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Speaking of dialogue revision, part VI: and then there’s the fine art of doing it right, or, love, agent-style

August 29th, 2010

pre-butchered fir tree

This, I am happy to say, used to be one of the views from my studio window, a sweet fir tree stuffed to the proverbial gills with cavorting crows, mischievous blue jays, and a small family of squirrels deeply devoted, for reasons best known to themselves, to digging up my crocus bulbs, saving them for a month or two, then replanting them in entirely different locations. I used to enjoy watching them before the strange men from the phone company showed up unannounced yesterday and slashed a ten-foot hole in the middle of the tree in order to make room for a half-inch cable scheduled to be installed three months from now. As one does.

Actually, it would have been a twenty-foot hole — quoth the foreman: “But those other branches were, like, in our way! We would have had to work around them!” — had I not managed to hobble out front to stop them in mid-slice. (Never underestimate the moral force of a crutch-wielding Valkyrie with a rudimentary knowledge of property law.) The damage has been done, though: this morning, there are no birds in the defiled tree.

Why does this seem like an apt time to wrap up this series on revising dialogue?

I can tell you why: all too often, in the first glow of enthusiasm following a newly-acquired self-editing tip — or, if you’ve been following our intensive discussions of craft this summer, a whole mess of ‘em — writers will, to put it succinctly, over-cut. Fired up by the time-honored advice to kill their darlings, they hack and slash with gusto, assuming, sometimes incorrectly, that if a line or two of dialogue runs afoul of the freshly-learned rule, the entire speech should go. Or the entire scene. Or the entire chapter.

But not all darlings are apt candidates for slaughter. Sometimes, too-vigorous cutting can do some serious harm to the tree. You don’t want to scare off the pretty birds, after all.

(I know — isn’t it amazing how often my day-to-day life provides PRECISELY the metaphor for what we’ve been discussing? Somebody up there must have a great fondness for blogs. Either that, or a monumental antipathy toward trees.)

Which is to say: not all of the results of revision are necessarily intentional. Over-enthusiastic cutting can, among other things, result in uneven tone, the loss of information the reader might need to know later in the plot, confusion of motivation, the omission of that foreshadowing sneer that alerts the attentive reader to the possibility that the protagonist’s mild-mannered coworker may turn out to be the super villain intent on destroying every ice cream stand in Gotham…

It can lead, in short, to a Frankenstein manuscript. There is no such thing, then, as a revision that would not benefit from a follow-up re-reading of the ENTIRE manuscript (preferably IN HARD COPY and, especially if it is dialogue-heavy, OUT LOUD) to make absolutely certain that the post-cut scenes not only read well on the page, but still pull their weight in the plot.

With that incentive for caution in mind, here is a final post in our revisit to 2009′s Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk series. Actually, it’s a mash-up of two posts in that series, presented in composite form for your perusing pleasure. When I originally posted the second, John Updike had just died — providing, yet again, a nudge toward a blog-friendly example.

Enjoy! But please, employ your pruning shears judiciously — and sparingly — after reading it.

Are you surprised to see another post on first-page rejection reasons coming after I’ve already gone over the agent-generated list of submission red flags? What can I possibly still have to say on the subject, after nearly three weeks of harping upon it?

Plenty, as it turns out. As excellent and extensive as the agent-generated list was in its day, as full of classic submission problems as any such list could possibly be, the agents in question generated it several years ago. As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops practically since I began writing this blog, the standards for what agents are seeking in a manuscript change all the time, along with the literary market itself.

Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, good writing, a solid premise, and catchy character names are not necessarily enough to catch an agent’s eye today. Yes, a novel or memoir submission typically needs all of those elements to be successful, but now as ever, it needs something else: to be a book that the agent can picture selling in within not an ideal market, but the one in which s/he is currently attempting to sell books.

Yes, I do realize what I just said: a manuscript could conceivably be perfectly marvelous and still not be what an agent would consider marketable in the literary market right now.

Why right now in particular? Well, agents have always made their living by selling their clients’ work to publishers — since reputable agents don’t charge fees over and above their contracted percentage of a book sale, they make money only when they hawk their clients’ books successfully — but even a cursory glance at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE will tell you that these are exceptional times for the publishing industry.

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along. {Present-day Anne here: amazingly, although I originally posted this a year and a half ago, this statement remains true. That’s how cautious agents have become.}

So the best thing you could possibly do right now is rush right out and buy 50 books similar to yours — and convince 100,000 of your friends to do the same. Like it or not, that’s now new marketing trends are made.

Since my readership is made up almost exclusively of writers, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of you like it.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the next big thing — other than the novel I’m about to finish writing, of course — but there are a few trends in what gets rejected and accepted that I’ve noticed cropping with increasing frequency over the last year or so. Since once a pet peeve is established, it tends to hang around for a while on Millicent the agency screener’s red flag list, it’s probably a good idea to avoid them for the foreseeable future.

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately {and, again, this list remains astonishingly current}:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

I know that I harp on this one quite a bit — as evidence and for the benefit of readers new enough to this blog not to have lived through my extensive discussions of what publishing professionals expect manuscripts to look like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right — but it honestly is true that if a submission does not look professional, Millicent is more likely to reject it, regardless of the quality of the writing. Since the volume of queries and submissions has been skyrocketing as the economy has worsened (writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, apparently), she can afford to be even pickier than usual.

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

This is a practically inevitable side effect of the aforementioned volume of queries and submissions rising, but standard storylines, stock characters, and literary clichés in general seem to be getting judged more harshly of late, probably because Millicent has been seeing the same things over and over again.

Does this mean that this is a great time for writers who embrace radical originality. Not exactly, because…

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

This is one of the truisms of the publishing industry for the last century — during uncertain economic times, comforting and escapist plot lines tend to sell better. Unfortunate, but true. It has to do with what’s known as the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index: when Americans are feeling insecure about the future, sales of inexpensive comfort foods tend to rise — as do books that make readers all warm and fuzzy.

Historically, agents and editors have followed these trends, shying away from more challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and even experimental use of prose. Since I’m personally a big fan of challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and experimental use of prose, I’m not all too happy about this, but it might be worth holding off on submitting any of the above for a few months, until the industry has had time to get used to new economic realities.

I know; it’s annoying. {Even more annoying: that this advice is still apt, to a very great extent.}

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of complaints in that bar that’s never more than a 100 yards from any literary conference in North America about submissions from writers who don’t seem aware of either the target audience or the conventions of the categories in which they have written books. From coast to coast, Millicents and their bosses have been railing about YA with too-adult word choices, literary fiction with a fourth-grade vocabulary, cynical romances, paranormals where vampires cavort in the sun…

I suspect that the increased pervasiveness of this one is actually an expression of the publishing industry’s smoldering resentment that book sales have dropped; if the writers of these books were actually buying the new releases in their genres, the logic goes, they would be more conversant with what’s selling right now. Having met scads of writers who say, “What do you mean, what do I read? I don’t have time; I’m too busy writing,” I have to say, I have some sympathy with this one.

Remember, from the pros’ point of view, a writer’s being up on the current releases for her type of book is considered a minimum standard of professionalism, not an optional extra. At least take the time to go to a well-stocked bookstore and thumb through the recent releases, to make sure that your submission doesn’t fly too far out of the acceptable range.

5. Narrative voices that read as though the author has swallowed a dictionary.

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Especially if — and this problem turns up more often than anyone would like to admit — not all of those words are used correctly.

Or, to put it as some aspiring writers might: without embroiling us in superfluous polysemousness, it must be averred that the aesthetic propensities of a vainglorious tome toward prolixity or indeed even the pseudo-pragmatic co-optation — as by droit du seigneur — of an antiquitarian lexis, whilst purportedly an amendment to the erudition of said opuscule and arguably consanguinean (metaphorically speaking) and perhaps even existentially bound up with its literary apprizal, can all too facilely directionize in the azimuth of fustian grandiloquence or unmanacle unpurposed (or even dystelelogical) consequences on a pith and/or douceur de vivre level vis-à-vis even the most pansophic reader. As Pliny was wont to quip in his cups…

Come on, admit it: this is a BIT over-the-top for YA.

Yes, yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin. Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue.

They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

Here again, your best guideline is the current market for your type of book: generally speaking, a writer will always be safe sticking to the vocabulary level of recent releases in his book category. If you want to sneak in more obscure words here and there, make sure that their meaning is evident from context. Trust me on this one.

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

Perhaps it’s due to the major presidential candidates’ having employed speechwriters last time around who wrote better jokes for them, but in the last few years, more aspiring writers seem to be trying to incorporate humor into their work. Since genuinely funny writing is a rare and wonderful thing, I can only applaud this trend.

Just make sure that it’s actually funny before you submit it on the page — not just to you and your kith and kin, but to someone who has never met you and is from a completely different background. And no, having one character laugh at a joke another character has just made will not cause Millicent to find it humorous.

Remember, too: nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom. (Have your parents explain why they ever thought “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” was funny, children.)

If you choose to open with humor, run your first scene (at least) by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny.

7. Unlikable protagonists.

This is another golden oldie that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency of late: it’s long been an industry truism that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist likable, she’s not going to want to follow him through an entire book. And I don’t just mean finding him kind of tolerable; Millicent’s going to want to find the guy actively engaging.

Why might this perennial objection be flying out of Millicent’s mouth more often recently, you ask? Did you read that one above about the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index?

And don’t tell me that your protagonist or narrator becomes more likable as the reader gets to know her. If the writing on page 1 doesn’t grab Millie, it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is marvelous on page 15.

It’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing, after all. Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their Pliny-like cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), they want to fall in love on page 1.

All that being said, a moment of silence, please: John Updike is dead.

When I heard the news — repeatedly; one of the mixed blessings of being widely known as a writer and descendent of a long line of writers is that people very considerately call to break the news to me whenever any well-established author kicks the bucket, as if everyone who has ever set pen to paper were a distant cousin of mine whose death I should not be forced to learn from the standard media sources — I naturally went straight to my bookshelf and glanced through some of his work. In light of our ongoing series on opening pages and the fact that his first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, came out in 1959, I expected his initial pages would, to put it politely, have a tough time making in past today’s Millicents, thus underscoring Updike’s frequently-made point about how literary fiction has been all but brought to earth over the last 40 years.

I was pleased to find that quite the opposite was true: his first pages were grabbers. Take that, eulogists of literary fiction!

More to the point of the latter part of this series, his hooks largely operated not through garish action, but interesting character development. Take a gander, for instance, at the first two paragraphs of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984):

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way; each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”

“A man?” Alexandra Spofford asked, feeling off-center, her peaceful aura that morning splayed by the assertive word.

Now, we could speculate all day about the probable insecurities of a male author who felt compelled not only to have a female character repeat the word man here, as though the very concept of the Y chromosome were inherently unsettling to heterosexual women (at least the frail kind discombobulated by assertive words) but also to employ splayed, a term commonly associated with the things models do in the centerfolds of men’s magazines, to describe a mental state. It might not be too much of a stretch to assume based upon this opening that Mr. Updike wasn’t picturing much of a female readership for this book when he wrote it — intriguing, since in 1984 as now, women were far and away the most common purchasers of literary fiction.

But none of that concerns us at the moment. Look, I ask you, at how beautifully he has used visceral details to establish both a mood and character in the first lines of this book.

It’s a heck of an opening in general. Let’s take a moment to ponder why: instead of easing the reader into the story by an extensive description of the physical space in which we discover these characters, or the even more common physical description of the characters themselves, Updike introduces these women by providing specific insight into their mental processes and motivations. Instead of just telling us that Jane is mean and Alexandra shy, he shows us through an analogy and word choices that we might not expect.

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely right: this opening would grab Millicent because it’s not only well-written, but surprising.

Seeing all the elements in action helps to clarify what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t it? But while we’re at it, let’s be thorough about this. Quick, without rushing back and checking our initial list of red flags that often lead Millicent to reject a submission on page 1, what might strike her as problematic if she saw this opening in a submission by a brand-new writer today?

If you pointed out the typo in the very first sentence, give yourself a great big gold star for the day. (Technically, there should be a comma between oh and yes; as Mr. Updike was a graduate of my alma mater, I’m relatively certain that he should have been aware of this.) While some Millicents might be kind enough to read past a first sentence grammatical or spelling error, it’s not a foregone conclusion.

Proofread.

While we’re giving out prizes for observation, take a red ribbon out of petty cash if you flagged the repetitive dialogue. As we discussed earlier in this series, repetitive dialogue tends to annoy agents and editors, since they’ve been trained since they were pups to excise redundancy. Besides, characters who simply echo what has already been said tend to come across as less intelligent than those who actually add something new to the conversations in which they participate — always a tad risky in a protagonist.

Anything else? What about the unnecessary tag lines (Jane Smart said, Alexandra Spofford asked), now out of fashion? Since Mr. Updike had already been established in the first rank of North American authors by the time for decades by the time the use of tag lines fell out of fashion, this might seem like an unwarranted quibble, but remember, we’re judging this by the standards that would apply to a writer trying to break into the biz now.

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: an established author can often get away with things that someone new could not.

Did any of you red-flag the semicolon? If Mr. Updike were submitting this to Millicent labeled as anything but literary fiction, you’d be right to consider cutting it. Generally speaking, in fiction that isn’t aimed at a college-educated audience — as literary fiction is, ostensibly, but most fiction is not — semicolons are considered a bit highbrow.

Admittedly, the fact that Millicent regularly sees manuscripts whose vocabulary barely scrapes the 10th grade positively peppered with semicolons might have something to do with this. No one but writers really like semicolons, and not even all of us use them correctly (as the late John Harvard would no doubt be delighted to note, Mr. Updike has done properly above), but my, don’t we like to shoehorn them into a manuscript!

Unless you’re submitting your work as literary fiction to an agent with a successful track record of representing a whole lot of it AND her client list fairly bristles with semicolon-wielding authors, you might want to minimize their use.

All of which, as fate would have it, is a perfect lead-in to my wrap-up of the rejection reasons because, really, it’s important to recognize that while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems, at least on page 1: we’ve been going over these points exhaustively precisely so you can meet standards far higher than when the late, great Mr. Updike faced when he was first trying to break into the biz.

Today, however, we get to see the reward: the kind of manuscript that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents and editors tend not to talk too much at conferences about what they love to see in manuscripts. They tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. Remember, agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market.

Which is to say: it’s not enough for an agent to love your work; she needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that’s in the writer’s interest as much as the agent’s.

But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agencies often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book. Or that there exists writing so beautifully literary that every agent currently drawing breath will instantly exclaim, “Oh, of course — I’ll represent that!”

Especially for first fiction or memoir, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as this series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk.

So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service. Literarily, of course.

With an eye toward getting your submission on the litero-romantic short list, here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date. In other words, these are the traits they said would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

Hey, I told you Updike’s work stood up well.

Notice anything else? How about that all of these criteria could be applied equally well to a memoir and a novel? That’s something that memoirists often forget: just because a story is true does not mean that it will be judged by less stringent requirements than a fictional one. A good memoirist, like a good novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller.

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or ‘Wow, great hook’ have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not necessarily a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than pure beauty of voice. Yes, they are seeking good writing with a genre-appropriate voice, but at first glance, they are looking to fall in love with a premise.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient AND able to draw the reader immediately into a pulse-elevating plot.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the loveliness and/or experimental nature of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. Thus, her question is much, much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, ABOUT SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have included both of these elements in your premise, and you have presented them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually.

If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, this avalanche of critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book. (You’re welcome.)

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements is only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough for a first book in the current market. (Unless, of course, you’re already established, like John Updike, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

On that note, I’m going to close this series. Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds tangible skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part V: genius is no excuse for lack of polish, or, quoth the raven, “Next!”

August 27th, 2010

tenniel-theraven

What a week it has been, campers! On top of the annoying crutches, the difficult physical therapy, and the seemingly endless series of doctors’ appointments, I seem somehow to have contracted a cold. Can’t imagine how that happened, spending all of that time next to sneezers in medical waiting rooms…

Fortunately, my will to communicate is apparently stronger than my scratchy throat’s ability to inhibit it. Onward and upward!

