Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.6: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.


Hello, campers —

My apologies to those of you who spent the afternoon and evening yesterday holding your breath, symbolically at least, in anticipation of my promised run-down on how to read, interpret, and follow contest entry rules. I honestly did mean to go into that last night — I’m all too aware that the postmark deadline for the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday — but health matters, alas, intervened. Long story. And if I have one rule I like to follow in life it’s not to give contest advice while on painkillers.

I’m still a bit groggy, so I’m going to cling to that excellent precept for at least a few hours longer. In the meantime, here is another of my favorite posts on how to write a 1-page synopsis. This one tackles the always-daunting challenge of trying to construct a synopsis for a multiple-perspective narrative.

Just in case anyone who might be thinking of entering a contest could use a few tips on the subject. Enjoy!

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

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

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

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

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

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

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

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

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

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

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

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

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

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

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

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

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

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

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):


with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

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

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

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

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VIII: embracing the offbeat strategy

Hey, I’ve got some great news for all of you penny-pinchers — and who doesn’t make a penny scream occasionally these days? FAAB Dave McChesney reports that Outskirts Press is currently offering a 10% discount on his new release, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge if you buy it directly from the publisher’s site. If you can stop tormenting those coins for a moment, you’ll find the blurb for this exciting adventure story in this earlier post. Thanks for letting us know, Dave!

Back to business. I feel a trifle guilty about not posting yesterday, I must admit. Oh, I had pretty good reasons — the pollen count was through the roof, or rather through my studio’s window. The lilac tree has evidently hit its adolescent growth spurt, and like all developing things that bid fair to be fascinating adults, it’s asserting its independence by breaking away from the bonds I have set for it and is getting in my face. I’ll spare you a description of the resultant sneezing.

The postmark deadline for the writing contest I have been planning to use as a rule exemplar, the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday, however, so I regret the loss of time. I have time to go over the rules and how to follow them, as well as answer any contest prep questions you might care to post this weekend, of course, so no need to panic. However, while I was sneezing my pretty little head off, I came up with a glorious plan to make the lost Thursday up to you.

Since the contest requires a 1-page synopsis to accompany book-length entries, and since most aspiring writers would, in my extensive and sympathetic experience, rather waltz with a live rattlesnake than sit down and write a 1-page synopsis, am I correct in assuming that more than a few of you planning to enter the contest have been putting it off until this weekend? Am I further correct in assuming that it would save you some time if you didn’t have to dig through my extensive archives for pointers on how to write one from scratch? And would I be crawling too far onto that interpretive limb if I presumed that it would save you a little time and more than a little chagrin if I abruptly presented you with the relevant how-to posts?

I’ll take those vague nods, exasperated sighs, and chorus of sneezes as yes, yes, and no. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: because I love you people and would like to be shaking several of your respective hands at the awards ceremony, I shall be reposting my ever-popular series on how to write a 1-page synopsis successfully, if hurriedly.

Tonight. All of it. Back-to-back, so you have it at your itchy fingertips.

You’re welcome. It will take a while to post them all, but if you tune in sometime after 8 p.m. Pacific time, I believe I can promise you enough to read to keep you busy.

To prepare you to turn that practical gift to its best advantage for you, right now, I’m going to polish off my observations on the touches that differentiate a successful contest synopsis from one that you might tuck with confidence into a query or submission packet.

Since most writing contests that offer prizes to unpublished books do not accept entire manuscripts — although the Faulkner/Wisdom competition does, one of the many things I like about it; I also like that it features an unusual Novel-in-Progress category, as well as a special prize for a short story by a high school student — judge that book by the first chapter (or some portion thereof) and a synopsis, the synopsis is quite a bit more important to an entry’s chances of making the finalist round than most entrants assume. Effectively, the contest synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of it that way? It’s only sensible: that page (or 3 or 5, depending upon the individual contest’s rules) is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold a reader in thrall for a few isolated pages. The synopsis is where you show that you have the vision, tenacity, and — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — storytelling ability to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

Or, if you happen to be entering a memoir, that you can tell your life story so compellingly and honestly, while simultaneously presenting it with a dramatically-satisfying story arc, that a reader will indeed feel as though s/he has walked the proverbial mile in your moccasins, and returned from the journey edified, enlightened, and entertained.

Or, should your tastes run toward other stripes of nonfiction, that you can articulate an important problem or unresolved question, illuminate the relevant circumstances, and offer a solution or interpretation so subtle and complex that Cicero himself would stand up and applaud. Nothing dry or mundane about the story you’re telling.

Sounds noble expressed in those terms, doesn’t it? Actually, it is: the synopsis is where you show that you have the writerly chops to plot out a BOOK, baby.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting to the contest fits into the overall story arc or argument of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. And although it pains me to tell you this, it’s exceedingly rare that a synopsis included with an entry even attempts that not-particularly-difficult feat.

Did I just notice many, many eyebrows shooting hairline-ward? “But Anne,” those of you about to pop your entries into the nearest mailboxes shout, “isn’t it self-evident where that chapter or excerpt falls? Why would I be submitting anything other than the first chapter(s) of my book to a literary contest that judges book-length work?”

Well, for starters: the rules. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first. Still more do not explicitly specify: they merely tell the entrant to send X number of pages and a synopsis. And surprisingly often, rules do not insist explicitly that the entered pages fall consecutively in the book.

So ostensibly, it’s can appear to be up to the writer to decide which pages are most likely to wow Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Who — spoiler alert — may not have read the contest rules recently enough to recall that entering anything but the opening of the book is technically acceptable.

Well might you clutch your throat and mutter inarticulately. “What was this entrant thinking?” Mehitabel wonders, leafing through the four-page excerpt from Chapter 8, the six-page passage from Chapter 10, and the totality of Chapter 18 that make up the 25-page contest entry before her. “This reads like random notes for a planned book, not a legitimate taste of a book already written. No agent would accept this as a submission; why on earth would this writer think we accept it as a contest entry?”

In all likelihood, because the rules allowed for the possibility, even if they did not encourage it. You’d be astonished at how often contest entrants will take advantage of what they perceive to be a loophole operating in their favor, only to find that they have inadvertently violated the judges’ expectations.

Here comes the first iteration of an axiom you are going to be seeing many, many times over the next few days: read contest rules carefully. All too often, entrants merely glance at them and assume that they understand what’s expected. And then those entrants get disqualified.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that feel that your best writing falls in, say, Chapter 16, not in Chapter 1. Like a sensible person, before you printed out Chapter 16 and pop it into the entry envelope, you have read through a contest’s rules with great care. You borrowed your spouse’s fine-toothed comb to go over them again, in case you missed something. Then you had your spouse, your neighbor, and your son Joey’s third-grade teacher peruse those rules, so you could compare notes.

In caucus, all of you agree that the rules do seem to allow entering an excerpt from the middle of the book. And the contest deadline is Monday, so you don’t have time to e-mail the contest’s organizers to double-check that this is indeed an acceptable option. Even if you did have time and they wrote back with their blessing, however, if you elect to pursuit this strategy, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the enclosed excerpt will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either chapters other than the initial ones or non-consecutive excerpts from a book, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Why? Well, presumably, you chose to begin your manuscript at a certain point in the story for a reason; asking Mehitabel to jump into it somewhere else might well require her to know information that the chapter you submit does not contain. If a reader would normally know by page 5 that angel-faced Georgette is a murderous maniac in cheerleader’s clothing, and Mehitabel reads only pp. 57-82, she may well be confused when Georgie slashes up that nice math teacher on page 76.

Non-consecutive excerpts are even more likely to confuse. They require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest. An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written –- a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter, the pages upon which Millicent the agency screener would naturally base her opinion if you submitted the manuscript to an agency.

Did some of you just do a double-take? No agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters, or some other increment up to and possibly including the entire manuscript. But no way, no how is an agent or editor going to ask to see unrelated excerpts out of running order.

Well, okay, not unless the submitter is a celebrity for whom it would be a stunning surprise to the industry if s/he could string three coherent English sentences together. But in that case, the celebrity would be selling a platform more than the writing itself, right? And in any case, that’s why God invented ghostwriters.

Since reputable contest judging is blind, that last scenario is unlikely to arise, anyway. So a judge might safely conclude that the entrant who mailed in this patchwork document isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. In other words: next!

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers, but I can already hear some of you quietly tucking page 147 into your entry packet. Fine. If you have decided, over my strenuous objections, to use non-contiguous excerpts, here is some advice on how to do it in the manner least likely to annoy Mehitabel.

First, place your synopsis at the top of your entry packet, before the manuscript pages, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so. That way, you will maximize the probability that the judge will read it first. Second, make sure that the synopsis makes it pellucidly clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important parts of the book for some reason other than the beauty of the writing.

Oh, you may giggle, but by embracing the offbeat strategy, you’ve added another responsibility to the synopsis’ usual task of showing the overall story arc or argument of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis in this instance is to make the judges eager to read these particular excerpts.

Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge. But really, why would you want to raise an already lofty bar this much higher?

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility. If you must, however, you should again position your synopsis on the top of the pile, and that synopsis should present the chapter you are including as the climax of the book.

Yes, even if it isn’t. I can only assume that you have your reasons for wanting to stick Chapter 17, rather than Chapter 1, under Mehitabel’s bloodshot eyes; since that is the case, surely you can make a convincing argument that it’s the correct choice, despite the significant disadvantage any judge will face in figuring out what happened in Chs. 1-16.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, “the opening to my Chapter 58 knocked the socks off my mother, nearly slayed my writing teacher, and left my critique group in a state of panting incoherence. Are you saying that I shouldn’t loose that level of brilliance upon a contest judge, just because she might — silly person — want to know what anyone else who read that far in the book would already know?”

Before I answer that directly, let me acquaint you with some of the more salient’ arguments against beginning your entry at any point other than the beginning of the book. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time.

Remember, they are typically judging marketability as well as writing quality. As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers love it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your submission looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning is that the judge and the everyday reader will have an equal amount of information going in. I’ve known a LOT of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

Oh, please don’t look so sad. There is a sneaky way to get around this problem –- but I’m afraid I would have to scold you if you did it.

So while you did not, of course, hear it from me, there is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors. If you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

And even if someone did, so what? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time. And titles. And the name of the protagonist’s baby sister. Pretty much no one in the industry regards a manuscript as beyond revision until it is sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. With nonfiction books that go into subsequent editions, sometimes not even then.

Thus, in theory, a clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition alone, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50. Labeling it as page 1, of course, precisely as if the crafty soul’s book actually did begin there.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter, tricky one — but for heaven’s sake, do not label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it makes sense as a story told in that order.

“Is there a problem, officer?” this shifty-eyed writer could then say, batting large, innocent eyes. “I just don’t like linear narratives, that’s all. I simply wanted to open with a prologue from later in the story, then leap back to Chapter 1.”

The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this was indeed the usual running order of the book. Then, too our heroine would have to edit the submitted pages carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry.

The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret. Or it would be, if I knew about it.

Which I don’t. Look, isn’t that Superman flying by the window?

Are those eyebrows creeping skyward again? “But Anne,” some of you tireless running order-huggers maintain, “my story doesn’t make sense told out of order, but I don’t feel that the book’s opening shows off my writing skills more effectively than a section later in the book. Does that mean I am I doomed to submit Chapter 1, just so the synopsis makes sense?”

Okay, come closer, and I’ll whisper a little secret that the pros use all the time: it’s perfectly acceptable in most fiction genres, and certainly in memoir, to open the book with a stunningly exciting scene that does not fall at the beginning of the story, chronologically speaking. It’s usually called a prologue, and it’s slapped onto the beginning of the book, before the set-up begins.

Does this seem a tad dishonest? It isn’t, really; it’s an accepted trick o’ the trade. If you trawl in bookstores much, you’ve probably seen this technique used in a novel or twelve lately. It’s become rather common in submissions, for the simple reason that a book that bursts into flame — literarily speaking — on page 1 tends to be a heck of a lot easier to sell to agents and editors than one that doesn’t really get going until page 27.

And that’s doubly true of contest entries, which judges are often reading for free and in their spare time. Don’t underestimate the competitive value of not boring them; a staggeringly high percentage of manuscripts start pretty slowly.

You can and should take advantage of that fact, you know. Generally speaking, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your contest entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very quickly, and if you can wow ‘em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see — which is why, unless an entry features mid-book excerpts, the author’s platform is truly stellar, or the contest’s rules specify a particular order for the entry packet, I advise placing the synopsis AFTER the chapters in the stack of papers or e-mailed document, not before.

That way, your brilliant first page of text can jump out at the judges. (After the title page, of course.) And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better.

Why, yes, that is a different running order than I advised for the tricky. How observant of you.

One final word to the wise: whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. You’re going to want to make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Okay, so I’ll admit that’s kind of strange advice, coming from someone planning to provide a crash course in one-page synopsis-writing this very evening, with an eye to contest entries going out on Monday. I can only provide guidance; I cannot bend the space-time continuum to my will. And heaven knows I’ve tried.

Tomorrow, I shall begin to cover the super-common entry mistakes that tend to raise even the most tolerant judges’ hackles, due to sheer repetition. Feel free to keep posting questions about synopses as you write them, though, and keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VI: what do you mean, the contest page limit includes a synopsis? Or, how to be brief without feeling as though you’ve just sailed off the ocean’s edge

Okay, I’m just going to accept it: the universe has been conspiring to slow this series down. Not to a crawl, by any means — have you been enjoying my posting on a daily basis again, Author! Author! habitu?s? — but not at the accelerated, oh-my-God-the-deadline-for-the-William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition-is-next-Monday (yes, really) pace I had anticipated.

Had I mentioned that there are cash prizes? And that I shall be there to shake the winners’ hands at this year’s award ceremony?

I shall press on as swiftly as I can — including, those of you planning to enter that particular contest this year (not that I’m trying to influence you or anything) will be glad to hear, a close examination of its entry guidelines over the weekend — but before I launch into today’s topic, I am going to pause for just a moment.

It’s more than worth it, for I have joyous news to report: D. Andrew McChesney, Author! Author!’s very first commenter, blogger, and a genteel fellow better known in these parts as Dave, has released his first novel, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge today! Congratulations on the successful completion of a long and fruitful voyage, Dave!

Just between us, I’m hoping to blandish our Dave to share his thoughts on the publication process with us later this month. As you may recall, he was generous enough to write a guest post last September on the ins and outs of self-publishing, a piece that provoked quite a bit of fascinating discussion. I am an inveterate blandisher, so I suspect I shall succeed.

I’m also an inveterate cheerleader for good writers’ work, so allow me to add: you may purchase the book here. And would I deprive you of the blurb?

Hotchkiss continued on. “Ed! You didn’t see it?” The use of his captain’s first name on deck attested to the first lieutenant’s growing apprehension and maddening confusion.

“See what, Isaac, my old friend?” Pierce recognized his comrade’s state of mind and did not correct his lapse of quarterdeck etiquette. Clearly, a more personal and comfortable approach was needed.

“The stars! The stars, sir! We weren’t just looking up at ‘em. We were amongst them. There was the sea, and then there wasn’t. An’ the stars were below us as well! And we were there, right among them, like we were the stars themselves, or the moon, or. . .”?

“I’m sure you saw what you’ve described. Unfortunately, I chanced not to see it, although I have had a strange feeling of timelessness.”?

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

I’m not saying that I’m excited about this, mind you. I’m saying that I’ve already ordered my copy and already have a pencil ready to take notes for my Amazon review. (One of the nicer things a writer can do for a fellow keyboard-tapper, by the way, and something I hope you take the time to do for your favorite living authors.)

Aglow with that fine resolution, let’s move onward and upward. I’ve spent the last week talking about the various types of literary contest that an agent-seeking writer might conceivably want to enter. Today and tomorrow, I’m going to concentrate on an aspect of contest entry that seems to frustrate nearly every entrant: the synopsis.

Already, the chorus of groans shakes the skies. And frankly, I can’t say that I blame those of you who feel that way about churning out a synopsis, especially on a tight deadline. Like, say, in time to be postmarked Monday.

