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Naming names, part II: wait, wait, don’t tell me — the protagonist is the guy with the torch, right?

June 30th, 2010

Spartacus crowd scene

Last time, as some of you may recall, I broached the tender subject of character names. I did so with some trepidation, naturally: writers, especially those in the throes of completing their first novels, are often very protective of their Muse-given right to name characters precisely as they see fit. Never mind that a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look alike — or sound alike; Oliver, Olivia, and their cat Vetiver are going to their literary graves with those monikers, thank you very much, as are Justin, Jason, and Augustine.

Don’t tense up, similar name-lovers: I shan’t be trying to convince you that Clarence and Terence might not be the best conceivable names for the protagonist and antagonist of an adult novel. (Although I would love to see their adventures in a picture book.) I’ve given you enough concrete examples, both in my last post and in the depths of the Frankenstein manuscript series, for you to make up your own mind about whether Becky and Betsy are in fact the most reader-friendly names you could give your protagonist’s identical twin love interests. You’re intelligent people; it’s your choice.

Whatever you decide, however, and perhaps even before you decide, may I proffer a minor suggestion? Prior to making any changes to the names in your manuscript, read through it (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course) and create a list of characters, along with notations of where they appear throughout the text.

Why did I duck under the nearest table immediately after having brought up that possibility, you ask? Well, the last time I suggested that if one’s novel is thick with named characters, it might be a good idea to make a list of who appears when, so the savvy reviser can see where to cull and who may be combined with whom, cries of “Madness! Madness!” filled the land.

“Are you crazed, Anne?” angry mobs of revisers cried, waving their pitchforks menacingly. “I barely have time to write as it is — are you seriously suggesting that I devote hours and hours to noting on which pages every character in the book might be found?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Stop dipping those torches in pitch long enough to hear why.

In the first place, should you decide down the line that you do indeed want to change one or more characters’ names, that list will be positively invaluable. From past experience, I can tell you that if a writer does not have such a list in hand when she decides to change her protagonist’s name from Georgine to Georgette, she’s almost certainly going to miss a Georgine or two.

Leading, of course, to the classic irate editor’s comment: “Who is Georgine? And is it really a good idea to have two characters with names as close Georgine and Georgette? The scan too similarly; readers are likely to mix them up.”

Hey, the hypothetical editor said it; I didn’t. Go wave your torches angrily elsewhere.

The second reason a savvy reviser might want to produce a character list is that, frankly, most aspiring writers harbor rather fuzzy notions of how many named characters populate their books. If you have been adding scenes — and, let’s face it, most self-editors do; thus the Frankenstein nature of much-revised manuscripts — you might easily have ended up with 25 more characters than you intended in Chapter 1.

See where I’m going with this?

Character multiplication is usually inadvertent, after all. I’ve read manuscripts where the minor characters not only could easily have staged their own production of WAR & PEACE without double-casting any extras; occasionally, I see texts whose citizenry could have formed its own representative government.

Yet without exception, the authors of such heavily-populated tomes say the same thing: “Oh, there aren’t that many. A reader who was paying attention would have no problem keeping them straight.”

If you’ll pardon my saying so, that’s not the kind of statement a writer should be making if she doesn’t know for sure how many characters are strolling across the pages of the most current draft of her manuscript. If you actually list each and every character, you may be astonished at just how many of them there are.

Don’t shrug — seriously, since most writers do not keep running tallies of the characters in their books, it’s not all that hard to end up with 50 or 100 named characters without realizing it Especially if they are introduced many at a time, without much character development for any given one, it isn’t precisely reasonable to expect the reader to keep track of them all, is it?

The third reason — oh, I have not yet begun to run out of arguments yet — is that such a list will help you see not only where you might want to begin culling the herd of bodies in the background, but also enable you to see who could potentially be consolidated with whom — and who absolutely could not. If you keep track of how often and where a particular character appears, you will be able to tell when a character who appeared once on page 15 carrying a load of firewood turns up again on page 310 entering the diner…and thus could not possibly be across town on page 312, assisting a gang of thugs in smothering the mayor.

Think of it as trying to cast a production of Spartacus with a very small troupe of actors: you probably won’t be able to foist many more duties upon the leads, but the bit players could certainly play multiple roles, right?

Fourth, knowing who the players are and in what scenes they appear can also alert you to patterns in where characters tend to pile up in your work in general. If you’re the kind of writer who, for instance, leans toward naming every single soul attending any given party, from the canapé-servers right down to the couple necking in the corner, you will want to be aware of that predilection before you write your next party scene, won’t you?

Won’t you? (Please lie to me, if not. My back is still hurting enough that I am composing this in bed; I could use some cheerful thoughts wafted my way.)

If, on the other hand, you tend to emphasize your protagonist’s loneliness by having other characters engage in banter around him, seeing that pattern manifest on a list may lead you to question whether it needs to happen quite so often in the book to make your point — or with quite so many different characters providing contrast. Or cause you to question whether a reader might conclude that your protagonist is either an unemployed mime or not an actor in his own story.

Constructing a character list can, in short, alert you to both point overkill and the dreaded Passive Protagonist Syndrome. Just between us, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, would be overjoyed if you were to ferret out both of those tendencies before she saw you submission, rather than after.

Wait — does all of that shifting in chairs, rolling of eyes, and martyred sighing indicate that that not all of you are completely convinced that taking the time to tote up your characters is worth your while? Do you think that it might be a grand idea for some benighted aspiring writers, but you have too clear a conception of your manuscript to render it useful to you?

Okay, those of you with complete command of your manuscripts, let me ask you: how many characters are there on page 37? More to the point for submission purposes, how many appear on page 1?

Did those questions catch some of you by surprise? No wonder: so far, in discussing how to keep your characters from blurring together in the minds of swiftly-scanning agents and editors, I’ve concentrated on the scene and paragraph levels. Now, I’m raising the discussion to the book level.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’ve refined your opening scene (and chapter) so that characters are introduced in discrete, memorable groupings, as I advised in the my last post. Let’s also say for the sake of argument that you’ve minimized the possibility of name confusion by christening your characters as differently as possible — Selma and Thelma are now Selma and Marie. All that being done, you may now sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that each of your characters is distinctly memorable, right?

Not necessarily. You might still have too many named characters in the book.

And yes, in answer to what some of you just screamed, you should care about that. If you have a cast of thousands, it’s going to be much, much harder for any reader — let alone a professional one like our friend Millicent, the agency screener — to care about individual characters. When attention is spread thin, affection starts to waver. Still worse, when a reader has to keep track of 77 different names, it can become a trifle difficult for him to tell which characters he’s supposed to be following.

It would, I suppose, be handy if the Great Gods of Literature (or even someone like yours truly) laid down the law about how many is too many, decreeing that four is the maximum for this kind of scene and eight for that. As I mentioned last time, though as far as I am aware, there is no strict standard for recognizing character overpopulation.

What works best varies from book to book. The only widely-used criterion I know is whether the reader starts to have trouble telling them apart — which, lest anyone forget, if bound to happen faster if the names are too similar. Characters whose names sound similar or begin with the same letter are prime candidates for blurrage. (Yes, I know – it isn’t a word. But it should be.)

A good test of whether your novel is overstaffed: hand a hard copy of it to a reader who does not know you very well (and thus has no incentive to lie to keep you happy), and ask him to stop reading when the number of characters becomes bewildering. Have him mark where he threw in the towel by folding that page in half.

Ideally, you will get the manuscript back with every page pristine, naturally, but if that folded page falls within your first fifty pages — i.e., in the part of the book that an agent would be likely to ask to see first — you should consider making some major cast cuts. If the folded page falls within the first chapter, I would suggest going back and reading my last few posts, because in all likelihood, there are too many characters up front.

If you are too shy to recruit help, you can do a version of this test on your own, by sitting down with your manuscript and a highlighting pen and marking every proper name. Even better, you could go for broke and make an actual list of characters.

Wait — where have I heard that excellent advice before? There must be an echo in here.

The easiest way to generate such a list is by using the FIND function in your word processing program and noting each page number. I like to keep the results in a spreadsheet, so I can sort it by character name, chapter, page number, and what the character is doing at the time. (Yes, that US an insanely meticulous thing to do, but then, I’m an editor by trade. My clients pay me good money to read their work with a magnifying glass.)

Why keep track of the extra data? To make it clearer which groups of minor characters could be consolidated into just one or two. If, for instance, my spreadsheet tells me that five different characters shoe horses throughout the book, and if the story does not involve a trip on horseback of several thousand miles between smithies, I would be tempted to make all five the same character.

Noting where each character appears — in addition to making it SUBSTANTIALLY simpler to go back and find those four extraneous blacksmiths and put them to death, literarily speaking — also makes it apparent which named characters appear in only a single scene. In my experience, character-heavy books tend to feature a LOT of one-off cameos; generating a list will help you go through all of the one-timers to check who is actually necessary to keep.

And if the idea of doing away with these folks makes you sad, remember: Characters are notoriously recyclable. If you become a career writer, this is not the only book you will ever write. You may well find that Blacksmith Bob of today can be very happily recast as Soda Jerk Bob tomorrow.

I sense some of you shifting uncomfortably in your chairs again. “But Anne,” some of you protest, glancing at your watches, “I realize that what you’re suggesting is something I could conceivably be doing while I am sitting down and reading my manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before I even consider submitting it — and in an ideal world, I would follow your advice to the letter. But frankly, I can barely find time to write, query, and/or submit as it is. You wouldn’t happen to know any short cuts for ferreting out extraneous characters, would you?”

As a matter of fact, I do, but I’m hesitant to roll ‘em out, lest that discourage any of you from going over your manuscripts with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. I can’t even begin to tote up how many writers, aspiring and established both, I’ve heard wail, “Oh, if only I’d caught that simple, easily-corrected error before I sent out my manuscript! Now that terrific agent/dreamy editor/stern contest judge will think I’m a bonehead!”

Bu if you will all promise not to use the tricks as a substitute for reading your IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sealing that submission envelope, I’ll go ahead and talk about them now.

My favorite technique is one that occurs more or less automatically to professional readers at about the 10,000th scene mark: becoming aware what kinds of scenes tend to invite minor character lurkage en masse. Including, but not limited to…

1. Any scene featuring a congregation.
If hell is other people, as Sartre suggests, then wedding and funeral scenes in novels almost invariably reek of brimstone. These events are notorious amongst professional readers for introducing entire churchfuls of extraneous characters.

Even when all of the masses are not named individually (although you’d be astonished how often a dozen or so are), it doesn’t take many lines of physical description or multi-party banter to convey the impression that a small, intimate wedding has a guest list to rival that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s nuptials.

Allow me to suggest: if behinds are in pews, it might be a good place to start trimming.

2. Any scene that takes place where strangers tend to gather.
Pay close attention to scenes set in coffee shops, bars, class reunions, Ellis Island, airplanes/-ports, trains, buses, workplaces, and party scenes in general. All of these venues seem to attract single-appearance characters as surely as a red carpet attracts celebrity gawkers.

Was that massive sucking noise I just heard a collective gasp of indignation? “But Anne,” cast-of-thousands-mongers cry, “you’re asking me to disembowel the collective identity of modern urban life! How can I describe the complexity of the human environment without enumerating the individuals who are part of it?”

Describe away — and if you’re into enumerating, I’m not going to stop you, although your agent and/or editor may well. All I’m suggesting here is that you not insist on introducing each of the bystanders to the hapless reader as if she were the mother of the bride in a receiving line.

Not every minor character deserves to be identified, does he? Not only does pointing everyone out tend to get a mite tedious and slow the pace of the narrative to the proverbial crawl, to a professional reader, a group scene where everyone is named down to the last poodle and great-grandfather reads as though it were simply an account of something that actually happened to the author. When the guest lists are long and specific, the jaded reader will think, “Great — when do we get back to the fiction?”

Or the memoir, or the historical account, as the case may be. Which brings me to:

3. Any group scene depicting an actual event — or based upon one.
Of course, suspecting scenes ripped from real life is not always fair, but when writers lift scenes from real life into their novels, they do tend to include direct one-to-one correlations between the actual people and the fictional ones. Often, but not always, they do this just in case the people in question should ever pick up the book.

“Oh,” they say, pointing at the page. “That’s me — I’m the one brandishing the flaming torch.”