Before we launch into today’s installment from our long-ago and much-beloved fearedcommented-upon series, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk, I must mention: something happened that exactly mirrored one of the attitudes I discuss in this post. I won’t tell you about it up front, though — you’ll appreciate the story much more, I suspect, if I introduce it afterward. Enjoy the anticipation!

We’re almost at the end of our very, very long examination of reasons agents tend to reject a submission on page 1, Can’t you feel the air buzzing with excitement? Haven’t you noticed the bees murmuring in their hives, the birds stopping in mid-air to gape, and every little breeze seeming to whisper, “Louise!” like Maurice Chevalier?

No? Are your dreams still haunted by Millicent the agency screener hovering over your workspace, intoning “Next!” in the same sepulchral tone in which Edgar Allen Poe’s raven purportedly squawked, “Nevermore!” while you try to crank out query letters?

Quite understandable, if so. Facing the truth about just how harsh agents and their screeners can be in their readings — and need to be, in order to thin out the steady barrage of applicants for very, very few client positions available in any given year — requires great bravery.

“True genius,” Winston Churchill told us, “resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.” You can say that again, Win.

At first, it’s can be easier to keep cranking out those queries and submissions if a writer isn’t aware of the withering gaze to which the average submission is subjected. The pervasive twin beliefs that all that matters in a submission is the quality of the writing and that if an agent asks for a full manuscript, s/he is actually going to read the entire thing before making up his or her mind has buoyed many a submitter through months of waiting for a response.

Be proud of yourself for sticking around to learn why the vast majority of manuscripts get rejected, however — and not just because, as Goethe informs us, “The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth.” (So true, Johann Wolfgang, so true.)

In the long run, a solid understanding of the rigor with which the industry eyeballs manuscripts is going to serve you well at every stage of your writing career. While the truth might not set you free of worry, it will at least enable you to take a long, hard look at the opening pages of your manuscript to scout for the most common red flags, the ones that have caused Millicent to grind her teeth so much that she has TMJ syndrome.

She has to do something with her mouth between cries of, “Next!” you know.

Speaking of jaws, you may find yours dropping over today’s selection of submission red flags. Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last. In fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks.

Why, you ask? Because these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined not by the text per se, but by the reader’s response to it:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”

65. “Over the top.”

66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”

67. “It’s not visceral.”

68. “It’s not atmospheric.”

69. “It’s melodramatic.”

70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

From an agent, editor, or contest judge’s point of view, each item on this subset of the list shares an essential characteristic: these exclamations are responses to Millicent’s perception that the submission in front of her is unlike what she and her cohort expect a marketable manuscript to resemble. Not because it’s formatted incorrectly or uses language poorly (although submissions that provoke these cries often exhibit these problems, too), but because the writing doesn’t strike them as professional.

Since most aspiring writers operate in isolation, often without even having met anyone who actually makes a living by writing books, this distinction can seem rather elusive, but to the pros, the difference between professional’s writing and that of a talented amateur not yet ready for the big time is often quite palpable. How so? Because a professional writer is always, always thinking about not only self-expression and telling the story she wants to tell the way she wants to tell it, but about the effect of the writing upon the reader.

What makes that thought so obvious to Millicent on the printed page? A combination of talent and meticulous polish. As Thomas Carlyle liked to put it at the end of a long day, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.”

I’m not merely bringing up the concept of genius for comic effect here, but as a conscious antidote to the all-too-pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers that if only a writer is talented enough, it’s not necessary for him to follow the rules — literarily, in terms of formatting, or by paying any attention to his work’s marketability. Trust me on this one: every agent and editor in the biz has fifteen stories about writers who have tackled them, shoving manuscripts into their startled hands, claiming that their books are works of unusual genius.

Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t — who could possibly tell, without reading each and every one? — but this kind of approach is a very poor way to win friends and influence people in the industry. Why? Because so many writers who don’t happen to be geniuses so frequently make precisely the same claim. Or, if they do not state it outright, they at least imply by how they present their work that they are so talented that it should not matter whether they follow the rules of standard format (or even grammar) at all. It’s Millicent’s job, their attitude proclaims, to see past all of the presentation problems, not the writer’s to clean them up.

Quoth Millicent: au contraire.

A much, much better way for honest-to-goodness genius to get itself noticed (not to mention a more polite one) is by polishing that manuscript to a high sheen, then submitting it through the proper channels. Yes, it’s a great deal of work, but as Thomas Alva Edison urged us to bear in mind, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or, to put it rather more bluntly, Millicent can generally tell the difference between a submission that the writer just tossed off and one that has been taken through careful revision. Ditto with a half-revised Frankenstein manuscript. Many a potentially marketable book has blown its chance with an agent by being stuffed into an envelope before it was truly ready for professional scrutiny.

I just mention, in case any of you were on the cusp of sending out requested materials before having read them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any lingering unpolished bits.

Yes, now that you mention it, I have suggested this a few thousand times before. I’m perfectly capable of repeating that advice until the proverbial cows come home, and shall probably continue doing so as long as talented aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts containing mistakes that even a cursory proofreading would catch.

Enough banging on that particular tom-tom for now. Let’s get back to today’s list of red flags, shall we?

Present-day Anne here again, all ready to share today’s beautifully illustrative example. I had mentioned, I think, that since I have been posting a little less often post-accident, more readers have evidently been combing my archives — or so I surmise from the wildly increased volume of questions on years-old posts. Sometimes, the questions are simple to answer; sometimes, I have written on the topic since, and can quickly refer the questioner to the relevant subsequent post (or series — it’s always worth checking the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page); sometimes, I give a brief answer to a complex question, then file the matter away on my ever-burgeoning to-blog-about-soon list.

The vast majority of questions on past posts fall into one of these three categories. From time to time, however, a well-meaning writer will simply unload a barrage of hopes, fears, and inquiries.

Lest that sound like a fever-induced exaggeration, today’s correspondent left four pages’ worth of questions — not a record for an Author! Author! comment, by the way, or even a posted list of questions here. Most of his concerns were relatively straightforward, easily addressed in a paragraph or two, or, failing that, a referral to some subsequent posts. The last question, however, made my heart bleed for the asker: he claimed, in all seriousness, to be unable to follow either the rules of standard format or the usual formatting for dialogue. Instead, he wanted to know if he could submit the dialogue in play format, while the rest of the manuscript was formatted like, well, a manuscript.

The short answer is no, by the way, but that was not why his question made me sad. What made me sigh far more over his short last question than the long, long list that preceded it was that he argued that he should be able to ignore the prevailing structures and hard-and-fast rules because he was creating a new form of writing, a mash-up of screenplay and novel, something he seemed unaware had ever been done before. (It has.) He thought that switching between formats lent something to the dialogue that fleshed-out scenes would not convey as well. He genuinely seemed to believe, in short, that violating the formatting rules would strike the literary world as exciting and different, rather than — and I hated to be the one to break it to him — ill-informed about the norms of the biz.

In short, interesting, innovative, and/or experimental are not the words most likely to spring to Millicent’s mind upon seeing a mixed-format manuscript. The only word we can be almost positive she would use is, “Next!”

I’m not bringing this up to make fun of the obviously earnest writer who asked about it — believe me, I don’t particularly enjoy bursting people’s creative bubbles — or even solely to discourage other readers from embarking upon ambitious formatting experiments in a first novel. (Save those for later in your career, when your work won’t have to make it past a Millicent.)

No, my reasoning was more basic: while the specifics of this writer’s approach were unusual, his reasoning is unfortunately all too common amongst aspiring writers. Any professional reader has heard a hundred versions of my writing/book concept/gift for {fill in the blank} is so obviously good that I don’t need to follow the rules; it’s the standard excuse used by aspiring writers exasperated by the necessity of following submission requirements. Or even those requirements’ existence.

Oh, they may not express that attitude openly, but what other conclusion could Millicent be expected to draw from a single-spaced submission in 10-point type? While most deviations from standard format are the result of simple ignorance — hey, I don’t discuss the rules several times a year here because they’re widely-known — some are so extreme that they come across as deliberate.

Indeed, some aspiring writers evidently believe flouting the rules is a legitimate means of making their queries and submissions stand out from the crowd. But as any pro could tell you, while submitting your book proposal in a hot pink folder, or your manuscript bound in leather, would indeed make Millicent notice your work, it would not be for the right reason. No aspiring writer should want the first impression she makes on an agency to be, “Wow, this one’s not very professional.”

That’s why, should any of you conference-attendees have been wondering, so many agents say from the conference podium, “Please, don’t send me cookies/balloons/DVDs of interpretive dance versions of your story along with your query or submission.” The sad fact is, they have been sent all of these things in the past — and that strategy has never once worked in attracting positive attention to the book projects to which those goodies were attached.

Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you hear an agent bring up the no gifts, please policy at a conference, ask about the last time she or anyone at her agency has received such an extra in a query or submission packet. If so, ask her to name the title of the book, its author, or what it was about.

I guarantee you that in even the most egregious case, she will not be able to remember the first two. And if she can recall the third, it will be because the gift in question was directly related to the book’s subject matter.

As in, “Oh, God, remember the time that the live iguana crawled out of the box holding that jungle survival memoir?”

Trust me, that’s not how you want Millicent — or anyone else at an agency, on a contest-judging panel, or at a publishing house — to remember you or your work. Nor, really, do you want to be memorable primarily as the person who sent the wacky formatting. Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be remembered for the beauty of your writing, the poignancy of your plot, the trenchancy of your analysis, the depth of your character development…

Well, you get the picture. If you happen to be a genius — and, again, who am I to say, without first examining the evidence? — removing the distractions of unusual formatting, non-standard spelling or grammar, and so forth can only help Millicent notice it. Positively, that is.

Let your writing speak for itself. The same holds true, of course, for magnificent dialogue. Read on!

Obviously, whether a particular opening page constitutes overkill, over the top, laughable, or is melodramatic (rejection reasons nos. 64, 65, 66, and 69, respectively) lies largely in the eye of the reader — specifically, in the reader’s sense of the possible. The agents on the panel cried, “Unbelievable!” and “Implausible!” a lot in response to the submitted first pages that they rejected for these reasons.

That’s not all that surprising: whether a situation is believable or not is largely dependent upon the reader’s life experience, isn’t it? Since my childhood strongly smacked at times of having been directed by Federico Fellini, I tend to find a broader array of written situations plausible than, say, someone who grew up on a cul-de-sac in an middle-class suburb, attended a minor Ivy, and was working at a first job in Manhattan while her parents paid a significant portion of her living expenses because that glamorous entry-level job in the publishing industry didn’t pay enough to live.

Does that mean I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant? Probably — but remember, these people are individuals with individual tastes, not manuscript-scanning robots sharing a single computerized brain. Naturally, not every Millicent or Maury (Millie’s cousin who screens submissions at a publishing house, if you’ll recall) is from the background I mentioned above; some have conceptions of the probable that would undoubtedly make mine seem downright prosaic.

So what kind of level of credulity should an aspiring writer expect in a professional reader? Good question — but not one with an easy answer.

The safest strategy is to bear in mind that even if you hit the submission jackpot and your work slides under the eyes of a Millicent very open to the worldview and style of your particular book, it’s the writer’s job to depict that world believably — and to do so not merely for her ideal reader. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book.

Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents’ wallets. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.

Yeah, I know: where has she been for the past 30 years? (Partially, not yet being born, I would guess.)

While there’s no way to disaster-proof a manuscript so no conceivable reader could ever find it implausible, not all of the rejection reasons above invariably spring from personal-experiential approaches to judgment. Most of the time, these criticisms can be averted by judicious presentation of the story.

And that, my friends, the writer can control.

For instance, #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. It’s not necessarily that the concept or characterization is bad, or even poorly-drawn: there’s just too much of it crammed into too short a piece of prose.

Since most of us were taught that the opening of any piece of writing needs to hook the reader, the critique of over-intensity can seem a bit contradictory, if not downright alien. As we’ve discussed many times before, good writers are people of extraordinary sensitivity; “Genius,” Ezra Pound taught us, “is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one.”

Setting aside the fact that as much could be said for the delusional — is it genius that produces dancing pink elephants in one’s peripheral vision? — Mssr. Pound’s observation may be applied productively to talent. Good writers do notice more than other people, typically.

So is it really all that astonishing when an aspiring writer attempting to catch an agent’s attention (especially one who has attended enough writers’ conferences to learn that Millicent LIKES books that open with action) begins with slightly too big a bang? Not really, but this is a classic instance of where additional polishing can make the difference between an exciting opening scene and one that strikes Millicent as over-the-top.

The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right. You don’t want to so overload the reader with gore, violence, or despair that she tosses it aside immediately. Nor do you want to be boring. Usually, it is enough to provide a single strong, visceral opening image, rather than barraging the reader with a lengthy series of graphic details.

Before half of you start reading the opening page of THE LOVELY BONES to me, allow me to say: I know, I know. I don’t make the rules; I just comment upon them.

Allow me to remind you: there is no such thing as a single book that will please every agent and editor in the industry. If you are worried that your work might be too over the top for a particular agency, learn the names of four or five of their clients, walk into your nearest well-stocked bookstore, and start pulling books from the shelves. Usually, if your opening is within the intensity range of an agency’s client list, your submission will be fine.

The same tactic works well, incidentally, for dialogue. If you want to gain a sense of what kind of — or how much — dialogue the agent of your dreams thinks is just right for an opening page, take a judicious gander at page 1 of that agent’s clients’ most recent books. Ideally, the clients who have published their first or second books recently. (Don’t bother with releases more than five years old; they won’t necessarily be reflective of what the agent is selling now.) If that particular agent isn’t a fan of opening with dialogue, or prefers a higher character-development to action ratio, that should become apparent pretty quickly, once you have an array of books you know he likes in front of you.

No need to be slavish about it — “His clients average 6.7 lines of dialogue on page 1, so I must revise until I have no fewer than 6 and no more than 7!” would, in fact, be an insanely literal response. There’s no magic formula here. Just aim for the same ballpark.

You could also, I suppose, apply this standard to the question of plausibility. (Ah, you’d thought I’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you?) For that test to be useful, though, you should limit your book selections to titles within your chosen book category.

Oh, does somebody out there think what would be believable in a paranormal urban mystery would also fly in a Highland romance?

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the plausibility continuum. Both tend to provoke what folks in the movie biz call bad laughter, chuckles that the author did not intend to elicit; because the writing seems mismatched to the action (the most common culprit: over-the-top or clichéd dialogue), the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is broken.

Thus, both #69 and #66 refer to ways in which the narrative pulls the reader out of the story — the exact opposite of the goal of the hook, to draw the reader into it.

What’s the difference between melodrama and just plain old drama, you ask? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli. Although most of us tend to think of melodrama as being constantly concerned with operatic, life-and-death issues (“I can’t pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” etc.), usually on the page, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict shown not being high enough for the characters.

Lowering the intensity level to drama then is making the stakes and the reaction seem proportionate. For example, if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally come across as dramatic. If, however, she sings a self-pitying aria because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama. (Or comedy.)

Need I even say that the rise of reality TV, which is deliberately edited to emphasize interpersonal conflict, has increased the amount of melodrama the average agency screener encounters in submissions on any given day? Or any given hour?

A good rule of thumb for revision purposes: it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (Before anyone rolls his eyes at me: as I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an justification that generally gains much traction with Millicent.)

If you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine, but do bear in mind that to qualify, the conflict has to matter to the reader, not just to you. As I pointed out above, one mark of professional writing is a clear cognizance of the reader’s point of view; many a manuscript has been scuttled by bad laughter at a submission’s overblown insistence that a minor inconvenience is one of the major slings and arrows to which flesh is prey.

As Carl Sagan so trenchantly informed us, “the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Hard to argue with that, Carl.

And this goes double if you are writing comedy, because the line between cajoling the reader into laughing along with the narrative and at it is a fine one. Overreaction to trifles is a staple of film and television comedy, but it’s hard to pull off on the printed page. Especially on the FIRST printed page, when the reader is not yet fond of the protagonist or familiar with the protagonist’s quirks — much sitcom comedy relies upon the audience’s recognizing a situation as likely to trigger character responses before the character realizes it, right?