I hate to be the one to break the bad news (yet how often I seem to be), but just as synopsis-writing is a necessary evil of querying and/or submitting to an agent, if you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to include a synopsis. And while you’re already braced, let me rip off the Band-Aid quickly to add: since contest rules often specify an overarching page limit intended to cover both the submitted manuscript pages and a synopsis for the whole book, many entrants yield to the temptation to skimp on this important part of the contest puzzle.

What do I think of this strategy? To summarize what promises to be a couple of long posts’ worth of advice in a word: DON’T.

Contrary to widely-held writerly belief, a synopsis typically weighs more heavily in a contest entry’s success than in a submission packet agent, not less. Not to give away trade secrets or anything, but synopses tucked inside submission packets are not always read. Those accompanying query packets usually are, if our pal, Millicent the agency screener, feels that the query letter shows promise, but generally speaking, she will hop directly to the manuscript in a submission packet.

So which submission synopses tend to get read? Well, if the agency requested a partial, and Millie likes those pages, she will frequently glance at the synopsis before asking to see the rest of the book. Or, if her boss asked to see the whole thing, she might read the opening pages — and then, if she likes what she sees, take a peek at the synopsis. Or not.

Which is to say: not very many actually get read. The agent of your dreams will almost certainly want to have one at her elbow when she picks up the phone to pitch your work to editors, however. And that means — you’re sitting down by now, right? — that the more books you write over the course of your agented life, the more synopses you are going to have to write.

Had I mentioned that most writers, agented and pre-agented alike, consider the task a necessary evil?

The synopsis that accompanies a contest entry, on the other hand, virtually always receives some critical attention at judging time. That means — and you might want to rush into the kitchen and grab some dry crackers to munch; the nausea might come on suddenly — that every syllable of a contest synopsis is as important as any passage in your entered pages.

Actually, if you write it well, it might be even more important. Since so many perfectly lovely writing contest entries are marred by an obviously tossed-together synopsis, a well-constructed one tends to leap out at the judges, shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!”

Last year, I spent a month of posts on the ins and outs of writing a strong synopsis. (Now well hidden under the startlingly opaque category title HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS. Why oh why do I not make these things easier to track down?) Heck, I even devoted some serious attention to the most hated specimen of the species (and the one most necessary for anyone thinking of entering a book-length work in the aforementioned Faulkner/Wisdom competition), the 1-page synopsis.

Following my tradition of concealment, I have secreted those posts under the code name HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS. But don’t tell anyone I told you.

Unless any of you kick up a hue and cry, demanding that I revisit the issue now in very great detail (anyone? Anyone?), I’m going to proceed on the assumption that most of you have already mastered the basics of writing an (ugh) synopsis. For the next couple of days, I would like to focus on the differences between a synopsis that might wow a Millicent and one that might impress a contest judge.

In answer to that deafening unspoken question my readership just flung in my general direction: yes, I am indeed suggesting that you write two separate synopses, one to accompany contest entries, and one to send out with your query and submission packets. Got a problem with that?

Judging by the widespread rending of garments and troubling of heaven with bootless cries on the subject of all of the extra work that would entail, I gather that you do. Hear me out, please. Most contest synopses read as though their authors regarded them as — get this — an annoying nuisance to be polished off as quickly as humanly possible, much in the same manner as a child will gulp down a hated vegetable his parents have told him he must eat, simply in order to clear it from his plate.

And this, frankly, mystifies Millicent’s Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. “If I didn’t know better,” she clucks over hundreds of entries every year, “I would think that these writers were laboring under the impression that the writing there were not being judged, too, in addition to the writing in the entry proper.”

Oh, Hitty, if only you were sitting where I am, hearing thousands of prospective contest entrants suck in their breath sharply in surprise. An astonishingly high percentage of entrants seem to be unaware that the synopsis is part of the writing being evaluated in a contest, just as in a submission.

And that, breath-suckers, is strategically unwise. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: every word of your writing that passes under the eyes of a professional reader is a writing sample. Treat it accordingly.

Another common Mehitbel-mystifier involves submitting a too-terse synopsis, presented in what is essentially outline form. (Sometimes, writers present it literally in outline format, believe or not.) Short on the sensual details and plot twists that enliven a story, these just-the-facts-ma’am synopses give no indication that the author is a talented storyteller. Just that she is darned good at making lists.

See my note above about every word of an entry being a writing sample. I’m going to keep repeating that depressing truth until everyone within the sound of my voice believes it.

What makes me think that most contest entrants don’t currently believe it? How about the frequent practice of lifting entire phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs from the entry itself and plopping them down in the contest synopsis, as if the judge isn’t going to notice?

After our recent series on structural repetition, I sincerely hope that last question made you laugh out loud. Chant it with me, campers: professional readers like judges are born nit-pickers: they’re going to notice.

It’s also becoming increasingly common to conflate a screenplay synopsis — which typically has separate headings for action and major characters — with a literary synopsis. How might one define the latter? Here goes:

A book synopsis is a linear narrative concerned with plot for fiction and structure for nonfiction, a brief exposition in the present tense of the story of a novel or the argument of a book. Usually, in a fiction or memoir synopsis, a character’s name will be capitalized the first time it appears, followed by the character’s age in parentheses: GEORGE (13). Typically, synopses run from 1-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest.

In other words, it’s our old bugbear, a coolclips_wb024789.gif

In more other words, not everything labeled synopsis is the format that contest judges expect. In yet a third set of words: remember how I mentioned yesterday that there are certain problems that prompt judges to slide an entry prematurely into the non-finalist pile as soon as they appear? A screenplay-style synopsis is one of ‘em.

Why? Well, it makes it so very apparent that the entrant has not learned the norms of the literary world — and believe I may have mentioned several dozen times throughout the course of this series, one of the things being evaluated in a literary contest is a book’s marketability. To put the prevailing logic bluntly, the vast majority of judges will prefer an entry that is professionally presented — that is, one that adheres to standard format and resembles what a top-notch agent would expect to see in a successful submission — over even a brilliantly-written submission that does not conform to those standards.

To translate that into practical terms, few judges are going to be willing to waste finalist space on an entry that flouts the expectations of submission. They want to promote writing that has a fighting chance in the marketplace.

Seriously, I’ve seen this criterion included on judges’ rating sheets. Please, I beg of you, do not fall into the pervasive trap of believing that literary contests are the last haven of writing for its own sake. For contests that accept book-length work, that’s seldom the case.

Another type of synopsis that tends to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from Mehitabel: one that does not summarize the plot or argument of the book at all. Instead, it reads like promotional copy: This is the best book about the undead since Interview with the Vampire! This cookbook will change cuisine as we know it!

Or, even more common: This is the moving, insightful, beautifully written story of two kids in love, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll want to call up your high school sweetheart to reminisce.

Clearly, this entrant has confused a synopsis with a back-jacket promotional blurb. Judges are seldom amused by this, for precisely the same reason that Millicent tends not to be: they want to make up their own minds about how well-written/important/marketable/likely to induce drunken dialing a piece of writing is, not have it announced to them.

So what quality in a contest synopsis that the writing is good/important/market-ready/conducive to poor judgment? Once again, an old nag trots from the writing advice stable to admonish us all: showing, not telling, in the synopsis is the best way to demonstrate the high quality of your writing.

Again with the bootless cries? What now? “But Anne,” many of you protest, waving your boots around, “a synopsis is so short! I barely have time to tell my story, much less show it!”

Relax, garment-renders. There are a few tricks of the trade; we’ll be getting to them soon.

But first, let’s note one more frequent strategic error, a phenomenon often seen in query packet synopses as well: devoting virtually the entire synopsis to the premise of the book. Unbelievably often, this tactic leads to the exclusion of the major conflicts, mention of the major characters, or — in a synopsis longer than a page or two — any indication of the story arc or ending.

The usual authorial justification for this, of course, is I don’t want to give the ending away. Understandable, of course — were these writers not asking the judges to recognize the high quality of books that they had the luxury of reading in their entirety. Most contests that give awards for long-form writing, however, call for only the opening pages and a synopsis.

So is it completely unreasonable for the judges to want to be provided with proof that the author has at least thought through the ending of the book, as well as the beginning? Or — and you’d be astonished at how often this turns out not to be the case — that the manuscript they are considering for an award has actually been written to completion.

For a nonfiction work, of course, entering an incomplete manuscript in a chapter + synopsis contest would make some sense: the logical time to enter a contest is when one is circulating the book proposal, right? Naturally, though, someone who has written a book proposal will already produced an Annotated Table of Contents, demonstrating the story arc of the proposed book. Mehitabel certainly has a reasonable claim to deserving to know what that is.

For a novel — which, as I hope everyone is aware, is expected to be completely drafted before the novelist begins to query it — that claim rises to the level of a right. Mehitabel needs to know whether the author of the entry before her not only can write, but can structure an entire book.

Of course, any entrant is free to interpret the synopsis requirement as s/he pleases. It’s only fair to tell you, though, that in every contest I’ve judged, none of stripes of synopsis I’ve just mentioned would have made it to the semifinalist round, much less been seriously considered for the top prize. And that’s wasn’t my independent call: those were the rules. I just mention.

As if all that weren’t enough to make even the bravest first-time contest entrant tremble like a leaf at composition time, contest synopses often need to be shorter than submission synopses. That means, often, that writing them is harder.

Why? Well, most contest entries set absolute maximum page limits. Page space will be at a premium, therefore. For instance, if the chapter you want to submit is currently 23 pages long, and the page limit (exclusive of title page, which is never counted in a contest’s maximum page count) is 25, you’re either going to need to shorten your already-existing synopsis to 2 pages or make some serious cuts to your chapter to permit something longer.

Guess which option most contest entrants pick? You guessed it: contest judges see many, many single-page synopses.

Unless the contest rules actually call for it to be that short, however, those synopses tend to lose style points for the entry. After all, as many of you howled at me earlier in this post, it’s awfully darned difficult to tell the story of a reasonably complex book within a couple of dozen lines of text.

Even if the contest rules specify a super-short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), though, please do not give into the quite substantial temptation to fudge a little to stay within the specified parameters. Even if you have been asked to produce a 3-paragraph synopsis of a 500-page book, DO NOT single-space it, shrink the print size, or fudge the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may.

Why am I being so adamant about this? Simple: if you do it, you will get caught and penalized.

It’s kind of a no-brainer for the judge, actually. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis’ margins are .8″ all around. Or if the type is shrunk to 95%.

The same holds true, incidentally, if you submit a super-long synopsis. Because judges are expected to rate entries for professional presentation, unless contest rules specify otherwise, it’s prudent not to allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2.

Why those limits? A synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware that a 3- to 5-page synopsis is fairly standard in the industry.

If this is starting to sound a bit repetitious, congratulations — you’ve grasped a fundamental truth about literary contests. An entry’s synopsis, just like its chapter(s), is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability.

Oh, and professionalism. Had I mentioned that?

Which is why a synopsis that reads like — wait for it — a synopsis will virtually always receive higher marks than one that sounds like a back-jacket blurb (My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!) or an exposition on why the author chose to write the book (It isn’t autobiographical, but”?).

Instead, if you are entering a fiction category, make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable — and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. For a memoir, ditto. And for other nonfiction, present the argument as fascinating and rigorously supported.

But use the synopsis to show that your book is all of these things, not to tell about it.

Admittedly, summarizing a 400-page book in just a few pages that’s a fairly tall order. No one contests that. You’re going to need to cover that plot or argument with dispatch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean being vague or leaving out eye-catching details.

Oh, stop groaning. That’s going to be true of your first few attempts at writing a synopsis, no matter the context in which it is requested. But, unlike many of the other hoops through which aspiring writers need to jump through on the way to landing an agent, the ability to write a strong synopsis is a skill that’s going to serve you well for your entire literary career.

Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me the first time. Pull out your hymnals and sing it out: even the long-agented and often-published still need to write ‘em occasionally. Might as well learn to do it well.

In both contest and submission synopses, most fiction writers make the mistake of summarizing the plot in generalities, rather than — got a pencil handy? You’re going to want to take notes — giving a brief overview of the major conflicts of the plot through a series brief, vividly described scenes redolent with juicy, concrete details.

Not clear on the difference? Let’s take a gander at a fairly typical opening paragraph for a synopsis:

JACQUELINE (42) is experiencing severe problems in her life: a boss who alternately seems to hate and praise her, a father who calls all the time to grill her about her love life, and a wacky neighbor who is constantly knocking on her door to borrow things. She feels like she’s going out of her mind until she meets the man of her dreams, an architect whose bedroom eyes make her swoon, but who may already have a wife. After a series of disturbing “chance” meetings with Josh, she finds that it’s easier to accept a temporary demotion than to keep on fighting battles on all fronts.

Okay, let me ask you: how many lines into that summary did your attention start to wander? How many lines before you started to become confused about what was going on? And if you made it all the way to the end, did you find yourself wondering whether Josh was the architect, the boss, or the neighbor?

And what the heck was up with those quotation marks around something that clearly wasn’t spoken aloud?

Good; you’re thinking like an agency screener. And like a contest judge.

Why doesn’t this excerpt doesn’t hold the attention? It’s stuffed to the gills with generalities and clich?s. But a synopsis does not need to resort to either. Take a look at the same premise, summarized with a bit more pizzazz and a lot more specifics:

Freshly-divorced graphic designer JACQUELINE (42) is finding it hard to sleep these days. Staying awake isn’t much of a picnic, either. Her boss, ALBERT (87) cannot seem to make it through a staff meeting at the magazine without criticizing her layouts while running a warm, greasy hand up her stockinged thighs under the conference table.

You already want to read this contest entry, don’t you? So will Mehitabel. That’s because the details are compelling and unusual.

Oh, you want to see that magic trick again? Okay, let’s see where else dialing back the vague helps us:

Every morning at precisely 9:24, her habitually-marrying father (OWEN, 67) telephones her at work to see if she met Mr. Right the night before — and when she sheepishly says no, he regales her with tales of his latest paramour. Even her nights are disturbed by her lonely neighbor, CLIVE (24), who can’t seem to make it past midnight without scratching on her door to ask to borrow something — her milk, her hairdryer, her cat.

She manages to run carefully-balanced chaos of her life runs with relative smoothness until dreamy, suspender-wearing architect JOSH (48) comes to measure her office for long-overdue renovations. But does that untanned line on his left ring finger mean that he, too, is recently separated — or that he’s the kind of rat who slips his wedding ring into his pocket every time he comes within smoldering range of an attractive woman?

Yes, this second synopsis is a trifle longer, but aren’t those few extra lines worth it, when they give the story so much more oomph? Oomph is, after all, important in a contest entry.

A contest judge, like an agency screener, typically reads quite a few entries within a single sitting. If you want yours to end up in the pile with the finalists, you’re going to want that judge to remember the story or argument of your book, as well as the quality of the writing.

Remember them for positive reasons, that is. If your synopsis doesn’t cause Mehitabel to make a mental note to rush out and buy that book the nanosecond it hits the shelves, it may be lacking something in the oomph department.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you asking, “wouldn’t everything you’ve just said be applicable to either a submission or a contest synopsis? I thought we were talking about contest synopses specifically.”

Good point, ethereal questioners. Yes, these principles would apply equally well to either type of synopsis. However, for a contest synopsis, since you will also be submitting the opening of the book — even if the rules merely say that you should include A chapter, rather than specifying Chapter 1, you’re pretty much always going to be better off submitting the beginning — you can get away with covering those early pages only very lightly in the synopsis.

Actually, since those opening 10 pages (or 15, or 25) are all that the judges are going to see of the book, you would be well within your rights to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis. You could also — you’re still sitting down, right? — lose a subplot or two.

Stop glaring at me: your job here is not to present Mehitabel with a morbidly accurate summary of every aspect of the book, but to convince her that the manuscript it represents contains an enjoyable, well-written story or argument. If you can construct a more vivid, compelling story by sticking to only the book’s primary plotline (which, in a short synopsis of a long novel, is often the case), go ahead.

The point of the contest synopsis, after all, is to wow the judges with what a great storyteller you are, not to reproduce every twist, turn, and minor character’s angst. This may feel a touch misleading, but after you are wearing the first place ribbon, no one is going to come running up to you crying, “?Hey! Your synopsis left out three major plotlines, and didn’t mention the protagonist’s sister! Foul! Foul!”?