The names may change, but if Aunt Bessie, Aunt Cassie, and odd Cousin George appear in the text so fleetingly that they don’t make an impression upon the reader, that’s a pretty good tip-off to someone who reads a lot of manuscripts that the author is blessed with two aunts and a cousin who might reasonably be expected to buy the book when it is published. While this practice tends to delight the kith and kin mentioned (and create grudges in those not mentioned — another good reason to eschew the temptation), it’s not harmless. Both professional and casual readers alike are likely to find it problematic.

Why? Well, such references can be very amusing for readers familiar with the fine folks mentioned in the book, as well as their kith and kin. Generally speaking, though, unless a minor character plays an actual role in the plot — as in contributing some action or information that moves the story along — he will not be memorable to readers who do not already know the correlates in question.

You indignant gaspers are getting restive again, aren’t you? “Yes, yes,” you mutter impatiently, and who could blame you? “It’s not the most efficient means of storytelling; I already know that. But I fully intend to rectify that by making Aunt Bessie the gas station attendant in Chapter 47, Aunt Cassie the librarian in Chapter 12, and Cousin George Massey the second corpse who rises from the dead on the honeymoon. Happy now?”

Not necessarily. Even if the characters in a crowd scene do appear elsewhere in the book, it can still be pretty tedious for the reader if the narrative engages in a full roll-call. Or even a partial one.

Come closer, and I shall divulge a cherished secret of the editing trade to you: lists tend not to make for very interesting reading. (And yes, you do have my permission to quote me — with attribution, of course — the next time your boss insists that you sit through yet another PowerPoint presentation.)

Mentioning characters just for the sake of mentioning them is seldom very interesting to the reader, at least when the characters in question are not integral to the action. Bystanders are not, by and large, memorable to the average reader. Especially in the opening of a book — where, all too frequently, it’s not clear which of the cast of thousands in a scene is the one (or dozen) that the reader is supposed to remember.

If, indeed, it’s important to the plot to remember any individuals among them at all. Even in a memoir, it often isn’t, from a pure storytelling perspective.

I know, I know: you’re not going to be able to convince anyone who participated in the real-life events that s/he was not integral to the action. But just as not every detail within a physical space is either necessary to mention in order for a reader to be able to picture a place or interesting if you do, not every character in a real-world situation belongs in the written account of it.

Aspiring writers tend to forget that, as Millicent would be only too happy to tell you — not just that everyone who appears in our mental image of a crowd scene (or in our recollections or photographs of it, if we’re writing memoir) is going to be integral to the action, in storytelling terms, but that every new character name is something else for the reader to remember. That saps energy that would be better utilized getting involved in the story itself.

Or, to put it another way, every time a reader, professional or otherwise, mutters, “Wait, who’s Gerald?” s/he has been pulled out of the story. A top-flight storyteller — which all of us want to be, right? — tries to eliminate such jarring moments entirely from her readers’ experience.

One way to minimize such exclamations is to bear in mind that just-mentioned-in-passing characters are rarely memorable from a reader’s perspective. Every editor in the biz has at one time or another been confronted by an author angrily waving a manuscript in her face and shouting, “What do you mean, where did this character come from? Alice was the third bridesmaid at Ben’s wedding in Chapter Two, for heaven’s sake!”

Invariably, the irate author is factually correct on points like these. The character will indeed have been mentioned by name in passing, as in:

The bridesmaids, Greta, Elaine, and Alice, were dressed in an eye-searing chartreuse that left Ben wondering just what these old friends had done to his bride back in junior high school to make her hate them so much.

200 pages later, out of those three never-again-mentioned bridesmaids, the author expects the reader to remember Alice — and apparently only Alice. At the risk of seeming impertinent, why should he?

Unless he happens to be blessed with an unusually retentive memory, he won’t — and even Millicents, who often do have such excellent memories, tend to resent being expected to use them to keep 157 characters straight. At the submission stage, unless a character is central enough to what’s going on in a scene to warrant development, you might want to consider whisking her out of Millicent’s sight, at least for the time being.

“For the time being?” I hear some ambitious character-generators out there piping hopefully. “Does that mean I can bring Aunt Cassie back after I’ve landed an agent and/or editor for this book?”

Sure — just because you take a few (or a few hundred) characters out of your submission draft of a novel doesn’t mean that you can’t reinsert them later in the publication process. There is no law that says that an author can’t offer a stripped-down, swiftly-moving version of her novel to agents and editors — and then, after the ink is dry on the relevant contracts, say to your editor, “You know, I’ve always thought that there should be more bridesmaids in Chapter 2. Like, say, fifteen. How would you feel about Alice’s being one of them?”

Remember, no manuscript is set in stone until it’s actually in print between covers; no matter how often or how well you polish yours before submission, expect to be asked for revisions. Especially these days, when it’s not at all uncommon at the large U.S. publishing houses for the editor who acquires a book not still to be on the job — or at any rate, in the same job — by the time that book comes up in the print queue. I don’t want to horrify anyone, but within the last couple of months, I’ve talked to authors who are on their fourth and fifth editors.

Think each of those editors has shared exactly the same vision of the book, or wants the same changes? And what’s the probability that at least one of them will hate the name Georgette, and want you to change it to, say, Georgine?

Now more than ever, it behooves writers to keep their creative options open. The better-organized you are, the happier you will be at last-minute revision time. Go ahead and keep copies of every major revision of your manuscript, so you can revisit the Alice and Georgine/ette issues again down the road. Hang on to that character list, too; someday, possibly between revisions 6 and 7 after you’ve signed with the agent of your dreams, it may come in awfully handy.

Now that I’ve frightened all of you into wide-eyed insomnia, I’m talking my aching back off to bed. Cast your stories carefully, my friends, and keep up the good work!

A brief digression on names, featuring some lighthearted admonitions on being careful how you label people

June 29th, 2010

Helen Burns' shame

Since I have been hammering so hard on the perils of word, phrase, and concept repetition in my recent Frankenstein manuscript series, I thought it might be nice to take a break for a couple of days, if only to stop the more conscientious revisers among you from waking up in the dead of night, screaming, “No! Please! I shall cut the number of eye-distracting conjunctions in my manuscript by half! Just take away the thumbscrews!” After those few days had passed without revision-related screaming abating much, I decided that I was going to take a few baby steps away from the much-stared-at manuscript page and talk about a related topic near and dear to most novelists’ hearts: character naming.

Then, after I have lulled you into a nice, complacent creative reverie, I shall leap right back into the burning issues of revision. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before I launch into the meat of today’s post, however, I’d like to note the passing of someone I have never met personally, but has been gracing Author! Author! at least once per year as the wry star of one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. Those of you who have been hanging out here at A! A! for a while may remember the late gentleman (may he rest in perpetual peace) who taught us that it’s never, ever safe to assume that one’s audience will share one’s prejudices.

Once upon a time, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at a Washington, D.C.-area law school for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was a bit lonely: he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge.

So, one day, determined to make friends, he walked into that room full of strangers, sat down next to the least intimidating-looking law professor, and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, way back in the early 1980s, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

Much to his astonishment, his new friend broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the professor had just said the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so hard that other faculty members turned around to stare.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused at this response. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact. She’s on the Supreme Court.”

The Harvard professor had, of course, been talking for the last half an hour to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin. The latter, a fellow of infinite jest, apparently dined out on that story for years.

May you spend eternity telling that one at the dinner parties of the afterlife, Martin. And may all of us down here remember that when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say — and especially how you label people — because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

Why is that lesson an important one for aspiring writers to embrace, you ask? Well, all too often, especially in nonfiction, aspiring writers assume that what is funny — or shocking, or ordinary — to them will automatically strike our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, in precisely the same way, resulting in more guffaws and huffs of displeasure over submissions and contest entries than anyone would care to admit. To avoid subjecting your writing to this dreadful fate, bear in mind: no matter how deeply our own kith and kin might share our personal, political, social, etc. views of the world, we can never be sure that the agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge to whom we submit our writing will share that worldview.

There endeth today’s parable. Let’s get back to work.

We writers, as I mentioned before the impulse to eulogize sidetracked me, tend to take great pride in our characters’ names. Even when we have simply borrowed our local postmaster’s name for a minor character, combined a freshman roommate’s first name with our least-favorite high school teacher for another, and lifted a period name for a protagonist from an old census list, we are not only pleased with ourselves — we will tell anyone who will listen just how we came up with a name as nifty as Thisbe Holt.

Don’t believe that impulse to be universal? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into any author reading, anywhere in the world, and ask the novelist signing books how he ever thought of those incredibly evocative character names in his novel.

I can tell you now that there is not an author on earth who will laugh and say, “Evocative? What’s evocative about Mary Smith?” Instead, you will be treated to a bright, toothy smile and an intensely detailed ten-minute description of just where and when the author dreamed up those names.

It’s true; it’s written on the sand in words of flame. Oh, and congratulations for having made that author’s day.

There are, of course, many, many excellent sources of apt character names — for an amazingly rich source of inspiration and guidance on the subject, run, don’t walk to Askhari Johnson Hodari’s guest post on naming — but I am not going to talk about any of them today. (Which is requiring some restraint on my part, as I went all the way from nursery school through high school graduation with a classmate named Glee Burrow, a name I have been longing for decades to immortalize.) Nor, as all of you weary-eyed revisionists will no doubt be delighted to hear, am I going to repeat my caution about over-using character names in a text.

No, today, I shall be talking about naming your characters in such a way that your readers are likely to remember them — and be able to tell them apart in a book with a whole lot of characters. That may not sound especially difficult (how likely is even a reader slow on the uptake to confuse a fisherman named Paul and a jeweler named Ermintrude, right?), but in a manuscript where fifteen characters are introduced within the first two pages, the task can be a lulu.

Especially, as I mentioned last week, if too many of the names begin with the same letter, encouraging the eye to skip wildly between capitals. Take a gander:

Too many names example

Quite a large cast to reveal in the first moments of the first scene, isn’t it? Let’s face it, no matter how beautifully-drawn and exquisitely differentiated any subsequent character development for Jeremy, Jason, Jennifer, and Jemima might be, a skimming reader — like, say, Millicent (whose name means, appropriately enough, strong in work) — is likely to get ‘em confused on page 1.

I’m sensing some resistance from those of you writing about irresistible triplets named John, Jeffrey, and Jacobim. “But those are my characters’ names,” you protest, and who could blame you? “The names are integral to the characters! I can’t change them now! Besides, the example above wouldn’t really confuse any reader who was paying attention.”

Oh, you can complain all you like that since the narrative explained quite clearly who Bertrand, Benjamin, and Bertha were, as well as the interrelationships between Armand, Aspasia, Antoinette, Annabelle, and Angelica, not to mention the monarchy’s likely effect on the character whom we are left to guess is probably the protagonist, but if you pepper your page 1 with so many names that a reasonably intelligent reader might legitimately become confused, those clear explanations might not matter enough to encourage her to keep reading.

Especially if the her in question is a Millicent who has fifty submissions to read before lunchtime. Remember, agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

What can a humble writer do to avoid walking into that dreadful fate? Actually, you already know: as I mentioned earlier in the Frankenstein manuscript series, a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look or sound alike, so it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another. Now we can build upon that excellent rule of thumb with what we learned from the example above: readers are also prone to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember.

That last bit is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians: it’s as important for your manuscript as for a novel for Millicent to know who and what your book is about before she loses interest. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Make sure she doesn’t need a program to tell who is who in your opening pages. Yes, even if that means banishing the entire alto and tenor sections to a scene later in the book.

Ditto with a synopsis: if it’s not clear who the protagonist is, consider ousting some of the character names. And please, whatever you do, don’t blow off this advice if your opening page or synopsis introduces only a handful of characters; what may seem like a reasonably intimate crowd to you, who have read the page 475 times, may well seem like a mob to a skimmer who is reading page 1 for the first time.

Allow me to add hastily, before any rules-lawyer out there begins demanding a maximum number of names that can appear on page 1: no such standard exists. Clarity is the goal here, and good storytelling. A lot depends upon what else is going on in the scene.

You don’t want Millicent to be so busy concentrating on names that she misses the absolutely crucial yet subtly-phrased aside from your protagonist on line 16, do you?

The same holds true for a synopsis, by the way. If your plot is crammed with action, you might want to limit how many character and place names you toss at Millicent per paragraph, so she can zero in on the essential conflicts.