Generally speaking, comedy grounded in a believable situation works better in a book opening than a scene that is entirely wacky, or where we are introduced to a character via his over-reactions. The more superficial a situation is, the harder it is for the reader to identify with the protagonist who is reacting to it.

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Ditto if the reader still doesn’t have a strong impression of what it would be like to stand in the room/in the wilderness/on the burning deck where your opening scene takes place.

Not that you should load down your opening with physical description — that was a bugbear described earlier on the rejection list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there.

Because, after all, “The essence of genius is to know what to overlook,” as William James teaches us.

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70,“This is tell-y, not showy.” Because of all the common writerly missteps that a pro would polish away from both fiction and memoir, nothing prompts Millicent to cry, “Next!” faster than prose that tells, rather than shows.

Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is the single most frequently-given piece of manuscript critique. The overwhelming majority of writing out there — yes, including the first pages of submissions — is generality-ridden. Just ask Millicent.

Visceral details don’t just show — they give the reader the impression of physically occupying the protagonist’s body, vicariously feeling the rude slap of air-conditioning upon sun-warmed skin, the acrid smudge of smoke on the tongue while fleeing the scene of the fire, the sweet tang of the slightly under-ripe peach that girl with long, red hair has just slipped into the protagonist’s mouth.

“The patent system,” Abraham Lincoln noted, “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (Oh, you thought it was easy to come up with an apt quote every time? Besides, I had to get that redhead’s oral incursions out of your head somehow.)

Okay, okay, if you insist, here’s a better one: “What is genius,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning asked us, “but the power of expressing a new individuality?”

That’s lovely, Liz, and couldn’t be more appropriate to the struggle to create genuinely memorable writing and a unique authorial voice. Try to view the imperative to keep the reader in mind not as a limit upon your personal creativity, but as an extension of it, an opportunity to share the world you have created in your book more fully with your audience.

Yes, to pull that off, you’re probably going to have to invest quite a bit of time in revision and polishing, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Scotty. More on ramping up those visceral details follows next time — keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part IV: sins of excess, prose that flushes purple (or at least mauve), and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities

August 25th, 2010

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I think that revisiting some of our well-beloved (and much-hated) list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 is being very fruitful, but it’s a mite depressing, isn’t it? I’m re-posting only selected ones, moving through the dialogue-relevant ones, as swiftly as I can, but still, it feels a bit like wading through mud. Thick mud, the kind that doesn’t come off easily in the wash.

Not to nag, but I suspect it feels that way in part because folks have been chiming in less than usual in the comments. That could mean one of three things: you don’t have anything to say, you’re all off madly pulling together queries and submissions in anticipation of the annual Return of the Literary to New York-based agencies and publishing houses after Labor Day , or even this limited dip back into the dreaded rejection list has stunned and shocked half of you into a coma.

Present-day Anne here: the comments on this post the first time I ran it indicated that the coma option was the most popular response, followed closely by manuscript-shredding despair. As honest and incisive reader Reba pointed out:

Having spent the afternoon reading this entire series, I am struggling to not permanently trunk everything I’ve ever written. Fortunately, that whinging reaction triggered my stubborn streak and I have come to accept that what is necessary is a good, hard look at what I’ve written and, I shudder to say, an enormous amount of actual WORK before I subject the poor Millicents of the world to my prose.

I find this attitude very healthy, truth be known. Naturally, it’s annoying to hear that professional standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit higher — as well as quite a bit more specific — than the average aspiring writer has been lead to believe, or even than what that same writer may have seen done in books published ten years ago or by already-established authors. Those of you who have poured your heart, time, and intellect into producing a manuscript have every right to find that news irritating. Have a good, old-fashioned tantrum about it, then do what Reba did: take a critical look at your own work and move on.

Why am I bringing this up just before we launch into today’s blast from the archived past, you ask nervously? Well, I’m hoping to be winding up out trip down memory lane fairly soon — before Labor Day, we’ve got contest-winning first pages to discuss at length and a truly exciting guest blog (more on that later). In this interval, I also hope many of you are busily preparing your entries for the Author! Author!/Hard Time Words Across the Water literary contest; deadline for entries is midnight (in whatever time zone you happen to be occupying) on September 6.

Why the rush to get through all of that before Labor Day? Well, that’s when the NYC publishing world’s annual exodus ends. While it might be a bit much to expect dancing in the streets, it will once again make sense to send queries and submissions in Manhattanite agents’ general direction.

Not entirely coincidentally, I like to mark the occasion with an intense discussion of what does and does not make a good query letter. Heck, we’re close enough to this exciting time of the year that I have punched up today’s revisited post, to alter its original January-specific submission advice to some that’s more applicable to this time of year.

So why are we sitting around gabbing? We have a lot to do this hot August evening. As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

One caveat about the post to come: although some of the points below are not directly related to the construction and the revision of dialogue per se, all of them could be applied to dialogue scenes. In their rush toward reproducing dialogue realistically, aspiring writers often overlook opportunities to use dialogue for character development. But shouldn’t interesting characters say interesting things?

Worth pondering, at least. Enjoy!

Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to prep those queries and long-requested submissions with an eye to popping those materials into the mail in a couple of weeks? If so, good thinking: early to mid-September is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably planning to labor toward that laudable goal during the upcoming (and aptly-named) Labor Day weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the just-back-from-vacation backlog.

Why avoid weekend e-submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

So tell me: if you were she, would you be more or less likely than usual to shout “Next!” over the first submission or query that happened to run afoul of one of your pet peeves?

On a not entirely unrelated note, shall we get on with the many, many reasons Millicent is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can continue prepping to send out those submissions? As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read-prior-to-rejection, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

Why might that in and of itself raise a raise flag for Millicent? Well, as we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all. Rather ironic, considering that same agent may well ask the producer of that 1-in-10,000 camera-ready manuscript for some fairly hefty revisions after signing her, but hey, the pros reason, an aspiring writer capable of producing a clean, compelling draft might reasonably be expected to produce a clean, compelling revision, too.

The reverse expectation applies as well, of course — and that can be most unfortunate for a Frankenstein manuscript that needs only one more solid revision pass to be market-ready. While the writer might well ( and with good reason) regard such a manuscript as close enough to perfect that it’s worth starting to submit, it can be pretty hard for a swiftly-scanning Millicent to differentiate between a voice that’s uneven because the writer was in a hurry to get it out the door and a voice that’s uneven because the writer has not found the proper narrative voice for the book yet.

Why might that difficulty be problematic for a submitter? Because Millicent’s boss would have to invest a great deal more time and energy in giving guidance to the writer still experimenting with voice; by contrast, all the agent would have to do for the writer who just hasn’t ironed out the kinks yet is make a few generalized revision requests. By the same token, when faced with writing that’s not polished, our Millie is left to guess whether the writer just hasn’t had a chance to go back and buff it up a bit (and thus might be relied upon to do so without much coaching) or if — heaven forfend — the writer simply isn’t experienced enough to be able to tell which sentences flow well and which do not.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up will often find itself in the rejection pile. Millicent does not want to risk running into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “Here’s one that you’ll really like — but fair warning, the writer doesn’t seem to realize that the book doesn’t start until page 17. You don’t mind explaining that to her, do you?”

Chances are that he will mind. Quite a lot, actually.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have been tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect to time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens, say, mid-argument.

The same principle applies to a dialogue scene that dwells on the same argumentative point for too long — or, even more common, consists entirely of people being polite and pleasant to one another. Remember, the point of good dialogue is not to hold a tape recorder up to actual speech; it’s a tool to show interpersonal conflict, develop character, and move the plot along.

What should a reviser do when confronted with dialogue that does none of these things? Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it warms up my editing shears wonderfully to imagine Millicent muttering, “Get ON with it!”

I know; it’s limiting to have to think in these terms. But being aware of the pacing imperative prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print — and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Yes, even to make it through dialogue scenes. When a reader sees as much dialogue as our Millie does, it’s genuinely rare that a character says something that simultaneously makes sense for the ongoing scene, adds to character development, AND surprises her.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Especially on page 1.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially prolix first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

Again, in case you’re wondering: that’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format

If you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right. If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly

Actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter or title page.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.

(4) Consider editing for length.

If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

Like taking too long to come to the point, #59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the uncharitable conclusion screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question. What is that conclusion, you ask? The writer doesn’t think this story or these characters are interesting enough to retain a reader’s attention, and thus relies on punctuation and/or writing tricks to compensate.

Hey, I warned you that it was uncharitable.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish. In much the same way that an insecure comedy writer will depict characters rocking with laughter in order to convey that a situation or speaker is supposed to be funny, a barrage of exclamation points reads like an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation.

Since these particular prejudices are shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class. Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (professional readers often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft, because — wait for it — such writers are more time-consuming clients.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

That made some of you dialogue-revisers sit up and take notice, didn’t it? Generally speaking, exclamation points are far more comfortable in dialogue than in narrative paragraphs — but even then, take care not to go overboard. Punctuation is not really designed to take the place of description, after all; if a character is excited, there are a million ways to show it over and above simultaneously hitting the SHIFT and 1 keys.

If you suspect that your dialogue is exclamation point-heavy, try this experiment: select a chapter and circle all of the exclamation points. Then pick up a highlighting pen (you knew I wouldn’t let you keep ‘em in the drawer for long, didn’t you?) and mark every non-dialogue sentence that ends in one of the pesky things. Take another color and highlight every piece of dialogue spoken by the protagonist that ends in an exclamation point. Using different colors for each speaker, repeat.

Now flip back through the chapter. What color predominates? How many pages between highlighting? How many paragraphs? How many lines?

Once you have identified patterns, you can begin to make strategic choices. If you find, for instance, that exclamation points tend to congregate in scenes between particular characters, ask yourself: am I using punctuation as a substitute for character or relationship development here? If you are using the exclamation points primarily for younger characters (a rather common unconscious authorial choice, by the way), are there speech patterns or vocabulary choices that would make the same point? What would happen if you picked the most exclamation point-using character, and removed the exclamation points from other characters’ speech, to make the emphasis a character trait?

And so forth. There is no formula for how much exclamation point use is too much, but as with semicolons, norms vary from book category to book category. For most adult fiction and memoir, though, you should seriously consider removing most or all of the exclamation points from narrative sentences.

While over-use of exclamation points is often a mark of inexperience, #61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading. An amazingly high percentage of first pages are feature narration positively peppered with as if, as though, and our old friend like. While all of these analogy-introducers are perfectly acceptable in moderation, a too-heavy reliance upon them is one of the classic birthmarks of a first manuscript.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic scene considerably — and can weigh down an opening so much that it can’t get off the ground. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail of streets that is Nob Hill as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s apartment, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes. Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole.

There are far too many stock phrases to list here, of course, but the agents on the panel specifically singled out She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of those see storms. However, that doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers rolling their eyes, protagonists sighing as the sole indicator of disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more another time) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, it’s not all that uncommon for any given agent or editor to perceive him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell my work as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They simply don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails just after Labor Day.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part III: avert your eyes, children

August 24th, 2010

ourbodiesourjunkcover

I find myself in a quandary today, campers: I want to announce — nay, trumpet — the release of FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Mike Sacks’ new book, SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK from Random House today. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t have any reservations at all about recommending this hilarious take-off on the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s venerable reference classic, OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. (What took that so long to happen, eh?) It’s funny, it’s comprehensive, and it’s written by a group of well-respected comedy writers under the collective pseudonym the Association for the Betterment of Sex.

What’s not to like?

So what’s the crux of my quandary, you ask impatiently? If I posted the publisher’s blurb for this book verbatim, as is my wont with new releases, most Internet filters of the type employed by parents and public libraries would block this post.

Oh, you may laugh at a screening program’s not being bright enough to tell the difference between comedy and {WORD EXPUNGED}, but it’s actually true — and I find that annoying, as I suspect a lot of smart teenage readers (and public library-users, for that matter) would enjoy Mike’s writing quite a bit. Pardon me while I rack my brains, searching for a way around this knotty problem.

That’s knotty, not naughty, screening program.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may remember Mike’s guest post last year, a fabulous discussion of the art of being funny with legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe. I’ve been busily blandishing Mike behind the scenes into gracing us again with his insights on comedy writing; since I’m a champion author-blandisher, I suspect that I shall succeed. (Watch this space, comedy writers.)

Those of you interested in getting tips from the best might also remember him as the interviewer and compiler of AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT, a fascinating and very useful volume, containing sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing. To name but three:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

Ah, how well I recall plugging AND HERE’S THE KICKER last year. It was a simpler time, a happier time, when good new releases had family-friendly language in their blurbs…

All right, already: I’m going to throw caution to the winds and post the publisher’s blurb for OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Darn the torpedoes, so to speak; I would like to see my teenage readers have access to both this book and OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. To ascertain that this post will be visible to as many of my regular readers as possible, though, I shall simply place a few discreet visual barriers in front of the words and concepts that might prove problematic.

GOOD GOD—YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG . . .

The Association for the Betterment of Sex (A.B.S.) presents Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, a radical and invaluable resource for improving your sexual communication—whether you have been in a committed relationship for years, or have just moments ago removed the shrinkwrap from your new {EXPUNGED}.

Here are just a few sensual revelations you’ll find within these pages:

- The precise location of the female {EXPUNGED} (latitude and longitude)

- “Going on tour with Midnight Oil” and more outmoded {EXPUNGED} slang

- Forced perspective and other techniques for visually enhancing the size of {EXPUNGED}

- The Top Five pastry-related euphemisms for {EXPUNGED}

- How to score big at your next {EXPUNGED} party, with our crowd-pleasing ambrosia-salad recipe

- Listings of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” dry-cleaning services, for freshening up your vinyl {EXPUNGED} or adult-sized {EXPUNGED} costume

- Your first {EXPUNGED}, and how the ancient Mayans predicted it wouldn’t go over so hot

Exhaustively researched and fully illustrated, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk is a must-read for you, your sexual partner(s), and anyone who wishes there was more to sex than {EXPUNGED} for a few seconds and begging for forgiveness.

Now that we’ve celebrated Mike’s new release, let’s get back to the topic at hand: dialogue revision. (If you can manage to drag your mind away from speculating about all of those expunged words and phrases, that is. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a little artistic draping of the essentials can actually be quite a bit sexier on the page than {EXPUNGED}.)

At the risk of setting the filtering programs’ red lights flashing, enjoy!

pearlfishers

I went to see THE PEARLFISHERS at the Seattle Opera again last night; since the tenor had been practically inaudible with the cast we saw the first time, we went back and saw the other, in which the baritone was practically inaudible. Oh, well, you can’t have everything — where would you put it? (As comic Stephen Wright has been asking plaintively for years. One should never borrow a good joke without attributing it.)

During opera mach II, I was thinking about you fine people and the list of common reasons submissions get rejected on page 1 we’ve been discussing, admittedly a bit one-sidedly, for the last couple of weeks. During the protracted opening scene with the acres of milling supernumeraries and ten minutes of heavily Balanchine-influenced prancing around (don’t even get me started on the five minutes of dance in Act III that was apparently lifted directly from THE PRODIGAL SON), I kept murmuring to myself, “Um, haven’t we heard this dialogue already? And is it really necessary to tell the audience fifteen times that you’re dancing when the choreographer has placed ocular evidence at the front of the stage?”

I suppose that my response could be regarded as a sort of SCARED STRAIGHT for would-be editors — this is where hardcore manuscript screening leads, kids — but seriously, the opera’s first ten minutes ran afoul of a hefty percentage of our cringe list for manuscript openings. For instance:

3. The opening was about setting, not about story.

6. Took too long for anything to happen.

7. Not enough happens in the opening.

24. The opening spent too much time describing the environment, and not enough on character.

32. Where’s the conflict?

38. Repetition (all of that explanation that they’re dancing in Sri Lanka)

39. Too many generalities.

51. Hollywood narration

It just goes to show you: judging one art form by the standards of another isn’t all that productive — so any of you who are planning to defend repetitious or Hollywood narration-based dialogue to your future agents and editors as something done in movies, plays, or on opera stages all the time might want to think twice.

