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The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VI: the phrase so nice I used it twice, or, hey, look at what I can do!

June 5th, 2010

Nicholas brothers jumping

Have these last two series on self-editing been keeping you up at night, campers? Now that you’re starting to gain a sense of just how closely professional readers (like, say, agents, editors, and people like Millicent who screen submissions for them) peruse pages, have you found yourself gnawing your fingernails up to the elbow, worried about that manuscript you sent out last month? Speculating on just how deeply Millicent’s X-ray eyes will bore into your page 1, are you?

And now aren’t you glad that I spared you a picture of X-ray eyes to top this post? Enjoy the chipper photo of the Nicholas brothers! (Which doesn’t really do that remarkable dance team justice, I must say. If you are even remotely interested in the dance, do yourself a favor and check out any of the many movies from the 1940s that they enlivened.)

Not that I’m in a position to soften how the pros read, but I do worry about the effects of these blogs on you fine people, you know. Knowing the score can be stressful — although I continue to believe that in the long run, having a realistic understanding of how books do and do not get published is actually quite a bit less stressful than the far more popular route of just assuming that any well-written book will inevitably attract an agent and get published.

Presumably, the moment a truly gifted writer types the last word of her first manuscript, an air-raid siren goes off somewhere in Manhattan, alerting agents to swarm. That must be the case, because when the writer sends out her first (and only, doubtless) query, the lucky recipient knows to snap it up right away, regardless of whether that agent happens to represent that kind of book or not.

Or perhaps the Manuscript Fairy makes the introduction. Whatever the magical mechanism, the writer is signed with an agency with a week, sells her manuscript for a six-figure advance within a month, and is smilingly chatting about her newly-published book with Oprah in less than the time it would take to grow nasturtiums from seed to flower.

For the non-gardeners among you, that’s not all that long.

The trouble is, there is no Manuscript Fairy, and good writing often has an exceptionally difficult time finding a home. Believe me, it’s far better for you to know all that before you submit; realistic expectations have kept many a fine fledgling writer from giving up in despair after just a few tries. (Hint: if you can still name every agent you have queried with your latest book, your query list is probably quite a bit too short, given the current market.)

But before I sit you down for some straight talk about Santa Claus, let me hasten to add that the vast majority of submitted manuscripts disqualify themselves from serious professional consideration — and often for reasons that would not even occur to their writers as important to consider. Like, say, how often a particular sentence, image, or insight appears in a manuscript.

Hey, we were just talking about that, weren’t we? And with good reason: as I pointed out last time, professional readers are trained to seek out and deplore redundancy.

Unfortunately, writers — especially those who do not take the time to re-read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD prior to submission — seldom catch repetition of their favorite phrases and ideas. Heck, they’re frequently unaware that they’re leaning on some verbs harder than others…or that Millicent regularly gnashes her teeth over the fact that such a high percentage of submitters apparently all attended the same school of leaning.

Why, just a month or two ago, I was chatting with Teresa (not her real name, of course, but a cunning pseudonym), an aspiring writer of some promise who’d just had her first run-in with an editor — and thus with the X-ray vision a savvy writer associates with professional readers. “He yelled at me for writing too much in the passive voice,” she fumed. “In fact, he told me that any sentence with the verb to be in it was bad writing.”

I laughed, as I often do at writing rules apparently constructed out of the chewed-up remains of seven or eight genuinely solid pieces of literary advice. “That was a rather common high school English assignment in the 1980s: write an essay or story without using to be even once. It was designed to broaden the array of verbs students were using, not to criminalize was.”

Teresa thought about that. “But he said it was a rule!”

“Matters of style are not really conducive to one-size-fits-all rules. However, I can easily imagine an editor — or any professional reader, for that matter — getting so tired of seeing a particular word or phrase repeated in a manuscript that he would say, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you may never use look again in writing. Heck, I would be relieved if you never used a seeing verb again, because in this manuscript, you have used up your lifetime supply.’ But that doesn’t make it a rule every writer should follow.”