To show you just how hard it is to keep characters straight in an action-packed storyline, let me trot out another of my all-time favorite examples: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625. On the remote chance that some of the details of the plot may have slipped your minds, here’s a quick synopsis of just a few of the twists and turns that might leave an audience member drop-jawed:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

As is my wont, I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a little? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene. Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is almost invariably more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. But if you are worried about the efficacy of your manuscript’s interview scenes, I would strongly advise taking a gander at the posts under the INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK category on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

I think I’ve distracted you enough. Time for a pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do? I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is extremely common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. No wonder, then, that in manuscripts where there are so many people lurching around that it reads like a zombie convention in downtown Manhattan, Millicent cannot tell for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers. More than enough to cast the necessary extras for a zombie scene in downtown Manhattan hundreds of thousands of times over.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your strategic interest to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. And no, as much as any literal-minded reader out there might prefer that I provide a chart specifying how many is too many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, every writer is going to have to use her own best judgment to figure out how many zombies should be lurching altos should be singing characters should appear on page 1.

But you didn’t think I would leave all of you to make that determination without any guidelines did you? Here are a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about just how big the opening scene’s cast should be.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
If you are not sure — and the author is often not the best person to answer this particular question — try applying a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above:

(a) Hand the first page of your book to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.)

(b) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible.

(c) As soon as she’s finished, ask her to put down the paper. Talk about something else for a couple of minutes.

(d) Have her tell you who the main character is and what the book is about. If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you have too many; if she can’t tell you anything about the plot, consider opening with a different scene, one that more accurately represents the crux of the book.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: speed is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
Again, you may want to seek outside assistance for this one. This test is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across,

(a) Hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning.

(b) Take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

(c) In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

(d) After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live, and that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing Millicent’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart, thus rendering the ones you reveal early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of background in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

Don’t believe me? Okay, who was with Jeremy, and what were the names of the princesses he was trying to save?

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves. I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

Doubtless, there are families where such naming patterns are normal, but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys your book. Opt for clarity at the submission stage.

And never, under any circumstances, christen your characters with names beginning with the same first letters as other proper nouns prominent in your text. When the same letter is used repeatedly, swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment on Trent Road this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but you should be thinking ahead.) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time.

As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past five years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood bookstore browser. Not out of any hatred of the written word, but out of sheer self-defense.

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors early on, not the big ones in the middle, that get submissions rejected.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems in your opening pages with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

More thoughts on character names follow — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Diversify your character names, everyone, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t borrow Glee’s name, please, at least not in its entirety; I have big plans for it.

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIV: lookee, lookee! Or, could you possibly stand yet another post on redundancy?

June 24th, 2010

new world map detail

I’ve got show-and-tell on my mind today, campers, and not only because this lengthy series on Frankenstein manuscripts — works that have been written and rewritten so often and/or over such a long period of time that they read like the stitched-together remnants of several authors’ voices — has been quite heavy on practical examples of late. No, I’ve been thinking about concept illustration because the author reading I attended yesterday was provided such a glorious pragmatic illustration of a point I brought up last time, the necessity for a good reviser (or good writer, for that matter) to consider not only his own point of view when deciding whether a passage of text was clear, but also a reader’s.

To recap for the benefit for those of you who missed it: I suggested, albeit gently, that if the action on the page is confusing to a reader — say, our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener — it’s the writer’s responsibility to clarify the writing, not the reader’s to figure out what is going on. Especially if that would mean going back and re-reading the sentences in question; Millicent simply doesn’t have time to do that.

So what is her usual response to prose that leaves her guessing? Chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series faithfully: “Next!”

Because writing is a solitary art — yes, even after one lands an agent and sells one’s book to an editor — it’s astonishingly easy to lose sight of the end reader, particularly in the revision stage. When we writers are up on our high horses, we tend to talk about our artistic visions and the importance of being true to our voices, but while we’re being down-to-earth about it, we have to admit that if we can’t (or won’t) take the time to make those visions and voices accessible to the reader AND at least somewhat pleasant to read, we aren’t completing our mission.

Does that mean dumbing down complex concepts or compromising original voices? No, not if revision is performed intelligently. It does mean, however, that the writer of a Frankenstein manuscript owes it to any complex concept that might be lingering with in it, as well as to her own narrative voice, to try to read the text as a reader might.

Why, you may be wondering, was I pondering this necessity at an author reading? For the same reason that I often find myself musing about how easy it is for a writer to get stuck thinking about his text from only a writerly perspective: as is lamentably often the case at such readings, the author read excerpts from her book in a monotone, without once lifting her eyes from the page to connect with her audience.

A great pity, because actually, the scene she chose to read was well-written, beautifully paced, and contained some genuinely surprising plot twists. As if the Muses had gone out of their way to demonstrate to this author just how much she was underselling her own excellent prose stylings, the venue had booked a second author to read at the same event, one whose obviously well-rehearsed, excitingly voiced reading, punctuated by frequent merry glances up at her fans, kept the crowd enthralled.

Now, I have nothing but sympathy for the shy; I happen to enjoy public speaking, but I know that it positively terrifies many. Reading one’s own work in public is hard — which is why, incidentally, I would STRENUOUSLY recommend that any and all of you who intend to see your work in print some day start practicing reading it in front of others as soon as humanly possible. Reading well out loud is something that few of us manage to pull off the very first time we try, after all.

Like so many other skills required of a professional writer, public reading is a learned skill, one that requires practice to perfect. It also requires — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — the writer to take the time to consider what that passage of perfect prose might sound like to someone who, unlike herself, might not have read it before.

Sounds familiar, right? It should: a writer’s ability to step outside his own head and consider what’s actually on the page, rather than what he thinks is on the page, is crucial to good revision.

Case in point: the question we have been discussing over the last couple of posts, the delicate balance between referring to characters by name often enough for clarity, but not so much that all of those capital letters distract the reader’s eye and send Millicent’s hand groping for the form-letter rejection stack. This is a problem that’s not likely to trouble the sleep of a writer who doesn’t think much about what her readers might be taking away from any particular page of her story, right?

In fact, the very question might strike her as just a little bit stupid. “Why, I should have thought that was obvious,” she would huff.

If the writing on that page is clear, her intended meaning may well be obvious; if not, her submission could well end up confusing Millicent — or, still worse, expecting her to fill in gaps in logic, background scenery, character motivation…

You know, all of those thrilling, character- and plot-revealing details that we talk about so much here at Author! Author! as the hallmark of expressive prose. Millicent’s on the lookout for style, recall, not just a gripping story. If she — or any reader, for that matter — has to devote even a few seconds of her scant time with your submission to sorting out confusing logistics, unclear character motivations, or just plain trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s a few less seconds she is spending noticing how likable your protagonist is and how gracefully you describe cloud patterns, right?

I couldn’t help but notice that not all of you immediately shouted, “Right, by Jove!” Does it seem a trifle hostile to literature that our Millie tends to concentrate far more on a submission’s faults than its beauties? Okay, let’s step into in her practical two-inch heels for a moment, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the kinds of manuscripts we’ve been discussing.

Got your Millicent cap firmly pulled down around your ears? Excellent. Picture four manuscripts before you, each written by a talented writer eager for a break. Which one will you decide to show to your boss, the bigwig agent, and which three will you reject? Your choices are (1) a narrative that assumes you will put in extra effort to sort out what is going on in certain confusing passages, like so:

He woke up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways. Trees swayed outside the unfamiliar window, giving him no clue of his whereabouts. Ow — his knee! He pulled on his boots.

(2) A submission that just summarizes the story, leaving you to fill in most of the details, rather than providing interesting and surprising specifics from which you might derive your own impression of what’s going on, thus:

Fritz woke up dazed, disoriented, under what seemed to be a pouf of somebody else’s hair. There was a girl next to him; for the life of him, he could not remember her name, nor did the trees swaying outside the window give him any clue about where he was. His knee hurt, as if something had smashed against it recently. He had to get out of there. He crept out of bed, pulled on his boots, and left.

(3) the most extreme form of Frankenstein manuscript, one so rife with spelling, grammar, perspective, and consistency problems that even its author appears not to have taken the time to read it all the way through.

But, I wake up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways, pearing at the unshaven face near to her foot. No help there so quite as a mouse, I syruptitiously looked at the trees outside the window, but they didn’t tell me where I had managed to get myself to. Something had cracked against his knee. Where had those darned boots gotten to, and who was this girl anyway?

(That one was genuinely hard for me to write, by the way; I kept having to undo my instinctive corrections.)

(4) A manuscript where the writer has clearly taken the reader’s perspective into account sufficiently to clarify all of the relevant issues of the page, skillfully using a plethora of telling details to convey to the reader a complex reality and consistent enough in tone that you can discern, however faintly, an individual authorial voice.

Fritz woke up gasping for breath. Was he being smothered under a fuzzy scarlet blanket, or had his bangs grown down to his mouth, choking him with a lamb-like pouf of curly hair? Wait — his hair hadn’t been curly since he had been the spelling champion of Mrs. Chellini’s third-grade class. His dim memories of her classroom seemed like Technicolor spectaculars, compared to his recollection of last night.

He yanked a particularly wavy red lock from the corner of his mouth, following it gingerly — better not move too much, head — across the rough Navaho blanket to its source. The mascara-streaked face wasn’t familiar, but the Hooters t-shirt was. Tammy, maybe? Tina? And was that blood on his bare knee? No wonder it hurt: that gash would need stitches.

Tell me, Millicent-for-a-day: which would you choose to pass on to your boss, and which would you reject?

There’s nothing wrong with expecting your reader to draw conclusions from what you say on the page, but much of the time, style lies in the essential difference between showing and telling. If the writer chooses to beguile the reader with enough details about a situation that he walks away from the scene with the mental image the author intended, that’s showing. If, on the other hand, the writer elects to tell her tale in generalities, or to spell all of the necessary conclusions for the reader instead of allowing the reader to draw them for himself, that’s telling.

Of course, to write a complex tale, you’re probably going to have to do both. Let’s face it, telling can be quite useful from time to time, particularly in a fast-paced action scene or a chunk of narrative that needs to cover a hefty chunk of passing time. More often than not, however, writers use summary statements as a kind of shorthand writers to get past activities that are necessary to the plot, but just don’t interest them that much.

Which brings me, conveniently enough, to one of the most commonly over-used verbs in manuscript submissions — and, not entirely coincidentally, to one of Millicent’s lesser-known pet peeves. Contest judges complain vociferously about it, too, so I could not in good conscience polish off our discussion of textual redundancy without talking about it. Not that I mind: this particular phenomenon is a favorite bugbear of mine as well, because its astonishingly pervasive use tends, in my experience, to flatten description and characterization.

Have I piqued your curiosity sufficiently yet? And have I given you strong enough evidence that withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense is darned annoying?

Actually, one forward-thinking reader was apparently thinking about it before I even started building up the false suspense, for she brought it up in the comments just the other day. Quoth Elizabeth — not the same one with the excellent pronoun question from last time, as it happens, but another frequent bringer-up of thought-provoking points:

I did buts and thens and I’m working on ands right now.

I had a lot of “looked” in there, too, I noticed, after my first revision. That’s a very hard word to avoid.

Elizabeth is quite right that looked is ubiquitous. Aspiring writers rely upon it, and upon vision-related verb phrases in general, quite heavily, and not always because most human beings glean most of their information about the world around them through their eyes.

Often, characters — particularly protagonists — will look things as a means of introducing those things into the narrative. This is particularly common in first-person or tight third-person narratives, as a means of reminding the reader from whose perspective she’s seeing. As in:

I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the hopeful buds on the green trees; they made me sad.

That’s one way to alert the reader to the existence of the buds on the trees and the beauty of the sky — which is, we are told explicitly, blue, as opposed to all of those other colors beautiful skies are always sporting — but it’s not the only narrative possibility, and usually not the most imaginative one. Think about it: what’s more interesting, the fact that the trees are budding hopefully, or the fact that our narrator saw the buds?

Even if the image hitting the narrator’s cornea actually were the most important part of this particular sentence, in most storylines, the point of the protagonist’s looking at things is not the action itself, but to alert the reader that the objects being seen exist. Unless this device is used — wait for it — very sparingly, though most readers will tire pretty quickly of being told over and over again that the protagonist is seeing or noticing everything around her. To them, it’s self-evident: the object is present in the environment, so naturally, the protagonist sees it. So?