I just mention. Back to not entirely unrelated business.

I’m writing today’s post between appointments, balanced on the rather unstable table of a coffee-purveying chain that shall remain nameless. While I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you last time, and I freely admit it: I was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print.

Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be bearable as written dialogue.

It may be that the patrons’ caffeine purchases haven’t hit their bloodstreams yet, but if what they said had turned up on the submission page, our old pal Millicent the agency screener would have been reaching for the Xeroxed rejection letters within seconds. You wouldn’t believe how similar the things one customer says to a barista are to the things the next customer says, and the next.

Which brings me to #31 on our list of common reasons submissions get rejected before the list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. If I may be so bold as to elaborate upon this excellent observation, permit me to add: and neither is real-life dialogue, necessarily.

This is a point I harp upon this particular point with fair regularity (and if you doubt that, please see the posts under the aptly-named BUT IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY! category on the archive list at right), I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make absolutely certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Suffice it to say that real-life events are so frequently shoved into otherwise fictional accounts wholesale so often that any Millicent worth her weight in lattes soon learns to spot ‘em a mile away.

Already, I sense some readerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some writers of the real point out querulously, “one of the virtues of fiction is the insight it gives the reader into life as it is actually lived. So how precisely is it a remotely negative thing if Millicent mutters over my manuscript, ‘Oh, that bit seems real’?”

Counterintuitive from the writer’s perspective, isn’t it? It’s a storytelling problem, at base: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating real events into a fictional narrative, it’s undoubtedly jarring for the reader trundling along merrily within a fictional reality to suddenly be confronted with a scene or incident that is, as the LAW AND ORDER folks like to say, ripped from the headlines.

Why? Because anything that pulls the reader out of the story by breaking the smoothness of the narrative’s worldview is bound to be distracting.

Which is a nice way of hinting obliquely that aspiring writers very frequently just drop in real elements — and real dialogue — into a story as if their very veracity were sufficient excuse to include them. From the reader’s point of view, that’s just not true; to get and remain involved, the story in from of him must appear to be one unbroken piece.

“But Anne,” the disgruntled pipe up again, “I can understand where that might be problematic in mid-book, after the story has gotten up and running, but on page 1, there isn’t an already-established narrative line to break, is there? It seems to me that if I should be dropping real elements into my writing wholesale — which I fully understand that you’re advising me not to do — page 1 would be absolutely the safest place to do it.”

Interesting argument, but no: strategically, you’re going to want page 1 to exhibit not only your best writing — the better to entrance Millicent, my dears — but to be representative of the writing throughout the rest of the book. If, as is often the case in dialogue, the real is not as compelling as the fictional, it’s not going to be as effective an introduction to the rest of the book as a writer might like.

One of the things we’ve learned in this series is that in order to be grabbed by a manuscript, Millicent needs to be sufficiently charmed by the narrative voice and storyline from the very first sentence, so it is imperative for the writing to establish the author’s unique voice and worldview right away. If that first sentence — or anything on the first page, really — is at odds with the rest of the narrative, the transition is going to feel rocky whenever it comes.

And if that displacement rocks the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on page one, it’s going to be pretty difficult for the reader to sink into the story. Particularly if that reader is as jaded to the practice as Millicent.

But I said I wasn’t going to lecture you on the inherent perils of dropping the unpolished real into your manuscripts, didn’t I? Honestly, all I intend to do is nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel.

The editorial advice against utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters. (And if you doubt that, try explaining to a 14-year-old why any bystander was shocked when Rosa Parks declined to proceed to the rear of a certain bus.)

Many, many aspiring writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Most of the time, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more.

Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay.

This part of the process can be lengthy, even for a book that ultimately sells very well indeed. Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed.

Often, it is longer — so a reference that seemed fresh as paint (where that cliché come from, do you suppose?) when it fell off the writer’s fingertips onto the keyboard will almost certainly be at least two and a half years old before it reaches readers of the published book.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. It might even generate — heaven forfend! — a bad laugh, a chuckle unforeseen by the author that jars the reader out of the world of the story.

Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript automatically sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About seven years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was seeking to add to an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books not to write.) So, as I tried to explain gently to the writer, this manuscript was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I pointed out, “this will make your book obsolete. You want readers to keep finding your book relevant, don’t you? Could you possibly come up with less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be adequately characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere. About a year and a half later, she contacted me to gloat: she had managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher.

The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air. It did not see a second printing.

My point, shout you care to know it: be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones, into fiction manuscripts — and seriously consider excising them entirely from your first few pages, unless the book is set more than 20 years ago. The chances that Millicent will immediately exclaim, “Well, that’s an interesting example/analogy/temporal marker, but it’s going to read as dated by next week,” are just too high.

Yes, yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of nonfiction books on current events, even ones recent enough that they could not possibly have gone through the lengthy pre-publication process I’ve just described. The next time you are in that bookstore, take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform.

Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN — and at this point, even the latter might well strike an agent or editor as a dated credential. Mainstream culture marches on FAST.

Present-day Anne here: as is abundantly illustrated by just how outdated that Hurricane Katrina reference seems now. It was just-out-of-the-oven fresh when I first drafted a version this post — and still pretty strongly in the public consciousness when I ran an updated version a year and a half ago. Sic transit gloria.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do decide to disregard my advice entirely — oh, I have no illusions left about writers’ reactions to even the best editorial advice, at this point — and include present-day references, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names you cite correctly. Not only people’s names, but brand names as well.

Stop laughing; this is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir knocked out of finalist consideration solely for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ‘em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Make sure, too, that the sources you consult for verification are reliable; remember, it’s not as though everything currently posted on the Internet is spelled correctly. If you’re in serious perplexity about where to turn to double-check, call your local public library and ask where to start looking.

But whatever you do, don’t just run them through a spell-checker — because the more up-to-the-minute those names are, the less likely your spell-checking program is to be aware of them — or check with kith and kin, who may also have been laboring under your misconception that it’s FDR that delivers flowers, rather than FTD.

Not that I wouldn’t pay good money to see President Roosevelt show up on my doorstep bearing a bouquet, mind you. I’m just saying that Millicent up on her presidential history might be a trifle startled to see him navigating a wheelchair festooned with stargazer lilies into her cubicle today.

There’s an important lesson to take from this, over and above the perennial proofreading imperative to get technical matters right before submitting pages containing them: ultimately, the written word is for the ages, not the moment.

That can be easy to forget in catering to agents focused on what’s selling to publishing houses right now, but it’s true, nevertheless. Nothing ages as quickly (or as badly) as last year’s pop culture reference.

Or, to get back to my initial nag, as last year’s cool catchphrase. If you’re devoted to reproducing actual conversation, you might want to bear that in mind, because, as anyone sentenced to listen to ambient chatter in a café could tell you, everyday conversation is loaded with catchphrases and references that would make the reader of ten years from now mutter, “Huh?” under her breath.

And the well-trained Millicent to shake her head over them right now. Choose your references carefully, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part II: let’s revisit dialogue repetition…repetition…repetition…

August 22nd, 2010

broken-record

For those of you who haven’t joined us for a week or two, I’ve been busy spending my doctor-ordered take-it-easy-on-the-hands time by re-running a few older posts. Specifically, posts at least marginally related to the topic we were discussing when a car crash so rudely interrupted us: writing and revising dialogue so it rings true, adds to the story, and entertains the reader.

Or, to translate all that into the negative terms in which professional readers tend to critique work, so it doesn’t seem contrived, isn’t gratuitous, and prevents the reader from falling into the deep, refreshing slumber so often induced by dialogue ripped from real life.

To that end, I shall be repeating today the two tactics that worked so well (if I do say so myself) last time. First, I’m going to import material from that still most visited of my archival series, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk, a lighthearted romp through dozens and dozens of reasons that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, might feel compelled to reject a submission on page 1. Second, rather than re-run the dialogue-related posts in that series individually, I shall mash a couple together and add a bit more material, just to keep things interesting for those of you who were hanging around Author! Author! a year and a half ago.

So is it a re-run, if it is no precisely as it was the first time around? You tell me.

Enjoy!

As I may have mentioned before in this forum, Hollywood narration (dialogue wherein characters telling one another things they already know purely for the purpose of letting the reader know them, too) tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory.

In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the agents’ forum from which I derived the list of pet peeves we’ve been discussing. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case.

Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The agents on the panel tore it to pieces. Actually, the panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.

*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.

*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)

*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)

*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any submission any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence.

So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

What can happen if an aspiring writer just assumes that what he’s got in mind is what Millicent will take away from the page? Well, let me put it this way: the writer who penned the opening I’ve just described– a gentle lady who had waited a year to be able to submit her opening page to this forum, I later learned — did not laugh along with the judges. She sat there, open-mouthed and blushing furiously, obviously stunned that anyone could read her innocent page 1 in such a manner.

Why did she feel so blindsided? Well, if I had to guess — and I do! I do! — it was probably because her opening gambit was one she had seen so often in the openings of TV shows, movies, and yes, even books.

Wait, where have I heard that before?

Seriously, this sub-species of Hollywood narration can be very hard for self-editors to catch. Take, for instance, the following example. (And if you can’t take it because the image is so small, try increasing the size by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing +.)

Hollywood narration2

While you were reading that little gem, did you think at least twice, Gee, is there a particular reason that the reader needs to be told all of this backstory on page 1? If so, congratulations: Millicent would have had the same thought. By the middle of paragraph 3.

But be honest now, campers: if you had encountered that page in a critique group yesterday, would you instantly have tapped its author on the shoulder and whispered, “Dear friend, what you have there is a classic example of Hollywood narration, and I implore you to reconsider opening your book in this manner?” Or would you simply have admired how quickly and economically the writer worked in all of that backstory?

The vast majority of aspiring writers would have opted for the latter. Just so you know, however, Millicent would appreciate it if the next time any of you should find yourself in this situation, you would start tapping some shoulders.

Why? Because she sees this sort of opening so very, very often. Which brings me to rejection reason #30: over-use of dialogue in the name of realism.

At the risk of dropping the needle on a broken record (have your grandparents explain that metaphor to you, children), real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. But in defense of realism, real-life dialogue seldom resembles Hollywood narration, either. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party.

It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time. I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Move it along.

When talkers do fill one another in on personal backstory, it’s usually in the form of specific anecdotes (“When I was seventeen, I had just put on my favorite record when a condor flew into my bedroom…”) or personalized summaries of larger events (“I got married in the year the condors carried off my little brother…”), rather than in Hollywood narration-type generalities (“When I was young, condors were the number one municipal problem here in Ridgedale, the pleasant small town where you and I both grew up, Tony. Remember how often the black wings used to blot out the sun? Why, I was just reminding my wife, Martha, about how dark it was on our wedding day. Remember, dear? How you screamed as the black, black birds carried our ring bearer — my brother and your fishing buddy, Tony — off into the wild blue yonder…”

See the difference? If not, I’m sure Tony would be happy to go over your collective past with you a few more times.

Typically, at this juncture, I blithely suggest that writers enamored of the idea of reproducing dialogue precisely as it is heard in real life try a little experiment: sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down overheard conversations verbatim. Don’t fill in any logical gaps; reproduce it as is. Afterward, go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using ONLY the dialogue actually heard.

If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you either have an unusually high threshold for boredom or a great affection for the mundane. Either way, have you considered a career as an agency screener, where these traits would be positive boons?

It’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result of this exercise past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding REAL is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining.

So here’s a radical notion for all of you revisers out there: why don’t you edit your opening pages with an eye toward entertaining Millicent, as well as future readers, rather than using them merely as a medium for backstory?

I heard half of you groaning. Yes, oh groaners, your surmise is correct: I am indeed about to tell you that a savvy reviser should pay as much attention to word, phrase, and concept repetition in dialogue as in narrative paragraphs.

Yes, Virginia, even if your work happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Slice-of-life pieces can be quite effective IF they are short — but frankly, in my opinion, most of what goes on in the real world doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Far, far better to apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something BETTER than reality, I say. The same goes for dialogue.

And yes, now that you mention it, that will mean a good deal more revision for most writers. Feel free to groan again.

Some of you are already reaching for your BUT PEOPLE REALLY TALK LIKE THAT! picket signs, aren’t you? That’s not too surprising. 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? Chant it with me now, long-time readers of this blog: 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.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because I spoke earlier in this series about how little Millicent appreciates repetition of any kind; I also rattled on a bit last time about how conceptually repetitious most real-life dialogue tends to be. But today, I want to talk about repetition on a smaller scale, within the actual writing.

As I have pointed out before, the single most common word appearing in submissions in every book category is and. Leaning on this multi-purpose word can lead to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting the bubonic plague.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, from Millicent’s point of view.

You would not believe, for instance, just how often the sentence structure, X happened and Y happened turns up in dialogue. From a hold-the-mirror-up-to-nature point of view, that’s completely understandable, because it’s structure that speakers use all the time. Even when writers are constructing narrative rather than dialogue, they tend to find this structure appealing: like stringing together sentences beginning with conjunctions, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow, as in:

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

See? Chatty, casual: the way your local poisoner is very likely to say it to her next-door neighbor, right? In a single sentence, it makes for a rather likable voice.

If this structure is used sparingly, it can work very well indeed — but as any professional reader who has been at it a while would be delighted to tell you, its advocates seldom seem to be able to restrain themselves. Let’s take a peek at several sentences of this type in a row, to see why it might annoy your garden-variety Millicent at the end of a long, hard day of rejection:

Esmeralda blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando 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.

See what I mean? Although 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:

Esmeralda blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando 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 flushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Lest any of you just thought, “Well, all Millicent would have to do is read on to the next paragraph” (or next page, or next chapter) “to discover that I know a whole lot of ways to structure a sentence; I’m not going to worry about that,” may I remind you of one of the most startling truths divulged in this series, that most manuscripts get rejected on page 1? If the opening paragraphs of a submission are structurally repetitious, how likely is it that she’s going to keep reading to find out if the writer shakes things up a little later on?

The sad fact is, most agents, editors, and contest judges would not, alas, at least while perusing a manuscript by an author with whom they do not already enjoy a professional relationship. 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 an X happened and Y happenedsentence within half a page. (See why I felt this issue was important enough to interrupt our review of the Idol list to cover?) At minimum, it would be very much in your submission’s best interest to ferret out over-use of the word and.

So while you are going over your first page with a fine-toothed comb in the wake of this series anyway, why not identify and considering reworking ANY sentence in which and appears more than once? Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:

In evading the police, Zelda 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. Yes, people actually do say things like this in real life, but how much do you think the realism of this sentence is going to help its author get a manuscript past Millicent?

Uh-huh. Good writing matters in dialogue every bit as much as in narration. It’s merely harder to make sound realistic.

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’ classic 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 spend 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 — and no, none of them is optional to observe:

(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 agency screener 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 sensed disgruntled rumblings out there since I mentioned 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 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 restrictions on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to be harboring. 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, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

Clearly, then, these matters are not under my personal control, so kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather 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.

Thus, unless you are getting a 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, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of — gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

Sometimes repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events — which, if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, should automatically make you cringe at the idea of boring Millicent.

And honestly, is a statement like Georgette ran down the stairs and out the station door, then she made a sharp left at the corner, proceeded a hundred yards past the fruit and flower stands, now at four o’clock sadly depleted, and dashed to the waiting taxi worth the risk?

This kind of dismissive reading is not always a fair assessment of an and-ridden text, 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, despite the fact that most Millicents find soliloquizing protagonists a touch annoying) “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 Millicent. Do keep it up.

Since your revision eye is getting so sophisticated, let’s consider the opposite possibility: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), 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? Or did you think you were the only writer in the history of the world who did this?

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 quickest 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: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important.

Which — you guessed it — encourages the reader 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 is not exactly the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right?

When in doubt, revise to minimize the ands. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, 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!”