Trust me on this one. I hear contest judges yell things all the time.

For memoir, it’s especially important to streamline the story. Why? Well, most memoir contest synopses include a little too much information extraneous to the primary plotline. For the synopsis, hit only the dramatic high points — and make sure to give some indication of how the main character grows and changes throughout the book.

Yes, I’m talking about you, memoirist. You hadn’t been thinking of yourself as your own protagonist? Mehitabel and Millicent will.

Oh, and avoid making the common mistake of mentioning in either a contest or submission synopsis for a memoir that the story being told here is true. Actually, you should eschew it in a query, too: in publishing circles, all nonfiction is assumed to be based upon truth.

Just ask James Frey, he of the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal.

Seriously, the true memoir is as much of an pet peeve as the fiction novel or the nonfiction how-to book. To the ears of the industry — and to contest judges that pay attention to publishing norms — all of these terms are redundant.

For other non-fiction entries, you’re going to want to reproduce the basic argument of the book in the synopsis. Try starting with a thought-provoking question (In a society as complex as America’s, why isn’t there more social acceptance of squirrel-lovers?), then moving on to why that question is important enough to answer. Present the essential planks of your argument in logical order, and give some indication of the kind of evidence you intend to use to back it up.

But again, remember to be specific in your overview, not vaguely general. Remember, just as Millicent does not have time to fill in any logical holes in a query, Mehitabel neither has the time nor is allowed to project her notions of what your book is about onto your entry. Sing it out, series-followers: a contest judge must evaluate an entry based solely upon what is on the page. Don’t expect a lenient reading.

I hear some throat-clearing out there. “Um, Anne? Again, dandy advice for either kind of synopsis, but how should I handle nonfiction in a contest synopsis in particular?”

Tenacious, aren’t you? I can refuse you nothing.

In a contest synopsis for any kind of nonfiction book (including a memoir), it is usually a good idea to include some brief indication of the target market and why your book will serve that market better than what is currently available. Essentially, you’re giving Mehitabel a free taste of the argument that you will be making in your book proposal.

Do keep it short and to-the-point, though. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!) and stick mostly to explaining (in vivid, specific terms, please) what the book is about.

But most of all, make sure that the synopsis makes the book sound like a great read. If Mehitabel doesn’t want to place an order for your as-yet-unpublished book, believe me, your contest entry is not going to make it to the finalist round.

As with a novel or memoir’s story arc, the best way to achieve this in just a few pages may well involve leaving out some of the less important planks of your argument. Do not feel compelled to give the chapter-by-chapter summary you would in a book proposal. Just because you spend 80 pages on the spiritual life of tadpoles in your book on frogs doesn’t necessarily mean than a description of it will read well in a contest synopsis.

That use of specifics made your eyes light up, didn’t it, coming after those two generalizations? It would for Millicent, too.

See now why you might benefit from writing one version of the synopsis for agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries? Different contexts — and sometimes even different contests — may call for different approaches.

Flexibility, after all, is as important a component of the writer’s tool bag as the ability to write an eye-catching opening paragraph. Don’t worry that a judge is going to assume that you don’t understand how to write a submission synopsis — a contest entry is a different animal, and everyone concerned understands that.

Next time, I shall give you a few more pointers on how to make that synopsis appeal a bit more to contest judges. As if that weren’t enough to set a contest entrant’s heart aflutter, I shall be showing visual examples of how a synopsis should be formatted.

Oh, the excitement is palpable. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part VI: and then? And then? And then?

All right, I’ll confess it: it always thrills me a trifle to see a writer’s fingertips stained with highlighter ink. Oh, I know, I know, not all writers are comfortable revealing their keyboard habits to their kith and kin; many, perhaps most of you might well cherish your ability to pass for anything but a writer trapped in the throes of an intensive revision.

But honestly, people, ink-stained hands, Liquid Erase dotting the forearms from when you leaned on marked-up pages, the paper cuts inevitable to those writers conscientious enough to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending them out to an agency, small publisher, or contest — those are the battle scars of revision. Wear them proudly.

Seriously, you should: they’re rare. Do you know how few aspiring writers actually take the time to re-read their work, let alone revise their prose significantly, before submitting it? Actually, nobody knows for sure, as plenty of re-readers don’t necessarily catch their own writing and presentation gaffes, but based upon what crosses Millicent the agency screener’s desk on a daily basis, as well as what turns up in her Aunt Mehitabel’s contest judging docket, not that many.

Why? Human nature, I’m afraid, combined with busy lives. Most aspiring writers’ first instinct upon typing THE END is to thrust the manuscript under professional eyes. And then they are surprised and hurt when writing that hasn’t yet had a serious second glance gets rejected.

In order to help you fine people avoid that hideous fate, last time, I urged you to scan your manuscript’s pages (in particular, the first five of a submission, or all of a contest entry) for over-use of the words and, but, and then — or, if you are the type that likes to equivocate, or. Because the average manuscript submission is positively peppered with ‘em, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

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

Realistically, of course, I realize that not all of you have spent this lovely, sunshiny Saturday marking up your manuscripts, preferring instead to devote yourselves to, say, the activities of normal people. Inexplicably, some writers occasionally want to pay a modicum of attention to their children, significant others, dogs, cats, turtles, or that boxed set of the first two seasons of BEING HUMAN.

Then, too, some you may have started the task and gave up three buts in. “What was Anne thinking,” I heard some of you muttering on Saturday afternoon, “to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Doesn’t she realize that a writer’s time is valuable, and sunny spring days are relatively rare in the Pacific Northwest?”

Well, in the first place, spring in Seattle is frequently beautiful, at least in short bursts; the popular belief that it rains here non-stop is a myth. At this very moment, I can see snow glinting off a mountain range from my studio window, tulips blooming in my garden, and that neighbor who, for reasons best known to himself, occasionally elects to collect his mail wearing nothing but a neon-green Speedo. None of those characteristically PNW sights would be visible if it were raining.

In the second place, I do realize just how important your time is to you — which is precisely why I’m advising you to invest a little time now in exchange for not having masses of your time wasted later in the submission process.

How so? Well, think of it this way: as those of you who have submitted to an agency or entered a contest lately are no doubt already well aware, preparing your pages and sending them off is quite time-consuming, and, if you’re like most aspiring writers, even more energy-consuming. We also all know, I hope, that the cleaner your manuscript — that’s industry-speak for pages free of basic spelling, grammar, formatting, and logic problems, in case anyone was wondering — the less likely it is to push Millicent’s must-reject-now buttons. The same holds true for her pet peeves: the better revision job you do, the less likely your pages are to come winging back in your SASE, accompanied by a form-letter rejection.

Sense where I’m heading with this? (And do stop thinking about the guy in the Speedo; it’s time to get to work.)

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

Just the way it works, I’m afraid. The sooner in the writing and submitting process a writer accepts that, the less frustrating the path will be,

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

Word repetition is always high on their penalty list. As is that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence. Not sure what one looks like? Here’s a lulu:

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

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

Yes, really. For my sins, I have waded through sentences that would have made the late, great Henry James rub his eyes and murmur, “No kidding? Doesn’t this writer’s keyboard contain a period key?”

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

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

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

Don’t believe me? Take a deep breath and try reading that last example aloud.

Another classic tip-off: where run-ons gather, there will be ands aplenty also, typically. And not only within single sentences, either — like ants, run-on sentences seldom travel alone.

So whip out your marked pages, please, and let’s observe the reproduction habits of and. If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed four major patterns of andusage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite a lot of ands, isn’t it? Millicent can’t get over how often writers don’t seem to notice this level of structural redundancy. As strange as it may seem, most writers have an infinitely easier time spotting it in other people’s work; in their own, they tend to concentrate on the description, not the repetitive structure.

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

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

How did you do? Admittedly, we’re looking for something a bit subtle here. Although the types of repetition used in this example may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they would come across as structurally redundant on the page.

Even minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge, because editors — like other professional readers — are trained to zero in on redundancy. To see how this orientation might affect how one reads, let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

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

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

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

The result: Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the revolver. I never trusted her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, it’s time to go. Next time, I shall delve into some other problems that commonly arise from an over-reliance upon ands. And in the meantime, in between time, try to minimize word and sentence structure repetition, and keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part V: I’ve got three favorite cars that get most of my job done — no, wait, make that four

Sorry about the slower-than-expected follow-up post, campers: I honestly did intend to devote this week to structural repetition — because, as we all know, there’s nothing like a sexy topic for drawing in the readers. Our cat began acting strangely, however, so I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time at the vet’s office. Fortunately, I had a good book on me, my buddy Nicole Galland’s new release, I, IAGO, and lordy, is it a great read. I’m seriously tempted to leave my copy in the vet’s waiting room after I’ve finished, to provide a lush mental escape for the worried.

Seriously, how often has a book made you laugh out loud while waiting for blood test results? From the publisher’s blurb:

From earliest childhood, the precocious boy called Iago had inconvenient tendencies toward honesty — a “failing” that made him an embarrassment to his family and an outcast in the corrupted culture of glittering, Renaissance Venice. Embracing military life as an antidote to the frippery of Venetian society, he won the glowing love of the beautiful Emilia, and the regard of Venice’s revered General Othello. After years of abuse and rejection, Iago was poised to win everything he ever fought for — until a cascade of unexpected betrayals propel him on a catastrophic quest for righteous vengeance, contorting his moral compass until he has betrayed his closest friends and family and sealed his own fate as one of the most notorious villains of all time.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for any blurb containing the word frippery. One of my failings as a human being, I suppose.

One of my other failings as a human being, but a positive boon for my life as an editor, is a reading eye that leaps instantly to the anomaly on the page. Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, as a have a doctorate in pattern recognition, but honestly, it does render casual reading a bit of a challenge. A slug line in the wrong place, for instance, will drive me mad, regardless of the quality of the writing lurking beneath it. So will adverbs beginning three out of five sentences in a paragraph: Clearly, there was something wrong here. Obviously, though, your garden-variety reader would not catch it. Bizarrely, any professional reader would.

Fortunately (God, there’s a fourth one!), however, in the publishing world, this sort of eye is not only an advantage — it’s pretty much a requirement for a good editor. Apart from accountancy and computer programming, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job better suited to the obsessive-compulsive. Thus, it follows as night the day, spring winter, and baby ducks their mother that those who cater to the tastes of editors would develop a similar seventh sense for patterns on a page.

Oh, you thought this wasn’t going to lead back to you and your manuscript? You and your manuscript keep me up nights. I worry so that your good writing might not get the fair reading it deserves at the hands of Millicent, the agency screener, if it exhibits too much word, phrase, and/or structural repetition.

Speaking of hands, a third of my audience’s just shot skyward. “Um, Anne?” the more eagle-eyed among you quaver. “I hate to pick nits here, but how precisely do Millicent’s hands read anything? Wouldn’t it be her eyes?”

That question brings a tear to my weary eye, campers. If you caught that logical gaffe, you’re starting to read like a professional. And if you also noticed that in the video above, we never actually get to see our hero’s eyeballs — a trifle disturbing, I think, in a cartoon devoted to developing reading and writing skills — you may be on your way to becoming a Millicent.

Although, admittedly some of us are born that way. I distinctly recall that the first time Conjunction Junction popped onto our small black-and-white TV screen, I tossed my wee braids and shouted, “Mother! How can he read with no eyes?” Fortunately, my mother had been editing for years, so she had been taken aback, too.

In case I’m being too subtle here: those of us that read for a living notice everything in a submission or contest entry. It’s our job, and if nature was kind enough to outfit us with specialized eyes and brains in order to be good at it, well, that has some ramifications for writers.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those most perennially popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

This time, encouraged by positive reinforcement, legions of hands shoot into the air. Yes, newly-minted grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance, or or — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

Quite right, hand-raisers: when used properly, then isn’t a conjunction, strictly speaking. We live, however, in a world overrun by scofflaws. Metaphors are mixed; semicolons are routinely misused. Jaywalkers abound — unwisely, given how many drivers do not come to a full stop at stop signs. Owners of outdoor-ranging cats discover that their pets have discarded their collars, complete with city-issued license, and do not replace the tags immediately, while owners of dogs occasionally take them off-leash even outside the parks designated for such activity.

We may deplore all of this, but we ignore it at our peril. At least, that hefty majority of aspiring writers whose submissions and literary contest entries positively scream, “The leash laws do not apply to my dog!” do so at their own risks — but does that mean that your Auntie Anne, friend of the struggling scribbler, should refuse on general principle to talk about those mutts?

No, I haven’t the heart. Call me a softie, but enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent’s bloodshot peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then. Amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a folklorist of great repute) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I wrote him in elementary school, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence, and a crayon is not an appropriate writing implement for correspondence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. I thought until I hit puberty that writing in the first person was a narrative cop-out, embraced by only those authors who could not handle suspense in any other way. (A fairly common editorial opinion well into the early 1980s, incidentally.) Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

And really, who could blame him?

Hey, I couldn’t resist. But why shouldn’t we slavishly adhere to his precepts? Well, time and the language have been marching merrily onward, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That thunder you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph. Like so:

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

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

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

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner, grammatically and visually. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm.

Why? A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could legitimately be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress — a bit of authorial frippery, rather than a mistake. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living. We diagram sentences in our sleep.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my machete pen and remove a couple of classic Millicent-irritants. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, I shall challenge your revision skills by asking you to try to figure out why it reads better.

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

How did you do? Lift a nice, shiny gold star from the reward cabinet if you immediately cried, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Arbogast in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And award yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is conceptually unnecessary. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those observations muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is incredibly nit -picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation — perhaps best summed up as that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person — back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a boon to dialogue. Or to first-person narration, as it creates the illusion of echoing actual speech. That does not mean, however, that peppering third-person narrative prose with it will necessarily produce a flowing effect. Generally speaking, this structure works best in dialogue.

Not sure why? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

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

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. And particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed at all times. Lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

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

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

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

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

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed, lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“You must, that’s all.”

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

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

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

And, let’s face it, Spencer’s lengthy speech as presented in the second version would be darned hard to say within the space of one breath. Go ahead and try it; I’ll wait.

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

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party. (They’re coming back, I hear.)

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

(2) Launch into a lengthy anecdote, preferably one devoid of point, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

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

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me. But then, I’m a professional; you might not want to attempt that high dive your first time out.

The difficulty inherent to interrupting a non-stop speaker, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why university professors, panhandlers, and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence. Run-on sentences discourage reply.

Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then. Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative.

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent!”

Those buts don’t leave much doubt about the source of the disagreement, do they? Those capital Bs are like a beacon to Millicent’ eye. While that can work just fine in dialogue, it’s visually distracting in narration.

But I couldn’t pay the rent, not today, not tomorrow, not even next week. But I must pay the rent! I knew that, both ethically and practically. But that did not mean I had the means to do it. I mean, where was I going to get the rent? I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that a handsome stranger would appear on my dastardly landlord’s doorstep and announce, “I’ll pay the rent.” But that seemed more likely than my coming up with the dosh myself.

Pop quiz: did the word repetition bug you as much as all of those capital Bs? I should hope so, by this late point in the series.

I know, I know: the writer may well have repeated those words deliberately, to make a point. (Indeed, I have it on fairly good authority that the writer in this instance believed it would have some comic value.) Do be aware, though, that this is a strategy is not a particularly unusual one. Virtually any Millicent will see it in at least one submission per day.

Why? Well, as we have discussed, many aspiring writers just like that repetitive rhythm — but it’s also one of the most popular means of establishing that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. A fairly common way to open a manuscript:

And I thought it could never happen to me. I had always thought it was just a cartoon cliché. But here it was, happening: me pinned to the ground, struggling. While a mustache-twirling villain tied me to the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks, no less, as if anyone took trains anymore. And with my luck, I’d end up lying here for days before a locomotive happened by.

“That will teach you,” my captor gloated, “not to pay the rent.”

And had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

Since false consecutiveness is stylistically ubiquitous, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially there? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. That presumption enables them to stop reading the instant they decide that the writing is weak.