Millicent’s reaction, as usual, is quite a bit less forgiving. “Stop telling me over and over that the protagonist is seeing things!” she will mutter, reaching for her third latte of the afternoon. “You don’t need to keep reminding me of the narrative perspective!”

So what’s a reviser to do with this type of Millicent-annoying look? Cut ‘em without mercy. With a little careful planning, it’s almost always possible simply to have stimuli external to the protagonist just show up, without reminding the reader that the players in the scene have seen them or having the protagonist acknowledge their existence.

Once a reviser accepts that principle, it’s usually quite a bit easier to winnow out most of those looks. Fringe benefit: because this approach encourages the things in question to be more active, the result is often a more vibrant narrative. Lookee:

The sun shone in a cloudless sky, sending a caressing warmth to encourage the hopeful buds on the green trees. Their very exuberance made me sad.

Another extremely common use of looked is as a substitute for other reactions or emotions. Frequently, characters look at one another instead of evincing a more revealing response to something that has just happened.

All of a sudden, the wind chime over Vanessa’s left shoulder began ringing violently; Gerry’s chair seemed to be slipping sideways beneath him. They looked at each other.

“What’s happening?” Imogene cried.

Doesn’t add all that much to the scene, does it? That’s because from the reader’s perspective, the mere fact that Vanessa and Gerry chose that moment to look at each other isn’t all that illuminating. Described this flatly, it’s such a generic act that mentioning it doesn’t either advance the plot or reveal character. As you are revising a passage like this, ask yourself: how did they look at each other? Why did they look at each other?

Or, better still: is there something that one or both of them could do or say here that would do a better job of advancing the plot and/or revealing what these people are thinking or feeling in this particular moment?

Be on the lookout, so to speak, for versions of she looked away, a sentence widely used as shorthand for a character’s conscious attempt to avoid conveying emotion to another character. While flesh-and-blood people do actually look away from one another from time to time, and for that very reason, this phrasing, too, can start to feel pretty redundant if characters do it very often.

Besides, looking away is also not usually the most interesting reaction a character can have to a stressful situation. Frequently, this action is a drama-killer, a means of allowing a character to avoid a direct confrontation. That may be desirable in real life, but since Millicent likes to see conflict on every single page of a novel or memoir, do you really want to squander a golden opportunity for injecting more of it into your story?

In short, you’re going to want to take a close look at all of those looks, evaluating on a case-by-case basis. Each time it appears, ask yourself: is this an effective way to convey the meaning I want to the reader, or is this just shorthand? Would the plot or characterization would benefit from a different kind of sentence?

What you should NOT do, however, is simply do a search for the word and cut every use indiscriminately. You’re going to want to exercise your judgment — always bearing in mind, of course, that the reader cannot read your mind, and thus may not interpret shorthand in quite the way you intended. You can’t blame her for that: since all she knows about the story you are telling is what the narrative shows and tells her, if you don’t fill in the details, she has to rely upon her imagination.

Don’t believe that little old look could do quite so much damage all on its own? Oh, but it is used in so many context to mean so many things. To sharpen your eye to the sneaky little verbs many tricks, let’s take a gander at few frolicking in their natural habitat.

He looked at me passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

Quickly, I looked down at the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, George.

“Go?” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

I looked up. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Taken individually, each of these uses of look is perfectly legitimate, right? But the problem here isn’t just the word repetition — it’s that looking is acting as a stand-in for a whole lot of potentially interesting human interaction.

Don’t look away — we already know what do in this situation, right? When confronted with characters merely looking in response to stimuli, we ask: could they have more character-revealing (or situation-revealing) responses?

The possibilities are endless, of course — which is precisely why I’m a big fan of this particular revision strategy; it can open a simple scene up in some fascinating ways. For instance:

He kissed my hand passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

I abruptly became absorbed in studying the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, George.

“Go?” His tone implied that I’d just asked him to leap off a fifty-foot cliff. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

So much for sparing his feelings. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Is everyone comfortable with the prospect of tackling all of those looks in context, retaining some, and coming up with interesting and creative substitutes for others? Good. Now that you’ve started thinking about revising with your reader’s reaction in mind, let’s go back and apply the principles we’ve been discussing to the problem of proper noun repetition in a manuscript.

Oh, did you think we were through with that? Not a chance — over the past few posts, we have established a method for dealing with word repetition, right? Now that we have added the last tool, placing ourselves behind the reader’s spectacles in order to figure out whether the over-used word in question is serving the narrative well, to our writer’s tool belt, aren’t you just dying to trot out the whole set of wrenches?

I’m going to take that look you’re all giving me as a yes.

Suppose for a moment that in mid-revision, you have suddenly become overwhelmed with doubt: have you been over-using proper names? Rather than panic in the face of such a dreadful possibility, you know precisely what to do: first, ascertain just how many of the darned things there are in your manuscript, so you may see just how serious the problem is — and where to begin to attack it.

So you, wise soul, print up a hard copy of your manuscript, pull out your trusty highlighter pens, and mark every time a character’s name appears, dedicating one color to each character. After highlighting up a storm for a chapter or two, you go back and flip through the pages. If a single color appears more than a couple of times on a page, you know that you might want to see where you could trim.

This test, which can be used to diagnose any suspected repetitive pattern in a manuscript, will reveal the most about Millicent’s probable reaction if you begin marking on page 1, of course, rather than at some random point in Chapter 12. If you can only find time to do a few pages, though, you might not want to start marking on page 1. A good, quick check on your name-usage habits is to highlight a two-person dialogue between major characters from the middle of the manuscript.

Why a two-character scene, you ask? See if this pattern seems at all familiar:

”I’ve never seen that giant centipede before,” Tyrone lied. “It just crawled into the house, Mom.”

Angela placed her fists upon her ample hips. “I suppose it opened the back door by itself?”

“It certainly has enough legs to do it,” Tyrone said, examining it. “Or it could have crawled through the keyhole.”

“Next you’ll be telling me that the cat is the one who has been opening the kitchen cabinets,” Angela retorted.

“I’ve seen her do it!” Tyrone insisted.

Angela placed her hand upon his head. “Tyrone, I hate to break it to you, but cats don’t have opposable thumbs. Neither do centipedes. So unless you’re harboring a chimpanzee I don’t know about, I’m going to assume that human hands did all these things.”

The boy cast a nervous glance at his closet door; did Mom know about Archie? “If you say so.”

Did you catch the problems here? If you immediately said, “By gum, a skimming reader’s eye might mix up Angela and Archie, since they both start with the letter A,” give yourself a gold star for being able to remember that far back in this series. Take another star out of petty cash if you also murmured, “This writer is identifying speakers far, far more often than necessary. I wonder if the same pattern persists throughout the manuscript?”

In this excerpt, the pattern is clear, right? In case those baleful looks you’re giving me mean no, let me ask a follow-up question: how do we know that this scene doesn’t really require this many tag lines?

After the first set of exchanges, there really isn’t any doubt about who is speaking when, is there? So why does the reader need to be reminded so frequently who is who, when the speeches are alternating in a predictable rhythm?

The over-use of tag lines is quite pervasive in submissions, and for good reason: like over-abundant proper names, aspiring writers often believe that they reduce confusion. But to professional eyes, the author of the example above has apparently invented unnecessary opportunities for repeating her characters’ names.

Be on the lookout, too, for frequent use of relational terms as substitutes for names: her mother, my brother, her boss. Often, writers who lean heavily upon name usage will pepper their manuscripts with these, too — and again, physically marking them in the text is generally the best way to figure out if there’s too much pepper in your manuscript.

Okay, so that was a bad joke, but it was intended to soften a hard reality: until repetitions of these phrases are actually highlighted in a text, it’s well-nigh impossible for most aspiring writers to understand fully why this particular type of repetition drives the pros mad. Relationship repetition may seem merely descriptive or innocuous to a casual reader, but it leaves professional readers apoplectic; they read it as the writer’s insecurity about the reader’s caring enough – or not being smart enough — to remember how these people are related.

Speaking of over-reactions: “Criminy,” Millicent has been known to mutter. “Is there a REASON you feel the need to tell me three times per page that Roger is Yvette’s son?” Do you think I have no memory at all?”

Sound at all familiar?

In this instance, I think Millicent has some justification for feeling that the writer is talking down to the reader. Unless you are writing a story that will be published in serial form, as so many of Dickens’ works were, it’s not necessary, and can be downright annoying, to keep referring to a character by her relationship to the protagonist.

Especially when, as often happens, the reader is presented with the relationship from several different perspectives. As in:

Brenda looked up at her mother. “Are you sure he’s dead? Couldn’t it be another false alarm?”

Mona cradled her husband’s blue-tinted face in her wrinkled but bejeweled hands. “You’re thinking of my last husband, Martin, the swimmer. Bert’s not capable of holding his breath this long.”

“I didn’t say he was faking it.” Brenda lifted her stepfather’s lifeless arm, dropped it. “I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between comatose and dead.”

“Fine.” Mona kicked her purse at her daughter. “Root through there until you find my compact, and hold the mirror under his nose. If he’s alive, it’ll fog up.”

“For heaven’s sake!” Millicent will be crying by this point in the manuscript, startling fellow screeners in adjacent cubicles. “If Mona is the mother, OF COURSE Brenda is the daughter! What do you think, I’m an idiot?”

Generally speaking, the formal relationship between two characters, particularly if one of those characters is the protagonist, needs to be mentioned to the reader only once in a chapter, at most. If it’s a significant relationship, it may well need to be brought up only once in the book, unless there honestly are issues of mistaken identity involved.

Otherwise, try giving the reminders a bit of a rest.

While you have your marking pens out, it’s not a bad idea to check your submission pages for other instances of phrase repetition as well. I’m not talking about pet phrases here — come on, admit it: every writer has a few phrases and words he likes enough to reuse with some frequency — but overworked nouns and descriptive phrases. Those have a nasty habit of offending the professional eye, too.

You’d be astonished at how much the repetition of even a single verb in two consecutive sentences, for instance, can make a manuscript seem less interesting. Especially — and this is almost impossible to catch when editing on screen, but genuinely irksome to see on a printed page — if the same word or phrase begins or ends two or more sentences in a row.

If you are clever and professional-minded enough to scan your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD (gee, where have I heard THAT advice before?), it will immediately become clear why: it reads as though the point of the paragraph is to get through the information within it as quickly as possible, rather than to write about it as beautifully as possible.

In a race run amongst the stylish, my friends, even a couple of lines that fall down on the job can cost you a head start. You’re in this to express yourself marvelously: try to be consistent about it, but use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

That’s such a pretty thought that I am going to sign off here for the day. Keep your reader in mind as you revise, campers — and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIII: as different as grains of sand on a…wow, quite a few of those grains are awfully similar, aren’t they?

June 23rd, 2010

sand on a beach

Last time, I went on at some length about the yawn-inducing effect of over-use of major characters’ names in a narrative. As I tried to show, the repetitive force of all those capitals can be somewhat hypnotic, or at any rate distracting from the story itself. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to work with the text a little to try to reduce their frequency.

It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s — or, if we going to be honest about it, any writer who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Think about it: the more worked-over a Frankenstein manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed, right?

Even in a never-before-revised manuscript, though, it’s likely to behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, the reading eye can leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than the narrative, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent the agency screener for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it should be easy to keep track? Okay, skim over this sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can:

similar name page 1

Quick, sit down and draw a family tree for Cheryl from memory. No fair referring back to page 1. Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, today there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part — or, as is more often the case, a lot of between-draft revision of a Frankenstein manuscript. As we saw yesterday, since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? I assure you, Millicent is.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can produce a similar effect. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: change ‘em so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another kind of naming choice that commonly leads to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already well-established. In fact, it’s a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious she of the opening paragraphs could possibly be. A specimen of the breed:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

Again, you may laugh, but actually, for the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating. Overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of, “Who is this broad?” or “What on earth is going on here?”

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who and what is going on is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Unless there is a very, very good reason for withholding information as basic as a character’s name from the reader — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name on the page, rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she. Yes, there was a time when the latter strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles, but really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

Actually, even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes. Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test of clarity, I will resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, Millie and her ilk will typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s a Frankenstein manuscript: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to bridge that gap; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

She is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears in the opening of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan I hear mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? Afraid that once you start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to your Frankenstein manuscript, you’ll almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition?

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up for all of you in a comment on a recent post:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

I’m glad you brought this up, Elizabeth: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as you point out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it?