I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision…

August 20th, 2010

speechgraphic

“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

What a week, campers! Again, I’ll spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say that I shall probably soon be writing comic scenes about medical practitioners who can’t remember which leg is the injured one (hint: could it be the one encased from ankle to hipbone in a brace?), physical therapists incapable of describing any of the activities of the human body without resorting to impenetrable medical jargon, and the intricacies of sweeping out of a treatment room with dignity while on crutches. Adding to the hilarity: the physical therapy facility did not have ADA-compliant doors, so leaving (or coming in, for that matter) required yanking open two thirty-pound glass doors.

How fortunate that the facility never had any visitors with leg or arm problems, eh?

Speaking of characters who evidently have trouble expressing themselves, I’m going to spend the next few days re-running dialogue-related posts from my extremely popular 2009 series on agency screeners’ pet peeves, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk. Actually, I’m going to run two today, albeit in a tricky manner: to save all of you brave and intrepid souls who worked through our recent Frankenstein manuscript series a bit of repetition, I’m smashing the relevant (and non-repetitive) bits together into great, big, Friday-worthy post.

That’s appropriate for Frankenstein manuscript-hardened readers, isn’t it? Enjoy!

I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons on the Idol first-page rejection list related to dialogue. (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.)

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1, plucked from the Idol list:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking a few days ago about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling of rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. (Can you tell that I would really, really like it if any of you who happened to miss that earlier discussion chose to go back and read it?)

However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this is legitimate to discuss as a dialogue problem. While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing.

And that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s just not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, perhaps there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story to follow.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: that’s quite a few questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing while she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context.

But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: {book released 5+ years ago} began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation. In the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall I pause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself, when that tends to annoy Millicent on page 1, too?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none.

Not one iota. It is devoid of any scintilla of character development. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 to find out whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines? Or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count. There is no such thing as a throw-away line on page 1 of a submission.

So let your dialogue reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

Opening dialogue that lives up to that hope is rarer than you might think. Don’t believe me? May I remind you that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol first-page rejection reasons were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect?

Be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, some agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly standard objection to dialogue scenes. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a relatively average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed, irritated and annoyed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most professional readers this kind of tag line use just seems repetitive — or, to phrase it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit more by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo.

Those two telling details made you reconsider your view of Joanna’s tardiness, didn’t they? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation. Make every line of dialogue count, campers, and keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part VIII: more less-than-stellar argumentative techniques, or, when are the violins going to kick in? I’m fox-trotting with a giant squid here!

August 19th, 2010

postcardsquiddancer

Wow, have I ever had a lousy couple of days, campers. Rather than burden you with a vivid account that would depress you into a stupor, though, I’m just going to mention that this is a re-run of an older post and slink off to lick my wounds.

Cheer me up by having some fun with this one in the comments, why don’t you? You may have seen one or two of these examples before — they’re favorites of mine, admittedly — but there’s quite a lot of thought-provoking material analysis here, even if I do say so myself.

As, apparently, I do. Enjoy!

We’ve already talked about quite a number of ways that a protagonist can (and so often does) annoy Millicent by being a bad interviewer — that is, by thwarting the reader’s desire to know what’s going on by failing to ask good questions, omitting to ask logical follow-up questions, and generally not stepping fully into his role as the audience’s surrogate detective. Since these flaws are so very pervasive in manuscripts, professional readers tend to feel that scenes that contain them drag.

“Pick up the pace, already,” Millicent mutters darkly into her latte. “Don’t just sit there, waiting for something to happen.”

Millicent doesn’t have much patience for passive protagonists in general, as all of us here at Author! Author! are only too sorrowfully aware. (And if you’re not, you might want to check out the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page, to learn precisely why a slow-moving hero irritates her so.) Even in a submission stuffed to the gills with conflict, a protagonist who doesn’t invest much energy into an interview, even for a half a page, is likely to raise her hackles.

{Present-day Anne here: especially on a bad day. Every Millicent is entitled to a few of those.}

The professional reader’s distaste for low-conflict dialogue often comes as a great big shock to novelists (and memoirists, for that matter), especially those who write literary fiction. In trying to avoid spending the entire narrative inside the protagonist’s head, they tend to regard dialogue as action — there’s exchange between the characters, right? But if the stakes aren’t very high in the discussion, or if the protagonist doesn’t take a definite side, dialogue is not necessarily conflictual, in the literary sense.

Or, to put it another way: after reading literally thousands of manuscript submissions, Millicent no longer believes that a protagonist is active just because her lips happen to be moving. Talk is as cheap on the page as it is in real life.

In fact, a protagonist can become more passive by talking. Let’s revisit one of my all-time favorite examples of a classic bad interview scene, a rather lengthy excerpt from the 1625 opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini. (Hey, I told you it was a classic.)

Anne here again: to head off the critique that invariably appears every time I use this example, none of this is intended as criticism of the opera. As those who stumble upon this simply because they did a word search on the opera’s name often don’t seem to take the time to notice, this is a blog devoted to the improvement of writing, not musical criticism.

That said, on with the example:

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.

Try not to be distracted by the squid for the moment. (Although would you believe that I wrote the line about squid-jiggery first, then found the antique postcard image above? The Internet is a weird and wonderful place.) Concentrate on how too-easy agreement scuttles what could be some interesting argument.

Or, as Millicent might put it, a scene that might keep her reading.

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, without engaging in convincing argument — 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 becomes positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

And that, unfortunately, makes the conflict seem much less important than if the characters argue the pros and cons at least a little. Usually, the result is a more compelling scene — and better character development for the arguers.

Oh, heck, I’ll go out on a limb here: it’s almost always better storytelling.

Why? Everybody haul out your hymnals and sing along with me now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement. As we discovered last time, unending harmony, as delightful (and rare) as it may be in real life, can be a real snooze-fest on the page.

Even the injection of just a little good, old-fashioned passive-aggression can ginger up a scene no end. (Stop speculating about that squid, I tell you. We’ve moved on.)

Nor does being easily persuaded, non-confrontational, or generally — brace yourself — nice necessarily render a protagonist (or any other character) more likeable to the reader. No, not even if the reader happens to enjoy the company of such sterling souls in real life.

Why, you cry? Because endlessly making nice tends to kill dramatic tension dead, dead, dead.

That seems to come as a surprise to many aspiring writers, judging by the number of first novels and memoirs where the protagonist bends over backwards never to offend anyone — especially common in manuscripts where the protagonist happens to be female, I notice. Butter wouldn’t melt in some of these ladies’ mouths, as the saying goes. Which pretty much inevitably results in either a relatively conflict-free plot or a passive protagonist who stands on the sidelines while the less scrupulous (and more interesting) characters act.

Make something happen: let your characters disagree, equivocate, be downright obstructionist. Interpersonal conflict will usually bring a smile to Millicent’s over-caffeinated face faster than agreement. (Conflict on the page, at least; don’t argue with the nice people in agencies and publishing houses at the submission stage. It will not end well for you.)

And while you’re at it, here’s a radical thought: why not have more going on in a dialogue scene than just the dialogue?

Ooh, that one raised as many hackles as confused eyebrows, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised — many, many novelists (and, again, memoirists are not exempt from the practice) cling tenaciously to that old warhorse of writerly advice, the notion the dialogue should show absolutely everything necessary for the reader to know about a situation, without the added distraction of commentary, insight into thought processes, or physical reactions.

Oh, dear, how to break the realities of professional writing gently to those of you fond of this classic piece of 11th-grade writing guidance? Here’s the best I can do: Millicent would be far, far happier if far, far fewer 11th-grade English teachers had given this advice.

Why? Because approximately 95% of novel submissions contain extensive sections that might as well be written as plays. And while dialogue-only scenes can convey all the reader needs to know, they have a nasty tendency to minimize nuance.

Or, as Millicent has been known to put it, to produce scenes where all that’s going on is what’s going on.

To be fair, chucking all the narrative out of an interview scene is a strategy we’ve all seen work brilliantly, particularly for comedy. Sticking solely to dialogue enables the reader to move quickly through banter, without having her attention drawn away by side comments from the narrator. To haul out yet another of my favorite examples (hey, I had to do something to get your mind off that squid), take a gander at this bit of self-sufficient dialogue from Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22:

“What’s your name, son?” asked Major — de Coverley.

“My name is Milo Minderbinder, sir. I am twenty-seven years old.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“I’m not the mess officer, sir.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do everything in my power to be a good mess officer.”

“Bless you, my boy. Have a horseshoe.”

“Thank you, sir. What should I do with it?”

“Throw it.”

“Away?”

“At that peg there. Then pick it up and throw it at this peg. It’s a game, see? You get the horseshoe back.”

“Yes, sir, I see. How much are horseshoes selling for?”

This is a pretty admirable use of pure dialogue, isn’t it? It tells us everything we need to know about characters that the book is not going to explore in much depth: Major — de Coverley is a whimsical commander who regards his own word as law, and Milo is obsessed with the art of the deal.

Not bad character development, for only thirteen lines of dialogue. As a technique, no-frills dialogue can undoubtedly be extremely useful, and I applaud its use in moderation. However — and this is one of my patented BIG howevers — like the rule about perspective in third-person narration, a lot of writers and writing teachers get carried away with it.

In fact, you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who will tell you, with an absolutely straight face, that dialogue should NEVER be encumbered by non-spoken information.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while should be able to predict my reaction to this: I’m no fan of the hard-and-fast stylistic rule, generally speaking. The rules of grammar I can respect as immutable (as I wish more writers, particularly those who crank out copy for magazines and newspapers, did), but I am always mistrustful of any rule that tells me that I must dismiss a particular piece of writing automatically, without really reading it, on the basis of a stern stylistic preference.

Perversely, so does Millicent, usually, at least in this particular case.

Yes, I know that’s a bit odd in someone whose job is to dismiss many pieces of writing automatically, often based on rather cursory readings, on the basis of stern preconceived notions of, say, how a professional manuscript should be formatted (if you’re not absolutely positive, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before you even dream of passing your pages under her bloodshot eyes) or current conceptions of style within her boss agent’s chosen genre.

But believe me, if you read manuscripts for a living, you might start resenting dialogue-only scenes as well. I must admit it: like Millicent, I often find long stretches of pure dialogue rather boring.

Yet despite the pervasiveness of this attitude amongst professional readers — yes, including contest judges — aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts crammed with lengthy dialogue-only scenes, probably for much the same reason that the other dialogue weaknesses we’ve discussed in this series are so incredibly common. Movies and television have accustomed us to stories told entirely by dialogue, visuals, and background music, after all.

Is this the right time to remind everybody that novels and memoirs are not limited to those storytelling techniques? Would it be too cruel to suggest that utilizing only those means in a manuscript is rather like an orchestra conductor’s telling the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections that they might as well go home, since the tune’s going to be carried entirely by the strings?

There’s nothing wrong with violin music, of course — but if you’re going to the symphony, is that all you want to hear?

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have been hanging out at writers’ conferences lately — particularly conferences that feature those ever-popular speakers, screenwriters eager to share the tricks of their trade with book writers. If you took that same piece of bread you were trying to fling above and cast it at the speakers’ table at the same average conference, you might well hit some expert who had come to tell novelists that their work would be best served by embracing screenwriting techniques with vigor, and keeping thought and physical sensation reportage to a minimum.

I can tell you the source of this advice: a very common fledgling writer tendency to get so bogged down in reporting every thought the protagonist has that the text slows down to the rate of molasses flowing uphill. It is definitely possible to stay too much in a character’s head.

Yes, yes, we all know about Proust and Dostoyevsky’s characters who languish in bed for scores of pages at a stretch, contemplating their lives. It was fresh when they did it, but it’s been done so many times now that it’s bound to seem derivative to any seasoned reader.

For my sins, I once sat through a five-hour version of HAMLET that so catered to the title character that the actor (who, since he is now a rather famous political blogger, shall remain nameless) was allowed to take FIFTEEN MINUTES to get from “To be or not to be” to “Soft you now, the fair Ophelia” — a mere 33 lines of text, according to the Riverside Shakespeare that every college student of my generation owns.

And this for a speech that, as any Shakespearian actor can tell you, half the audience knows well enough by heart to chant softly along with the actor. It was a bit de trop. (Truth compels me to own that since it was the late 1980s, the audience of this particular production of HAMLET was also plagued by repeated playings of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s dubious hit, RELAX, DON’T DO IT. I’ve witnessed more subtle directorial symbolism.)

From the reader’s perspective, a too-long sojourn into any character’s thoughts, feelings, and doubts (a particular favorite for writers of literary fiction, perhaps due to too many viewings of HAMLET in their early youths) can feel interminable. I am not necessarily an advocate of the hard-and-fast rule that some conflict should occur on every single page (although it’s not a bad rule for a first-time self-editor to follow), but most readers do tend to get a bit restive after the fourth or fifth page of a character’s sitting around and thinking.

And we already know how Millicent tends to react to it, right? “Next!”

If you are not of the sit-and-ponder school, but are still wondering if you are staying too much in a character’s head in a third-person narrative, here’s a self-editing tip: go through the text and note every time the reader is given information outside dialogue by the protagonist’s specifically NOTICING something. Pay attention to whether the text lets the narration mention that the truck stop waitress has red hair, or whether Joe Protagonist SEES her have red hair.

If you find that more than about a tenth of the information is conveyed as protagonist sensation, you should think about moving the perspective outside him more. Or consider switching to first-person narration, where thought may be intermingled seamlessly with narration.

All that being said, I am still a fan of exposition alternated with dialogue, particularly in emotionally-charged scenes. We writers live so much in our heads that we tend to create characters who do so, too.

However, in real life, people have physical reactions to things: discomfort in their guts when meeting someone smarmy, tightness in the chest when yelled at by the boss, slumping of the shoulders when receiving the news of the death of a friend. These are legitimate pieces of information to include in characterization; they often add depth to dialogue-based scenes.

Or, as the classic piece of advanced writing advice has it: get out of your protagonist’s head and into her body!

Interspersing narrative sentences with dialogue is a great way to introduce more to the scene than is apparent in the words spoken. Because, let’s face it, there are plenty of human interactions that cannot be adequately conveyed in all of their nuanced glory by dialogue alone.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the idea that dialogue can ALWAYS convey everything that is going on in a scene, either emotionally or factually. People very frequently do not say what they are thinking, and Freudian slips, though common in post-war literature, actually do not occur with great frequency in real life. Frequently, what a character is NOT saying can be as telling as what she is. Even in comedy, where speed of exchange is most desirable, adding exposition amid the verbal exchanges of wit can considerably heighten the tension of a scene.

Since I’m trotting out so many of my pet exemplars today, let’s take a look at this excerpt from E.F. Benson’s LUCIA IN LONDON, the second installment in Benson’s brilliantly funny Mapp and Lucia series. Here, social climber Lucia is sitting in the boudoir of duchess Marcia, chatting with her newly-acquired friends about lovers; she has been pretending to be having an affair with fey Stephen, to make herself appear more interesting, and Marcia et alia are trying to grill her about it. Lucia has just finished saying:

“… If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

Marcia longed, with almost the imperativeness of a longing to sneeze, to allude directly to Stephen. She raised her eyes for a half second to Adele, the priestess of this cult in which she knew she was rapidly becoming a worshipper, but if ever an emphatic negative was wordlessly bawled at a tentative enquirer, it was bawled now. If Lucia chose to say anything about Stephen, it would be manna, but to ask — never! Aggie, seated sideways to them, had not seen this telegraphy, and unwisely spoke with her lips.

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” she said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

Nothing could have been more unfortunate. Adele could have hurled the entire six rows of Whitby pearls at Aggie’s face…The effect of her carelessness was that Lucia became visibly embarrassed, looked at the clock, and got up in a violent hurry.

“Good gracious me!” she said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

There is a LOT of information conveyed in this excerpt, and all of it contributes to Benson’s comic effect. Now look at the same passage after the dialogue-only rule has been applied to it:

“… If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” Aggie said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

“Good gracious me!” Lucia said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

Quite a bit flatter, isn’t it? Aggie’s fluke and Lucia’s reaction are still there, but the other two women might as well not have been in the room. We have entirely lost the delicious sense of conspiracy between Marcia and Adele, and Aggie’s blunder has been reduced to simple gaucherie. As a direct result, it’s substantially less funny — and less nuanced.

