — and well, everything else
To be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about sending pages to an agency whose guidelines specify that queriers should include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited manuscript pages. Yes, yes, I know: it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement that the agent would like to see these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t.

Why am I raining on the partials parade by bringing this up right now, you ask? Because the consequences of confusing solicited and unsolicited manuscripts tend to be very, very high for the submitter. So let’s run over the difference in a touch more detail, shall we?

A solicited submission consists of manuscript pages that an agent is waiting to see, usually following a successful pitch or query. An unsolicited submission consists of a stack of manuscript pages from a writer who has not yet been personally asked to send anything.

Ne’er the twain shall meet, my friends. If an agency or small publishing house’s submission guidelines do not SPECIFICALLY state that it wants to see pages, sending unsolicited materials almost universally results in those pages being rejected immediately, unread.

Everyone clear on the distinction? Okay, here’s a pop quiz, just to be sure: why is a partial invariably a solicited submission? For bonus points, work into your answer the magic words a savvy submitter always writes on the outside of an envelope or places in the subject line of an e-mail bearing the partial to an agent.

If you immediately leapt to your feet and shouted, “By jingo, a partial in the sense we’ve been discussing it for the past two days is a solicited submission by definition, because a partial is the precise number of pages the agent in question asked to see,” pat yourself on the back three times. If you took a deep breath and added, “And I would never dream of sending any manuscript, partial or otherwise, that an agent or editor had asked to see without whipping out my trusty black marker and writing REQUESTED MATERIALS in 3-inch-high letters on the front of the envelope and/or in the subject line of the e-mail,” award yourself another couple of hearty congratulatory slaps.

Then fling yourself onto the nearest chaise longue and take a few nice, deep breaths. That lulu of a second answer must have used up every square millimeter of oxygen in your lungs.

Now that you’ve caught your breath, shall we enlighten the rest of the class about why a savvy writer always scrawls those particular words on a requested submission? The answer to this one’s as easy as pie: so the requested materials can’t possibly be mistaken for an unsolicited submission.

That, and so those pages the agent asked to see will end up on the right end of Millicent’s desk — or, at a large agency, on the right Millicent’s desk, period. As painful as it may be for aspiring writers to contemplate, submissions can and sometimes do get misplaced; good labeling renders that dreadful eventuality less likely.

(It’s less painful for agented writers to contemplate, typically; most of us have already lived through having a manuscript go astray. A certain agency that shall remain nameless as long as I remain signed with them not only lost one of my manuscripts once; it sent me another writer’s rejected manuscript in my SASE. They were quite apologetic when I returned it to them, along with a note suggesting that the author might be a better recipient for it.)

Oh, did the implication that submitting electronically might require some different steps catch you off-guard? Let’s rectify that with all deliberate speed.

Submitting your partial via e-mail
When submitting via e-mail — a route a savvy writer takes only when an agent specifically requests it; even at this late date, many are the agencies that do not accept electronic submissions at all, even if they accept e-mailed queries — include your partial as a Word attachment. (As much as some writers may prefer other word processing programs, Word is the industry standard.) If you work on a Mac, make sure to check the Send Windows-friendly attachments box; most agencies operate on PCs, and not particularly new ones at that.

You want the agent of your dreams to be able to open your document, don’t you? Millicent tends to be very, very cranky when she can’t open an attachment — and the sooner any writer gets used to the idea that any computer compatibility problems are considered the writer’s problem, not the agent’s, the happier your working life will be.

Speaking of difficulties opening files — or, as Millicent likes to call them, “what happens when writers don’t know what they’re doing” — it’s also an excellent idea for those working on the newest generation of Word to send the document in an older version. Specifically, send it as .doc file (Word 97-2004), not as a .docx file (anything more recent). The Save As… option under the FILE menu will allow you to make this switch easily.

Yes, I know it’s 2010. Try explaining that to a Millicent who’s stuck working on a decade-old PC that’s running a 2003 operating system.

If you are submitting requested materials via e-mail, use the body of the e-mail for your cover letter, but include any additional requested materials as separate attachments. In other words, unless the agent actually asked you to combine elements or place the whole shebang into the body of an e-mail (rare, but it happens; agents are as reluctant to download viruses as anybody else), the author bio should not be in the same document as the partial, and Millicent should be able to open your synopsis without having to scroll through the first 50 pages of your manuscript.