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. Never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance.

Why? Well, plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th advice Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice. I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (You might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance, I assure you. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past nine paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

You’re laughing again, aren’t you? Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above.

The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule. Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense.

Moderation is key. Obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (The rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, though, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed. Behold the predictable result.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

As I believe I observed last time, that’s quite a lot of proper names for a short scene, isn’t it? Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would be confusing.

Fortunately, those aren’t all of the tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just him since the seventh grade, hasn’t it?”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say.” She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “Darlene should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? I thought not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XII: John, please come here. I’ve got something to tell you, John. John, can you hear me? John? John?

June 21st, 2010

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle in today’s post?

No, but seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Johns in today’s title, right?

I should hope so, now that you’ve been sharpening your eye throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts. But are you as good at spotting the problem in its native environment?

name repetition example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught it in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day of screening manuscript submissions, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

But let me ask you: did the 5 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

If you’re like 99.99% of the reading public, the repetition of Pauline’s name probably didn’t strike you as at all unusual, but to that other .01% — a demographic that includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges — it might well have been distracting. Amongst Millicents, submissions (and first drafts in general) are notorious for this type of redundancy.

Also notorious in her circles: the overuse of the character name John in general. Writers just love our pal John, apparently. As a group, we also have a practically unbounded affection for Jon and Jack.

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy a garden-variety Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Today, we’re going to talk about why too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to the itsy-bitsy computer screens that writers were working upon — remember the early Macs, with those postcard-sized screens? They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a laptop, you can usually have a view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for 8 upon it, if I so chose.

All of which begs the question: given how much easier it is to see words on a screen than in days of yore, why is it that writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a printed page? Is it merely that writers christen their major characters with their favorite names (including John, as likely as not), and want to see them in print again and again?

Not entirely. Partially, I think, it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.”

Yes, yes, I know: I MAY have mentioned this two or three thousand times before. I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little rule of thumb unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So yes, I admit it: I’m a broken record on this subject. But for some very, very good reasons, I assure you.

To name but the two most relevant for Frankenstein manuscript-revision purposes: first, reading in hard copy makes patterns in the text far more apparent to the reading eye than scanning text on a backlit screen. Hard copy is also how almost any editor, most agents, and practically every contest judge will be seeing your submissions.

Yes, even in this advanced electronic age. Many agencies still don’t accept e-mailed submissions; neither do most editors at publishing houses. The major literary contests for aspiring writers have been quite slow to switch over to purely electronic entries (probably because regular mail submissions are very handy for sending the admission fee).

Ready to invest some serious thought into how often character names appear on the pages of your manuscript, particularly the opening pages? Well, you’re partially out of luck: as much as I would like to perform a vivid compare-and-contrast demonstration, because you and I communicate electronically, I can’t show you the same page on screen and off.

Fortunately for illustrative purposes, however, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention. See if you can spot why.

a-sample-page

See how your eye tries to leap from one J to the next? Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters in a text.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. (When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve.) It’s almost always grammatically incorrect, but it definitely does the job of soliciting attention.

Due to proper nouns’ completely legitimate use of capitals, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the major characters. The reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

Not in most manuscripts, no. Since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, it isn’t precisely necessary to keep calling attention to the protagonist by referring to him by name.

Or is it, John? John? Are you listening, John?

Frequent repetition of the protagonist’s name is seldom necessary, especially in scenes where only he appears — and it can become downright irritating over the course the dialogue of a two-character scene. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, it’s generally assumed that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants, in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

That’s why professional editors so often excise tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker ever time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth: with only two possible speakers and alternating dialogue, any reasonably intelligent reader may be relied upon to follow which lines of dialogue are being spoken by which character. That reasonably intelligent reader is also more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin, once the narrative has established proper names.

But you’d never know that by the number of times some manuscripts have their discussants call one another by name — and how often the narrative refers to them by name.

In many manuscripts, simply reducing the number of tag lines in a dialogue scene will cut out most of the name repetition. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear. Take a gander:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

And that’s more than a little puzzling to professional readers: why, we wonder, would a writer go to such lengths to label people the reader already knows?

Even when both characters share the same sex, and thus the same personal pronoun, constant name repetition is rarely necessary for maintaining clarity. Yet over-labeling is so common that after reading a few hundred — or a few thousand — manuscripts, Millicent would have to be pretty unobservant not to have begun to suspect that many writers simply harbor a prejudice against the innocent-but-effectual pronouns he and she.

Seriously, a lot of submitters seem to go out of their way to eschew pronouns, even in narrative paragraphs. To take not an unusually proper noun-ridden example:

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Tanya!”

Quietly, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Tanya. May I have another?”

Come on, admit it — that was kind of annoying to read, wasn’t it? Until you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, it seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader, but it can be, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name makes it stand out more, however.

Want to see a deceptively simple revision that would render that last example infinitely more annoying to read? Look what happens when I rechristen Eve and Tanya with names beginning with the same capital letter.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Edna was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Edna did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Edna. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Edna!”

Quietly, Edna retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Edna with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. i’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Edna. May I have another?”

Remarkable, isn’t it? To get an even better sense of how repetitious it would seem on a printed page, take a few steps back from your computer (if you can manage that logistically) and take a gander at the pattern all of those capital Es make in the text.

Distracting, no?

Now, admittedly, the writer of this exceptional excerpt may merely have been trying to clarify matters by repeating the names so often: there are in fact two women in this scene. If both were only called she every time, naturally, the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you have any doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie she’s just seen.)

However, like many proper name-heavy manuscripts, the writer here (who was me, obviously, so I guess it’s not all that productive to speculate about her motivation) has constructed the narrative to make opportunities for name repetition where it isn’t logically necessary. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the necessity of naming the players:

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” she bellowed.

Quietly, Tanya retrieved the now-airborne glass before it could crash to the floor. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night, as you would have known had you been paying attention. May I have another?”

Anybody confused? I thought not. As you may see, proper nouns were not necessary very often in this excerpt.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, that was not a very time-consuming revision; all it really required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it’s distracting to the eye, and therefore a detriment to the text. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, always seems just a little odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Ready to accept the general principle, but unsure how you might apply it to your Frankenstein manuscript? Never fear — next time, I shall run you through so many practical examples that you’ll be excising proper nouns in your sleep.

I thought you might enjoy some variation from the IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD song. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XI: yes, I am fully aware that real people use run-on sentences in everyday speech, and good dialogue strives for realism, and first-person narratives should sound like real speakers, but honestly, must we go overboard?

June 20th, 2010

gin and tonic 4

Before we joined hands in my last post to skip merrily through several different levels of feedback on a single page, we were embroiled in an energetic discussion of that most overused of words in manuscripts, and. As we have seen close up and personal in my last couple of posts, too great an affection for this multi-purpose word can lead, to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting nasty warts all over one’s kneecaps.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, as far as Millicent the agency screener is concerned. Seriously, any reasonably busy professional reader sees and in print so often that she might as well have a WANTED poster with its image plastered on the wall above her desk.

And‘s crime? Accessory to structurally repetitive prose.

Let’s face it: no other individual word is as single-handedly responsible for text that distracts the eye, enervates the mind, and wearies the soul by saying different things in more or less the same way over and over again on the page. Take, for instance, that immensely popular sentence structure, X happened and Y happened:

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sentence, of course, standing alone. Solitude, however, tends not to be its writer-preferred state. A perennial favorite in both submissions and contest entries, the X happened and Y happened sentence structure all too often travels in packs.

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too. Jorge ate what was left of Vivian’s cake and then went out and baked his own. After having tried his cake, Frankenstein’s monster broke into his apartment and destroyed his oven.

“I’m stopping him,” the monster told reporters, “before he bakes again.”

See the problem? Like any kind of sentence that appears too often within a short run of text, its tends to bore the reader after a while, even if the subject matter is inherently interesting — and yes, Virginia, even if every sentence in the run isn’t put together in precisely the same way. That’s and‘s fault, you know; when too many of them appear on a page, even the untrained eye starts unconsciously counting them up.

How does a trained eye like Millicent’s respond, you ask, especially if the ands in question have rampaged all over page 1 of a submission — or even, heaven help us, a query letter? Here’s a clue: what’s the most over-used word in Millicent’s vocabulary?

That’s right: “Next!”

That’s not to say, naturally, that the X happened and Y happened sentence structure doesn’t have some legitimate uses. It is appealing to writers because, let’s face it, it can provide a quick way to inform the reader of quite a bit of action in a short amount of text.

Instead of having to write a brand-new sentence for each verb with the same subject, all of the action can be presented as a list, essentially. That can be especially handy if the individual activities mentioned are necessary to plot, characterization, or clarity, but not especially interesting in and of themselves.

Weary from a long day at work, Ernie sat down and removed his heavy steel-toed boots.

Nothing wrong with that, right? The reader doesn’t need to spend two sentences mulling over Ernie’s rather predictable post-workday actions. Now, while we’ve got our revision spectacles on, we could debate from now until next Tuesday whether the reader actually needs to be told that Ernie sat down — it’s not exactly a character-revealing move, is it? — but that’s a matter of style, not proper presentation, right? Technically, this is a perfectly legitimate way to convey what’s going on.

Often, though, aspiring writers will treat even quite a thrilling string of events in this manner, purely in the interest of telling a tale rapidly. This tactic is particularly popular amongst synopsis-writers trying to compress a complex plot into just a page or two.

ERNIE (27) comes home from work one day, removes his steel-toed boots, and discovers that the third toe on his left foot has transformed into a gecko. He cuts it off in a panic and takes it to a veterinarian, DR. LAO (93). Dr. Lao examines the gecko-toe and determines it has the capacity to knit exquisite sweaters. He and the gecko kill Ernie, go into business together, and soon take the skiwear market by storm.

Not the most scintillating way of describing the story, is it? The repetitive structure gives the impression that none of these potentially quite exciting plot developments is important enough to the story to rate its own sentence. Obviously, that’s a problem in a synopsis, where the goal is to present the story you’re telling as interesting and exciting.

Perhaps less obviously — brace yourself, and-lovers; you’re not going to like this — this structure can create a similarly dismissive impression on a manuscript page. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but skimming eye like You-Know-Who’s will frequently note only the first verb in a sentence and skip the rest.

Before any and-hugger out there takes umbrage at the idea of every sentence in his submission or contest entry not getting read in full, let’s take a moment to think about verb-listing sentences from Millicent’s perspective — or, indeed, any reader’s viewpoint. If an action is not crucial enough to what’s going on for the writer to have devoted an entire sentence to it, why shouldn’t a reader assume that it’s important to the scene?

I sense some squirming out there. “But Anne,” some of you and partisans hasten to point out, “while I admit that sometimes I lump a bunch of activity together in a few short, list-like sentences in order to speed things up a bit, that’s not the primary way I use and in my prose. As you yourself have mentioned, and not all that long ago, stringing together sentences beginning with but or yet, it creates the impression conversation-like flow. Isn’t that essential for a convincing first-person narrative?”

Actually, partisans, echoing recognizable speech patterns is only one technique for constructing a plausibly realistic first-person narrative voice — far and away the most popular technique, as it happens; just ask Millicent how often she sees it on any given day of submission-screening. There’s a pretty good reason for that, of course; it would be hard to denying that

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

is chatty, casual, echoing the way your local spouse-poisoner is likely to describe her activities to her next-door neighbor. True, it doesn’t quite match the arid eloquence of Ambrose Bierce’s

Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.

But then, what does?

You would not be alone, then, if you feel that the heavy use of and is downright indispensable in constructing dialogue or a first-person narrative. Many actual living, breathing, conversation-producing people do incorporate the X happened and Y happened structure into their speech with great regularity.

In many cases, with monotonous regularity. Certainly, it can feel awfully darned monotonous to the reader, if it appears on the printed page with anywhere near the frequency that it tumbles out of the average person’s mouth.

Yes? Do those of you who have been following this series have anything you’d like to add here? Perhaps the observation that no matter why a word, phrase, sentence structure, and/or narrative device appears over and over again within a short span of text, it’s likely to strike a professional reader as repetitive?

No? Were you instead thinking of my oft-repeated axiom that just because something happens in the real world doesn’t necessarily mean that a transcript of it will make compelling reading?