Again, the enriched dialogue method should be used in moderation, just as the dialogue-only method should be. Like profanity, stylistic restrictions are far more effective when used sparingly than constantly; who pays attention to the profanity of a constant swearer? Select the time when your dialogue choice will have the greatest effect.

And that, thank heavens, is my last word on dialogue, at least for the moment. As always, keep up the good work!

PS: when’s the last time you made a back-up of your computerized writing files? If you haven’t done it within the last week, humor me, please, and do it as soon as possible; I’d hate to think of any of you losing pages or chapters in the event of a hard disk crash. If you’re unclear on what your backing-up options are, please rush post-haste to the BACK-UP COPIES category on the list at right.

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part VII: wait, did I doze off in the midst of all that loving harmony?

August 17th, 2010

"If you call me muffin ONE more time, I will turn you into lover tartare!"

“If you call me Snuggums ONE more time, I will turn you into husband tartare!”

I had to laugh earlier today, campers: less than twenty-four hours after going on at great length in this very forum about how professors seldom sit around lecturing one another in real life, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with a professor wherein we were blithely lecturing each other. Actually, she had taken issue with my minor-league gloating over a Wikipedia spokesman’s coming out against using Wikipedia as the sole source for attribution in a footnote or article reference; even though many, many people use it as their primary research source, it’s intended to give an overview of a topic, rather than be the authority.

Quoth the spokesman: “Wikipedia should not be used as a primary source. We completely support that. We would not encourage people to cite Wikipedia in their [academic] papers. That’s not what it’s for.”

Editors have been telling indignant nonfiction writers this for years. So have professors nonplused by term papers whose references have all apparently been gleaned from open-media sources. But that didn’t stop my professor friend from gleefully implying all of us who would prefer bibliographies and footnotes to refer to books and articles, rather than to a source that is designed to change between the time an author uses it for reference and a reader could possibly try to follow up on that reference, are Luddites, fuddy-duddies, and destined to go the way of the dodo. Naturally, I responded by asking her whether she actually believed that the Knowledge Fairy was watching over all open-source media, assuring that in the long run, the only corrections anyone would ever post would be factually accurate, rather than simply adjustments to render the post closer to what the latest contributor had heard someplace might be true.

It was a rather interesting debate, actually. But can you guess why I’m not going to reproduce it as dialogue here? That’s right: because, like the vast majority of real-life exchanges, it would be deadly dull to read.

My friend’s willingness — nay, eagerness — to debate with me on a social networking site, despite the fact that she’s aware I have a hand injury did get me thinking about the Author! Author! community, I confess. And about the self-professed regular reader who selected this particular week to pick a fight with me over — and even I find this hard to believe — something I posted in 2006. I should not, he told me flatly, have written about this topic at all; he hoped, he said, that I had evolved since I’d written it.

Although I’m quite positive that reader’s sainted mother would cringe at his manners, being told to shut up was not the part of his comment that most annoyed me; as those of you who participate in the discussions in the comments are already aware, I like a lively debate about the topic du jour. Nor was it entirely that I felt compelled to waste my scant daily typing time responding to his fit of pique.

No, it was the fact that there was an entire CATEGORY on the archive list that would have shown him, at the low, low cost of a couple of minutes’ worth of scrolling, that I had already addressed his objections at length in the intervening years — that, in fact, we were not fundamentally in disagreement on his primary point. He merely hadn’t bothered to check.

Normally, I wouldn’t trouble my regular readership with the story of a single ill-mannered reader, but as I have been posting less since the car crash (and, as today, rerunning some older posts), more readers than usual have been combing the archives. Or so I surmise, because for the last few weeks, I have been positively inundated with questions posted in the comment section of posts I first ran years ago.

While I applaud those of you who have made the effort to leave your questions on posts related to the topic about which you are inquiring — that way, there’s a significantly greater probability of the next reader with a similar question discovering my reply — in practice, this has meant quite a bit of extra writing during my ostensible rest time. Although I have not been writing new posts every day, I have been one-handedly writing pages and pages of responses to these questions.

Buried in the bowels of the archives, where those of you who tune in regularly to read the top posts may never see them. Sometimes on topics for which there are three or four directly-related categories on the archive list.

Like the guy who hushed me, quite a few commenters evidently have not noticed how specific some of the category headings are — or that there is a keyword search engine located in the upper-right corner of this page. I’m certainly not averse to repeating myself from time to time (do I hear a few cheeky souls murmuring my mantra, read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it out?), but this does not seem like the most efficient use of my scant blogging time, does it?

So may I ask an indulgence of all of you archive-divers? If the post in question is more than a year old, would you mind checking the category list (conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this page for your perusal) to see if (a) I’ve written a more recent post on the topic that may address your concerns and/or (b) since I wrote that post, I’ve added an entire category or done an entire series on that particular topic.

It honestly won’t take all that long to check, and it really will save me quite a bit of typing time. Not to mention freeing up my sore hands for adding more new material to the blog.

But enough about research methodologies; today, we are going to be talking about love. Or, more specifically, writing and revising love scenes. Enjoy!

In my last post, I clued you in to the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different problem.) Within this context, I asserted — perhaps rashly — that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers routinely engage in this sort of banter: in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

“Wow, your eyes are so blue, Yummikins!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?”

Or the ever-popular mutual protestation of affection:

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. Do YOU love ME?”

“How can you even doubt it? I love you twice as much every time I blink. You can’t possibly love me even half as much as I love you.”

“That can’t be true, because I already love you five times more than anyone has ever loved anyone else.”

“Oh, darling, what a wonderful thing to say. I love you so much.”

“And you know what? I love you.”

Zzzz…oh, pardon me; I must have been indulging in a well-deserved nap while waiting for something interesting to happen during this love scene.

Do I sound cynical? I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, as well as much of the human race. But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Yummikins and Muffin themselves.

Why? Well, it’s just a TAD conceptually repetitious, is it not? Not to mention the fact that entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other. Count the seconds until the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads. They may be charmed by it, but are you?

News flash: such banter can be equally deadly to continued consciousness on the page — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation.

Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

”Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition – when we swam beneath skies of azure…”

True, someone might conceivably say something like this in real life, but let’s not kid ourselves here: you’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull off a speech like this without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike. And snores from Millicent the agency screener.

Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue. Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty (anyone? anyone?), one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6” (“Ooh, darling, I love all 66 inches of your length, as well as your half-meter of bouncy brown hair!”), even if that is indeed the case.

In fact, mentioning the latter fact in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors the average person is most likely to fudge. Lopping 20 pounds off your weight in casual conversation isn’t usually considered lying, precisely — after all, you’re not standing on a scale at that very moment, are you?

It’s not completely inconceivable that you’ve shrunk radically since breakfast, but it’s not precisely court testimony, either.

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application — but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form?

While we’re on the subject of doubting self-serving statements, aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, two years older at the time of her first real hit, and yet asserts that she has now, a long, full career behind her, aged at about half the normal human rate?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer – he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. Again, I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes for romantic effect?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other?

Such a scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing — and more interesting to the reader — than the usual transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

If a writer really wanted to get tricky, the narrative might not even make it clear in the moment precisely how and why Lover A is choosing to lie to Lover B. Conveying a subtle sense that there’s something more going on in this scene than meets the enamored eye is a great to increase tension.

Provided, of course, that the narrative doesn’t immediately stab the rising conflict in the heart by explaining in minute detail precisely what’s going on. This has been the death blow to many a promising love scene.

What might that look like in print, you ask? Let’s take a look at a scene where mixed motives have been handled with restraint.

Angelica backed off slightly, instinctively when Desmond kissed her, but lips pressed to hers, he failed to notice. Or if he did, her enthusiastic embraces soon quelled any qualms he may have had.

After a few minutes’ slurping passion, she loosed her lips enough to ask, “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

He toyed with the come-hither straps of her meter maid uniform. “Not until half-past one. And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule.”

Angelica sighed, pulling him closer. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security.” She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Gives a pretty strong impression that Angelica’s motives in pursuing the tryst might not be completely identical to his, doesn’t it? The slight tension between her actions and her words convey that easily, without a lot of heavy-handed justification or acres of internal monologue.

Which, alas, is how many manuscript submissions would have approached it. Here’s a sample — note all of the named emotions, explanations through thought, and just how quickly the reader’s ability to speculate about what might be going on evaporates:

Oh, God, Angelica thought, stunned by the onslaught of Desmond’s cologne, not again. Didn’t this lummox ever think of anything but sex, sex, sex? Still, she had been ordered to keep him here until after the President had been assassinated, and if a little nookie was the most pleasant way to achieve that goal, well, so be it.

She hoped that it would not take very long; her husband, Ivan, would be expecting her home soon. “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

“Not until half-past one,” Desmond panted. “And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule. It’s not as though anyone out there is planning to perch atop the Washington Monument during his speech on the Mall and shoot him with a crossbow in front of 210,000 people, right?”

Angelica stiffened with fear. How on earth had he ferreted out the details of their plan? Had she been betrayed by a careless or treacherous fellow spy? Was Desmond merely toying with her, in order to extract further information?

She pulled him close. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security,” she whispered, shuddering inwardly at the irony of her own words. She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock; if only she could keep him here until after Reginald had charged the herd of maddened elephants into the assembled throng, all might still be well. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.” Little did he know how soon they might be.

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Kind of stops the tension dead in its tracks, doesn’t it? The suspense builds naturally when the narrative merely hints at the underlying plot, rather than screams it from the rooftops.

The same technique also works beautifully in anti-love scenes, by the way. If you want to ramp up the tension, try both muddying the players’ motivations a little and conveying those mixed emotions through action, rather than having them say precisely what they mean at all times.

Yes, yes, I know: your tenth-grade composition teacher told you that good dialogue should be able to convey all of the emotional nuances of a scene without additional narration. Let me guess — s/he came up with that pearl of wisdom while either trying get you to read Hemingway or to stop relying so heavily upon adverbs to express a character’s feelings, right?

Adults don’t let ten-year-olds drive Mac trucks, either; one needs to be trained to use dangerous tools safely before running amok with them.

Which is to say: I tend to doubt that s/he intended it as a lifetime embargo upon certain parts of speech. The kind of writing s/he was probably trying to train you to avoid with her prohibition runs a little something like this:

“I can’t pay the rent!” Polly exclaimed distressedly.

“But you must pay the rent,” dastardly Donald declaimed determinedly.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she wailed helplessly.

“But you must pay the rent,” Donald insisted violently.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she sobbed unhappily.

“I’ll pay the rent!” nattily-dressed Nathan called helpfully.

“My hero!” Polly cried relievedly.

“Curses,” Donald said morosely, “foiled again.”

I seriously doubt that s/he was hoping you would never use another adverb as long as you lived. The dear thing was merely hoping that you would learn to use them with discretion.

But as with so many of the old writing saws, the creaky old chestnut has mutated over time in the conversation of the literal-minded from

don’t use adverbs to describe how every speech was said; how about letting the dialogue itself show tone?

to

it’s bad writing to use an adverb ever, under any circumstances. Purge your manuscript NOW of all -ly verbs, or you’ll tumble into a pit of burning pitch.

Just a SLIGHT difference between those two iterations of that rule of thumb, eh? I know I’m going out on an editorial limb here, but I suspect you’ve progressed enough as a writer to be trusted not to over-use adverbs, haven’t you?

There, I absolve you: from now on, you’re allowed to use all available parts of speech, if you do it with discretion. Fly on your merry way, allowing your shackles to fall to the ground.

Just don’t start using adverbs to describe how every character says every speech, okay? Oh, and while you’re at it, you don’t need to add a tag line (he said, she averred, they bellowed) to every line with quotation marks. Use them sparingly, just enough to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking when.

Which means, in case your tenth-grade composition teacher forgot to mention it to you, that in a two-person exchange where the opinions expressed are not identical, simply alternating speeches after the text identifies who is saying what initially is usually sufficient.

It’s perfectly acceptable to tuck narrative sentences between the bursts of dialogue, but surely you can come up with something more character-revealing than he said morosely, can’t you? There’s more to conflictual dialogue than just tone, after all.

If you feel ready to implement a more advanced writing technique, try varying the tone a little throughout confrontation scenes. Watching two characters spit vitriol at each other unceasingly can get a rather old rather fast. For instance:

“I hate you, Ted Fairfax, more than any human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a message for you, Tammy: I haven’t been able to stand you since high school.”

“But you and I dated in high school!”

“Precisely.”

“Ooh, you’re a jerk, Ted.”

Perhaps I’m an overly-critical reader (actually, I’d better be, or I wouldn’t be good at my job), but a little bit of barb-trading goes a long way for me. Call me zany, but I would rather be shown Tammy and Ted’s mutual loathing through action, rather than merely hearing it in their words.

Or, to put it as your crusty old writing teacher might have, by showing, rather than telling.

Ted could, for instance, be lying about what his feelings for her were in high school. That would automatically render their relationship more complex — and thus more interesting — than simple mutual hatred. Mixed emotions are almost always more intriguing on the page than simple, straightforward feelings.

Especially if, as we’ve seen in pretty much all of today’s examples, the characters are going around bellowing about their feelings at the top of their lungs, as if they were traipsing about in the last act of La Bohème — and expressing those emotions with a pinpoint accuracy that would make living and dead poets alike turn bright green with envy.

Allow me to make a subversive suggestion: people aren’t always telling the truth when they say that they’re in love. Or in hate, for that matter.

Occasionally, they have been known to change their minds on the subject. Some are reluctant to name their emotions at all, and still others are prone to aping the emotion that they believe the person sitting across from them expects them to be feeling.

Here’s a shocker of a revelation: human beings are complex critters, far more so than they appear in the average interview scene in a manuscript submission. Individuals have even been known — sacre bleu! — to mislead total strangers who show up, demanding information about that set of sextuplets who fell down the well thirty years ago.

Or did they?

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just passively nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you,” or spouting Hollywood narration like “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his once-lucrative sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

After all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers routinely show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what certain well-known deceased authors were REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews by would-be biographers who evidently just tumbled out of the sky, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions apparently just assume that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And most of the time, that assumption turns out…to be…zzzz…correct. (Oh, did I doze off again?)

Yet in an interview scene — especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between any two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There’s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, despite the success of the Greek chorus first person plural narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: interpersonal conflict is, generally speaking, far more interesting than pages at a time of harmonious agreement.

Let your characters disagree; allow them to quibble, providing that they do so in character-revealing ways. And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

More thoughts on dialogue revision follow next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part VI: as my dear old professor used to say…

August 16th, 2010

masters-hoods-en-masse

Happy Monday, campers –

Well, I have a bit of good news on the recovery front: I’ve been cleared to type a bit with my right hand again. Before anyone gets too excited, I should add: it’s not an all-clear, by a long shot, but it does mean that I’m moving closer to being able to get back to composing brand-new blog posts again.

However, I typed that last paragraph with both hands. I shall probably be completing this one the same way. And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

In the spirit of necessary moderation, then, here is today’s revisit to a former post on our current topic. Its holiday references may not be quite apt for August’s annual publishing industry break, but its dialogue-revision suggestions could not be more so for late-summer self-editors. Enjoy!

Did everyone have a nice Fourth of July? In order to teach me a lesson about realistic dialogue, apparently, Someone Up There arranged for me to spend it with a bevy of college professors. Nice people, all, full of charming chat about…

Wait a minute; I’ll bet I can read your minds. 90% of you have already decided that the conversation was stuffy, learned, and generally uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t happen to be conversant with particle physics, James Joyce, and/or the Bourbon Dynasty, haven’t you?

What makes me leap to that (in your case, possibly unwarranted) conclusion? Reading manuscripts for a living, that’s what. Rare is the professorial character who walks into a bar, sits down, and doesn’t immediately start spouting the greatest hits from his latest lecture.

Usually right before he does something spectacularly absent-minded.