The sole exception: include your title page in the partial’s file, not as a separate document. Or, to put it another way, the title page should be the first page in the partial document, followed by the first page of text. Remember, though, that the title page should neither be numbered nor carry a slug line:

Austen title P&P2

Unlike the first page of text — or any other page of text, for that matter:

austen-opener-right

Is that wheezing sound an indicator that those of you who meticulously constructed your title pages as separate documents have begun to hyperventilate? Not to worry — adding your title page to your partial file is as easy as copying it, pasting it into the beginning of the partial, and adding a page break. No fuss, no muss, and very little bother.

And yet the wheezing continues. “But Anne,” a few of you gasp, “if I send the title and the body of the partial in the same Word document, won’t the title page automatically have a slug line — and be numbered, too?”

Not necessarily — but there is a trick to it. Under the FORMAT menu, select Document, then Layout. Here, select the Different First Page option, then click OK. That, as the option’s name implies, will give your first page a different header and footer than the rest of the partial. After that, it’s simply a matter of placing the slug line in the header for the first page of text.

Before you have to waste breath asking, allow me to add: in order to prevent Word from counting the title page as page 1 and the first page of text as page 2, use the Format Page Number option under VIEW/Header and Footer to set the Start at… number to zero. Voilà! The first page of text is now page 1!

Hey, what did you mean, any additional requested materials?
As I mentioned last time, just as some agencies’ guidelines call for pages to be included in a query packet and some do not, some partial-requesting agents ask writers to slip additional materials into a submission packet. Obviously (and I do hope that it is indeed obvious to you by this point in our discussion), you should not include any extra materials unless the agent asks for them — but it never hurts to have any or all of the following on hand at querying time, just in case somebody requests one of them.

To continue the lengthy tradition that I started yesterday — ah, those were good times, were they not? — let’s run through the most popular additions in the order they should appear in a hard-copy submission packet:

1. Cover letter

2. Title page

3. The requested pages in standard format.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
Here again, terminology may not be the writer’s friend: with fiction or memoir, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not an annotated table of contents. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for any types of book is a synopsis: a 1-5 page (double-spaced) overview of the basic plot or argument of the book. If you don’t already have one handy, you’ll find a step-by-step guide to writing one in the HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS category at right. (How do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Marketing plan, if one was requested.
These were all the rage a few years ago for fiction and memoir, but since the economy slowed down, they seem to have fallen out of favor as a submission-packet request, especially for partials. But just in case you get asked to produce one, a marketing plan is a brief (2-5 pages, double-spaced) explanation of who the target audience is for a particular book, why this book will appeal to those readers, and what you — not the publishing house’s marketing department, but YOU, the author — will do in order to alert potential readers to that appeal.

Sound familiar? It should –there’s an entire section of the book proposal devoted to this very subject. That’s where fiction agents got the idea. And if a first-time novelist happens to have a terrific platform for the book she’s writing — if she’s the world’s leading authority on drive-in movie theatres, for instance, and her novel happens to be set in one — an agent may well wish to tuck a marketing plan that talks about all the lectures on drive-ins (and in drive-ins) the author is going to be giving over the next couple of years.

As I said, though, it’s largely fallen out of fashion. But let me turn it around to you: have any of you novelists been asked to provide marketing plans with your submissions lately? If so, let me know, and I’ll run a brief series on how a novelist might go about pulling one together.

6. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author Since these are far from easy to write, I always recommend that aspiring writers construct them well in advance, so they have a great one on hand to tuck into the submission packet.

I suspect that I’m going to yield to those nagging voices in the ether and revisit how to write an author bio soon — but dag nab it, I really want to get back to craft. For those of you who need to toss one together while this internal debate rages, you can find a step-by-step guide to writing one under the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.

7. A SASE big enough that everything you’re sending the agent can be returned to you
That’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game. Always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE.

Why? Because since 9/11, someone who wants to mail a pre-metered package that weighs over two pounds via USPS has to tote it to a post office. Due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds.

“But Anne,” my formerly-wheezing readers point out, and rightly so, “isn’t the whole point of this mini-series to address the specific challenges of the aspiring writer who hasn’t been asked to send the entire manuscript? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t the first three chapters of most manuscripts fit into a 10″ x 17″ Manila envelope?”

You are far from wrong, ex-wheezers: a nice, crisp Manila envelope is just the thing for submitting a partial. Fold a second envelope in half and poke it into the first for the SASE.