I chose look advisedly, because in this TV-, movie-, and internet-saturated culture, seeing verbs are some of the most overused. After all, most people gain most of their information through their eyes; as a direct result, Millicent sees (see?) many, many submissions on any given day where sight and sound provide virtually all of the information to the reader. This tendency is so pronounced that if an alien from the planet Zarg who knew nothing of human life were suddenly to switch places with Millie (hey, she could use the vacation), it might easily conclude from reading all of those submissions that sight and hearing were the only senses that people possess on Earth.

Hands up if your immediate first response to that was to cry, “From this day forth, by gum, I’m going to gladden Millicent’s heart by incorporating more smell, taste, and touch details into my writing! In fact, just as soon as I finish reading this blog post, I’m off to search through my manuscript for places where the narrative relies too heavily on visual descriptions, so I may mix up the sensory descriptors more,” congratulations. You have already begun to think of revision in professional terms.

First-person and tight third-person narratives are particularly prone to over-reliance on visual detail — and are frequently riddled with seeing verbs. That’s completely understandable: from the writer’s perspective, reminding the reader that Our Hero is in fact seeing everything in the story makes perfect sense. It’s true, for one thing — and at first glance, at least, it can make the protagonist seem involved in action he is in fact merely observing. But upon closer examination, that proves not to be the case:

I watched Billy tear through the contents of my locker, looking for his now-meaningless love letter. I cringed, seeing textbooks, rulers, my pointiest protractor fly over his burly shoulder. Periodically, he glared at me, as if daring me to stop him. Pointedly, I looked away.

I had the strange sense I was being observed. Removing my gaze from the destruction of nearly all of my school supplies, I discovered the source: my nemesis, Stacey, was staring at me from the other end of the locker bay, exchanging amused glances with her friends. Their contemptuous scrutiny made me burn with shame.

Surreptitiously, I eyed the diary hanging from Billy’s back pocket, estimating the number of steps it would take me to rush forward, snatch it, and run away to read it in peace. The look in Billy’s eyes made me hesitate, but having an audience watching me rendered me bold.

“Now see here,” I began nervously…

See? The narrator is involved in the scene, certainly, but until the last line, she isn’t actually an actor in it. Her only action involves looking at this or that. Oh, she’s thinking up a storm for the reader’s benefit, but to an outside observer of the scene, she would be merely passively watching what’s going on.

“Aha!” rules-lawyering revisers of Frankenstein manuscripts will exclaim. “So that’s your real objection here: the narrator is a passive protagonist. I agree that is a problem, but I thought we were talking about textual repetition. This example doesn’t really show that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but each time Our Heroine (or anybody else, for that matter) saw something, the author used a different verb to describe it. How then is it repetitious?”

Good question, rules-lawyers. The repetition here is conceptual — all of that eye use — but to a veteran reader, all of those synonyms for sight might actually leap off the page as if they were all the verb to see. To Millicent’s overworked eyes, it would look like this:

I watched Billy tear through the contents of my locker, looking for his now-meaningless love letter. I cringed, seeing textbooks, rulers, my pointiest protractor fly over his burly shoulder. Periodically, he glared at me, as if daring me to stop him. Pointedly, I looked away.

I had the strange sense I was being observed. Removing my gaze from the destruction of nearly all of my school supplies, I discovered the source: my nemesis, Stacey, was staring at me from the other end of the locker bay, exchanging amused glances with her friends. Their contemptuous scrutiny made me burn with shame.

Surreptitiously, I eyed the diary hanging from Billy’s back pocket, estimating the number of steps it would take me to rush forward, snatch it, and run away to read it in peace. The look in Billy’s eyes made me hesitate, but having an audience watching me rendered me bold.

“Now see here,” I began nervously…

My point, should anybody have started to wonder if I had one, is this: if a writer is going to become a good self-editor, she needs to stop believing in the Manuscript Fairy, learn how to read her own work as critically as Millicent would, and take responsibility for every word in the manuscript. By definition, redundancy doesn’t add anything new to a manuscript — so does it really need to be there at all?