Seriously, the prating professor is one of the great unsung stereotypes of the literary world. Just ask any professional reader (agent, editor, contest judge, writing teacher, Millicent the agency screener) who happens to hold an advanced degree herself: it’s bound to be among her pet peeves.

And with good reason: even manuscripts that conscientiously eschew the sulky teenager, the ditsy flight attendant, the corrupt politician, and the unattractive computer genius have been known to embrace the ever-lecturing lecturer with a vim that makes one wonder just how many aspiring writers were bored to death in college. Or high school. Or merely have never had the good fortune to hobnob with doctorate-holders at a social function.

The ugly, ugly result: like many a reader before her, a Millicent with a master’s degree is fated to roll her eyes over unrealistic dialogue.

Why, we were talking about that just the other day, weren’t we? If memory serves — and I’m quite positive that it does — just before I elected to ski down the slippery slope of dissecting all of the problems Hollywood narration can bestow upon a manuscript, I was already perched upon a soapbox, pointing out the pacing, voice, and storytelling dangers inherent to sneaking too much background information or physical description into interview scenes early in a novel submission.

Today, I’m clambering back up on that soapbox. Because, honestly, I’m reading as fast as I can, but I’m just not going to be able to read every manuscript in the English language before it lands upon the always-crowded desk of our old pal Millicent.

No doubt spilling her too-hot latte on her master’s hood, like the ones depicted above. Because, naturally, like everyone who has ever earned an advanced degree, she never takes of her robes, right?

While I’m adjusting my purple velvet doctoral tam — yes, really — allow me to recap a bit for those of you who missed the earlier posts in this series: an interview scene is one where a character, generally the protagonist, obtains information critical to the plot and/or character development from another character, extracted through dialogue. An inefficient interview scene is one in which, as is all too often the case in submissions, the narrator is not a particularly good interviewer. Or thinks that s/he is being clever by not just coming out and demanding the information s/he has ostensibly walked into the scene to collect.

Can you blame a reader for becoming a tad impatient with an interviewer who NEVER ASKS THE LOGICAL FOLLOW-UP QUESTION or JUST SITS THERE WITHOUT ASKING ANYTHING, waiting for the interview subject to spill his guts spontaneously?

If the reader in question happens to be Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or her Aunt Mehitabel the noted contest judge (hey, they’re a literary-minded family; advanced degree-holders, all), the consequences are usually even more serious: if s/he loses interest in the manuscript before her, she tends to stop reading.

In other words, “Next!”

How may a writer avoid this grisly fate? Here’s a good rule of thumb: while not everything that people say in real life makes good dialogue, it’s an excellent idea to make sure that all of your dialogue is in fact something a real person in the real-life equivalent of your fictional situation might CONCEIVABLY say.

And here’s a secondary rule of thumb — a rule of forefinger, so to speak: that goes double for any dialogue that sounds anything remotely like Hollywood narration.

Yes, even if you have heard with your own tiny, shell-like ears a real person speak that way. Present-day Anne here: or perhaps — brace yourself for this one — even if you actually heard a real-life professor once speak like the fictional professor in your book. Just because it might theoretically be possible to produce a recording of someone like your character speaking in that manner does not mean a transcript of it will ring true on the printed page. At least, not to someone personally acquainted with more than one professor.

Or doctor. Or firefighter. As convenient as it might be for writers on a deadline if adopting a profession immediately caused an individual’s speech to drop all personal characteristics and simply become representative of that profession, that just doesn’t happen in real life.

That absent-minded professor you met once notwithstanding.

And don’t even get me started on how often fictional male professors are depicted as having affairs with students (which, over and above being a very tired cliché, would be a very good way to get fired on most U.S. campuses today), female psychiatrists with their patients (ditto), detectives with murder suspects, and so forth. Hackneyed actions are just as likely to strike Millicent as clichéd as jargon-stuffed dialogue, after all.

They are also, just in case anyone doesn’t find the threat of her writing being dismissed as not containing original ideas sufficiently terrifying to eschew the practice, often used as shortcuts, substitutes for honest-to-goodness character development. Introducing stock characters can save a writer a lot of time, after all. (Burly thugs, anyone? Mousy librarians or schoolteachers? Dumb jocks?) But there is more to telling a story enjoyably than telling it rapidly, isn’t there?

The funny thing is, from a professional reader’s perspective, aspiring writers are often STUNNED to hear that such character behavior is clichéd, because, you guessed it, they have actually met real people who acted and spoke that way. I once read a manuscript where the philandering prof spent the opening scene sharing a friendly drink — and talking about Wittgenstein, naturally — with a Native American spouting earth-worshiping wisdom, a sympathetic bartender dispensing amateur psychology, a burnt-out teacher who had just had his faith restored by a single student’s abrupt progress, and a corrupt — wait for it — politician.

When I gently suggested to the author that perhaps the reader might have seen these characters before someplace, and that he might want to consider individuating them more, he acted as though I’d just recommended that he feed his left foot to a school of piranha. Since he had never seen precisely that array of characters together on the page, it had never occurred to him that these were stock characters, more representatives of their professions than fleshed-out characters.

Okay, I need to rest my hand now; back to the post already in progress.

Remember, please, that dialogue is not automatically realistic just because a real person has at some point uttered it. As I have been pointing out none too gently throughout this series, real human beings tend not to tell one another things they already know — except, of course, about the weather (“Some heavy rains we’ve been having, eh?”), the relative progress sports teams (“How about them Red Sox?”), and tidbits from the latest celebrity death scandal (in the interests of moving this along, I’ll spare you all my eulogistic renditions of Ben and I’ll Be There, despite the fact that they happen to fall smack in the middle of my flute-like soprano range).

In print, such iterations of mundane issues are notably primarily for their soporific value. (Translation: zzzzz.) As storytelling, such homely gems just tend to slow down the action of the scene.

Interestingly enough, adhering to these few rules while revising almost always results in trimming interview scenes substantially. This is particularly true for interviews that provide the opening conflict in novels, where Hollywood narration and dialogue stuffed to the gills with visual clues about characters tend to congregate — and thus are likely to do the most damage at submission time.

I sense some shifting in seats out there. “Yeah, yeah,” the impatient are murmuring. “You already yammered at us about this last week, Anne. Cut to the chase, already.”

Funny, that last sentence is precisely what Millicent is often heard muttering over interview scenes. Without the last week part, that is.

But you have a legitimate point, impatient mutterers. However, in my earlier discussion of the phenomenon, I left out one of the primary reasons Millicent tends to have that particular knee-jerk reaction: if the first couple of pages of text are a bit heavy-handed, agency screeners, contest judges, and other professional readers usually leap to the conclusion that the ENTIRE text reads the same way.

An assumption, as you no doubt have already guessed, that conveniently enables Millie and her ilk to reject the descriptively front-loaded submission immediately and move swiftly on to the next.

I have seen a LOT of good manuscripts done in by this tendency. Because this is such a common problem, as an editor, one of the first places I look to trim is that first scene — which, as I mentioned a few days back, is very, very frequently an interview scene. My editing antennae perk up particularly strongly if the opening scene relies far more heavily upon dialogue than narration.

Why, all of you interview-writers ask in trembling tone? Well, see for yourself, in this piece of purple-tinted prose:

“Don’t you go rolling those large hazel eyes at me, Thelma,” Marcel warned. “It hasn’t worked on me since our days in the chorus twelve years ago, in that bizarre road company of Auntie Mame. And you can save the eyelash fluttering, too. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “That’s a fine criticism, coming from a man wearing false eyelashes. Just because you’re a drag queen doesn’t mean you can’t dress with some taste. I mean, bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

“What about you?” Marcel shot back. “In your puce bathrobe with purple magnolias dotted all over it still, at this time of day!”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. “Because you’re my best friend in the world, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: you’re too heavy-set for a miniskirt now, darling. Certainly if you’re not going to shave your legs. What are you now, forty-five and a size twenty-four?”

Marcel smoothed down his Technicolor orange wig. “At least at six feet, I’m tall enough to wear Armani with style. Your cramped five foot three wouldn’t even be visible on a catwalk.”

Admittedly, the banter here is kind of fun, but a judicious mixture of dialogue and narration would convey the necessary information less clumsily, without rendering the dialogue implausible. Try this moderately snipped version on for size:

Thelma rolled her large hazel eyes. Even draped in a ratty puce bathrobe that barely covered her short, round form, she carried herself like the Queen of the Nile.

Unfortunately for her dignity, her icy hauteur act had grown old for Marcel twelve years ago, three weeks into their joint chorus gig in that chronically under-attended road tour of Auntie Mame. “You can save the eyelash fluttering, sweetheart. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “You’re a fine one to talk taste. Bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

His thick, black false eyelashes hit where his pre-plucked eyebrow had originally been; his current fanciful impression of an eyebrow swooped a good four inches higher, threatening to merge with his Technicolor orange wig. Even for a career drag queen, his moue of surprise was a bit overdone. “Will you be getting dressed today, darling?” he asked brightly. “Or should I just get you another bottle of gin, to complete your Tallulah Bankhead impression?”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. He was getting too heavy to wear fishnets every night. Still, not bad gams, for a forty-five-year-old. “If you insist upon wearing a miniskirt, my sweet, you might want to consider shaving your legs.”

Same information, but more naturally presented, right? By having the narration take over the bulk of the descriptive burden, a rather amusing narrative voice has emerged, conveying a point of view distinct from either Marcel or Thelma’s.

I can hear my mutterers murmuring again, can I not? “Okay, so the second version has a stronger narrative voice,” they concede. “But even so, all of that physical description makes the scene drag a bit, doesn’t it?”

Yes, and that brings me back to my closing question from earlier in this series: other than the fact that television and movies have accustomed us all to having an instantaneous picture in our heads of a story’s protagonist, is there a reason that a narrative must include a photographic-level description of a character the instant s/he appears in the book?

I’ll go ahead and answer that one myself: no, there isn’t. TV and movies have simply accustomed us to the notion that our first impressions of any character should be visual, just as in radio, we first hear him speak.

In a visual medium, there’s plenty of reason to give the audience a snapshot, but books are not visual media; narratives can appeal to all of the senses. So the next time you sit down to ponder revising the first few pages of a novel, it’s worth investing a moment or two in pondering the possibility that your opening scene may actually read better without a meticulous up-front description of every character in the scene, his backstory, and where he bought his clothes. Or even how he got there.

Consider it, perhaps, while sitting with a hard copy of your first few pages in your hand. Is there backstory or physical description in your opening dialogue that could come more gradually, later in the chapter — or even later in the book?

Or – and this is a possibility that occurs frequently to professional readers of interview scenes, let me tell you — is that Hollywood narration or description-laced dialogue the book’s way of telling us that perhaps the book opens at the wrong part of the story?

I hope that didn’t make anyone out there faint; my kind of doctorate doesn’t allow me to resuscitate the fallen with impunity.

Might, for instance, we learn more about Thelma and Marcel in a more graceful manner if, instead of beginning the novel with the dialogue above, it opened with a short prologue showing them twelve years ago, bright-eyed, innocent, and slim — and then jumped ahead to this scene, to show how they and their relationship have changed?

Dramatic, eh? One might even say character-revealing.

Of course, front-loading an opening scene with physical description is not necessarily an indicator of a structural problem. I suspect that often, writers who use this technique as a means of introducing description are driven primarily by a panicked sense that the reader must be told what the characters look like the instant they appear in the text — combined with a recollection that their high school writing teachers said that extensive physical descriptions later in the narrative confuse readers who have already formed a mental image of the character. So they’re sort of trying to, you know, sneak the physical description in when the reader isn’t looking, so to speak, in that opening scene.

Trust me, a professional reader is ALWAYS looking. It’s her job.

Looking specifically, in the case of an agency screener or editorial assistant plugging through a mountain of submissions, for a reason to reject the manuscript in front of her. By avoiding the common twin traps of overloading the first scene with crammed-in backstory and physical description, a manuscript stands a much greater chance of cajoling Millicent into reading on to scene #2.

And we all want that, don’t we?

I sense more impatient shifting in the peanut gallery. “Um, Anne?” these fed-up folks say. “Isn’t this the same point you made above? I get it, already: using dialogue to have characters describe one another is a species of Hollywood narration, and therefore to be eschewed. Have you considered that there might not be a reason to keep telling us this?”

Ah, but you’re assuming that I’ve already made my primary point. Far from it; like other doctors, we book medicos bill for our advice by the hour. Relax: we’ve still got some time left in our session.

So here comes some professional wisdom: after a screener has had the privilege of scanning a thousand manuscripts or so, it becomes pretty clear that many aspiring writers don’t really understand what the writing gurus mean when they urge us all to open with a hook.

A hook, for those of you new to the term, is a grabber located within the first paragraph of a story or book — preferably within the first sentence, according to some writing teachers — that so intrigues the reader that s/he is instantly sucked into the story. (This is not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a one- or two-sentence pitch for a script or book. See the so-named category on the list at right, if you are curious about the care and feeding of the latter.)

Often, aspiring writers will interpret the advice to open with a hook to mean that a storyline must open with violent or even bloody action, a mystery that the reader will want to solve, or a conflict-ridden scene. While admittedly Millicent sees a whole lot of manuscripts that open with a bang (with or without gushes of blood), all of these strategic choices can indeed work, if handled well.

Although let me tell you, they are such common choices that it’s a downright relief to most professional readers when a writer elects to open with a powerful visual or sensual image instead. Hint, hint. Especially if that strong opening image leads into a scene packed with character- or situation-revealing conflict.

What’s even more common than the submission that kicks off with conflict? An beginning that insists that the reader must be 100% up to speed on the plot and characters by the bottom of page 1 — or page 5 at the latest.

Again, that vexing question rears its ugly head: is this strictly necessary?

Brace yourselves, because I’m about to suggest a revision technique that may shock some of you: just as an experiment, try removing the first scene of your book.

Not permanently, mind you — and certainly not without having made a backup copy of the original first, in case you decide after mature and careful consideration that what I’m about to suggest next was a stupid idea: cut it just long enough to find out whether the story would make sense to the reader without it. If it can fly that way, consider cutting the scene entirely and starting fresh slightly later in the plot.

I’m quite serious about this — you wouldn’t believe how many good manuscripts don’t actually begin until a couple of scenes in, or that allow absolutely gorgeous opening sentences or images to languish on page 4. Or page 15.

Or, if I’m honest about it, the beginning of Chapter Three. Which, in a Frankenstein manuscript, may well have originally been the opening of Chapter One, before the writer heard that speech at a conference about hooks and decided to front-load the manuscript.

Yes, I know: what I’m suggesting is potentially pretty painful; as we discussed in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series (still conveniently accessible in the category list at right, in case you missed it), many, many aspiring writers regard the approach of the reviser’s pen with every bit of the fear and loathing that the published writer feels for governmental censorship. But it’s just a fact that when we’re first constructing a narrative, we writers are not always right about where the story should begin and end.

If you don’t believe this, I can only suggest that you take a gander at THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, an undoubted masterpiece that could have lost most of the first 200 pages without bugging the reader much at all.

(That’s a professional opinion, by the way. One of the great fringe benefits of having walls lined with diplomas from prestigious institutions is the ability make sweeping judgments like that about classics without fear of sounding ignorant. While I’m at it, allow me to add: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is a stupid play, and I found A TALE OF TWO CITIES far-fetched. So there.)

Try to keep an open mind while you’re revising. Be willing to consider the possibility that your story might be more effective — and hook the reader better — if you began it at a different point. Or at least do a little field testing to rule it out.

Believe me, you’ll sleep better at night if you do.

How do I know this, you ask? Because now, I’ve planted the doubt in your mind. As much as you might pooh-pooh the idea that all or part of your opening could be snipped away without fundamental harm to the storyline, you can’t be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s a stupid suggestion without going back over it pretty rigorously, can you?

You’re welcome — and I mean that very seriously, because an aspiring writer who is willing to examine and reexamine her writing before she submits it is going to have a much, much easier time coping with editorial feedback later on in the process.

Trust me; I’m a doctor. That diploma over there says so.