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

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. Again, I’m happy to wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer — they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy at any point in a submission or contest entry. If you lean too hard on any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

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

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass.

Ready to exercise some authorial autonomy? Excellent. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

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

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute, for our purposes. Nor is simply doing a Word search for conjunctions. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a pen color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and a third for then. If you are prone to equivocation, you might want to designate a fourth for or.

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

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance. Don’t fudge — the experiment will not be nearly so useful.

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

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

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

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

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

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

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

Technically, then is entirely unnecessary here. In not entirely unrelated news, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latté at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute, Millie. To professional eyes, the percussive use of then is logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing unless the event described after them is a genuine surprise or occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

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

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

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

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

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however and yet logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. Yet many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next.

What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked conjunctions.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. Honestly, those of us that write for the American market have no excuse. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, rejoining us after a coffee run, “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie. Varying word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

I wish more first-time submitters knew that, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: throughout their school years, teachers kept quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

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

For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice. To see why, we have only to glance at a genre- and character-inappropriate vocabulary shoved into the mouth of a protagonist — particularly common in memoir and autobiographical fiction, incidentally, in which the writer wishes to indicate, however subtly, that Our Hero is much, much smarter than everybody else in the story. To pile the pet peeves even higher, let’s make it a child that talks like an adult.

“Hey,” Mom shouted. “Did someone take the pie?”

“In the entirety of my five and a half years’ subsistence, situated upon this terrestrial sphere,” Babette murmured, “I have seldom been so incensed. Nay, apoplectic. That you, Mater, would indict me of having pilfered, purloined, and/or absconded with your irreplaceable peach pie, in lieu of interrogating my shifty-eyed sibling, flabbergasts me. I mandate an instantaneous act of contrition.”

“Yeah, you and what army?” Benjy sneered, kicking his high chair.

“Now, now,” Mom said. “Stop squabbling, children.”

Even if young Babette’s speaking like an 18th-century clergyman were somehow in character, it’s distracting that the text suddenly breaks out in SAT words. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for Millie, but there are few book categories in which the vocabulary level displayed above would be audience-appropriate.

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

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

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

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

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but as I may have mentioned earlier in this series, authorial affection is not always sufficient justification to include a pet word or phrase. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette, Josette, and Babette in today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: writers often harbor affection for similar names. But just as a skimming reader is likely to mix up those whose names begin with the same first letter — a real pity, as Joan, Jane, Joanne have virtually nothing in common otherwise — names with similar characteristics, or even ones that sound similar, may cause unnecessary confusion. Or don’t you believe that, Jon, Von, Van, and Alan?

Wow, we’ve covered a lot of ground today, have we not? But don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands.

Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part IV: evading the tentacles of the dreaded Millicent-irritating squid

Happy St. George’s Day, everybody! Traditionally, the streets of Barcelona are filled with rose sellers and bookstalls on this day: the custom has long been to give one’s love a rose and a book to mark the occasion.

Why the book? It’s Miguel de Cervantes’ birthday. DON QUIXOTE was one of the first large-scale bestsellers.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d like to share few bits of happy news before I launch into today’s peroration on all things repetitive. First, in recognition of William Shakespeare’s birthday (you still have an hour or so to run out and buy him a present, West Coasters, if you forgot to pick one up when you bought Cervantes’), magnificent historical novelist, lyrical actress, and all-around Bard maven Nicole Galland has written a lovely article on the Huffington Post about why his work remains well worth every English-reading person’s while. Nicely done, Nicki!

(And just between ourselves, Amazon is running an amazing deal right now on her soon-to-be-released novel, I, IAGO: today, they’re offering a whopping 32% off the cover price. Just in case you happened to be looking for a birthday present for anyone.)

As if that weren’t enough to set the Author! Author! masses rejoicing, brilliant fiction stylist and cook extraordinaire (isn’t it fascinating how often the two go hand-in-hand?) Bharti Kirchner’s fifth novel and eighth book, TULIP SEASON has just come out as an e-book, with trade paper to follow soon. This one’s a mystery, and thus a bit of a departure for this well-established literary novelist. Having read a couple of incarnations of this story — oh, you thought that once a writer became a professional, she dropped out of her critique group? — I have to say, I love her voice in the new genre. And that’s saying something, as I consider the ending of her novel Pastries one of my favorite of the last decade of literary fiction releases.

Why? Well, Bharti’s extraordinary eye for nuanced detail and subtle character analysis really shines here. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the publisher’s blurb:

A missing domestic-violence counselor. A wealthy and callous husband. A dangerous romance.

Kareena Sinha, an Indian-American domestic-violence counselor, disappears from her Seattle home. When the police dismiss suspicions that she herself was a victim of spousal abuse, her best friend, Mitra Basu, a young landscape designer, resolves to find her. Mitra’s search reveals glimpses of a secret life involving her friend and a Bollywood actor of ill repute. Following the trail, Mitra is lured back to India where she uncovers the actor’s ties to the Mumbai underworld and his financial difficulties –- leading her into a web of life-threatening intrigue where Mitra can’t be sure of Kareena’s safety or her own.

She had you at Bollywood actor of ill repute, didn’t she? It really is quite a ride.

Third, I decided this very morning that I am going to give in to the collective pleas of no fewer than seven apparently otherwise unrelated readers and run a series on the ins and outs of entering literary contests. Beginning later in this week (oh, you thought I had only one more post’s worth of things to say about structural and conceptual repetition?), I shall be talking at length and in my patented obsessive detail about how to select the contest most likely to recognize your particular writing gifts, how to read contest rules, how to follow them (not always the same thing), and most important of all to your entry’s success, what kinds of things judges seek and deplore in entries.

Having both won a major national writing competition and served often as a judge, I’m here to tell you: this stuff isn’t self-evident. Reading contest rules is an acquired skill.

Or so I surmise from the many, many questions I regularly receive on the subject; I have written about it at length before. As is so often the case, I had responded to the first two such requests this year with a cheerful suggestion that the question-askers check out my earlier posts on the subject, conveniently collected under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY category heading on the archive list at right. By the fifth such question, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to run an entire series about it again, rather then answering questions piecemeal. Then this very morning, when the seventh request rolled in, it occurred to me to check just how long it had been since I had tackled that Herculean task.

Let me put it this way: the last time I set aside a couple of months to blog about it, the economy was humming along just fine. So was the publishing industry: people were still buying new books in droves. . (One of the seldom-discussed aspects of the book world’s contraction: used book sales never declined; according to all of the data I have seen, they actually went up.) They were just the teensiest bit concerned about the rumored e-publishing phenomenon, but like every other fad, they were pretty confident that it would pass quickly.

It’s time, in short.

To make the timing seem even more apt, I’m going to resurrect my 2008 strategy of picking a specific contest to discuss. Why? Well, it’s always helpful to have a concrete example when talking theory — and, let’s face it, it’s more fun if we’re all working on a project together. This time around, I shall be taking a hard, close look at the entry guidelines for the Words and Music, November 28 to December 2. Dare I hope that I will see some of you accepting top honors there?

Okay, back to our business already in progress: craft. Specifically, that most pervasive of submission bugbears, word and phrase repetition?

Surprised that I have so much to say on the subject? Unfortunately, that’s a reflection of submission reality: just as every spring brings a fresh crop of tulips, similar to last years yet not the same, poor Millicent the agency screener’s inbox is continually refilled with manuscript that repeat themselves. And repeat themselves. And did I mention that they repeat themselves?

Not always as obviously as I just did, naturally — although you would be surprised how often even page 1 of a submission contains the same word or phrase three or four times. Why might that be the case? Quite a few, many, and/or a proportion of the writing public, the pushers of the pen, the haunters of the keyboard seem predisposed, have a tendency to, or just plain enjoy saying the same thing, speaking a similar concept, and stepping into the same river twice. Or thrice, three times, a trilogy. Or just plain throwing caution to the winds, grabbing their destinies with both hands, and jumping in that stream with both feet.

Are you thanking the Muses that most human characters possess only two feet, so the narration could not keep revisiting them until there seemed to be seventeen? I assure you, Millicent would be. She sees enough conceptual redundancy in one day of screening to compile her own dictionary of euphemisms.

And enough repetitive information to drive her to distraction. So does her aunt, our old friend Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. “Why are you telling me this again?” they wail in unison, rending their respective garments. “Are you afraid that I didn’t catch this particular plot point when it first appeared three pages ago? Or do you think I did read it, but I’m just a…”

Because my readership possesses such tender sensibilities, I shall spare you the word those of us who read for a living almost universally apply in these instances. Suffice it to say that it rhymes with squidiot.

As in, “What does this writer think I am, a squidiot?”

Alas for many an otherwise admirably-written manuscript or contest entry, the presumption of squidiocy is a common bugbear for new writers. It’s the squid that whispers in their ears, “Tell, don’t show,” and not just because squids are notorious shortcut-takers. Yes, it’s usually quite a bit quicker and easier to summarize action, dialogue, or emotional response with flat statements — Ambrose was sad. The pair discussed their marital difficulties. Melissa ran up fifteen flights of stairs, turned right, and sent the haunted portrait hurtling to the marble floor below. — rather than showing them through a series of specifics. But convenience is not the squid’s best lure for a rookie writer.

What is? Taunting her with the horrifying possibility that the reader might not draw the correct conclusion.

Has the squid just released a small battalion of you from its capacious arms, or are many of you shouting because you’ve had an insight? “But Anne!” the liberated masses shout. “That’s not what the classic writing advice show, don’t tell means, is it? I’ve always assumed that it referred to the proportion of action to contemplation in the text. Rather than having my protagonist sit around and analyze what’s going on, I’m supposed to stuff my scenes with conflict, right?”

That’s certainly good writing advice, former squid victims, but that’s about avoiding an equally common Millicent-irritant, the passive protagonist. By all means, consider excising scenes in which your protagonist ponders over coffee/tea/a beer/a meal/his cat/the steering wheel of his car what the reader has just seen happen. Ditto with the dialogue in which he explains it all to his best friend/partner on the police force/mother/George, the fellow that lives in his head, because, let’s face it, that’s recapping.

And, frankly, too much recapping can slow a novel’s pace to a crawl. Not to mention endangering Millicent and Mehitabel’s garments. “We just saw this happen!” they moan, shredding their hems. “What kind of a squidiot would I have to be to require a reminder that Hortense fell off a cliff in the previous chapter? In what kind of novel would that not be memorable?”

That’s a different problem than telling the reader what to think about it all, however. Show, don’t tell is what the pros bark at text that consists mostly of summary statements about relationships, activities, emotional states, etc. Instead of setting out a series of actions, revealing gestures, subtly suggestive dialogue, and so forth to demonstrate what is going on, trusting the reader to be intelligent and sensitive enough to draw the correct conclusions from that array of clues, the narrative simply states those conclusions. Or, as is astonishingly common in submissions, both shows the clues and tells the conclusions.

Not quite sure what each option would look like in practice? Okay, here’s a told interaction.

Blue to the bone, Miss M. walked across the room and sat on a tuffet. She was starving. “Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly.

She was startled by the spider that dropped down beside her. He was polite, but he frightened her away.

Not devoid of interest, stylistically speaking, but hardly a subtle demonstration of human-arachnid relations. Here’s that same series events, shown rather than told.

Miss M. dragged her feet, listless, toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach. Halfway across the dusty floor, her legs crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” a spider as big as a Volkswagen said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

Palpating, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye. She wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room.

Makes for more engaging reading, does it not? That’s because the storyline is presented through specifics, not generalities. Yet the intended meaning comes across just the same; the reader is simply presumed to be free enough of pernicious squidiotic influences to be able to follow what’s going on without being told outright.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s allow the dreaded assumption of squidiocy to pervade the narrative. Here’s what might happen if the squid persuaded our example-writer that Millicent could not be relied upon to conclude that two plus two might render something in the neighborhood of four.

Miss M. dragged her feet because she was listless. She was headed toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach; she was hungry. That trip took her halfway across the dusty floor, where her legs gave out beneath her, as she was tired. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy, so she sat on it.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly into the kitchen, where her fellow fable inhabitant was cooking. That’s what kitchens are for, in case you didn’t know. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago. I am hungry, so I would like to have it sooner.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. It belonged to a spider as big as a Volkswagen hanging over her, attached by a thin strand of web from the chandelier. “Excuse me,” it said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

She reacted with horror. Palpating, her heart beating fast, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye, where it might poison and even kill her. Fearing for her life, she wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room to the kitchen, where her friend was. Goldy might save her; she had bear-fighting experience.

A trifle over-explained, isn’t it? Cue the garment-rending: “What does the writer of CHARACTERS FROM THE NURSERY IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR think I am? A — wait for it — squidiot?

No, Millicent and Mehitabel, the writer of that last example or any of the hundreds of thousands like it you have seen does not think you are a squidiot (although s/he may harbor that suspicion about the end reader). In all probability, s/he merely thought s/he was being thorough.

Or that the phrasing was so nice that it bore inclusion. Or because another part of the scene/chapter/book was running long, and the writer thought that s/he should bulk this part up for balance. Or — and this motivates writers more often than any of us care to admit — s/he just liked the way it sounded and/or looked on the page.

Unfortunately, writers often like the look of certain phrases a little too much — and not necessarily, as most professional readers presume, because they simply love the sight of their own words on the page so much that they cannot bear to cut a single one of them, or because they are so arrogant about their talent that they believe no one will care if they reuse text or concepts, as many contest judges reluctantly come to believe.

I think there is something else going on here, benign in intent but inadvertently harmful to the texts in question. I illustrate the phenomenon with a parable.

Around this time last year — the tulips had just begun blooming, as I recall, in slightly inaccurate salute to St. George — I was puzzled into wakefulness by my significant other’s waving a soy latté and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery had opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake and hot dogs baked into the middle of pretzel dough is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, my tastes run much more to sleep. If I must be awake, a cup of tea is more my cup of tea. Even if it were not, obtaining mustard-laden foodstuffs would not be my first order of business before, say, five p.m. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. He’s the type of person that will give an 87-year-old a teddy bear for her birthday, because she collected them when she was 50, still liked them at 69, and smiled wanly when he presented her with one while she was blowing out 86 candles. Never mind that every surface in her apartment is covered with the darned things: she liked getting one once, therefore she must enjoy the replication of the experience in perpetuity.

He’s presuming, in short, that she’s the kind of squidiot who enjoys books that explain basic concepts over and over to her. “Show me that generic dialogue one more time,” he must imagine her begging. “The part where everyone is so polite that the characters are indistinguishable from any other people on the planet.”

That being his view of humanity, I suppose I should not have been surprised that his response to my expressing surprise at the advent of a warm pretzel in my mouth was that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before. Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now, but just try explaining that to a kindly soul in the clutches of a manipulative squid.

The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my unusual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, wasn’t the parallel instantly self-evident? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

Resist all sea creatures that tell you otherwise. Millicent and Mehitabel will thank you for it.

Again, I’m sensing that for some reason best known to yourselves, a hefty proportion of my audience would like to see a concrete example of the phenomenon — nay, perhaps several — so you may recognize it in its natural habitat. It comes in a variety of stripes. There’s the version in which favorite phrasing and/or sentence structure is repeated close together, often for rhythmic effect:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Or, as Millicent and Mehitabel would see it:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Just a touch term-repetitious, is it not? Ditto with the sentence structure. Either can induce garment-rippage, I’m sorry to report.

“I get that the writer wanted to establish a rhythm here,” Millicent mutters, “but what kind of a squidiot would have a vocabulary this small? I certainly don’t, and I doubt the readers of a book like this will, either.”

Don’t believe that an isolated and obviously purposeful repetitive pattern would rise to the level of clothing endangerment? Okay, what if the manuscript in question also exhibited another ubiquitous stripe of repetition, tactic reuse? 37 pages after our last example, this gem accosted our Millie’s weary peepers.

Rapine was so tired of indecision, tired of equivocation, tired of not being able to make up her mind. She didn’t really know what she wanted out of life, but she had reached some conclusions about what she didn’t want. She wanted to be free of the tower. She wanted to be free of her Guardian Witch. But mostly, she wanted to be free of the crushing weight of all that hair.