The answer, since not all of you shouted it out in unison, is no — and that’s as true for conceptual repetition like relying exclusively upon seeing verbs as it is for recycled metaphors and self-plagiarism. A redundant text is, among other things, predictable. At the sentence level, varying your word choices and sensory details is as important to keeping a reader guessing as providing good plot twists at the story level.

The trick to sifting through a Frankenstein manuscript, though, is not only identifying and pouncing upon repetition; it also involves learning how to spot, preserve, and highlight what works. That, alas, is a goal that all too often gets swept under the proverbial rug when a writer is suddenly hit with an apparently impossible-to-apply piece of editorial advice like never use the verb to be.

But good revision, like good feedback, isn’t entirely about pointing out broken rules. It’s also about — wait for it — style, and that means, often, that generic rules don’t always apply. Oh, you’re going to want to use punctuation correctly, and you’re going to want to make the voice consistent throughout, but you’re also going to want the to manuscript sound like you.

And that, my friends, is one of the grave dangers of blindly adhering to one-size-fits-all style formulae: there’s no writing rule in the world that’s going to tell you what your individual voice should be. Nor should it, because part of the charm of a great voice is that it is unique.

Was that giant bang I just heard the sound of everybody out there who wants to be handed an infallible set of directions for how to get published slamming the door on his way out?

In order to define and polish personal literary voice, it’s vital to figure out what’s the best part of your writing, so you may draw the reader’s attention to it. That may not involve finding the best scene or paragraph, necessarily, or even your strongest sentence; it may mean identifying a particular strength in your writing. It can be something very general — a good ear for realistic dialogue, for instance, or a gift for helping the reader care about the protagonist — or something very specific, like being a magnificent describer of the interiors of automobiles or a world-class expresser of silent disgruntlement.

Whatever it is — or whatever they are; good writers often start off with many strengths, and build still more through practice — being aware of how it shows up in your text will render revision infinitely easier, particularly if you happen to be dealing with a Frankenstein manuscript. Think about it: without knowing what to emphasize, self-editing is a grueling process of ferreting out mistakes and correcting them. If you can play to your strengths as a writer, however, then revision is a matter of winnowing away anything that obscures them, so your best writing may shine.

Sounds like a whole lot more fun than yelling at yourself for a bunch of mistakes, doesn’t it? Not to mention significantly gentler on the ego.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, a huge part of being a good writing teacher or developmental editor — as opposed to a good copyeditor, who concentrates on making sure that the writing is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, bringing the work to the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience. (And no, Virginia, those three are not all necessarily the same thing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Aspiring writers frequently do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, about what is good about their work, other than the fact that they themselves sat down and wrote it. Heck, many apparently need to be told what the selling points for their books are, if the typical responses to the perfectly straightforward questions, “Who is your target audience, and why will your book appeal to those folks?” are any indication.

As is the case for so many pervasive phenomena on the creative side of the submission process, there’s a pretty good reason for this, at least from the writer’s point of view. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic, isn’t it? But realistically, books literally never get acquired and published simply and exclusively because someone went to the trouble to write them.

Okay, so books by celebrities and politicians occasionally do. I’m talking about works of literary merit here.

The vast majority of the time, manuscripts sell because of their strengths — you know, those marvelous things that I urged you earlier to take the time to track down and highlight in your work. This is not a business that gives As for effort, after all. In fact, should you ever happen to find yourself chatting about your book with an agent or editor, the length of time it took you to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a pitch — or in a query letter, for that matter.

Was that echoing collective gasp of horror a subtle indication that some of you would like to know why? As hard as it might be for any of us to accept, to Millicent and her ilk, the amount of effort that a writer put into a writing project doesn’t really matter. What matters is what’s on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.

Or, to put it another way, everyone concerned is perfectly aware that every book requires Herculean efforts to bring from conception to completion, much less to publication. So what agents and editors tend to conclude when writers rattle on about those efforts is not, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will it take this writer to make any revisions I may want?”