8. Optional extras.
If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

Since the vast majority of agencies are congenitally allergic to submitters calling, e-mailing, or even writing to find out if a manuscript actually arrived — check the agency’s website or guide listing to be sure — it’s also a fair-to-middling idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, provided you do it courteously, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because as I MAY have mentioned, manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

Want to get the same information without running the risk that a witty postcard won’t elicit a chuckle? Pay a little more at the post office for the Delivery Confirmation service; they’ll give you a tracking number, so you may follow your submission’s progress through the mail.

What you should most emphatically not do is send your submission via a delivery service that will require someone at the agency end to sign for the packet. This is one of Millicent’s most notorious pet peeves — why, she reasons, should she (or the guy in the mail room) have to take time out of her (or his) busy day just because a writer’s nervous?

9. Pack it all in your Manila envelope and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the front.
Straightening up the stack of paper will minimize the possibility of in-transit mutilation, incidentally. If the envelope you have selected is a tight fit — snug enough, say, that the pages might get wrinkled in the stuffing-in process — for heaven’s sake, find yourself a larger envelope. It’s in your interest for it to arrive pretty.

Oh, and no matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Next time, we’ll be wrapping up this discussion via a quick tour of the major mistakes submitters make in constructing their partials. Until then, slice that pie and pack it for traveling nicely, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The skinny on partials — at least the ones that are skinnier than entire manuscripts

March 17th, 2010

skeleton1 ani-mirrorballdancinghat
showtime-skeleton
skeltw2 skeleton-gif

Okay, so I didn’t actually set out to bring a skeletons’ disco extravaganza to you today, even if it is St. Patrick’s Day. You’d be surprised at what comes up in a web search of skinny; it was either this or models, interestingly enough. (All of these fabulous animated bones appear courtesy of Feebleminds, by the way.)

No, I have a much nobler goal for today: answering a good question from a reader. Quoth the intrepid Kim a few posts back:

An agent recently requested a partial of ms. and not being able to find much on how to format that I just included the title page, and the requested pages of the ms. Is there a correct format or protocol for partials?

I’m very glad you brought this up, Kim. Although a partial always refers to a manuscript by definition — the term is shorthand for partial manuscript — this is yet another one of those situations where aspiring writers often get confused by publishing industry terminology.

Yes, I said yet another, because as so often seems to happen in the rumor echo chamber in which those trying to break into the biz must operate, many are the terms that mean more than one thing, or which would mean one thing to an agent and another to, say, a submitting writer. Here we have a prime example of the former: a partial can refer to two different kinds of manuscript, depending upon the context.

So let’s start this discussion by defining our terms before we really give the skeletons something to cavort about, shall we?

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the first pages
The first kind of partial, the kind to which Kim refers here, is the a specified number of pages an agent may request from a successfully querying or pitching writer who is not yet a client. Emphasis on specified: no agent is simply going to tell an aspiring writer, “Send me a partial,” leaving the writer to guess how many pages and from what part of the book.

Instead, she will typically say, “Send me the first chapter/first 50 pages/first three chapters/first 100 pages.” In this context, then, a partial is precisely the number of pages an agent has requested to see.

Again, emphasis on precisely: if an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, don’t make the mistake of sending 52, even if page 50 ends in mid-sentence or the chapter ends on page 56. From an agent’s point of view, an ability to follow directions well is a very, very desirable trait in a potential client.

Basically, this type of partial is a writing sample, similar in function to the pages agents sometimes list in their submission requirements as addenda to the query packet or the 5-page writing sample agents sometimes ask pitchers to produce: the agent is asking for these pages primarily in order to see whether this aspiring writer can write; judging whether the book would be a good fit for the agency comes a close second, but if the agency’s screener (our old pal, Millicent, naturally) isn’t caught by the style, even a perfect plotline for that agent’s interests is likely to be rejected.

Oh, should I have warned you not to take that great big sip of coffee just before you read that rather disturbing paragraph? Go ahead and clean up; I don’t mind waiting.

I understand your shock at hearing it so bluntly put, oh spit-takers, but as we have discussed throughout our recent series on standard format, ruling out 90% of submissions as quickly as humanly possible is a big part of Millicent’s job. Her boss can only take on a handful of new clients in any given year, right? In order to save the agent time, she makes sure that the only requested materials to reach his desk are well-written, properly formatted, and the kind of story or argument the agent is actively looking to represent.