Despite the sad fact that both of these observations are undoubtedly true, few real-world patterns are as consistently reproduced with fidelity in writing as everyday, mundane verbal patterns. Sociological movements come and go unsung, jargon passes through the language literarily unnoted, entire financial systems melt down without generating so much as a mention in a novel — but heaven forfend that redundant or pause-riddled speech should not be reproduced mercilessly down to the last spouted cliché.

And don’t even get me started on the practically court-reporter levels of realism writers tend to lavish on characters who stutter or — how to put this gracefully? — do not cling tenaciously to the rules of grammar when they speak. In some manuscripts, it seems that if there’s an ain’t uttered within a five-mile radius, the writer is going to risk life and limb to track it down, stun it, and pin it to the page with quotation marks.

Again, I’m not saying that there aren’t some pretty good reasons for this impulse. Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives.

“I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, for plenty of reasons, but to concentrate upon the one most relevant to us today: because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

And I’m talking arm hair here, people. If you doubt the intensity of this reaction, here’s a little experiment:

(1) Sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim.

No fair picking and choosing only the interesting ones; you’re striving for realistic dialogue, right?

(2) Go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using only the dialogue that you actually overheard.

No cheating: reproduce ALL of it.

(3) Wait a week.

(4) Seat yourself in a comfy chair and read the result in its entirety.

If you can peruse the result without falling into a profound slumber, congratulations! You have an unusually high threshold for boredom; perhaps you have a future as an agency screener. Or maybe you have cultivated an affection for the mundane that far outstrips that of the average reader.

(5) Ask yourself honestly: does the dialogue you overheard have any entertainment value at all when reproduced in its entirety? Or are only selected lines worth preserving — if, indeed, any lines deserve to be passed down to posterity at all?

Even if you are lucky enough to stumble upon an unusually witty group of cafÉ denizens, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding real is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining enough to hold a reader’s interest.

Yes, Virginia, even if the manuscript in question happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Most of what goes on in the real world, and nearly everything that’s said, doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Not of good literature, anyway. And that’s as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

There’s more to being a writer than having adequate transcription skills, after all; merely reproducing the real isn’t particularly ambitious, artistically speaking. Think about it: wouldn’t you rather apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something better than reality?

In that spirit, let’s revisit that sentence structure beloved of the real-life speaker, X happened and Y happened and see if we can’t improve upon it. Why, here’s an example of it wandering by now.

Ghislaine blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

Did it bug you that time? Each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English. It’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Ghislaine blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least a blushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Most agents, editors, and contest judges would agree with the paragraph’s assessment of its creator, alas. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure. Seriously, I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of this kind of sentence within half a page. Screaming has been known to ensue after the sixteenth use within the same space.

If that seems like an over-reaction, consider this: most professional readers go into the job because they like to read. Adore it. Can’t get enough of lovely prose. Lest we forget, people who work at agencies are individuals with personal preferences, rather than the set of automatons sharing a single brain that many aspiring writers presume them to be. I can guarantee, however, that they all share one characteristic: they love the language and the many ways in which it can be used.

What does that mean in practice, you ask? Millicent screens manuscripts all day at work, pulls a battered paperback out of her bag on the subway home, and reads herself to sleep at night; her boss totes submissions back and forth on that same subway because he’s so devoted to his job that he does half of his new client consideration at home. And no matter how many manuscripts they reject in a given week, both wake up each and every day hoping that today, at last, will bring an amazing manuscript into the agency, one to believe in and shepherd toward other lovers of good literature.

With such an orientation, it’s genuinely frustrating to see a great story poorly presented, or an exciting new voice dimly discernible through a Frankenstein manuscript. Or — and this happens more often than any of us might care to think — when a talented writer was apparently in such a hurry to get a scene down on paper that a series of potentially fascinating actions degenerated into a list that barely hints at the marvelous passage that might have been.

I sense that some of you still don’t believe me. “But Anne,” you cry, “I just love the charge-ahead rhythm all of those ands impart to a passage! If the writing is strong enough, the story gripping enough, surely a literature-lover like Millicent would be able to put her repetition reservations aside?”

I see that it’s time to get ruthless: I’m going to have to show you just how much damage an injudicious application of ands can inflict upon even the best writing. To make the lesson sting as much as possible, let’s resurrect an example I used a week or two ago, the exceptionally beautiful and oft-cited ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY. To refresh your memory:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Even before I finished typing this, I could sense hands shooting up all over the ether. “Aha, Anne! He began two sentences with and! And he used the very X happened and Y happened structure you’ve been complaining about for the last two posts. So you must be wrong about them both, right?”

No, actually — I selected this passage precisely because he does incorporate them; he also uses the passive voice in one sentence. He does it sparingly, selectively.

Look at the horror that might have resulted had he been less variable in his structural choices. (I apologize in advance for this, Scott, but I’m making a vital point here.)

And I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, and I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, and that it was somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, and it was where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, and in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. And it eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster and we will stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The moral: even when the writing is very good indeed, structural repetition can be distracting. (Take that, writers who believe that they’re too talented for their work ever to require revision.)

Where might one start to weed out the ands, you ask? Glance over your pages for sentences in which and appears more than once.

Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case. So you may be sure to spot them in the wild, a multiple-and run-on will probably look something like this:

In avoiding the police, Babette ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on — too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions. Ask yourself: is there another, more interesting way I could convey all of this information? If not, is all of this information even necessary?

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ immortal comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spent all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.) I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. You may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading Millicent to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve been sensing disgruntled rumblings out there since point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I may have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format expectations on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading; her boss would be able to afford to take on a difficult-to-market book project every month or so, just because he happens to like the writing, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

As simple observation will tell you that these matters are not under my personal control, kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Then, too, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”

Unless you are getting an extremely valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back.

Why? To avoid that passage appearing to Millicent as the work of — horrors! — a habitual runner-on, or even — sacre bleu! — the rushed first draft of a writer who has become bored by what’s going on in the scene.

Neither may be a fair assessment in your case, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader. A Frankenstein manuscript just isn’t safe anymore when you’re in the room.

Since your eye is becoming so sophisticated, take another look at paragraphs where ands abound and consider the opposite possibility: are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry?

You thought you were the only one who did this, didn’t you?

Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the speediest way to do it. It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story.

But we all already know that, right? When actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important, the reader tends to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which, I’m guessing, is not precisely the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right? Call me psychic — and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part X: wait — could this tree in front of me possibly be part of a forest?

June 18th, 2010

trees in Oregon3

My apologies about the uncharacteristic multi-day silence, campers — once one of the houseguests discovered just how comfy my desk chair was, I couldn’t get near it again. An alien laptop invaded my desk for days on end. Which just goes to show you that as delightful as it can be to nab the most engaging room in the house for one’s writing space, it has its drawbacks.

Back to business, therefore, toute suite. After my last post on the desirability of minimizing and repetition, clever and insightful reader Adam made an observation that caused me to pause, take three steps back from our ongoing series, and reassess my methodology. Quoth Adam:

This really is helpful. Not even so much about this particular conjunction, but the habit of viewing one’s manuscript on a multitude of levels. Learning to read one’s own work with poor Millie’s eyes is one, though what caught my attention this time around perhaps relates to your posts on MS format: how the appearance of a page or the prevalency of particular words on a page can stand out just as much or more than the meaning we want to convey.

The bit about the habit of viewing one’s manuscript on a multitude of levels leapt out at me, I must confess. Egads, thought I, in discussing how to diagnose the many and varied ills that frequently plague the Frankenstein manuscript — that frightening entity written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so inconsistent are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout — had I encouraged my readers to place their noses so close to the page that the larger picture has started to blur? In applying tender loving care to the scars holding together the Frankenstein manuscript, had we lost sight of the entire creature?

Nah, I thought a moment later. But I may not have made it perfectly clear yet that different types of revision, or even revision based upon different varieties of feedback, can yield quite different results.

Why worry about such niceties, when your garden-variety Frankenstein manuscript could, quite frankly, use quite a bit of scar-buffing to get it ready for prom night? (Bear with me while I’m breaking my metaphor-generator back in, please — my desk is evidently out of practice.) Contrary to popular belief, even amongst writers who should know better, there is no such thing as a single best way to revise a narrative, any more than there is a single best way to tell a story.

Part of the charm of individual authorial voice is that it is, in fact, individual — but you’d never glean that from how writers (and writing teachers) tend to talk about revision. All too often, we speak amongst ourselves as though the revision process involved no more than either (a) identifying and removing all of the objectively-observable mistakes in a manuscript, or (b) changing our minds about some specific plot point or matter of characterization, then implementing it throughout the manuscript.

These are two perfectly reasonable self-editing goals, of course, but they are not the only conceivable ones. When dealing with a Frankenstein manuscript — as pretty much every writer does, at least in a first book — a conscientious self-editor might well perform a read-through for voice consistency, another for grammatical problems, a third for logic leaps, a fourth because the protagonist’s husband is no longer a plumber but the member of Congress representing Washington’s 7th District…

And so forth. Revision can come in many, many flavors, variable by specificity, level of focus, the type of feedback to which the writer is responding, and even the point in publication history at which the manuscript is being revised.

Does that all sound dandy in theory, but perplexing in practice? Don’t worry; I haven’t been away from my desk so long that I have forgotten that I am queen of the concrete example. To help you gain a solid sense of how diverse different of levels of revision can be, I’m going to treat you to a page from one of my favorite fluffy novels of yore, Noël Coward’s Pomp and Circumstance, a lighthearted romp set in a tropical British colony on the eve of a royal visit.

I chose this piece not merely because it retains a surprisingly high level of Frankenstein manuscript characteristics for a work by a well-established writer (possibly because it was Coward’s only published novel), or even because it deserves another generation of readers. (As it does; his comic timing is unparalleled.) I think it’s an interesting study in how literary conventions change: even at the time of its release in 1960, some critics considered it a bit outdated. Coward’s heyday had been several decades before, they argued, so the type of sex comedy that used to shock in the 1920s was a bit passé, and wasn’t it a bit late in the literary day to steer so firmly away from sociopolitical commentary?

Now, sociopolitical commentary has largely fallen out of style, at least in first novels, and sex, as Coward himself was fond of observing, seems to be here to stay. Here is a page from the end of the book, where our narrator, a harried British matron living on a South Sea island, finds herself entertaining Droopy, the husband of her best friend Bunny’s would-be mistress.

P&C sample

Amusing, certainly, but a bit Frankensteinish, is it not? At first glance, how would you revise it? Would your revision goals be different if this were page 5, rather than page 272?

Before you give your final answers, here’s that page again, after it has been subjected to just the kind of repetition-spotting mark-up I’ve been asking you to perform of late. (Sorry about the dark image; I honestly didn’t take the photograph in a particularly gloomy room. If you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try either pressing command + to make the window larger or saving the image to your hard disk.)

P&C edit 1

Quite a lot of repetition, isn’t it? By today’s book publication standards, as Millicent the agency screener would no doubt be overjoyed to tell you, it would deserve instant rejection on that basis alone. But would you agree? After all, the narrative voice in the excerpt, replete with all of that structural redundancy, actually is not all too far from the kind of writing we all see every day online, or even in the chattier varieties of journalism.

We can all see why some writers would favor this kind of voice, right? Read out loud, this kind of first-person narration can sound very natural, akin to actual speech. So why, do you suppose, would Millicent cringe at the very sight of it?

Those of you who have been following this series on Frankenstein manuscripts faithfully, feel free to sing along: because the level of repetition that works in everyday speech is often hard to take on the printed page.

Now that you see all of those ands and other word repetition marked on the page, you must admit that they are mighty distracting to the eye; by repeating the same sentence structures over and over, our buddy Noël is practically begging Millicent to skip lines while skimming. Nor is all of the redundancy here literal; there’s a certain amount of conceptual repetition as well. Take note of all of those visually-based verbs: not only do people look a great deal, but our heroine envisages AND tries to imagine how she might appear in his eyes.

That should all sound fairly familiar from our recent discussions, right? You might well have spotted all of those problems in your first glance at the non-marked version of the text. But does that mean there’s not any more revision to be done here?

Not by a long shot. Did you catch the over-use of subordinate clauses, all of those whiches in yellow? Back in the day, literature was rife with these; now, most Millicents are trained to consider them, well, a bit awkward. While a tolerant Millie might be inclined to glide past one every ten or fifteen pages, even a screener noted for her restraint would begin to get restless with as many as appear on a single page above.