All she wanted, all she had wanted since she was sixteen, was a sharp pair of scissors. What was wrong with a girl’s wanting a new hairstyle? It’s not as though her future depended upon sporting two-story locks.

Starting to get to you a little, or is the squid still murmuring in your ear that this is just an example of a unique voice demonstrating its uniqueness at two different points in the text? Sorry, Squidbo, but repeating the same words and structures over either the course of a paragraph or the course of a book is the opposite of original: it’s a style choice Millicent and Mehitabel see every day. Imagine, then, the state of their clothing after encountering this gem 153 pages later.

“How dare you accost me?” the first little pig said quavering under the remains of his straw house. “What you want of me that could not have been equally well accomplished by knocking politely?”

The rather large and certainly evil wolf scratched his furry head. “Oh, what do any of us want? To be wanted, I suppose.” He flopped down on the scattered straw. “Man, I’m depressed.”

Piggie rooted his way through the debris to sit by the wolf’s side. “I hear you, Wolfie, but had it ever occurred to you that we might all feel that way? That it might be the fairy tale condition? That it might even be perfectly normal not to know what you want?”

“Ah,” the wolf said, thoughtfully buttering the top of the pig’s head, “but we all know what we don’t want. We don’t want hate. We don’t want war. And as God as my witness, I don’t ever want to be hungry again.”

Is that pretzel starting to taste a little stale? Or would you like another one? No? How about now?

What’s that huffing and puffing I hear out there? Is someone trying to get into my house, or do a few of you want to make a collective observation? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have not reread your manuscripts recently object, gnawing your fingernails, “this last one isn’t very similar to the first two. Certainly not garment-rendingly similar. I’ll give you that the level of word, phrase, and sentence structure repetition is a bit extreme in the first two examples, but presumably, they didn’t bug M & M too much to read on. Aren’t you picking nits here?”

It’s my job to pick nits, rereading-avoiders. The same might be said of Millicent and Mehitabel. Which is why I can assert with confidence: in a submission, that last passage might as well have been stamped in bright red ink: DITTO. Not only is the trope about knowing and not knowing one’s own desires conceptually redundant (and, let’s face it, not all that original in the first place), but the galloping three-part sentence structure gets a trifle dull to read. At minimum, it encourages the eye to skim.

Admittedly, though, that might not strike writers less eagle-eyed than your good selves. Let’s take a peek at another common species of structural repetition, to see what too-similar sentence structure too close together on a page can do to even a conscientious eye. (Yes, yes, I know: body parts seldom have their own independent motivations. The squid made me do it.)

This time, try our trick of backing up from the computer, then walking slowly toward the screen. As soon as the words come into focus, try reading the following as fast as you can.

“Oh, go away,” Beauty moaned, pulling a silken pillow over her head, “and take your pruning shears with you. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

“But I fought my way through the briars for you, and I climbed over a fence,” the prince protested. “A stone wall blocked my path, and a pit of snakes slowed me down. Brickbats the size of baseballs beat upon my head, and a dragon singed my toes. Can’t you even make the effort to roll over and look at me?”

Angrily, she complied. “Look, buddy, I don’t know what manners are like where you come from, but in these parts, it’s considered rude to barge into someone’s chamber and start slobbering all over them. Can’t you make any allowance for local mores?”

“But I swam the moat and scaled the castle wall! I toted that barge and lifted that bale. I got a little drunk and I landed in jail.” He clutched at his head. “No, that’s not right. Can’t you see I’m exhausted here?”

Beauty tossed a pillow at him. “Try taking a nap. That’s what I’m going to do.

Notice any visual patterns? All of those rhetorical questions beginning with can’t you, for instance — did your eye try to skip directly from one capital C to the next, without reading what came between? And what about the fact that almost every sentence the prince uttered (as opposed to his stab at rhetorical question-asking) was structured identically: I did X and I did Y? Didn’t all of those ands distract you?

Okay, maybe they didn’t; the squid may have been living with you a bit too long. (You know what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests, right? They both begin to stink after three days. And if you think that was a long way to go to make an analogy, well, you have a point, but you wouldn’t believe how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter this kind of failed humor attempt. The squid is almost as fond of telling writers they are funny as it is of urging writers to explain the obvious.) You must admit, though, that so much structural repetition quickly became pretty boring to read.

And that goes double for concept repetition, even over the course of a fairly lengthy run of text. Or are you saying that you don’t wish I would stop harping on the squid?

The same holds true, believe it or not, with repetitive characterization, recycling the same descriptors or actions every time a particular character sets foot in a scene. Our squiddy friend often tries to convince aspiring writer’s that’s a good idea. Many’s the manuscript in which the hero’s sidekick utters something like, “Well, beats me!” every time the pair meets a challenge, or in which the heroine’s sister sneezes every time a window opens. That makes the character in question memorable, right?

Perhaps, but not necessarily in the way you might hope. As a tactic, this stripe of conceptual repetition seldom works on the page. Trust me, by this late date in literary history, any reasonably experienced Millie or Mehitabel will already have seen thousands of characters announce themselves through personal stock phrases and/or activity tics that this characterization will strike her as neither effective nor amusing.

So how will it strike them? As redundant. And, if the dialogue keeps throwing around a stock phrase, repetitive as well.

At the risk of seeming to beat a dead horse, cross the same river twice, and not learn anything from experience, may I add that the same principle applies to retreads of descriptions, reused metaphors and too-similar similes? I’m not just talking about rhapsodizing about every flower in a garden-centered romance as fragrant as a breath of spring or consistently referring to the protagonist’s nefarious boss’ face as frog-like. Although that is indeed annoying for the reader: if you’d like Millicent and Mehitabel to remain fully clothed, varying your descriptions is a good place to start.

No, I’m warning you against waxing poetic about the wolfish fierceness of Brent’s eye on page 147 if you have already treated the reader to observations on the almost lupine ferocity in his eyes on page 83 and its angry canine expressiveness on page 52. Especially when the reader was assured on page 10 that his eyes held an ferocious, almost feral expression reminiscent of a wolf, and the book opened with a lengthy description of an eye in close-up. A distinctly wolfy eye.

“Yes, yes,” Mehitabel sighs, glancing sorrowfully at her shredded blouse. What make those claw marks, some sort of werewolf? “We all get that you’re making a point here: the eye in question is darned wolf-like. I got that the first time you mentioned it. How much of a squidiot would I have to be still not to get it by the fifth time that parallel appears on the page?”

Good question, Hitty. Perhaps squidiocy knows no bounds.

Something else that knows no bounds: professional readers’ astonishment at how many submitters and contest entrants apparently don’t read their own writing closely enough to notice that the same points, phrasing, and metaphors crop up again and again. People who read for a living tend to have quite retentive memories, especially for text. It’s flatly flabbergasting to us that a good writer would not remember having come up with a spectacular phrase, description, or parallel.

But many good writers suffer from phrase amnesia, apparently. Or so the squid would lead us to believe.

If we can convince the big guy to squiggle out of the room for a moment, I’d like to talk to you seriously about the usual result of listening to his blandishments: rejection. Just as using the same (or very similar) phrasing in three paragraphs on page 1 will generally discourage Millicent from turning to page 2, repeating phrases, dialogue, sentence structures, or even imagery too often over a long stretch of text can also lead a manuscript to the same grisly fate.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, it sometimes does not take a great deal or very flagrant redundancy to send a submission skittering into the rejection pile. Remember, screeners have to cover a lot of manuscripts in a workday. Once a text has established a repetitive pattern, can you really blame Millie for deciding pretty quickly that the rest of the book will continue it?

Or, to drag one of our running analogies back into the narrative: if Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she is likely to take it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She will seldom feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm it.

Why? Because she’s not a squidiot. She can learn from experience — and remember what she has already read.

More on structural repetition follows on the morrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

“Wait, haven’t I read that someplace before?” — Millicent

old-fashioned writing desk in Victoria

Please join me in a moment of silence, campers. Today, I received one of the saddest pieces of news a person can hear from a writer friend: an extremely talented author of my acquaintance reported that her hard disk had crashed, doubtless from overwork. Not a syllable could be salvaged.

In response to those of you who just gasped audibly: yes, she was almost finished writing her next novel. She had circulated only the first four chapters to her critique group, so physical copies of that much still exist. Beyond that, however…

On a not entirely unrelated note, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Is it recently enough that you could reconstitute your most recent revisions or new text from your unassisted memory?

If the answer to that second question is no, feel free to stop reading right now and make a back-up. At minimum, e-mail them to yourself, for heaven’s sake. I’m perfectly happy to wait, if it means that we can all sleep better tonight, confident that hours, days, weeks, and/or months of your writing time won’t just vanish in the proverbial puff of smoke.

Or ozone, as the case may be. As undoubtedly conducive to creative expression as computers are, the permanence of the results can be illusory. At times like this, I occasionally find myself longing for my father’s good old Olivetti typewriter, or even a simple Edwardian writing desk, like the one above. (Note, please, the requisite photo of a loved one and apparently equally requisite liquor tray.)

True, one had to hit the Olivetti’s keys so hard that when my parents first plopped me down in front of it at age ten to compose the term paper that everyone else in my class was writing by hand, I couldn’t actually force the q, z, p, or ? keys to hit the ribbon with sufficient force to create any impression upon paper. It took me so many hours to write the definitive history paper on the Bonus March that my mother seized the opportunity first to sketch my profile — she had never managed to convince me to sit still long enough before — then to sculpt my head in clay. Considering that my parents insisted that I write it in standard format for book manuscripts, I should probably count myself lucky that she didn’t also have time to cast the sculpture in bronze.

Yes, it was a touch on the tedious side to be forced to retype an entire page in order to rework a single sentence. On the bright side, though, to lose a year’s worth of one’s writing, an author actually had to misplace it physically.

(Were you distracted from the pithiness of that last bon mot by a mental image of a 5th grader using two hands to wrestle the z key into submission? That memory haunts me, too. My mother, however, asks me to inform you that she had faithfully typed my newspaper articles prior to that term paper, and that a little pro of my caliber shouldn’t have graduated from elementary school without learning to touch-type, anyway. And to be fair, she didn’t actually make me try it blindfolded until after I’d turned in the paper.)

Writing on a computer boasts at least one monumental advantage over the all hard copy, all the time method, however: it’s possible, and indeed easy, to check whether that wry observation that just occurred to you also struck you as the last word in style back when you were composing Chapter 3. And Chapter 7. And possibly Chapter 16.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that you had repeated yourself? Trust me, Millicent the agency screener will.

Since aspiring writers so seldom catch their own phrasing reuse, I’m going to spend the next couple of days talking about that ever-popular birthmark of Frankenstein manuscripts everywhere, the sentence — or paragraph, or footnote, or scene — that turns up more than once in a manuscript. Or more than once in a chapter. Or — are you sitting down? — more than once in a page.

Already, I sense some of you rolling your eyes. “Yeah, right, Anne,” writers of 384-page texts huff, “I’m so uncreative, so myopic, so prone to writing only one paragraph per session that I would repeat entire sentences within just a few pages, yet Millicent remembers phrasing so well that she will catch me if I recycle a description from page 73 on page 312.”

Actually, she might — and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but otherwise quite good manuscripts reuse pet phrases all the time. You’ve probably noticed the tendency in the later works of well-established authors, in fact; as television comedy has led us all to expect, revisiting the same premises, jokes, and yes, even descriptions can elicit chortles of delighted recognition from an audience already familiar with one’s work. Heck, Oscar Wilde used to trot out the same laugh lines in play after play after play; he was monumentally good at branding.

For the overwhelming majority of writers, though, self-plagiarism does not constitute a promotional strategy so much as a simple lapse in memory. In the course of writing an entire book, it should perhaps not come as a surprise if the creative brain revisits a favorite turn of phrase, a trenchant observation on the human condition, of striking bit of imagery that strikes a writer as particularly, well, striking.

Hey, if it sounded good in the writer’s mind the first time, what’s to stop it from sounding good the second? Or the fourth? Or the forty-seventh?

Perfectly innocent and understandable, right? Well, perhaps not so much to our old pal Millicent — or her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, or their aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. To someone who reads manuscripts for a living, such inadvertent redundancy can take on a more sinister aspect: to an uncharitable reader, even a single repetition of a pet phrase can smack of authorial laziness. Or as an aftereffect of that perennial bugbear, insufficient authorial re-reading.

Or, sacre bleu! a first indicator that what she holds in her ink-stained hands is a Frankenstein manuscript.

We’ve all seen Frankenstein manuscripts, right, even if we have not had the misfortune to write one? Many of us have at least a partial monster lurking in a bottom desk drawer or haunting our hard disks, books written over such a long period, in so many moods, at so many different levels of technical skill, and — come on, admit it — under the influence of so many and such varied favorite authors that it would take a small army of literary detectives years of close textual analysis to discern even an embryonic similarity between the authorial voices on pp. 10, 143, and 412.

In a first draft of a first novel, that’s virtually inevitable, right? Contrary to popular opinion amongst those who have never actually sat down in front of the ol’ Olivetti and cranked out a book, few writers are born with completely polished voices; it can take a great deal of trial and error to figure out how to sound original on the page. Then, too, it takes a good, long while to write a book, particularly the first time around: as Millicent would be the first to tell you, it’s not all that uncommon for the manuscript to betray significantly greater technical skill at its end than at its beginning. Or for the first chapter or two to read a great deal more like the end of the book than like the middle, because the writer went back and revised those opening pages after polishing off the draft.

Why is Millicent an expert on the two most common stripes of Frankenstein manuscript? Care to estimate how many first-time novelists and memoirists start querying and submitting their work practically the instant they polish off the first draft? Or the second?

Trust me, those of us who read for a living learn to catch the early warning signs. When Millicent sees a sentence, image, or observation from page 1 turn up on page 26, Frankenstein manuscript warning bells start chiming wildly in her head. From that point on, her already sharp critical sensors turn downright predatory, eager to swoop down upon more tell-tale signs that this is one of those texts whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles.

That does not mean, however, that self-plagiarism does not turn up quite frequently in non-Frankenstein manuscripts. How can an experienced reviser tell the difference? While the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: passing scenery always described the same manner, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 24.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. So are book proposals. Again, that’s quite understandable. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once. As, indeed, people who like to talk about themselves tend to do in conversation. (Did I ever tell you about the time my mother wanted me to learn touch-typing as a fifth grader?)

Or, in any kind of writing, for a particular way of describing something to sound good. Many a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that he’s used it before. Or just doesn’t notice, despite the fact that great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

Oh, had I suggested that excellent pre-submission strategy before? Had I in fact mentioned it about once per week throughout Queryfest? How silly of me not to notice.

You may laugh, but actually, it’s quite easy for even a fairly conscientious reviser to miss instances of self-plagiarism on the page, especially if — and most revisers do this — she is reading through the manuscript over several days or even weeks. After all, you have to be gifted with an unusually strong memory for phraseology to stop short in the middle of Chapter 15 and shout, “Hey, I’ve seen that image before, and it was on page 36, paragraph four!”

I don’t mean to frighten you (or do I?), but professional readers frequently have astonishingly accurate memories for text. Millicent might not be able to tell you precisely where she’s seen that Ch. 15 image before, but she will almost certainly have the dim impression that it has appeared earlier in the manuscript. I can positively guarantee you, though, that if the first instance of its use pops up on p. 36, and the second on p. 42, she will most assuredly spot the second as redundant.

She should: professional readers are trained for that.

For a self-editing writer, it can be harder to catch — and harder still to remember if you actually used that sentence elsewhere, or merely thought about it. As inveterate commenter and long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Dave so rightly pointed out the last time we discussed this phenomenon, most good writers spend quite a bit of time mulling over any given scene in a book, not to mention revising it later on; it’s not uncommon, therefore, to have a positive welter of mental associations about the evolution of the aforementioned pp. 36 and 42. Add to that the fact that a reader’s eye will tend to pass over smoothly-written text pretty quickly, especially if it’s a scene he’s read before, and reading through one’s own manuscript by definition entails re-reading, and can we really be surprised when repeated phrasing passes unnoticed under the reviser’s gaze?