When an agency requests a partial rather than the entire manuscript, it’s essentially a means of streamlining this winnowing-down process even further. Not to mention saving her from having to shuffle, and thus lift, a ton of paper: instead of Millicent’s desk being piled up to her chin at any given moment with boxes of full manuscripts, the monthly influx of requested partials may reach only up to her sternum. Once she has screened those, her boss can decide which of the surviving partials have piqued their interest sufficiently to request the entire manuscript.

A process known, both colloquially and within the industry, as asking to see the entire manuscript.

So asking for a partial adds an intervening step between the initial query or pitch and the request for the full manuscript — but before those of you who would prefer your work to be judged in its entirety invest too much energy in glowering in Millicent and her boss’ general direction for sending writers jumping through this additional hoop, let me hasten to add that until fairly recently, most agencies almost always asked for a partial first; requesting the entire manuscript right off the bat used to be a sign that an agent was really, really excited about a book project and wanted to get the jump on any other agent who might have merely requested a partial.

Nowadays, the decision whether to request a partial or entire manuscript is less often an indicator of enthusiasm than a matter of agency policy. In fact, contrary to pervasive writerly opinion, being asked for a partial rather than a full can sometimes be an advantage: at some agencies, having the entire manuscript on hand earlier can enable even speedier rejection of a near-miss project. Think about it: instead of having to ask for pages 51-372 and wait for them to arrive in order to pass a final judgment on a book, Millicent can simply read to page 60.

If the verdict is yes, this can lop quite a bit of time off the agent-seeking process, from the writer’s perspective. Unfortunately, if the verdict is no, and the agency is one of the vast majority that utilize form-letter rejections, the submitter ends up with no idea whether the impetus to reject came on page 1 or page 371.

Renders it rather hard to improve the manuscript prior to the next submission, doesn’t it?

Before that rhetorical question depresses anybody too much, let’s return to defining our partials. 99% of the time, the kind of partial an aspiring writer will be asked to provide is this first kind: a requested number of pages, beginning on p. 1 of the manuscript, for submission to an agent. There is, however, another kind.

The two distinctly different flavors of partial: the taste of what is to come
After a novelist is already established, it is not unheard-of for her agent to be able to pull off a conjuring trick known as selling the next book on a partial. This is pretty much what it says on the box: the author produces the first X number of pages of a not-yet-completed novel, and the agent convinces an editor that it will be to the publishing house’s advantage to snap the book up before the author has polished it off.

This can be a good deal for the publisher: buying a book on a partial prevents other publishers from bidding on the finished work. Also, earlier involvement in the writing process often enables the editor to help shape the book more, in much the same way as an editor on a nonfiction book (typically sold on a book proposal, not the full manuscript, lest we forget) is able to dictate which of the proposed chapters will and will not be in the finished manuscript.

Not to mention the fact that if the book happens to be written by a famous author or celebrity in another field, the bidding could potentially get quite high. This is why, in case you’d been wondering, we all occasionally hear of a publisher’s acquiring a half-written novel at a cocktail party, because some celebrity simply handed ten pages to him along with his seventh martini: the publisher recognizes the potential marketing value of the name.

For your garden-variety serious novelist, however, such a situation is unlikely to arise. If her agent manages to sell her next book on a partial, it’s generally to the editor who acquired her last. Since so many first-book publishing contracts grant the publisher right of first refusal over the author’s next book, anyway — meaning that the publisher gets an exclusive peek at the book before anyone else can place a bid on it — selling on a partial is mostly a means to speed up the approval process.

Everyone clear on the difference between that kind of partial and the first kind? Excellent. Now let’s assume for a moment that, like Kim, you have just been asked to submit a partial to the agent of your dreams. What specifically are you being asked to do?

Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages.

Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar, punctuation, and everything else your 9th grade English teacher begged you to take seriously.

But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say so frequently, what next?

What should a partial submission packet include, and in what order?
In part, this is a trick question, because — chant it with me now, readers — any submission packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.

As I mentioned above, agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission, up to and including how many pages they want to see. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50. You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency, appalled at the very notion of extending the length of the partial.

To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have ASKED to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

So pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers: if you’ve been asked for the first 50, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 51, you should still only send the first 50, exclusive of the title page. (Since the title page is not numbered, it is not included in the page count, either.)