By the way, what the group of professors were discussing when I walked into the Fourth of July party was Charles Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE. After I laughed and told them that this was precisely the type of conversation people who didn’t know any professors would write for them, one of them said, “Yes, but the funny thing is, this is a conversation we normally wouldn’t have outside a Dickens conference.”

I rest my case. Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part V: push-polling the reader, and other tell-tale signs that you’ve slipped into Hollywood narration

August 14th, 2010

Aspiring writer on the job, keeping the metropolis safe from Hollywood Narration

Aspiring writer on the job, making the world safe from Hollywood Narration

Hello again, campers –

I’m hoping to get back to generating brand-new posts sometime next week; the hand doc turned pale at hearing how often and how much I usually post, but I entertain high hopes of his getting over the shock soon. In the meantime, I am re-running some older posts on constructing effective interview scenes, to keep those revision gears chugging in everybody’s brains. Just so those of you who read it the first time around won’t be too bored, I reserve the right to interpolate comments or make small changes from time to time — or, in this case, add huge, honking sub-sections — but for the most part, I shall be husbanding by hand strength by posting these pretty much as is.

Before anyone decides the result is unlikely to be relevant to the types of manuscript revision we have been discussing, the interview scene is one of the most frequently-muffed types of dialogue; unfortunately, it’s also among the most common, period. Interview scenes, for the benefit of those of you joining us late in this conversation, are spates of dialogue where one character (usually the protagonist) is trying to extract information (the pursuit of which is often the driving force behind the plot) from another character (sometimes, but not always, historically reluctant to spill.)

In discussing interview scenes, we’ve also talked quite a bit about Hollywood narration, my term for a scene where Character 1 tells Character 2 a bit of information or backstory of which both 1 & 2 are already aware, purely so the reader may learn it. Yet Hollywood narration is not the only questionable tool writers sometimes use to shovel heaping piles of extraneous facts into a narrative.

Today, I shall discuss a few others. Enjoy!

You know how I keep saying that real life perpetually volunteers examples at just the point I could really, really use them on the blog? Well, it’s happened again: I was actually writing yesterday’s post on Hollywood Narration and how annoying a poor interviewer character can be, when the phone rang: it was a pre-recorded, computerized political opinion poll.

Now, I don’t find polls much fun to take, but since I used to do quite a bit of political writing, I know that the mere fact that the polled so often hang up on such calls can skew the accuracy of the results. Case in point: the number of percentage points by which most polls miscalled the last presidential election’s results.

So I stayed on the line, despite the graininess of the computer-generated voice, so poorly rendered that I occasionally had trouble making out even proper names. A minute or so in, the grating narrator began retailing the respective virtues and aspirations of only two candidates in a multi-player mayoral race — neither of the candidates so lauded was the current mayor, I couldn’t help but notice — asking me to evaluate the two without reference to any other candidate.

In politics, this is called a push poll: although ostensibly, its goal is to gather information from those it calls, its primary point is to convey information to them, both as advertisement and to see if responders’ answers change after being fed certain pieces of information. In this poll, for instance, the inhumanly blurred voice first inquired which of nine candidates I was planning to honor with my vote (“I haven’t made up my mind yet because the primary is a month and a half away” was not an available option, although “no opinion” was ), then heaped me with several paragraphs of information about Candidate One, a scant paragraph about Candidate Two, before asking me which of the two I intended to support.

Guess which they wanted my answer to be?

Contrary to popular opinion, although push polls are usually used to disseminate harmful information about an opponent (through cleverly-constructed questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate X if you knew that he secretly belonged to a cult that regularly sacrifices goats, chickens, and the odd goldfish?”), the accuracy of the information conveyed is not the defining factor, but the fact of masking advertisement under the guise of asking questions, In a well-designed push poll, it’s hard to tell which candidates or issues are being promoted, conveying the illusion of being even-handed, to preserve the impression of being an impartial poll.

Yesterday’s call, however, left no doubt whatsoever as to which local candidates had commissioned it: the list of a local city councilwoman’s attributes took almost twice as long for the robot voice to utter, at a level of clarity that made the other candidates’ briefer, purely factual blurb sound, well, distinctly inferior. Even his name was pronounced less distinctly. To anyone even vaguely familiar with how polls are constructed, it was completely obvious that the questions had, at best, been constructed to maximize the probability of certain responses, something that legitimate pollsters take wincing pains to avoid, as well as to cajole innocent phone-answerers into listening to an endorsement for a political candidate.

To be blunt, I haven’t heard such obvious plugging since the last time I attended a party at a literary conference, when an agent leaned over me in a hot tub to pitch a client’s book at the editor floating next to me. In fact, it’s the only push poll I’ve ever encountered that actually made me change my mind about voting for a candidate that I formerly respected.

{Present-day Anne here: FYI, she lost.}

Why am I telling you fine people about this at all, since I seldom write here on political issues and I haven’t mentioned who the commissioning candidate was ? (And I’m not going to — the pushed candidate is someone who has done some pretty good things for the city in the past, and is furthermore reputed to be a holy terror to those who cross her — although something tells me it may crop up when I share this story with my neighbors at the July 4th potluck. Unlike the polling firm, I’m not out to affect the outcome of the election.)

I’m bringing it up because of what writers can learn from this handily-timed phone call. True, we could glean from it that, obviously, far too much of my education was devoted to learning about how statistics are generated. A savvy interpreter might also conclude that cutting campaign expenditures by hiring polling firms that use badly-faked human voices is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But most vital to our ongoing series, in an interview scene, it’s important to make it clear who is the information-solicitor and who the information-revealer.

If the interviewer’s biases are heavy-handedly applied, he/she/the computer-generated voice appears to be trying to influence the content of the answers by how the questions are phrased. (As pretty much all political poll questions are designed to do; sorry to shatter anyone’s illusions on the subject, but I’ve written them in the past.) While a pushy interviewer can make for an interesting scene if the interviewee resists his/her/its ostensibly subtle blandishments, the reader may well side against a protagonist who interviews like a push-poller.

The moral of the story: impartial questions are actually rather rare in real life. When constructing an interview scene, it’s vital to be aware of that — and how much interviewees tend to resent being push-polled, if they realize that’s what’s happening.

Got all that? Good. Because the plot is about to thicken in an even more instructive way. Let us return to our story of civic communicative ineptitude, already in progress.

Being a good citizen, as well as having more than a passing familiarity with how much a poorly-executed campaign ad (which this poll effectively was) can harm an otherwise praiseworthy candidate, I took the time out of my busy schedule to drop the campaign manager an e-mail. I felt pretty virtuous for doing this: I was probably not the only potential voter annoyed by the pseudo-poll, but I was probably the only one who would actually contact the campaign to say why.

You know me; I’m all about generating useful feedback.

So I sent it off and thought no more about it — until this morning, when the campaign manager sent me the following e-mailed reply:

Dear Dr. Mini,

Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the feedback on any of our voter contact and outreach efforts. In everything we do, we want to make the best and most professional impression. You are right that automated surveys are cost competitive {sic}. In this situation, the need for feedback from voters was important {sic} and we hope that almost everyone was able to hear the questions clearly.

I have included the following link to an article on what push polling is {sic} (address omitted, but here’s the relevant link). I assure you that our campaign does not and will not ever be involved in push polling.

Thank you for supporting (his candidate) for Mayor {sic}.

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly polite, if poorly punctuated, response, doesn’t it? He acknowledged the fact that I had taken the time to communicate my critique, gave a justification (albeit an indirect one) for having used computerized polling, and reassured an anxious potential voter that his candidate’s policy was to eschew a practice that I had informed him I found offensive.

On a second read, he’s saying that he’s not even going to check in with the pollsters to see if my objections were valid, since obviously I am stone-deaf and have no idea what push polling is. Oh, and since push polling is bad, and his candidate is not bad, therefore no polls commissioned on her behalf could possibly be push polling. Thank you.

In short: vote for my candidate anyway, so I may head up the future mayor’s staff. But otherwise, go away, and you shouldn’t have bugged me in the first place.

To add stupidity icing to the cake of insolence, the article to which he referred me for enlightenment on how I had misdefined push polling confirmed my use of the term, not his: “A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud – and thus still a ‘push poll’ – even if the facts of the ‘questions’ are technically true or defensible.”

Wondering again why I’m sharing this sordid little episode with you? Well, first, to discourage any of you from making the boneheaded mistake of not bothering to read an article before forwarding the link to somebody. An attempt to pull intellectual rank is never so apparent as when if falls flat on its face.

Second, see how beautifully his resentment that I had brought up the issue at all shines through what is ostensibly a curt business letter, one that he probably thought was restrained and professional when he hit the SEND key? If any of you is ever tempted to respond by e-mail, letter, or phone to a rejection from an agent or editor, this is precisely why you should dismiss the idea immediately as self-destructive: when even very good writers are angry, they tend not to be the best judges of the tone of their own work.

And when a writer is less talented…well, you see the result above.

Another reason you should force yourself not to hit SEND: such follow-ups are considered both rude and a waste of time by virtually everyone in the industry. (For a fuller explanation why, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Like a campaign manager’s telling an offended voter that her concerns are irrelevant for semantic reasons, it’s just not a strategy that’s at all likely to convince your rejecter that his earlier opinion of you was mistaken.

Trust me: I’ve been on every conceivable side of this one. Just hold your peace — unless, of course, you would like the recipient of your missive to do precisely what I’ve done here, tell everyone within shouting distance precisely what happened when you didn’t observe the standing norms of professionalism and courtesy.

Yes, it happens. As you see, the anecdote can be made very funny.

Okay, back to the business at hand. Last time, I sensed some of you writers of first-person narratives cringing at the prospect of minimizing the occurrence of Hollywood narration in your manuscripts.

Oh, don’t deny it: at least 10% of you novelists, and close to 100% of memoir-writers — read through my excoriation of Hollywood narration and thought, “Oh, no — my narrator is CONSTANTLY updating the reader on what’s going on, what has gone on, other characters’ motivations, and the like. I thought that was okay, because I hear that done in movies all the time. But if Hollywood narration on the printed page is one of Millicent the agency screener’s numerous pet peeves, I’d better weed out anything in my manuscript that sounds remotely like screenplay dialogue, and pronto! But where should I begin? HELP!”

Okay, take a deep breath: I’m not saying that every piece of movie-type dialogue is a red flag if it appears in a manuscript. What I’ve been arguing is that including implausible movie-type dialogue can be fatal to a manuscript’s chances.

Remember, in defining Hollywood narration, I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf. It’s immeasurably better — and much closer to the rough cut that Philip K. Dick saw himself before he died. Trust me on this one.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past. If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory.

You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the way; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but hey, it was the ‘70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device, rather than pretending that it wasn’t. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a fledgling writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys while he’s waiting for his book to hit the big time. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, as we discussed yesterday, most of us have become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

”Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

”Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that. In film, it’s an accepted narrative convention.”

In a book, there’s plenty odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe.

I can’t make screenwriters –or political operatives — do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on, if only for the novelty of it. And I don’t know if you noticed, but wasn’t it far more effective for me to allow the campaign manager to hang himself with his own words, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about his communication skills and tact levels before I gave my narrative opinion of them, rather than the other way around? Trick o’ the trade.

Trust me, when Millicent is pondering submissions, you want your manuscript to fall into the novelty category, not the far more common reads-like-a-movie-script pile. Which, as often as not, also serves as the rejection pile.

No, I’m not kidding about that. By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed — so much so that the vast majority of Millicents are trained simply to stop reading a submission when it breaks out into Hollywood narration. In fact, it’s such a pervasive professional reader’s pet peeve that I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

Funny to observe? Oh, my, yes — unless you happen to be the aspiring writer who submitted that dialogue.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that if your characters tell one another things they already know is not going to win your manuscript any friends. There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent. As a general rule of thumb, one bad laugh is enough to get a submission rejected.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

Present-day Anne breaking in again here, feeling compelled to point out two things. First, people from San Francisco have historically hated it when others refer to it as Frisco, by the way. It’s safe to assume that Millicent from there will, too.

Second, and more important for revision purposes, memoirs fall into this trap ALL THE TIME — and it’s as fatal a practice in a book proposal or contest entry as it is in a manuscript. It may be counterintuitive that an anecdote that’s been knocking ‘em dead for years at cocktail parties might not be funny — or poignant, for that matter — when the same speech is reproduced verbatim on the page, but I assure you that such is the case.

The result? Any Millicent working for a memoir-representing agent spends days on end scanning submissions that read like this:

So there I was, listening to my boss go on and on about his fishing vacation, when I notice that he’s got a hand-tied fly stuck in his hair. I’m afraid to swipe my hand at it, because I might end up with a hook in my thumb, and besides, Thom hadn’t drawn breath for fifteen minutes; if the room had been on fire, he wouldn’t want to be disturbed.

The fly keeps bobbing up and down. I keep swishing my bangs out of my eyes, hoping he will start to copy me. Then he absent-mindedly started to shove his hair out of his eyes — and rammed his pinkie finger straight into the fly. That’s a fish story he’ll be telling for years!

Did those paragraphs make your hands grope unconsciously for highlighting pens and correction fluid? After all of our discussion of Frankenstein manuscripts and how to revise them, I sincerely hope so. Like so many verbal anecdotes, this little gem wanders back and forth between the past and present tenses, contains run-on sentences, and is light on vivid detail.

For our purposes today, however, what I want you to notice is how flat the telling is. Both the suspense and the comedy are there, potentially, but told this tersely, neither really jumps off the page at the reader. It reads like a summary, rather than as a scene.

It is, in short, told, not shown. The sad part is, the more exciting the anecdote, the more this kind of summary narration will deaden the story.

Don’t believe me? Okay, snuggle yourself into Millicent’s reading chair and take a gander at this sterling piece of memoir, a fairly representative example of the kind of action scene she sees in both memoir and autobiographical fiction submissions:

The plane landed in the jungle, and we got off. The surroundings looked pretty peaceful, but I had read up on the deadly snakes and vicious mountain cats that lurked in the underbrush. Suddenly, I heard a scream, and Avery, the magazine writer in the Bermuda shorts, went down like a sacked football player. He hadn’t even seen the cat coming.

While I was bending over him, tending his slashed eye, an anaconda slowly wrapped itself around my ankle. By the time I noticed that I had no circulation in my toes, it was too late.

Now, that’s an inherently exciting story, right? But does the telling do it justice? Wouldn’t it work better if the narrative presented this series of events as a scene, rather than a summary?

Ponder that, please, as we return to the discussion already in progress.

To professional readers, humor is a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two of a partial, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the Frisco example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration? (And in the story about the campaign manager, didn’t you find it just a trifle refreshing that he didn’t speak exactly like a character on THE WEST WING?)

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny or ironic doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission tries to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

So can any other good first reader, of course, if you’re not into joining groups, but for the purposes of catching Hollywood narration and other logical problems, more eyes tend to be better than fewer. Not only are multiple first readers more likely to notice any narrative gaffe than a single one — that’s just probability, right? — but when an aspiring writer selects only one first reader, he usually chooses someone who shares his cultural background.

His politics, in other words. His educational level. His taste in television and movie viewing — and do you see where I’m heading with this? If you’re looking for a reader who is going to flag when your dialogue starts to sound Spielbergish, it might not be the best idea to recruit the person with whom you cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Spielberg flick, might it?

I just mention.

One excellent request to make of first readers when you hand them your manuscript is to ask them to flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that…”

Ask them to consider: should the lines that follow these statements be cut? Do they actually add meaning to the scene, or are they just the author’s subconscious way of admitting that this is Hollywood narration?

Another good indicator that dialogue might be trending in the wrong direction: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least get you into the habit of spotting them. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, other than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

Flagging the warning signs is a trick that works well for isolated writers self-editing, too: once again, those highlighter pens are a revising writer’s best friends. Mark the relevant phrases, then go back through the manuscript, reexamining the sentences that surround them to see whether they should be reworked into more natural dialogue.

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered “By gum, no!” to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader really need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Okay, that’s more than enough homework for one day, I think, and enough civic involvement for one day. Keep up the good work!

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