Even when the repeated phraseology or image does jump out at the rereading reviser (try saying that four times fast!), it won’t necessarily be for a negative reason. It’s not unheard-of for writers to prefer repeating bits of their own work: those turns of phrase are his favorites for a reason, presumably. They linger in his ears pleasingly when he reads them out loud; they strike him as some of his best writing on the page. If pressed, he might admit to wanting to see one of them chiseled on his gravestone.

Yes, those of you who have been jumping up and down with your hands raised for the last couple of paragraphs? “I know what this writer should do!” survivors of English 101 burble excitedly. “It was for precisely this kind of writer’s benefit that Dorothy Parker started urging all of us to kill your darlings. If he loves those phrases so much, they should be the first axed, right?”

Aspiring writers and the English composition teachers who love them just love this piece of revision advice, eager burblers, but if you want to hear anyone who reads for a living choke on the coffee that’s never far from her elbow (hey, you try staying awake uncaffeinated through the fiftieth YA paranormal novel you’ve seen this week), feel free to trot out this most misunderstood piece of writing advice. We’ve too often seen the slash-and-burn effects of this canonical advice in action. Indeed, going through one’s own manuscript, relentlessly slaughtering any writing that strikes one as excellent is a pretty good prescription for creating a Frankenstein manuscript, not healing one.

And it’s not even what Aunt Dorothy was advising writers to do. She wasn’t talking about ruthlessly excising every piece of writing you like and leaving the stuff you like less, people: she was suggesting that you consider taking a critical look at even your favorite sentences and paragraphs. All too often, inexperienced self-editors will simply skip over their pet bits.

That being said, kill your darlings (selectively!) is excellent advice for habitual self-plagiarists. Perhaps a writer need not sacrifice the first of the litter, but the second through seventeenth should definitely go.

That’s especially good strategy if the phrasing repetition was deliberate in the first place. If a line was clever once, many a darling-coddling writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers, but it quickly becomes tedious on the stage and screen as well.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: as those of us who live in caucus states know to our perennial (or at least quadrennial) sorrow, nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarism more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Not only from speech to speech — oh, you thought your favorite candidate gave a speech only once, then threw it away? She has fourteen more campaign stops today! — but throughout a political season. Heck, as anyone who has listened closely to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, they often contain the same phrases from year to year No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, chances are that you’ll find self-plagiarism of epidemic proportions.

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

Doubt that? Okay, answer this: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only once in his famous March on Washington speech?

On paper, phrase repetition is often problematic, but in and of itself, repetition does not necessarily equal self-plagiarism. On paper, repetition can seem very cool to the writer, as a means of creating a galloping rhythm. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done in this very paragraph, much to Millicent’s chagrin).

We all know how phrase repetition can create a sense of momentum in writing, don’t we? Take, for instance, the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now that’s a political speech, caucus-goers: great spoken out loud, but Millicent-enragingly repetitious in print.

Did that last observation catch you by surprise? Yes, this particular speech happened to fall from an exceedingly talented pen, but unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this rhythmic device, too. Because it is ubiquitous, it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet.

Please tell me that you aren’t even considering repetitive phrasing in your query. Or that the first line of your synopsis is the first line of your novel. Please. Please. Please?

Why is it dangerous? Well, to professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, we few, we happy few will not necessarily jump off the page for the beauty of its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are, lest we forget), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change we few to we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want, Bill.

A pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job? That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Remember, too, that it may not take many instances of repetition for Millicent to draw this conclusion. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it.

And no, I don’t care how many times I have to repeat that point. It’s vital for your happiness as a writer to understand that the pros are trained to catch redundancy. Editors in particular are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

It’s a specialized brain function, sharpened by use. When I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even frequently remember who wrote the original. As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which is why, in case those of you who have had the good fortune/petrifying experience of receiving professional feedback, paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon in editorial circles than outright literal repetition. While very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the recurring bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

In a shorter piece, however — such as, say, those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, or the 15 pages plus synopsis — it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe. It’s in your best interest to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “You told us just a few minutes ago that Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, grumblers. The next time you trot out this argument, you might bolster it by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what: after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you that phrasing repetition tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

Seriously, I will repeat it all night. Don’t tempt me.

“But Anne,” I hear the well-read among you protest, and with good reason, “many of the classic novelists I studied in my English 101 class used phrasing repetition to create invocatory rhythms. They also repeated dialogue, because, as you like to point out early and often, real-life dialogue is hugely redundant. If it’s good enough for those long-ago greats, why isn’t it good enough for me — or for Millicent?”

One reason leaps to mind: you’re not writing on a typewriter, are you? You’re probably composing your book in a word processing program. Not only can you spell- and grammar-check with an ease that would have made the late, great Ms. Parker gasp with envy — with the touch of a button or two, you can search your own writing to see if you have used a phrase before.

You think Millicent is unaware of that capacity?

You are perfectly right, though, close readers: all writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another. If a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. My least favorite: a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her smartly-bobbed hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

It may well pop up more; I merely stopped counting after four. That was, not entirely coincidentally, when I threw the book across the room.

Why Uncle Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, evidently, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you: no matter how marvelous a line of text is, use it only once.

This will require careful reading to enforce. Your garden-variety self-plagiarism is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright dialogue reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or, as it often appears in the case of successful authors of series, once per book — it may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

Like, say, Millicent or yours truly. Do not underestimate, for your own sake, our memories. Unbound manuscripts do not typically survive intact being flung across the room.

E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To gather but a small nosegay of examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,”

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another as two characters had, and

“Mapp turned to ice.”

See the problem? As a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with four of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad analogy, of course, if not a startlingly original one. Like any other literary device, however, time it’s used, it becomes less effective.

Yet again, we see an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it — and not just as a cursory mumble-through, either. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t stand there and tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind. To my sensitive antennae, nothing is more potentially migraine-inducing than an evening of the percussive prose of Mamet. (Unless it’s a chamber concert of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest hits.)

As if the prospect of annoying your humble correspondent were not sufficient incentive to eschew identical dialogue patterns for every character, remember what I said back in Queryfest about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first manuscript, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development. While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your read-through for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for — wait for it — breath. Cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

I’d give you a concrete example, but I meant to post a short blog today, and here I have gone long again. Which begs the question: I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

There, now at least one real, live human female has said it; don’t say I never did anything for you, Uncle Scott. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXIX and I/II: tracking the wily US letter outside of its natural habitat

Last time, judging by the number of horrified private e-mails I have received since I last posted, I suspect I outdid myself on the reader-cautioning front. As so often happens, what induced widespread panic was not one of my habitual grand, wide-ranging philosophical statements, but commentary on a relatively small, practical matter it had never occurred to me to discuss in this forum — and, based upon the aforementioned e-mails, had not occurred to many of my international readers as a problem.

At the risk of sending still more of you charging into the streets, wild-eyed and screaming, allow me to recap: if you are planning upon querying or submitting to a US-based agency, your letter/synopsis/manuscript/everything else you even consider sending them should be printed on US letter-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″), not the internationally standard A4 (8.26″ x 11.69″).

(Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself on another point: it honestly is more efficient — and easier on me — if readers post their reactions and questions in the comments here on the blog, rather than sending them via e-mail. That way, I do not end up composing 42 separate soothing responses when only one would suffice. Also, if you post questions and concerns here, the chances are infinitely higher that some future reader with a similar perplexity will find the response. Karma points for all concerned!)

Those of you far-flung readers who did not immediately clutch your chests and hurl maledictions toward the muses are, I would guess, (a) not intending to approach US-based agents and publishing houses, in which case you should indeed stick with A4, (b) already aware that when in Rome, it’s only polite to do as the Romans do, in which case your tact is to be commended, or (c) smugly assuming that as you are cost-conscious enough to be approaching these agents and publishers electronically, this admonition simply does not apply to you. In that final case, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

You see, US printers and photocopiers are stocked with 8.5″ x 11″ paper — and it’s not at all beyond belief that an agent, literary contest, or small publisher whose submission guidelines specify electronic submissions will want at some point to print out your synopsis, query, entry, or manuscript. So even if you are submitting electronically from abroad, your submissions should be formatted for US letter-size paper.

Half of you did double-takes at the mention of the word contest, didn’t you? That’s right, campers: the overwhelming majority of the surprisingly hefty number of contest entries sent from abroad to writing contests here are misformatted. Either they are printed on the wrong size paper or, if the entry arrives electronically, they are formatted for A4. Any guesses why either might result in instant disqualification, even if the contest’s rules did not specify US letter?

Award yourself a gold star if you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “I know, Anne! A4 allows more words per page than US letter, even with the same margins. So if the pages were full and the contest had length restrictions for entries, it would be quite easy to run quite a bit over the expected word count inadvertently.”

Quite right, gold star recipients. To borrow an example from the other side of the Atlantic, here is how the opening to the third chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE would appear in US letter — and, as is our wont here at Author! Author!, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly.

Here’s the first page of that chapter again, formatted for A4. Can you blame Mehitabel, everyone’s favorite veteran literary contest judge, for suspecting that ol’ Walt was trying to sneak in some extra verbiage?

In a paper submission, she’s likely recognize the problem here as a different paper size. In an electronic submission, though, she might just have a vague sense that something was wrong here. 11-point type instead of 12-point, for instance, or the whole shebang shrunk by 97%: both are fairly common dodges contest entrants (and aspiring writers frustrated by too-short synopsis requirements in general) utilize to try to side-step length restrictions. So even if she had not already knocked this opening out of finalist consideration for all of those which clauses (not considered particularly graceful writing, by current American standards) or the U.K. spellings (when in Rome, etc.), she might well have moved it to the disqualification pile for formatting reasons.

Did that blinding flash of light I saw illuminate the ether a moment ago indicate that the logic puzzle-lovers among you have just extrapolated correctly? “But Anne,” you cry, clutching your metric rulers, “does that mean that all of the time I have already invested in getting my query down to a single page — or whittling my synopsis down to a specified number of pages, or hacking at my contest entry until it is the length requested in the rules — has not in fact achieved my desired object? Are you (gulp) telling me (shiver) that because I wrote all of these assuming the A4 format, they are too long by US letter-sized paper standards?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, swift calculators. As we saw in a previous post, writers querying, submitting, and entering from abroad frequently violate US length expectations without either intending to cheat or realizing that they have. And no, neither Mehitabel nor her niece, our pal Millicent the agency screener, will necessarily cut you any slack for not being aware of the difference in the paper supply.

Well might you gasp like a trout yanked from the murky depths to sunlit air, e-mailing queriers. If you have been composing your queries in Word set to printing on A4, copying your letters, and pasting them into an e-mail, they probably are longer than a US-generated query would be. And yes, Millicent probably has noticed.

Tempted to think that you might get away with it, are you? Let me ask you: if you had spent the past few months reading thousands of 1-page queries, do you honestly think that your brain wouldn’t automatically start counting lines if the one in front of you seemed a touch on the long side?

While it can be annoying to trim an extra line or two from a query that’s already bumping up against the one-page limit, and downright maddening to try to round a contest entry off so the last page does not end in mid-sentence (although in a contest for book-length works, just as in an agent’s request for a specific number of pages, no one expects the bottom of the last page to end a sentence, section, or thought), I reserve most of my compassion for the hapless submitter-from-abroad wrestling with a synopsis. Pretty much no matter who a writer is or how long the synopsis in question is supposed to be, every line is precious. And since the convention for synopses is to fill all of the allowed pages to the last line or the one before it — you knew that, right? — those few extra lines afforded by A4 paper can make quite a bit of difference.

Yes, of course I’ll show you. To borrow another story from across the pond, force it into a YA format (hey, it’s been a boring day), and present it in US letter:

Uses up every available line, does it not? Here’s precisely the same synopsis formatted for A4.

Makes more of a cumulative length difference than you would have thought, doesn’t it? This second version could take another entire paragraph — and don’t tell me that in summarizing a plot as complex as HAMLET, our friend Will would not have appreciated a little extra descriptive space. Not on this continent, buddy!

Now that I have impressed upon you the importance of using the paper size (and accompanying formatting) if you will be sending queries, synopses, manuscripts, and/or contest entries to the US from abroad, I still have that uneasy sense that those of you affected by this news might be gathering your pitchforks and torches to storm the castle, anyway. “But Anne,” you shout, brandishing the aforementioned weapons of mad scientist intimidation, “it’s not as though US letter is common outside the US. Where would you suggest I pick some up?”

Ooh, good question, pitchfork-brandishers — and a much better question than it would have been just a few years ago. For quite some time, the answer was fairly easy: US-based Kinko’s stocked US letter paper in its outlets all over the world. Once FedEx and Kinko’s merged, however, that seemed to become quite a bit less common. So while I could, as most writing advisors still do, just glibly tell those of you living abroad to track down a US-owned company, walk in, and demand to buy a ream or two of their paper, that’s less feasible than in days of yore.

So what’s a writer to do? The advice would be to order US letter paper from an American-owned company that has branches in your neck of the woods — while Amazon UK doesn’t seem to stock it, Amazon US does, and they do ship abroad. Shipping costs will be expensive enough, though, that you might want to try stopping by your local stationary store first, smiling as sweetly as you can, and asking them to order a box for you, just for comparative pricing purposes. (Your stationer may know US letter by its alternate name, American quarto.)

Yes, that’s rather inconvenient, but certainly less so than the primary answer I found when I did a quick online search — which was, I kid you not, “Go ask at the American embassy.”

While I’m on the subject of tracking down hard-to-find office supplies necessary to the writing set, this seems like an excellent time to repost a question that nonfiction writer Liz brought up the last time I wrote about the rigors and strains of pulling together a nonfiction proposal. After having eyed the photo I posted, she inquired:

What is the make of this portfolio? I cannot find one like this that is not made of paper/card and 30 pages max capacity. Please help!!

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times a year I hear this particular cri de coeur, both via e-mail (boo!) and popping up in the comments (hooray!). Since the comments are, for some reason that escapes me, not searchable with that handy little search engine that continually lurks for your exploratory pleasure at the upper right-hand corner of this blog, though, some of you may have missed my answers. Let’s go ahead and address this in a searchable part of the blog, hey?

For those of you who are not already gnashing your teeth over this particular problem, in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders — yes, even at the submission stage. Don’t even consider trying to use anything fancy or colorful; it will just look unprofessional to the pros. What Millicent and her boss, the agent of her dreams, will expect to find in a nonfiction submission is something like this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. And whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript. Well, not quite the same: the marketing part of the proposal is placed (neatly, please) on the left-hand pocket, while the sample chapter, author bio, and clippings are typically placed on the right-hand side.

Which leads us right back to Liz’s problem, right? A book proposal usually runs in the neighborhood of 30-60 pages, including sample chapter, so she, clever writer, wants a folder that holds at least 20 pages per side. Generally speaking, plastic folders tend to hold more in their pockets than the flimsy cardstock type. (Liz’s proposal won’t be discarded if she sends it a nice cardstock folder; it’s merely more likely to get a bit mangled in transit.)

Once again, the Internet is the writer’s friend here. The Office Depot website carries an Oxford brand pocket folder that can hold up to 200 pages. It’s looks like it may be available only online, though. Scrolling through the site, I found one that they seem to sell in their stores, an Office Depot brand 2-pocket poly folder that holds up to 50 pages..

They also, should anyone happen to be in the market for it, sell a really nice 24-lb. US letter paper. While 20-lb. paper is fine for a submission, I prefer 24-lb.: it won’t wilt in the hand with repeated readings.

Oh, you don’t want Millicent to get so excited about your writing that she passes pages of it around the office?

Again, though, you might want to toddle down to your local stationary emporium and inquire. You might be surprised at what’s lurking in their back room.

My overall point, should it have gotten a trifle lost in the welter of details, is that when it comes to querying, submission, and literary contest entry, what might be easiest — or most obvious — for the writer often is not what the people on the receiving end are expecting. Yes, that’s can be kind of annoying, but remember, one of the things an aspiring writer is demonstrating at query or submission time is that she can present her work professionally. That means, among other things, printing manuscripts on the size of paper currently in use in that agency and presenting proposals in the kind of quiet, dignified folder that allows the writing to speak for itself.

Because that’s how the Romans roll, people. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XX: tying yourself up in knots to please that agent, or, they couldn’t possibly mean what they say, could they?