That almost certainly would not have been a major objection raised by Millicent’s forebears in 1960, however. The literary gatekeepers would have concentrated on quite different parts of this page — the grammatically-necessary missing commas, for instance, and the back-to-back prepositions.

Longing to see how Millicent’s grandmother would have commented on this page? Well, you’re in luck; I just happen to have her feedback handy.

P&Eedit2

Let’s linger a moment in order to consider Grandma M’s primary quibbles. First, as she points out so politely in red at the top of the page, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph. In dialogue, a single-line paragraph is acceptable, but in standard prose, it is technically incorrect.

Was that gigantic clunk I just heard the sound of jaws belonging to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine within the last decade hitting the floor?

In theory, Grandma M is quite right on this point — and more of her present-day descendants would side with her than you might suppose. Millie’s grandmother did not bring her up to regard setting grammar at naught lightly, after all.

But does that necessarily mean it would be a good idea for you to sit down today and excise every single-sentence narrative paragraph in your manuscript? Perhaps not: the convention of occasionally inserting a single-line paragraph for emphasis has become quite accepted in nonfiction. The practice has crept deeply enough into most stripes of genre fiction that it probably would not raise Millicent’s eyebrows much.

How can you tell if the convention is safe to use in your submission? As always, the best way of assessing the acceptability of a non-standard sentence structure in a particular book category is to become conversant with what’s been published in that category within the last few years. Not just what the leading lights of the field have been writing lately, mind you, since (feel free to shout along with me now, long-time readers) what an established author can get away with doing to a sentence is not always acceptable in a submission by someone trying to break into the field. Pay attention to what kinds of sentences first-time authors of your kind of book are writing these days, and you needn’t fear going too far afield.

As a general rule of thumb, though, even first-time novelists can usually get the occasional use of the single-sentence paragraph device past Millicent — provided that the content of the sentence in question is sufficiently startling to justify standing alone. As in:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? The paragraph break emphasizes the jaggedness of the narrative leap — and, perhaps equally important from a submission perspective, renders the plot twist easier for a skimming eye to catch.

The fact remains, though, that Grandma M would growl at this construction (“My, Granny, what big teeth you have!”), and rightly so. Why? Well, it violates the two-sentences-or-more rule, for starters. In the second place, it really isn’t ever necessary, strictly speaking. In a slower world, one where readers lived sufficiently leisurely lives that they might be safely relied upon to glance at every sentence on a page, all of this information could have fit perfectly happily into a single paragraph. Like so:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind. That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

I bring this up not only to appease Grandma M’s restless ghost, currently haunting an agency or publishing house somewhere in Manhattan, but so that those of you addicted to single-line paragraphs will know what to do with hanging sentences: tuck ‘em back into the paragraph from whence they came.

At least a few of them. Please?

Really, it’s in your submission’s best interest to use the single-line paragraph trick infrequently, reserving it for those times when it will have the most effect. Why, you ask? Because amongst aspiring writers who like the impact of this structure, moderation is practically unheard-of.

Just ask Millicent; she sees the evidence every day in submissions. Many, if not most, novelists and memoirists who favor this device do not use the convention sparingly, nor do they reserve its use for divulging information that might legitimately come as a surprise to a reasonably intelligent reader.

As a result, Millie tends to tense up a bit at the very sight of a single-sentence paragraph — yes, even ones that are dramatically justifiable. Hard to blame her, really, considering how mundane some of the revelations she sees in submissions turn out to be. A fairly typical example:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

Beside the sidewalk, a daffodil bloomed.

Not exactly a stop-the-presses moment, is it?

Often, too, aspiring writers will use a single-line paragraph to highlight a punch line. This can work rather well, if it doesn’t occur very often in the text — pull out your hymnals and sing along, readers: any literary trick will lose its efficacy if it’s over-used — AND if the joke is genuinely funny.

Much of the time in manuscripts, alas, it isn’t — at least not hilarious enough to risk enraging Grandma M’s spirit by stopping the narrative short to highlight the quip.

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

My Algebra II teacher would have fallen over dead with astonishment.

Gentle irony does not often a guffaw make, after all. And think about it: if the reader must be notified by a grammatically-questionable paragraph break that a particular line is meant to be funny, doesn’t that very choice indicate a certain doubt that the reader will catch the joke?

Grandma M’s other big objection to Noël’s page 272 — and this pet peeve, too, she is likely to have passed down the generations — would be to the many, many run-on sentences. Like so many aspiring novelists, our Noël favors an anecdotal-style narrative voice, one that echoes the consecutiveness of everyday speech. That can work beautifully in dialogue, where part of the point is for the words captured within the quotation marks to sound like something an actual human being might really say, but in narration, this type of sentence structure gets old fast.

Why might that be, dear readers? Chant it along with me now: structural repetition reads as redundant. Varying the narrative’s sentence structure will render it easier, not to mention more pleasant, to read.

Are some of you former jaw-droppers waving your arms frantically, trying to get my attention? “Okay, Anne,” these sore-jawed folk point out, “I get it: Millicents have disliked textual repetition for decades now. No need to exhume Grandma M’s grandmother to hammer home that point. But I’d had the distinct impression that Millie is a greater stickler for bigger-picture problems than her forebears. Don’t I have more important things to worry about than grammatical perfection when I’m getting ready to slide my manuscript under her nose?”

Well, grammatical perfection is always an asset in a manuscript, ex-jaw-droppers, so I wouldn’t discount it too much in your pre-submission text scan. You are right, however, that present-day Millicents do tend to be weighing a great many more factors than their grandmothers did when deciding whether the manuscript in front of them has publication potential. But not all of those factors involve large-scale questions of marketability and audience-appropriateness; Millicent is also charged with going over the writing with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.

What kinds of manuscript problems might catch on her comb that Grandma M’s would have missed, you ask with fear and trembling? See for yourself — here’s her response on the page we’ve been examining:

P&E edit 3

I sincerely hope that your first thought upon seeing her much, much higher expectations was not to wish that you’d had the foresight to try to land an agent back in 1960, rather than now. (Although I would not blame you at all if you kicked yourself for not launching your work back in the 1980s, when the home computer was available but not yet ubiquitous, astronomically increasing the number of both queries and submissions Millicent would see in a given week.) True, the competition to land an agent is substantially fiercer now, but it’s also true that a much, much broader range of voices are getting published than in Grandma M’s time.

Back then, if you weren’t a straight, white man from a solid upper-middle class home, Granny expected you at least to have the courtesy to write like one. If you did happen to be a SWMFaSUMCH, you were, of course, perfectly welcome to try to imagine what it was like not to be one, although on the whole, your work would probably be more happily received if you stuck to writing what you knew. And if there was a typo in your manuscript, well, next time, don’t have your wife type it for you.

(You think I’m making that last bit up, don’t you? That’s a quote, something an agent told a rather well-known writer of my acquaintance the 1960s. The latter kept quiet about the fact that he was (a) unmarried at the time and (b) he composed his books on a typewriter.)

Let’s return from that rather interesting flashback, though, and concentrate upon the now. For the purposes of this series on Frankenstein manuscripts, it’s not enough to recognize that literary standards — and thus professional expectations for self-editing — have changed radically over time. It’s not even sufficient to recognize, although I hope it’s occurred to you, that what constituted good writing in your favorite book from 1937 might not be able to make it past Millicent today. (Although if you’re going to use authors from the past as your role models — a practice both Grandma M and I would encourage — you owe it to your career as a writer also to familiarize yourself with the current writing in your book category.)

Just for today, what I would like you to take away from these insights is that each of the editorial viewpoints in these examples would prompt quite different revisions — and in some specific instances, mutually contradictory ones. This is one reason the pros tend not to consider the revision process definitively ended until a book is published and sitting on a shelf: since reading can take place on many levels, so can revision.

Don’t believe me? Okay, clap on your reading glasses and peruse the three widely disparate results conscientious reviser Noël might have produced in response to each of the marked-up pages above. For the first, the one that merely noted the structural, word, and concept repetition, the changes might be as simple as this:

P&C basic edit

Notice anything different about the text? “Hey, Anne!” I hear some of you burble excitedly. “Despite the fact that Noël has added a couple of paragraph breaks, presumably to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between speech and thought, the text ends up being shorter. He snuck another line of text at the bottom of the page!”

Well-caught, sharp-eyed burblers. A thoughtfully-executed revision to minimize structural redundancy can often both clarify meaning and lop off extraneous text.

I hope you also noticed, though, that while that very specifically-focused revision was quite helpful to the manuscript, it didn’t take care of some of the grammatical gaffes — or, indeed, most of the other problems that would have troubled Grandma M. Let’s take a peek at what our Noël might have done to page 272 after she’s taken her red pen to it. (Hint: you might want to take a magnifying glass to the punctuation.)

P&C revision 2

Quite different from the first revision, is it not? This time around, the punctuation’s impeccable, but the narration retains some of the redundancy that a modern-day Millicent might deplore.

Millie might also roll her eyes at her grandmother’s winking at instances of the passive voice and the retention of unnecessary tag lines. Indeed, for Noël to revise this page to her specifications, he’s going to have to invest quite a bit more time. Shall we see how he fared?

P&C final edit

Not every close-up examination of a single tree, in short, will result in a pruning plan that will yield the same forest. A savvy self-editor will bear that in mind, rather than expecting that any single pass at revision, however sensible, will result in a manuscript that will please every reader.

Wow, that bit about the trees was a tortured analogy; Grandma M would have a tizzy fit. I guess my desk is still insufficiently warmed up. I’ll keep working on it until next time, when it’s back to the ands.

Keep up the good work!

Happy trails, Jose Saramago, newest member of the celestial writers’ critique group

June 18th, 2010

jose saramago flying books

Please join me in pausing for a minute to bid a fond farewell to Jose Saramago, welder-turned-Nobel Laureate in Literature. Those of us who love books will miss your punctuation-eschewing ways, sir, as well as your pricelessly odd worldview.

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part IX: and? And? And?

June 13th, 2010

spumoni ice cream

I’m going to try to make this a relatively quick one today, campers. Not that I don’t love having houseguests, but it used to be easier for me to slip away and spend a few minutes with you fine people when my writing studio was squirreled away in a remote part of the house. In the depths of a dreary Seattle winter, I revolted against the relative windowlessness of my studio, capturing our sunny library by storm and claiming it as my writing space. It’s magnificently conducive to creative thought most of the time, but mysteriously, it seems less blog-friendly when houseguests are camped out on the chaise longue watching me type.

They say hello, by the way — and am I done yet?

So let’s get right back to work, while their attention is momentarily distracted by something shiny in the opposite corner. Just between us, campers — are your fingers stained with highlighter ink?

I’ve been hoping they are, frankly: last time, I urged you to scan your submission pages (in particular, the first five, or all of a contest submission) for over-use of the words and, but, and then. Because the average manuscript submission is positively peppered with ‘em, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

A messy process, true, but well worth while. Once you started marking, it was pretty darned astonishing just how often those conjunctions leapt off the page, wasn’t it?

Realistically, of course, I realize that not all of you have spent this lovely, sunshiny weekend marking up your manuscripts, preferring instead to devote yourselves to, say, the activities of normal people. Others of you may have started the task and gave up three buts in. “What was Anne thinking,” I heard some of you muttering on Saturday afternoon, “to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Doesn’t she realize that a writer’s time is valuable, and sunny days relatively rare in the Pacific Northwest?”

Well, in the first place, summer in Seattle is frequently beautiful; the popular belief that it rains here non-stop is a myth. In the second place, I do realize just how important your time is to you — which is precisely why I’m advising you to invest a little time now in exchange for not having masses of your time wasted later in the submission process.

How so? Well, think of it this way: as those of you who have submitted to an agency or entered a contest lately are already well aware, preparing your pages and sending them off is quite time-consuming, and, if you’re like most aspiring writers, even more energy-consuming. We also all know, I hope, that the cleaner your manuscript — that’s industry-speak for pages free of basic spelling, grammar, formatting, and logic problems, in case anyone was wondering — the less likely it is to push our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s rejection buttons. The same holds true for her pet peeves: the better revision job you do, the less likely your pages are to come winging back in your SASE, accompanied by a form-letter rejection.

Sense where I’m heading with this?

Getting caught in a submission-rejection cycle can end up eating far, far more of your valuable time than an intensive revision aimed at weeding out rejection triggers would take. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, aspiring writers who routinely send out first drafts, especially — sacre bleu! — ones that have neither been proofread or spell- and grammar-checked — because they are impatient to get their books published generally have a harder time landing an agent, winning a contest, and/or pleasing an editor than writers patient enough to polish their work before submitting it.