Of course, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that, for the very simple reason that it’s extremely unlikely that Millicent will ever sit down with your partial and full manuscript simultaneously. Partially, this is due to the fact that if an agency approves enough of a partial submission to want to see the rest of the novel, they’re going to ask for the entire manuscript, not, say, pages 51 through 373.

Oh, you thought Millicent was going to invest time in digging out your partial, unpacking your second submission, and fitting the two together like a jigsaw puzzle? Does that really sound like reasonable behavior to expect from the person too impatient to allow her latte to cool before taking her first sip?

Again, send precisely what you are asked to send. However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here are the extra bits, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in a packet containing a partial:

1. Cover letter
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. There may even be several Millicents who need to approve it before it gets anywhere near the agent of your dreams. So it doesn’t honestly make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.

Besides, including a cover letter is polite. No need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. Something, perhaps, along the lines of this little gem:

cover letter for partial

A miracle of professional blandness, is it not? That’s all right — the cover letter isn’t where you’re going to wow Millicent with your sparkling prose and trenchant insight, anyway. All you have to be here is polite.

If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. (As crushing as it may be to the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested; it often speeds up the evaluation process. (If you’re unclear on why, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Most importantly, make sure all of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as in the example above) or just under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Yes, it does happen. You want them to be able to get ahold of you to tell you how much they love your writing, don’t you?

2. Title page
Always include this, if any manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book.

No need to state on the title page that it’s a partial, either — Millicent will be able to figure that out from your cover letter and the thickness of the stack of paper. Just use the same title page that you would have used if the agent of your dreams had requested the entire manuscript, and you’ll be fine:

Austen title good

Again, not precisely a thrill-fest, but undoubtedly professional-looking. Just make sure that it’s in the same typeface as the rest of the attached manuscript. (If this all sounds completely cryptic to you, or if you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, don’t panic — you’ll find a step-by-step explanation of what to do under the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category at right.)

Why is it so very important to include the title page? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way. Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format.
Again: only the pages they’ve asked to see, beginning on page 1, professionally formatted. No substitutions, unless the agency website specifically asks for something else. (If you’re new to reading this blog, or have somehow avoided the last few weeks of repeated and vehement posts on standard format, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right._

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting, had you been paying attention: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper when you print it out. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has riffled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

“So basically what you’re saying, in your patented lengthy and meticulously-explained manner,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and rightly, “is that Kim did everything right. Aren’t you?”

Why, yes, I am — kudos for your submitting savvy, Kim! You’re an example to aspiring writers everywhere, all the more so, in my opinion, because you were brave enough to ask the question. Now, everyone who has been wondering about it can benefit.

Sometimes, though, agents ask to see additional materials slipped into a submission packet with a partial. Next time, we’ll be taking a swift barefoot run through the usual suspects, as well as revisiting the difference between a partial and a writing sample — or a partial for a contest entry and a writing sample, for that matter.

Hard to contain the excitement, isn’t it? No wonder the skeletons are dancing up a storm. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, and keep up the good work!

A problem even a writer’s favorite muse cannot solve

March 16th, 2010

children of paradise

The characters change, but the basic plot is always the same, just like a nightmare or a film that Hollywood can’t seem to stop remaking. Seven or eight times per year, I receive a frantic call or e-mail from a hard-working writer, usually someone close to polishing off a book. “Please help me!” this anguished soul begs. “Something’s happened to my computer, and I’ve just lost my entire manuscript!”

Sometimes, the culprit is mechanical: a computer crash, a virus, a hard drive meltdown. Other times, it’s a side-effect something larger, more generally life-changing, like a fire, an earthquake, or an ex who nabbed the shared computer on his way out the door. Yet every single one of these stories share a single common denominator: the writer had not made a back-up recently — or if she had, it was sitting on a shelf right next to her writing desk, and thus was equally inaccessible once the firefighters pushed her out the door.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but firefighters, rescue workers, and other emergency personnel are notoriously more interested than saving your life than the only copy of the novel you’ve been writing for the past eight years. They’ll be very nice about it, but they will not allow you to run back into a collapsing building to rescue your computer.

In a not entirely unrelated note, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? And if, heaven forbid, something happened to your home while you were not there, would you still have access to either an electronic or hard copy of the most recent draft of your manuscript?

That second question’s the rub, isn’t it? Many a writer who is pretty good about making back-ups in case her hard drive melts down or a fellow traveler spills gin on her laptop halfway between Atlanta and Barcelona — both of which have happened to yours truly, I’m sorry to say — doesn’t stop to think about where she’s storing those back-ups, or how hard a time she would have getting to them if the roof collapsed on her habitual writing space.