If you’ll forgive my getting personal for a moment, have you ever been in a relationship — romantic, friendly, coworkerish — with someone who was just positive s/he knew precisely what you wanted without ever having asked you what your actual preferences were? You’d never gone downhill skiing, perhaps, because you’re secretly afraid of heights — and suddenly, that surprise weekend getaway finds you clinging for dear life to a ski lift, while your beaming significant other repeatedly congratulates himself upon broadening your horizons. Or you’d successfully avoided your sociopathic cousin Bertrand for the last decade, and your matron of honor abruptly announces at the rehearsal dinner that her wedding present to you involves flying Bertrand from New Zealand for your special day, along with his paranoid wife, a teenage son far too fond of matches, and a border collie whose psychological problems defy categorization by even the best scientific minds. Or a member of your book club turns to you at the end of a cookie-fueled discussion of LITTLE DORRIT to ask smugly, “You know how you always claim walnuts don’t agree with you? Well, they do: those brownies you wolfed down were stuffed to the gills with ‘em. I knew you’d just never had them handled right.”

She’ll continue in this vein as you gasp for air, frantically signaling that your tongue is swelling to Godzilla-like proportions. If you are fortunate enough to share a book club with someone who recognizes anaphylactic shock when she sees it, your friendly baker will keep chattering all the way to the emergency room. She honestly means well.

Oh, their intentions are so good, these desire-anticipators, and their methodology so bad. The coworker given to bringing you back a latte every time she runs out to pick one up for herself does it to make you happy, after all; the fact that she just can’t seem to remember that you’re lactose-intolerant doesn’t detract from the purity of her intention, does it? What a nit-picker you are; she said she was sorry. Oh, and once you get over that gastric upset, don’t forget to reimburse her for the drink.

Of course, not all desire-anticipation attempts result in disaster, or even lifelong resentment. Tammy’s tendency to push hot milk on you did get you to try that lactase supplement, after all, and now you can eat ice cream. Aren’t you pleased about that? Perhaps you actually had never enjoyed a properly-presented walnut, and the allergen that sent you to the hospital when you were ten had been a misdiagnosed cashew. What a relief to know what to avoid. It’s possible that Bertrand’s wife has finally found a medication that works for her, and your second cousin’s arson conviction was entirely baseless. Aren’t you ashamed for having prejudged them? And maybe, just maybe, once you’re on top of that mountain, you’ll realize that a baseless fear had prevented you from discovering the one sport for which you have genuine Olympic potential.

Or maybe not. Either way, your learning curve probably would have been quite a bit more pleasant had your well-wisher simply asked you what you wanted before imposing it upon you.

“Ah,” desire-anticipators across the globe cry in unison, “but we don’t have to ask: some of us just pay attention. And don’t underestimate our memories. If you liked sauerkraut on your hot dog when I took you to a ball game back in 1982, you must still like it, right? It wouldn’t be baseball if you didn’t get your smothered wiener. Wait here; I’ll grab you one.”

Uncle Henry, is that you? And is this a good time to mention that for the subsequent ten years, I gobbled up those hot dogs only because it seemed to be so important to you? I loathe sauerkraut. While we’re at it, can we have a serious talk about those sherry-marinated beets you love to make for Thanksgiving?

It’s hard to fault the motivations of the Uncle Henrys of this world, but from the receiving end, it’s easy to spot the flaw in their logic. I ate a hot dog with sauerkraut once in my extreme youth, and against my own better judgment; therefore, I must always want to eat them should similar circumstances recur. By the same token, if I succumbed to a craving for a hot-fudge sundae yesterday — which I didn’t, because I’m lactose-intolerant, Tammy — I must perforce want one in every dessert course from now until the end of time. No more zabaglione for me. And if I was charmed by the giant pretzel my SO brought home on a whim one rainy afternoon last year, I will be equally charmed if he wakes me up by bouncing into the house with one after his 6 a.m. run tomorrow.

What do you mean, I’m unreasonable if I don’t want a pretzel smothered in mustard for breakfast? Or as a midnight snack? Or as a chaser to that enormous beet salad I had for lunch, because Uncle Henry was over?

If I am ever unreasonable on such occasions, it’s when desire-anticipators insist that I must want something, because everybody wants it. All the world loves chocolate, right? I must be kidding about only liking it for the first couple of bites. Every woman loves both shopping and shoes — so why didn’t I want to devote a couple of hours to trying on stiletto heels while I was on crutches? And since every possessor of a pair of X chromosomes must desperately want to get married (to someone, anyone; have you met my recently-divorced Cousin Bertrand?), why do fully half of us back away precipitously when the bride is about to fling her bouquet? Why, in fact, did all of the bridesmaids at my college friend Janet’s wedding retreat beneath a nearby awning, to remove any possibility of catching hers? I’ve seen more popular influenza.

Janet’s still pretty mad about that, speaking of lifetime resentments. As the person she had chosen to read the Shakespearean sonnet during the ceremony — Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments — obviously, it was my duty to risk life and limb to snag those flowers. And want to, darn it. In the 22 years since, I’ve simply commissioned the nearest little girl to catch the bouquet for me. No one is fleeter of foot than a 9-year-old in pursuit of a pretty bouquet.

Except the ones who don’t like flowers. They exist, you know.

Of course, there are plenty of tastes that are pretty close to universal. It’s hard to find someone who hates every conceivable variety of pie, for instance, and virtually everyone dislikes being told what to do if the order seems unreasonable. (Yet for some reason that beggars understanding, no fewer than sixteen brides of my acquaintance have asked me to read the same Shakespearean sonnet at their respective weddings. Presumably, some standard wedding-planning guide listed it as one of the more acceptable secular readings amongst a startlingly small array. Either that, or there’s something about me that makes people take one glance in my direction and murmur automatically, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” Perhaps I should stop writing it in permanent marker on my forehead.)

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of universally-applicable rules concede reluctantly, “I shan’t ask you to read it at my wedding to your cousin Bertrand. (Why hadn’t you ever mentioned what a charming man he is, by the way?) But if I may be prosaic for a moment, is there a particular reason that you’re going on about this type of assumption in the midst of a series on querying?”

Why, yes, there is, rule-huggers — and, as it happens, a darn good one. All too often, queriers new to the game (and a surprisingly hefty percentage of those who have been at it a while) will glance at submission guidelines and murmur, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly be serious about saying they want to see only a query. I’ll just tuck my synopsis into the envelope.”

Or, since the rise of e-mailed queries, “Oh, this agency says it won’t open attachments, but they also say they want the first ten pages. They couldn’t possibly want to see improperly-formatted text; I’ll just attach a Word document, anyway.”

Or, in the rare case where an agency does want pages sent as attachments with a query, “Oh, the guidelines say they want just the first ten pages, but the whole 30-page chapter is one file. They couldn’t possibly expect me to reformat my manuscript. I’ll just go ahead and attach that.”

Or, in response to any specified maximum length for a query or submission packet, “Oh, they say they want five pages, but the first scene ends on page 6. They couldn’t possibly want to stop reading in mid-scene. I’ll just go ahead and send all six pages.”

Or, after perusing an agency website or agent’s conference bio, “Oh, this agent doesn’t list any clients in my book category, and her blurb doesn’t mention that she’s looking for my kind of writing, but her name turned up in a database/in the index of one of the standard guides to literary agents as representing books like mine. She can’t possibly have stopped representing that type of book. I’ll just go ahead and query her anyway.”

Or, the most common query faux pas of all, “Oh, I don’t need to check whether this agency has posted specific guidelines for what it wants to see in a query packet; everyone wants the same thing. Although the agent of my dreams blogs regularly/gives classes on querying at conferences/is extremely vocal in interviews easily found on the web, I don’t need to do any research; he couldn’t possibly harbor individual preferences. I’ll just send him precisely what I’m sending everyone else.”

They are, in short, indulging in desire-anticipation, rather than treating each individual agent as, well, an individual. And we all know how folks on the receiving end of that kind of assumption tend to like it, don’t we?

I said, don’t we? I don’t care that Cousin Bertrand told you otherwise. Like most of the query advice-givers out there, he’s just telling you, probably quite authoritatively, precisely what you want to hear: that what would be the least amount of trouble for you is the path you should pursue.

And let’s face it, all of the tacks above involve far, far less work for the querier, submitter, or contest entrant than investing the time in finding out what each agency or contest rules ask to see. That doesn’t mean, however, that an agency that goes to the trouble of posting guidelines, an agent who announces what she does not want to see this year, or a contest that posts rules all entrants must follow couldn’t possibly mean it. While admittedly, sometimes neither provides especially clear guidelines — we’ve all seen the ever-popular and extremely terse agents’ guide listing query with SASE — in publishing circles, people are presumed to be able to express themselves lucidly in writing.

If they say they want it, believe them. And if they say they don’t want it, believe that, too. These are individuals, entitled to individual tastes, after all; if someone doesn’t eat walnuts, why would you waste your valuable baking time offering him brownies stuffed to the gills with them? Wouldn’t it in the long run be a more efficient use of your time and energies to figure out who the brownie lovers are and share the fruits of your labors with them?

Contrary to astoundingly pervasive popular belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not the norm for agents to pick up a query for a book in a category they don’t habitually represent, scan it, and cry to the skies, “I don’t have the connections to sell this book, but I like the writing and the premise so much that I’m going to sign this writer anyway!” Nor are they much given to exclaiming, “Oh, this query packet contains many more pages/elements/a batch of chocolate chip cookies that our guidelines did not request, presumably to give the writer an unfair advantage over everyone who did follow our clearly-stated rules, but that doesn’t matter. We have all the time in the world to lavish on writers who can’t or won’t follow directions.”

That last bit caused many of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” desire-anticipators ask in quavering tones, “I’ll admit that I’ve murmured one or more of the sentiments above whilst pulling together query packets, particularly when I’m trying to send a whole bunch out at once — as I often do, say, immediately after New Year’s Day — but it never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to take unfair advantage by ignoring the rules. I meant well. In fact, I thought I was following directions; I just didn’t know that there were different sets of them.”

I know you meant well, step-skippers, but frankly, Millicent the agency screener doesn’t know you as well as I do. Neither does her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, when faced with a contest entry a page and a half longer than the rules allow. While it would be nice if they could give you and aspiring writers like you the benefit of the doubt, there are simply too many aspiring writers like you competing for too few slots for them not to regard inability to follow stated directives as an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, no matter why the querier, submitter, or contest entrant did not adhere to those rules. To see why, let’s take another look at those six types of trouble-saving, desire-anticipating practices, comparing the writer’s logic to Millicent’s.

The extra element adder says, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly be serious about saying they want to see only a query. I’ll just go ahead and send along anything else I think might aid Millicent in her decision.”
The writer thinks: I’ve seen other agencies’ submission guidelines that have asked for synopses at the querying stage. I’ve already gone to the trouble of writing one, so I might as well use it. As long as Millicent is perusing my query, she might as well consider it.

When Millicent receives the over-stuffed packet, she responds, “Wow, this querier did not read the submission guidelines — or did not understand them. Whether he didn’t do his homework on my agency or didn’t read carefully enough to get what we were asking, this client would be more work to represent than someone who does read instructions thoughtfully and implements them. Like, say, the next query in my reading queue. Next!”

That’s if she’s in a good mood. If she’s just burned her lip on a too-hot latte — or, even more likely, has just finished reading 14 queries from desire-anticipators, her response might well run more like this: “Hey, who does this writer think he is, to assumes that I will be willing to spend three times the time on his query than on everybody else’s?”

Yes, really. Couldn’t be much farther than your intentions, could it, element-adder? But now that you stop and think about it, wouldn’t reading your query require precisely the extra time and effort Millicent just mentioned? And is that fair?

Painful, I know, but worth contemplating, I think. It’s far, far better that we discuss the possible outcomes here than for any of you to risk automatic rejection on this kind of avoidable basis. Let’s move on.

The dogged attacher says, “Oh, this agency says it won’t open attachments. I’ll just attach a Word document, anyway.”
The writer thinks: I’ve done my homework about agents, and I’ve learned that improper formatting can be fatal to a manuscript submission. So because my e-mail program doesn’t preserve all of the bells and whistles of Word, I’m more likely to impress Millicent if I submit in a format I know is right: as it would appear on the manuscript page.

Upon receiving the query with the attachment, Millicent responds, “Oh, great — another one who didn’t bother to read our guidelines, which clearly state that we don’t read unsolicited attachments. I’m just going to reject this query unread.”

I’m afraid that you are going to hurt your neck, doing all of those double-takes. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Anne,” dogged attachers everywhere protest. “This is an instant-rejection offense? In heaven’s name, why? The agency’s guidelines asked for this material, and it would only take Millicent a couple of seconds to open it.”

Ah, but if she did, she would risk exposing her agency’s computer system to viruses — the primary reason that most agencies did not accept e-mailed queries at all until after the anthrax scare rendered opening thousands of pieces of mail considerably less desirable. In essence, by sending an unrequested attachment, a querier is expecting Millicent not only to devote those extra few seconds to opening it, but to violate her agency’s standing computer use policies.

That “Next!” sounds quite a bit more reasonable now, does it not?

The kitchen sink sender says, “Oh, the guidelines say they want just the first X pages, but my document is Y long. I’ll just send the whole thing.”
The writer thinks: it would be a whole lot of work to copy the requested pages, create a new Word document, copy the text into it, and make sure that the formatting is right. Millicent can just stop reading whenever she wants — and if she likes my writing, she may well want to read more. This is a win/win.

But Millicent, blinking in disbelief at the size of the file, snaps: “Either this querier can’t read directions — problematic, as I murmured above — or she’s expecting me to make an exception for her. For her and her alone, I will read not X pages, but however many she chooses to send me. That’s completely unfair to everyone else who queries, as well as an unwarranted imposition upon my time. Next!”

Does the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments I hear out there mean that this is the first time some of you have tried to see this exchange from Millie’s perspective? Does that mean you will never over-send again?

No? Okay, let’s move on to the next set of excuses.

The sneaky upgrader says, “Oh, they say they want X pages, but the first scene/chapter/a really good bit ends slightly farther into the manuscript. I’ll just go ahead and send enough pages to complete that section.”
The writer thinks: as my manuscript currently stands, stopping at page X does not provide a complete scene and/or cuts off before a bit I particularly like. In fact, the bottom of page X ends in mid-sentence. Since no sane person could possibly want to cease reading in mid-thought, obviously, what the agent really wants is for me to send the entire section/chapter.

And Millicent, cranky at spotting the 20th such over-long writing sample of the day, just shrugs and rejects it unread. “This querier must think we are awfully stupid, to assume that we would believe that any good book would automatically come to a natural stopping-point on the bottom of page X. Way to substitute your opinion for how to assess writing for ours, non-professional. Next!”

Harsh? You bet, considering that all the writer was trying to do here was provide a complete reading experience. But in Millie’s defense — and Aunt Mehitabel’s; contest entrants indulge in sneaky upgrading tactics all the time — this strategy betrays a complete misunderstanding of why some agencies ask for writing samples to be included in query packets. It’s not so they can get into your story; it’s so they can see if you can write.

Not only write well, but write well for readers in your chosen book category. (You’d be astonished at how many opening pages don’t sound remotely like works in their intended categories.) If Millicent decides that you do, then she can turn to the synopsis or request the manuscript/proposal in order to consider your book as a whole.

That was a big aha! moment for some of you, I’m sensing. But the rules lawyers amongst you still have questions: “Okay, Anne, I accept that requesting a writing sample at the querying stage is a pretty good way to spot the strong stylists right off the bat. I can even see that by accepting those pages up front, Millicent can save herself a great deal of time: instead of basing her assessment of whether to request the manuscript or book proposal upon the query alone, then having to wait until those requested materials arrive in order to reject them on page 1, she can skip a step.

“Given that practice, though, shouldn’t I be sending my best writing as a sample, rather than just the first few pages? My favorite part of the book is a 150 pages in. That scene also, conveniently enough, happens to be the precise number of pages the agency’s guidelines suggest. So I’d be smart to send them instead, right?”