I know: it’s unfair. In actual practice, how long it takes to write a book is not a particularly good indicator of how long it would take to revise. Or even how good the writing will be at the end of the process.

But as submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form. Agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, they do not — contrary to the hope of most aspiring writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? (Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.)

How do the business orientation of agents and editors relate to the revision process, you ask, or to this series on Frankenstein manuscripts? Merely this; the swift judgments endemic to agencies, publishing houses, and yes, even contest judging mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first five.

If, say, you were intending to comb your work for any of the many knee-jerk rejection reasons in the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE category at right. Or even just to minimize any redundancy in the manuscript. From a submission perspective, investing your time in culling all of those synonyms for seeing out of your first chapter, then turning your efforts to making absolutely certain that the voice is consistent all the way through that chapter before you pop it in the mail, is better strategy than working and re-working Chapter 10 until it’s perfect before you re-read the opening pages. Especially if the agent of your dreams has only asked to see Chapters 1-3.

Just make sure that after you’ve met your short-term deadline, you go back and implement those changes all the way through the manuscript. Lest we forget, that kind of spot-specific, I-want-to-get-this-in-the-morning-mail type of revision is quite conducive to producing a Frankenstein manuscript.

There, you have your homework: make your opening pages impeccable, then make the rest admirable. Well, my work here is done…

If you should find yourself shaking your head in the dead of night over your very own Frankenstein manuscript, try not to despair. What you have in front of you is not just an unevenly-written story or argument; it’s also potentially a spectacularly rich source of information about what you do well as a writer. If you have the time — and I would urge you to make some, even if you feel as if you’re up against a deadline; does that submission REALLY need to be e-mailed the day after that agent requested it? — it’s well worth your while to cuddle up with your Frankenstein manuscript in a comfortable reading chair.

Who knows? You might just find gold. Or at least a promising site to pan for it.

Yes, in response to what you just thought: that’s going to be a heck of a lot of work. One might even call it a Herculean task. Nobody ever said that writing a great book was easy.

Nobody who didn’t believe in the Manuscript Fairy, at any rate.

Try to think of the work not as the value of the manuscript, but as the training and practice you need to become a master at your art. Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more to this gig than just sitting in front of a keyboard and typing the darned thing. You have to figure out what you write well — which isn’t necessarily what you like to read, right? — and use that skill to tell the story you were born to tell.

That’s a tall order, but the results are worth it. Jumping off a staircase and landing in the splits isn’t the kind of thing most of us can do on the first try, after all. Keep up the good work!

13 Responses to “The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VI: the phrase so nice I used it twice, or, hey, look at what I can do!”

  1. comment number 1 by: Nuria Coe

    Hi there Anne,
    I hear you, but I can’t help thinking that sometimes trying to see what one writes best and where one falters is akin to trying to be one’s own therapist, is it not?

  2. comment number 2 by: Dave McChesney

    Hence the desirability of “first readers” and critique groups. Not only can they point out those area where one might need improvement, they can also validate what one does well.
    Dave

  3. comment number 3 by: Kate Evangelista

    I agree with Dave. Having a critique partner is key. I certainly saw my MS in a new light when my critique partner pointed things out. Sometimes we are blinded by the glow of the creative process.

  4. comment number 4 by: Ken

    ‘My point, should anybody have started to wonder if I had one, is this: if a writer is going to become a good self-editor, she needs to stop believing in the Manuscript Fairy, learn how to read her own work as critically as Millicent would, and take responsibility for every word in the manuscript. ”

    I like it when Football Coach Anne rears her head. Always the perfect mix of carrot and stick :)

  5. comment number 5 by: Marsha

    Anne,
    As to your concern about the effects your blogs have on us fine people, I for one want to say THANKS again for all you have compiled for us to draw from. After almost three months, I’m beginning to compile all of the elements into my proposal and the one thing I don’t have to worry about is the format. I just have to refer back to your helpful hints and insistent advice and simply do as I’m told! And although I have printed out each element and read them OUT LOUD every time I have a new draft, when they all appear in one document, guess what I’m going to do? Yep! Print it out and read it all out loud again! Have a great day!
    Marsha

  6. comment number 6 by: Anne

    That’s a marvelous analogy, Núria: as with therapy, one can come up with insights on one’s own, but an objective analyst might see different sides of the matter. And I can carry the analogy even further: as in therapy, one’s spouse, mother, or best friend might not be the best person to provide necessary feedback.