Remind you of anything you might have seen on the news lately?

Because I have spent so much of my life hobnobbing with writers, the permanently lost manuscript is the first thing I think about when I see a reporter standing in front of a shattered building or smoldering foundation. Not to minimize any of the terrible damage on every level in a crisis, but I can’t help but picture the additional pain of the displaced aspiring writers. How many those bereft writers, I wonder, either had an easily portable back-up ready to snatch up at a moment’s notice or stored at a back-up off-site?

Those poor, poor people: as anyone who has ever lost an entire document can tell you, trying to recreate even a few pages from memory can be a nightmare. Imagine losing an entire novel or memoir.

I don’t want to depress you — okay, I do, but only for your own eventual good. Put yourself in one of those unlucky writers’ shoes for a moment: if something happened to your primary computer and your filing system right now, would you have a copy of your book? One that incorporated your most recent changes?

If not, let me ask you a painful but necessary follow-up question: how long would it take you to reproduce it from scratch?

Try breathing into a paper bag until the hyperventilation stops.

Breathing normally again? Good. Keep taking nice, deep breaths while you ponder my next difficult question: if your hard drive suddenly gave up the ghost right now, how recent a version of your book-in-progress would you have with which to replace your current version?

Come on, be honest about it: a week old? A month old? That hard copy of the first three chapters that agent sent back in your SASE?

Hands up, everyone who felt the chill realization that you would not have ANY version of your novel or NF book.

If you could see your fellow readers, you’d notice that a good 9 out of 10 of you had your hands raised. Which is, alas, normal, as anyone who works in a computer repair facility could tell you. They, too, are constantly meeting traumatized writers who plead, “What do you mean, my hard disk can’t be salvaged? The only copy of my book is on it!”

Please, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that computer failure, theft, or — again, heaven forefend — a larger disaster could not happen to you. Make back-ups of your writing early and often.

I was fortunate enough to learn the value of compulsive back-up generation young. When I was in college, my thesis advisor, a jolly fellow named Dave, had been working on his dissertation for years. Every time we met, he used to present me with a disk containing his latest draft, requesting that I keep it in my dorm room. If he kept his only copy of his back-up in his house, he explained, and something awful happened to his home, he did not want to be left without a copy of the latest version.

Truth compels me to admit that my initial response to the notion was disrespectfully flippant; to be blunt about it, I thought Dave was being paranoid. But given how long he had been working on his dissertation, was he really being over-cautious? Or merely far-sighted?

At the time, I definitely wrote it off to paranoia, and not without good reason: to be on the ultra-safe side, Dave asked me to keep each week’s version in my dorm refrigerator, just in case my dorm and his entire suburb were somehow simultaneously engulfed in flames that miraculously spared both of our lives. “The insides of refrigerators seldom burn,” he explained, “unless someone opens them during the conflagration. They’re also rarely completely crushed during earthquakes.”

Looking over the footage Chile, I wondered if he was right about that. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much left of some of those buildings.

Even though I did, in fact, keep his work in my tiny dorm fridge, I used to smile secretly at the intensity of his fear that his work would disappear. Until I was in graduate school myself, and a knife-wielding mugger approached me on my way home from the library.

“Give me your backpack,” he advised, none too gently.

“No,” I said, crushing it to my trembling chest.

I then explained very glibly and at great length that I had a draft of my master’s thesis in my bag, and that it was positively covered with hand-written notes and footnotes-to-be that I had not yet entered into my soft copy. (Yes, I know now how silly that was.) It would take me weeks to recreate all of that material. Would he accept the contents of my wallet instead? What if I made the cash my gift to him, a little token of my thanks for leaving my thesis intact, and didn’t file a police report?

The mugger, who apparently had never attempted a major writing project, was quite astonished by my vehemence; I gather he thought I simply did not understand the situation. He reminded me several times throughout my frantic monologue that he could, in fact, kill me with the knife clutched in his hand, and that only a crazy person would risk her life for a bunch of paper.

But tell me: if you were holding the only extant copy of your book, would you not have made a similar argument?

The story ended happily, I’m glad to report: I ended up with both a whole skin and my draft. And to tell you the truth, I no longer remember if he got my money or not. (I do, however, remember him begging me to stop telling him about the argument in my thesis — I had become embroiled in an especially juicy part of Chapter Two — and admitting that he would, in fact, just be dumping the manuscript into the nearest trash can rather than turning it in for credit.)