It’s a clever notion, rules lawyers, but absolutely not: while you could get away with a mid-book writing sample in a pitching situation, if the agent in front of you asked to see a few pages, the assumption with any requested pages or writing sample in a query packet is that they will begin on page 1 of the book. Why? Well, it’s the way a reader in a bookstore would first encounter the text, for one thing; it’s the part of the story that requires the least set-up, by definition. And since neither agents nor editors simply open manuscripts in the middle and read random passages in order to assess their quality, the opening pages provide a better indication of how they would respond to the manuscript or proposal as a whole.

I know, I know: that places writers who take a while to warm up at a significant disadvantage. You wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts have fabulous openings buried somewhere on page 15. Since the overwhelming majority of manuscripts are rejected on page 1 — I am doling out the hard truths today with a lavish hand, amn’t I? — Millicent just doesn’t see that great prose.

The track record-ignorer says, “Oh, this agent doesn’t list any clients in my book category, and her blurb doesn’t mention that she’s looking for my kind of writing, but her name turned up in a database/in the index of one of the standard guides to literary agents as representing books like mine. I’ll just go ahead and query her anyway.”
The writer thinks: because the Literature Fairy constantly combs the Internet to assure that every single piece of information floating around out there about agents and agencies is not only true, but absolutely up to date, if I can find even one source that claims a given agent represents my kind of book, she must abide by that. So there’s really no reason for me to do any research beyond running by chosen book category through that database or looking in the index of an agents’ guide.”

This one makes Millicent positively choke on her latte, even after it has cooled down. “Why on earth,” she exclaims, “wouldn’t my boss be allowed to change her mind about what she represents? This is a market-driven business, after all: she can only afford to pick up clients whose work she believes she can sell in the current market. So while I might have given this well-written query serious consideration five years ago, back when she handled this category, now, I can simply reject it as soon as I ascertain that it’s pitching a book she doesn’t represent.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: since there is no easier query to reject than one apparently addressed to the wrong agent — Millie seldom needs to read beyond the first paragraph in order to glean that much — it is a complete waste of an aspiring writer’s time to query an agent who does not currently represent books in his chosen book category. Save yourself some chagrin; take the time to check.

Starting to sense a pattern here? Like, say, that trying to save time by skipping the research step is often a false economy, resulting not only in more rejection, but often a longer querying process as well?

I shall leave you to ponder that one for the nonce. Let’s move on to the 600-pound gorilla of querying faux pas.

The one-size-fits-all querier says, “Oh, I don’t need to check whether this agency has posted specific guidelines for what it wants to see in a query packet; everyone wants the same thing.”
At this point in Queryfest, do I even need to reproduce this writer’s logic? Well, okay, for the sake of future would-be queriers who might stumble upon this post in isolation in the archives: anything called a query must by definition mean the same thing, right? So anything I have ever heard about querying, as well as any advice on the subject I might find on the Internet, must be referring to the same thing. That must be true, since the publishing industry — and, by extension, agencies — are set up first and foremost to identify new talent in raw form; for a good writer with a good book, this process should be easy. That being the case, all I need to do is find a template that someone says will work and follow it. Easy-peasy.”

Breathe into this bag, Millicent, until you stop hyperventilating. Then share your thoughts: “Criminy, another aspiring writer who can’t read. Or hasn’t bothered. My agency takes the time to publish guidelines for a reason: we know what we want to see. While this querier may well have a great manuscript on his hands, the letter does not give me the information and/or materials I need in order to say yes to it. So I am saying no.

“Wait — I’m not done yet. Since this querier is treating my agency as identical to every agency, and my boss as identical to every other agent currently milling around Manhattan, I shall return the favor: this query is identical to a good half of the others I see in any given month. Not in subject matter, but in attitude. Believe it or not, following the rules we set out is rare enough that following them makes a query stand out from the crowd. So fly back home to the person who wrote you, little query, and I hope that if he does genuinely have talent, this rejection will teach him to treat his future agent — and her staff — with more respect.”

Of course, it would be far, far easier for the writer in question to learn that particular lesson if the rejection letter actually said any of this — or if he received a formal rejection at all. Even twenty years ago, though, this type of generic, wallpaper-New-York-with-letters query almost always received not a personalized reply, but a form-letter rejection. Queriers who presented themselves better, but had missed the mark in small ways, were often given specific reasons the agency wasn’t asking to see pages. Now, not only would virtually every rejected query generate the same form letter at most agencies — many agencies simply don’t reply at all if the answer is no.

So how is that misguided querier to learn better? Good question. The basic theory underlying the querying and submission process — that since a manuscript or proposal not only needs to be well-written, book category-appropriate, and market-ready in order to catch a good agent’s eye, but also presented professionally at the query and submission stages, a gifted writer might have to take the same manuscript through many revisions and multiple query and submission rounds before finding the best home for it — is predicated upon the assumption that any serious writer will figure out both that it’s essential to her book’s success that she invest the time in learning the ropes, but that she is aware that there are ropes to learn. And that she will have the time, patience, and faith in her talent to keep pressing forward in spite of rejection until she has acquired the necessary skills and expertise to wow an agent.

That’s a whale of a presumption, one that could be quite easily undermined by, well, talking to even a small handful of the thousands upon thousands of exceptionally talented writers who spend years trying to crack the code. But I’ve already said enough today about the dangers of assuming that one knows what is in other people’s minds — or other people’s interests.

There’s another, more query-specific cost to this series of presumptions — but rather than tell you what it is, I have the great good fortune of being able to show you. At the beginning of Queryfest, I appealed to the Author! Author! community, calling upon queriers brave and true to volunteer their real queries for discussion here. These are actual queries from your actual fellow writers, campers: I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that while we welcome constructive criticism here at Author! Author!, we should all be grateful that these hardy souls have been generous enough to help further our discussion.

So on this day of examining common presumptions from both sides of the querying fence, I am delighted to bring you what from a writerly perspective might be considered an excellent query letter for a genuinely interesting-sounding book, courtesy of Author! Author! reader Kitty Hawk. As with all of our never-to-be-sufficiently-thanked Queryfest exemplars, Kitty’s name and contact information have been altered to protect her privacy. And as always, if you are having trouble seeing the particulars, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

Sounds like a heck of a good read, doesn’t it? It also, thank goodness and Kitty’s great good sense, steers clear of all of the problems we discussed above. She’s also, very much to her credit, caught the YA tone exceptionally well here: while the level of word repetition and relatively simple sentence structure would not be pluses for most adult fiction queries, a Millicent working for a YA-representing agent would certainly have no trouble appreciating Kitty’s familiarity with the conventions, vocabulary, and tone of her chosen book category. So far, very well done, Kitty!

Yet although virtually the entire letter is devoted to a description of the book, Millicent might well stop reading before she learns much about it — and for a reason that, like so many of our double-sided tactics above, was probably far from Kitty’s intent. Any guesses what it is?

Hint: the devil is in the details here. You’re going to need to take a very, very close look at the page.

That means, naturally, if your hand immediately shot skyward as you cried two paragraphs back, “This letter is in business format, not correspondence format,” you hit upon a reason Millicent might have taken this letter less seriously if it arrived via regular mail — even at this late date, business format is not considered particularly literate by people who deal with books for a living — but not typically an instant-rejection offense. Besides, since most e-mail programs more or less force unindented paragraphs, this oversight wouldn’t particularly matter in an e-mailed query. Since Kitty submitted this to Agent McAgentson via e-mail (via me), I vote for cutting her some slack on this one.

Ditto if you pointed out, and rightly, that Kitty has included only one means of contacting her — a no-no, even in an e-mailed query. She should have included the whole shebang: mailing address, phone number, e-mail address. Yes, Millicent could simply have hit REPLY to ask for pages, but as we discussed earlier in this series (but not as early, I believe, as the date Kitty sent today’s example to me), queries get forwarded around agencies all the time. So if an administrator or Millicent’s boss, the agent, had forwarded it to the screeners, or one screener had forwarded it to another (not at all implausible, considering how many Millicents are students working part-time as interns), that request for materials would head back to the sender, not Kitty.

Of course, that could still happen if Kitty includes her full contact info, but still, it’s always a good idea to make it as easy as possible for the agent of your dreams to contact you. Hawkeye might have a question best discussed by phone (unlikely at this stage, but not unheard-of), or the agency might print out successful queries. Or — sacre bleu! — Kitty’s eventual submission might get misplaced, and Millicent might have to go tearing through the files, frantically trying to track down a means of contacting her.

Anyway, Kitty does not have the usual justification for not wanting to devote several lines of the page to the way contact information is usually presented in correspondence format: this query is quite comfortably under a page. Especially as — and again, while Millicent might see this as a gaffe, most aspiring writers would not — the right and left margins are not the usual 1 inch, but 1.25. That allows plenty of room for adding necessary information.

What might this query look like with these small, purely technical errors corrected? Glad you asked. In order to help us spot the red flag that might prevent this (again, quite well-written) query from getting read at virtually any U.S. agency, as well as the pale pinkish flag that might cause some Millicents to delete it after paragraph 1 if it were sent via e-mail, let’s make the cosmetic corrections and see just how big a difference it might make on the page.

Quite a difference for less than a minute’s worth of revision, isn’t it? And now that you see the two letters side by side (or, more accurately, stacked), can you see why Millicent might well have had a visceral negative reaction to the first? The first version scans like a printed-out e-mail; the second looks like a letter.

Okay, now do you see the instant-rejection trigger? What about the reason she might have stopped reading a few paragraphs in, or the reason she might not have made it all the way through that quite nice description? No? Then how about the structural choice that might cause a time-strapped Millicent — aren’t they all? — to assume that this letter contains less professional information than it actually does?

Now that I’ve dropped that tonnage of hint for the last one, let’s concentrate on it first. To figure out what Millie might have expected to see earlier in the letter (oops, there I go again, bouncing those hints), why don’t we refresh our memories about the requisite vs. the merely helpful elements to include in a query letter, checking to see which, if any, Kitty has omitted?

What a fine idea, if I do say so myself. A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. The writer’s contact information and a SASE, if querying by mail

And it may be helpful to include:

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book.

Okay, how did this query do? It does contain the title and the category, as well as a nicely-written description of the book and a polite, if rather terse, sign-off. But that’s it. Millie would be left to guess why Kitty was approaching her boss, whether she had any previous publications, and to whom, out of the wide and varied array of YA readers, this book is likely to appeal and why.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often screeners receive queries like this, book descriptions shoehorned into letter format. Yes, it makes the story sound appealing, but if it weren’t addressed to an agency, a reader might even have a hard time figuring out that it is a query intended to solicit an invitation to submit a manuscript, rather than a sales pitch for an already-published book..

“That last paragraph, while I do indeed that information, doesn’t make much sense if it isn’t a query,” Millicent muses, “so I suppose it must be. But honestly, does Kitty assume that an agency receives no correspondence other than queries?”

Yet, again, from a writer’s perspective, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this query as it now stands, other than a few typos. (We’ll be getting to those later.) It’s polite; it contains what many first-time queriers would assume was the totality of the information necessary in a query letter; it’s genre-appropriate and presumably addressed to an agent who represents books like this.

All of this is good — but by not including all of the elements Millicent would expect a writer familiar with the querying process (and thus a homework-doer) to display, it inevitably comes across as slightly less professional than it could. The big tip-off that Kitty is new (or newish) to querying: placing the book’s title and category at the bottom of the missive.

Why is that a sign of relative inexperience? Because screeners scan queries really, really fast — on average, a mailed query will receive less than 30 seconds of her attention, and that’s counting stuffing the form-letter rejection into the SASE. For e-queries, it’s often even less.

So I ask you: is it really a good idea to make Millie scroll down to learn what kind of book this is? Or to presume that she will read a paper query all the way to the closing thank-yous before deciding whether this manuscript belongs in a book category her boss currently represents?

Don’t believe it would make much of a difference? Okay, here’s that query again, with nothing changed except the title and category’s being moved to the top. Oh, and I’m going to add a date, to decrease the (possibly accurate) impression that Kitty might be mailing precisely the same query to every agent in the country that represents YA paranormal romance.

I see your brows knitting: you’re thinking it looks a trifle funny now, don’t you? Millicent can tell right away whether it’s a book in a category her boss represents, but the presentation is awkward. Also, why include the word count, unless Picky and Pickier’s guidelines specifically ask for it? THE GROTTO is not long enough that mentioning this detail is going to be a deal-breaker — as it often is, if the count is over 100,000 words — but wouldn’t it be more to Kitty’s advantage to use that space for something else? Like, say, some mention of why, out of all the agents currently working in the U.S, she is approaching Hawkeye, or who might want to read this book?

And I’m sure it didn’t escape your sharp eye that in order to fit in the date, I had to skimp on the number of lines between the Sincerely and the contact info. Millicent would have noticed that, too.

So how are we going to free up the requisite space to personalize this query for Agent McAgentson? Well, for starters we can tighten that description: since Millicent is expecting a description only 1-2 paragraphs long, that’s to Kitty’s advantage, anyway. That will enable us to lessen the word repetition and move a nicely unusual detail closer to the top.

Absolutely no doubt that it’s a query now, is there? It’s also clear from the get-go that it’s a book that Hawkeye represents — it must be, since Kitty’s mentioned a similar book. Heck, she even has room now to add a paragraph about her writing credentials, educational background, and/or relevant life experience.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, though. “But Anne,” lovers of completeness point out, “we get less of the story this way. True, it is less word-repetitious, and that nice YA tone still comes across loud and clear, but shouldn’t Kitty want to cram as much of the plot into her query as humanly possible?”

Not necessarily, completeness advocates: all she needs to do is establish her protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, setting up the central conflict — or, in this case, three — and giving Millicent some sense of what’s at stake. Check, check, and check. This version also enjoys the advantage of getting to the paranormal elements faster.

Oh, hadn’t you noticed that a screener would have to make it halfway down the page in the original version before encountering any paranormal element at all? If Hawkeye represents only paranormals, rather than straight-up YA romances, Kitty’s legitimately paranormal story might easily have gotten dismissed as not right for the agent’s list.

The two reasons that many Millicents would have stopped reading before the end of the original version are quite a bit more apparent now, though. Did you catch either?

If you murmured, “Well, I did notice that the tense kept changing,” give yourself a nice, warm pat on the head. For fiction, a book description should be entirely in the present tense. And remember, tense consistency is considered a sign of professionalism.

If you also called out, “Hey, there are quite a few typos here,” feel free to rub your tummy as well. Like college application screeners, most Millicents are specifically trained to stop reading after just a few typos.

Both are easily fixed, however, at least by hands not feverishly occupied in patting a head and rubbing a tummy at the same time. Personally, I would add the characters’ ages — a standard professional touch — but again, that’s the work of a moment. So is punching up the language a little to make Leah seem a bit more active, always a plus in a protagonist, and excising that minor cliché about having nowhere to turn. And If I knew more about the story, I would like to add a clearer sense of what her destiny entails, but for now, I’m going to have to leave that to the person best equipped to fill in the details, the writer.

Which leaves us with only the seemingly unimportant oversight that might well have prevented Millicent from reading the body of this letter at all. Ready, set — discern!

Please tell me you spotted it this time. Hint: to Millicent’s eye, it’s a pretty clear indicator that Kitty has been reusing the same query over and over again, merely changing the agent’s address and salutation this time.

That’s right, campers: Kitty addressed the query to Dear Mcagentson, rather than Dear Ms. McAgentson. While the missing honorific might have been the result of a simple slip of the mousing hand while cutting and pacing, mispunctuating the agent’s name — and thus effectively misspelling it — implies hasty retyping. Believe it or not, both are common enough agents’ pet peeves that much of the time, either will get a query rejected unread.

Isn’t it amazing how changing just a few elements, matters that might well strike a writer as trivial, can make such a monumental difference in how Millicent would receive a query? And isn’t it nice to see Kitty’s good story presented professionally, to maximize its chances of getting picked up?

The answer on both counts, should you be wondering, is yes. Let’s take one last look at her query, all polished up.

Ah, that’s nice. Please join me in thanking Kitty profusely for allowing us to deconstruct her query — and in wishing her the very best of luck in finding the right agent for what sounds like a wonderful book.

More real-life query examples follow in the days to come. Watch those assumptions, everybody, and keep up the good work!