  7. comment number 7 by: Anne

    I agree with Dave, too — and I’m DELIGHTED to hear that you have a good critique partner, Kate. (I already knew Dave had chosen his first readers with care and consideration, so I’ve been pleased about that for a long while now.)

    It occurs to me, though: isn’t it funny how seldom writers talk amongst themselves about the support first readers can provide, in addition to the feedback? Even when speakers at writers’ conferences shoo attendees toward writers’ groups, they usually talk about the benefits purely in terms of critique. Come to think of it, I suppose I mostly do, too; I’ll have to work on that.

  8. comment number 8 by: Anne

    Ah, that’s my parents’ voices coming out in the blog, Ken! It’s even stronger when I’m teaching classes: we Minis are all about setting high expectations. It really, really bugs me how much of the guidance out there for aspiring writers assumes that they’re not very bright, as a group, when so much of the time, it’s simply that people don’t know the rules.

  9. comment number 9 by: Anne

    You’ve completely made my day, Marsha — and that’s saying something, as this has been quite a day!

  10. comment number 10 by: Nuria Coe

    I am sorry, I can’t help but cringe at the thought of going about searching for a good critique partner (or a group). Those of us novice writers feel that in order to be in a critique group we are going to be expected to provide the same kind of thoughtful insight we so desperately need ourselves, yet feel utterly unprepared to provide it for others. I feel like it’s a very quick way to make a lot of people displeased with you all at once.

    It’s the same reason I never join neighborhood babysitting co-ops, because usually the parents needing their children looked after the most are seldom able to provide it for others, making it a really good way to become the most unpopular neighbor within a week.

    Maybe when I finish reading ALL of Anne’s posts (don’t laugh, I’m really trying!) I will feel qualified enough to provide insight too :)

  11. comment number 11 by: Nuria Coe

    By the way, just for kicks and giggles I did search on the word “was” on the first 50 pages and it turned up more than 300 times! I never realized how dependent on those three-letter crutches I am. Rats.

  12. comment number 12 by: Anne

    A lot of writers feel that way about writers’ groups, Núria: I know many an established author who won’t go near ‘em. I’ve been in good ones and bad ones myself. It really depends upon the individual and the group.

    Your reasoning made me laugh, though: one of the hallmarks of my less-successful forays into group membership was that I would find myself the only person making substantive comments. Writers in a group for the first time often are shy about saying anything more than, “I liked this,” or “I didn’t like that,” sometimes without even explaining why. Usually, they learn pretty quickly that such advice isn’t particularly useful at revision time; specifics are infinitely more helpful, and first readers whose first goal is to be nice tend to shy away from providing them. So perversely, it’s often those who will not express their opinions who find themselves on the receiving end of group disapproval.

    As a result, one of the things I like to see in a writing group is a set of ground rules about commentary — including, ideally, a ban on just saying that one liked or disliked something without explaining why. It’s also useful to establish, if not a rule, than at least an expectation that critique will include a couple of suggestions for how to improve the troubled section. That kind of feedback may be difficult for a writer new to the game to provide, but it’s actually a great skill for a writer to develop, one that’s going to help him look critically at his own work.

  13. comment number 13 by: Anne

    Most writers don’t notice the repetition in their own work, Núria; that’s why I encourage the use of highlighters. Until you’ve seen verb repetition pop off the page at you, it can be genuinely hard to see the patterns.

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