The dual moral of these stories: it’s ALWAYS a good idea to have more than one copy of your manuscript, just in case the unthinkable happens. And the best place to keep a back-up is NOT immediately adjacent to your computer, or in your laptop case along with the laptop.

This is an area where I definitely practice what I preach, practically to the point of obsession. Oh, you may chuckle over the fact that I literally never leave my house without either my laptop or a full back-up of it on my portable hard drive (which aren’t particularly expensive these days, by the way), but when that merry Barcelonan baptized my keyboard with gin, I didn’t have to turn around and fly back to the United States in order to produce another copy of the novel-in-progress from which I was supposed to be reading after we landed, nor did I have to place a frantic transatlantic phone call to ask my neighbor’s sweet teenage son to break into my house to e-mail me another copy of it. It’s also the reason that a couple of years earlier, when my hard disk completely disintegrated overnight, I was able to flabbergast the guy at the computer repair place by saying, “Well, it would be nice if you could save my information and photos, but I can always restore them from my back-ups.”

How flabbergasted was he, you ask? He actually said, “Wow, I’ve never had a customer say that before.”

My thesis advisor’s strategy is sounding less and less zany to you, isn’t it?

Fortunately, backing up is easier than ever these days. For under $200, I was able to pick up an external hard drive that even comes with software that automatically backs up my computer for me. I don’t even have to think about it.

Since I do think about it all the time, though — thank you, seven or eight unfortunates per year — I am very aware that is not enough. Because I’m generally working on a novel of my own, editing several others, and am constantly on call for making revisions on whatever of my projects my agent happens to be circulating at the moment, I tote around a mirror image of my laptop’s innards on my portable hard disk — which takes up less room in my purse than my wallet does, incidentally. That way, I can always carry the most current version with me — unless I’m taking my laptop with me, in which case I leave the back-up at home.

Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but at least I have my answer ready the next time I run into a literary-minded mugger, right?

Your method does not need to be complicated — in fact, it’s better if it isn’t, since simple procedures are easier to work into your daily life. Playing it safe can be as simple as burning a recordable CD once a week and popping it into your backpack or glove compartment (crude, but effective), copying your files onto your iPod (hey, that thing is essentially a hard drive, right?), or even just e-mailing your chapter files to yourself on a regular basis (effectively turning your ISP into a remote storage facility).

Many writers prefer an off-site back-up method, such as saving to storage space online; there, too, you can set up automatic back-ups. Check with your Internet provider — mine offers storage space as part of its standard connection package.

Don’t panic if you’re not very computer-savvy: this really does not need to be difficult. For an easy-to-follow, well-explained run-down of back-up and security options for the PC, I would highly recommend checking out longtime reader and computer whiz Chris Park’s blog post on the subject.

However you decide to make your back-ups, I would recommend getting into a regular schedule as soon as possible. The best way to protect your writing is to save it often, after all, and any security system works best if it is applied consistently.

How often is often enough to save your work? Well, think back to the scenarios above: how many pages of text are you willing to beg your muse to help you recreate from memory?

It’s a good idea, too, to save more often while you are in the throes of revising a manuscript — and to save both before and after copies of each major revision. Yes, it takes up space, but as most of us who have lived through serious revisions can tell you, it’s not all that uncommon to decide a week, month, or year down the line that a cut scene is indispensably necessary to the work.

Or for the editor, agent, or writing group that advised a particular cut in the first place to change his, her, or its mind. Believe me, if anyone is more frantic than a writer whose agent promised an editor at a major house that the first third of that novel would be revised three weeks hence, it’s the writer whose agent promised it three days before the writer’s three-year-old decided to raid the toolbox and make dents in that shiny computer screen.

But you know who is most frantic of all? The writer being held back by the firefighters, because the only copy of his novel is inside that burning building.

Those kinds of things only happen to other people, right?

Please, for your own sake, don’t put off getting into the habit of making frequent back-ups. Large-scale disasters are not very frequent, thank goodness, but computer meltdowns are. A few minutes of preparation every week or so can save you a tremendous amount of pain down the line.

Here’s devoutly hoping that my fevered imagination is radically overestimating the number of manuscripts lost in the current rounds of earthquakes and floods. Be safe, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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