Given such a noble goal, concentrating upon something as basic as whether your narrative relies too heavily upon and, but, and then may not seem as if it would make a big difference, but actually, out of all the potential problems a self-editor might discover in a Frankenstein manuscript, overused conjunctions are some of the easiest to catch and fix. And the pay-off can be tremendous: quick-reading agency screeners, editorial assistants (who screen submissions for editors) and contest judges are routinely ordered to subtract points (Brownie in the case of the former two, literal in the case of the contest submission) for grammatical errors — and word repetition is always high on their penalty list.

As is that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence. Not sure what one looks like? Here’s a lulu:

Unsatisfied with Antoinette’s response, Guillermo withdrew his sword then wiped it disdainfully back and forth across his pantaloons to remove the blood and the gristle without bothering either to sheath it or thrust again afterward, because he would only need to draw it again if Claude turned out to be alive still and Antoinette wasn’t worth it in any case, but still, something about her facial expression, awed no doubt at his virile violence on her behalf but still feminine in its modesty, caused him to reconsider her earlier response, because mightn’t her apparent shock indicate mere innocent-bystanderish surprise and maidenly horror at what now seemed likely to have been his all-too-precipitate assumption that simply because Claude was in Antoinette’s drawing-room at half-past four in the afternoon and unaccompanied by a duenna or chaperone of any sort, he must perforce have been on the cusp of forcing himself upon her, although in retrospect, that seemed unlikely, since Claude had been cradling a cup of delicately-scented tea, eighteen smallish chocolate cakes, and a lap dog on the chintz couch — now covered in the sanguinary evidence of what now seemed a slight error of judgment, as well as quite a bit of chocolate frosting and Lhasa apso fur — whilst Antoinette was playing the spinet, the gift of her redoubtable grandfather who first founded the steel mill and thus founded the family fortune, all the way across the room against the far wall, the one which gave pride of place to that copy of the Mona Lisa Antoinette’s great-uncle had commissioned some starving artist to make for him in Paris that he always claimed in later years was the original.

Laugh if you like, but would it astonish you to learn that this is SHORTER than some of the sentences my aged eyes have beheld in manuscripts? I’ve seen sentences that have dragged on for more than a page; I once spotted one that expected the reader to follow its twists and turns for almost three.

Although I have apparently lived to tell about it, there can be no legitimate justification for dragging the reader through such an epic. Run-on sentences, much like the repetition of a favorite word or phrase, are seldom the result of well-thought-out and purposeful writerly strategy. (Or, if so, it’s poor strategy: “I know! I’ll bore my reader and annoy Millicent by making her read the sentence twice in order to understand it!”) The vast majority of the time, writers stumble into the habit without really noticing.

Believe me, professional readers do notice — and reject accordingly. Yet another great reason to read your manuscript OUT LOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN THEIR ENTIRETY before you submit.

How will you be able to spot a run-on when you encounter it in its natural habitat, the previously unrevised manuscript? Hint: if you can’t say any given sentence within a single breath, it might be a run-on.

Another classic tip-off: where run-ons gather, there will be ands aplenty also, typically. So whip out your marked pages, please, and let’s observe the reproduction habits of and.

If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed four major patterns of andusage:

(1) In lists.
Remember, not all lists take the form of Kamala had three novels, two memoirs, and a dictionary in her backpack. Keep an eye out for lists consisting of named emotions, which often appear in groups (Kamala felt angry and betrayed), too-hurried accounts of activity (Kamala went to the store, searched fruitlessly for spumoni ice cream, ran down the block to her favorite trattoria, and begged them to sell her a couple of scoops on the sly.), as well as lists inadvertently formed by the use of and for emphasis (Kamala felt angry and betrayed and hurt and, consequently, ravenous for spumoni ice cream.0.

Don’t think of all of those types of sentence as lists? Millicent does, believe me — and are lists really the most interesting way to present your protagonist’s activities?

(2) In the HUGELY popular X happened and (then) Y happened sentence structure.
We’re all familiar with this one, right? Edward ate his pizza and drank his Coke. The sky turned brown, and all of the birds stopped singing. I could go on like this all night, and if my guests were not flipping impatiently through magazines, I would.

There’s nothing wrong with this structure per se — but used too often, or too close together, all of those ands can start to feel quite repetitious quite fast. As can…

(3) In the almost-as-popular trilogy structure: Someone did X, Y, and Z.
Technically, this could be considered a list (as in, Christos cried, rolled over, and bawled some more.), but since most aspiring writers simply like the three-beat rhythm, I prefer to talk about it as a separate sentence type. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this structure if used sparingly, but all too often, the three-beat descriptive sentence becomes the default in the manuscript.

The resulting repetition can feel quite percussive to a reader, even if the actual sentence structure varies:

Christos felt betrayed, confused, and, oddly enough, hungry for some spumoni ice cream. Puzzled, he wandered into his kitchen, yanked open the freezer door, and pondered his ice cream supply. Wait — what had happened to his long-hoarded supply? Suddenly, it came to him: he’d heard Kamala rooting about in here in the wee hours, rattling bowls and clattering spoons.

See how predictable those threesomes became, even in the space of one short paragraph? Imagine how Millicent feels when confronted with pages upon pages of them — which happens more than any of us would like to think.

(4) In complex descriptions.
Descriptions with multiple elements almost always contain at least one and, particularly if the sentence is passive: Germaine was tall and lanky. Again, this is technically a list (albeit a short one), but few writers would think of it as one.

Pay close attention to descriptive passages for another common and bugbear: sentences containing more than one of them. A multiple-and sentence is to most professional readers what a red flag is to a bull, and yet they are so easy to produce almost inadvertently if a writer is trying to cram too much description into a single sentence. As in:

Germaine was tall and lanky, with long, straight hair that came down to her lean and boyish hips. She liked to dress in black-and-white dresses, the kind that confused the eye if she walked past a strobe light, and skin-tight leather boots. She also favored tight jeans and tank tops, except of course for days she knew she would be running into Kamala and joining her on a spumoni ice cream run.

Quite a lot of ands, isn’t it? As strange as it may seem, most writers have an infinitely easier time spotting this kind of repetition in other people’s work; in their own, they tend to concentrate on the description, not the repetitive structure.

Complicating matters is the fact that often, two or more of these four types of and usage will appear within a single paragraph — or even a single sentence. Not sure what that might look like in practice? Okay, see if you can ferret out instances of all four kinds in their natural habitat:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

How did you do? Admittedly, we’re looking for something a bit subtle here. Although the types of repetition used in this example may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they would come across as structurally redundant on the page. Even minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge, because editors — like other professional readers — are trained to zero in on redundancy.

To see how this orientation might affect how one reads, let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic — the percussive repetition lulls the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed.

There’s a technical reason for that, you know, and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, it has probably already occurred to you. The swiftly-scanning eye’s automatic tendency is to jump between repeated words on a page, in very much the manner that a CLUE player might move his piece from the study to the kitchen via the secret passage about which everyone in the game is evidently quite well-informed. (Hey, it’s an editor’s job to demand precise word usage.)

The result: Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the revolver.

Oops, wrong chain of events: the result relevant for our purposes is a submission page read far, far more quickly than the average submitter might wish. Not only by Millicent and her ilk, but by the average reader as well.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure. A great place to start: scanning your manuscript for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. As in:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

Did your eye catch the subtle problem here? No? Take a gander at it as Millicent would see it:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly valid if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed last time, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

When I first began writing that last paragraph, I didn’t intend it to be an illustration of just how visually confusing word repetition may be on the page — but as I seemed to be succeeding brilliantly at doing just that, I figured I’d just run with it.

You’re welcome. Let’s highlight the repetition here, to determine precisely why a skimming reader might find it confusing:

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly legitimate if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed yesterday, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

Is your brain in a twist after all of that percussive redundancy? Never fear — the twin revising morals are actually quite simple to remember:

(1) EVERY writer, no matter how experienced, will occasionally write a poorly-constructed sentence or paragraph, so there will NEVER be a point where any of us can legitimately assume that our first drafts require no revision whatsoever, and

(2) Just because a given word may carry more than one meaning — or, as here, refer to distinct categories of things — that fact doesn’t nullify the effects of repetition upon the reader.

Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, rather than as images on a page, these kinds of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars. Unless one is looking for it specifically, it’s easy to overlook.

Thus the highlighting pens, in case you were wondering. I’m just trying to make repetition jump out at you as garishly as it does to those of us who read for a living.

Incidentally, words that sound alike but are spelled differently — there, they’re, and their, for instance — often strike readers as repetitious if they are used in too close proximity to one another. Take a gander:

“They’re going to look for their zithers in there,” Thierry pointed out.

Why might this sentence give a reader pause? Because many pronounce words silently in their heads while they scan. Yet another great incentive to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, eh? It’s the best way to replicate the silent reader’s mental experience.

Oh, wait — I hear my guests calling; it must be time to make a run to the store for more spumoni. Next time, I shall delve into some other problems that commonly arise from an over-reliance upon ands. In the meantime, in between time, try to minimize word and sentence structure repetition, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VIII: but, then, what’s your function?

June 10th, 2010

conjunction junction train

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions. (To summarize their reaction for those of you joining us mid-series: not at all well.) While we’re on the subject, I’d like to digress from classic Frankenstein manuscript problems to tackle a related issue. I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

(And if that very thought made you long to rush out and find a copy of the old Schoolhouse Rock videos for your kids, you may find them here. You can buy them on other sites as well, but this one also features those great old Bop-Em Bozo inflatable punching bags! What’s not to love?)

Undeterred by that rare (for me) parenthetical commercial plug, positive legions of hands shoot into the air, waving for my attention. Yes, grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

In the first place, you’re right: when used properly, then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — include it here.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “they may not BEGIN a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and largely scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

Despite Uncle Alex’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already. Back to your celestial poker game, boys — your heavenly cacophony isn’t going to work.

Arguably, there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph:

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jason stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look like this:

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jason stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes — sorry, Uncle — this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Emily’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Which is, of course, why any of us pay a visit to Conjunction Junction, right?

Before the next train leaves the station, though, a pop quiz: did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first example? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

Any guesses why I made those three changes?

Award yourself a big, fat gold star for the day if you immediately said, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Jason in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And give yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is logically rather redundant. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear all of your muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is nit-picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation (i.e., that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person), back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, so the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Not sure how that might work? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. But you are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to come after me with an axe?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair, but you are fleet of foot in the face of danger; therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to come after me with an axe?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

I’m not going to give you an example of this, because we all hear it so much in everyday speech. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party (they’re coming back, I hear):

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why.)

(2) Tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: it discourages interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

For this reason, aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: to create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to create that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. It’s in their interest: just think how much time Millicent can save in rejecting a submission if she assumes that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over some of your heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

No comment.

Let’s concentrate instead on what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not just matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to my late relatives’ heavenly cohort? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thus risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties, “not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), I’m going to give you some hints about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out the first 5 pages of your submission; if you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

(2) Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and one for then.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even — yes, I see it all the time — per sentence.

(3) Mark where those words appear in your manuscript.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time these words show up on those pages.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most of the ones thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: many professional readers have a visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then that sometimes borders on the paranoiac.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text, because in written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, thenis almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

Yet it is very widely used in submissions as a matter of style — or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice. To professional eyes, though, it’s logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Which brings me back to my earlier suggestion: in your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now THAT’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(5) Turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest, after all.”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next. What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused.

How may you tell the difference? Let’s take a look at some practical examples:

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen was in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this paragraph, because each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, however. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis IS a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, though, it’s worth it, for this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, impatiently waiting for her latte to cool (for once), “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie.

Varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics. That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept flinging THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA at us and quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market. For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice.

Now, however, it’s considered less a matter of style than of marketing. Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome projected for a less erudite audience not liable to electrify a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have (to be fair, the film never indicates that she has any, although her boyfriend does), he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this character would ever use. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but authorial affection is not always sufficient justification. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

Don’t toss out those marked-up Frankenstein pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands!

Yes, yes, I know: today’s picture might well have led a reasonable person to believe that ands would occupy us today, but a girl can only do so much in a single sitting. Keep up the good work!

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