Vrai et faux amis, or, the debate I would have had with Edith Wharton had she blogged

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For those of you who are tuning in late, I’m currently in residence at an almost mind-bogglingly beautiful artists’ retreat in Southwestern France — thus all of the photos of castles and cathedrals, in case any of you have been wondering if I’d suddenly gone mad for stonemasonry. Another major result of my being here, in case you missed my announcement earlier in the week: the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence has been extended to midnight on Monday, June 1.

You’re welcome.

Let me tell you, I’ve gotten some great entries, in both the Expressive Excellence and Junior Expressive Excellence categories. I’m really looking forward to running the winners here — and to hearing from more of you!

Okay, back to work. If I seem to be talking an unusual amount about cause and effect these days, blame it on the fact that this is my first retreat in a foreign land — at least in one that is not primarily English-speaking; I have retreated in Canada. I must say, I’ve been fascinated by the enlivening effect on the brain caused by switching languages between my writing time (somewhere between 8 and 12 hours per day, in case you’re curious) and out-and-about time (usually about an hour per day, with the occasional day of shopping and/or sightseeing).

While I must confess that one of the effects has been to unearth from the depths of my psyche the perfect word or phrase for the moment in Italian or Greek, another has been a much heightened awareness of how much people think while they’re speaking, even in their native tongue. It’s definitely affecting the way I write dialogue.

I’ve also become very conscious of what the French call faux amis (false friends), words and phrases that sound the same in another language, but mean something quite different in the one you happen to be speaking at the time. Take, for instance, actuellement — it seems as though it should translate as actually, doesn’t it? En fait (in fact, the phrase one uses when one means actually here), it means currently.

And don’t even get me started on the confusion if one refers to an ad as l’avertissement (warning sign) rather than as la publicité. Or if you speak of the book you’re working on as la nouvelle, which means short story, rather than as le roman, a novel.

Because so many English words are lifted from other languages, it is stuffed to the gills with les faux amis, of course, which is why it’s so difficult a language in which to become fluent. Something else a writer in English might want to take into account whilst constructing dialogue, perhaps?

Enough about false friends for the moment. Let’s move on to talking about true ones.

One of the great things about attending a formal writing retreat (that is, an ongoing one for which you apply) is seeing what other writers are reading. Not just the people who are in residence when you are — at La Muse, as at many retreats, that number is pretty small; actuellement, there are four writers, including myself, and two painters — but what those who have been there in the past were toting around in their bookbags.

The happy result: Boccaccio nestles next to Mary Renault and Somerset Maugham; Stan Nicholls abuts Günter Grass and Arundhati Roy. Gabriel García Márquez’ LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA stands tall next to many volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and an apparently misshelved copy of Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Bukowski jostle memoirs by Billie Holiday, Roald Dahl, and INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, WRITTEN BY HERSELF.

Combine that with what the retreat’s organizers consider essential — here, both the complete works of both Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, as well as many bound volumes of Paris Match, as well as masses of dictionaries in four languages, an extensive array of psychological theory, and mysteriously, a guitar — and you usually find yourself presented with a pretty eclectic collection.

Trust me on this one: you’re going to find something interesting that you have never encountered before. Take a gander at just part of what’s here for the reading:

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Yummy, eh?

As a direct and happy result of this kind of ongoing book accumulation, it’s generally well worth your while at an organized writers’ retreat to budget some fairly hefty time for reading. And not just for manuscripts in the library, either — you’re probably going to meet at least one writer with whom you would like to exchange work.

Lovely and rewarding, often, but still, time-consuming. Make sure to allot some time for it.

Truth compels me to mention, however, that actuellement, my opinion on the subject may well be colored by a fellow resident’s just having walked into the library with her thumb drive so I could download her just-this-second completed novel. (And no, this is not the first time I’ve seen someone do this at an artists’ retreat; people like to share. It’s wise to keep your writing schedule flexible enough to make field trips to admire freshly-completed sculptures and canvases upon which the paint is still wet, if you catch my drift.)

At this retreat, all attendees are asked to donate at least two volumes to the library, one that represented the kind of art we would be producing while in residence and one that reflected the part of the world that had produced us. Since I happened to know that a Seattle-based novelist had attended La Muse within the year, bringing with her the works of Garth Stein and Layne Maheu, I opted to dig deeper into my past and tote along VALIS, a largely autobiographical Philip K. Dick novel that happens to contain a scene set at my childhood home, right next to the hutch where my pet rabbits resided.

So if the moppet on the cover at the bottom right looks a trifle familiar, well, there’s a reason for that:

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Yes, I’m perfectly well aware that this photo is gigantic; I wanted you to notice that glorious volume in the middle. As you may see, my contributions paled in comparison to the absolutely gorgeous hand-made book one of the painters brought, but that’s to be expected, right? (If the book-lovers out there want to see more of Nora Lee McGillivray’s astonishingly beautiful individually crafted volumes, check out her website. It will tell you which museums to visit to see them in person.)

Since I’m currently working on a novel set at my alma mater, Harvard, I also imported (literally; I had to hand-carry it through Customs) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, his paean to Princeton. A fascinating novel, if you’ve never read it, the one that catapulted him to early fame. It’s far less polished than his later work, as first novels so often are; the value of repeated revision is not always apparent to the first-time author.

Which brings me to back to my subject du jour, the writer’s true and false friends, via the small miracle of having discovered in this very library a thin volume of rare nonfiction by Edith Wharton that I had never read before.

The front cover bills THE WRITING OF FICTION as “The Classic Guide to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel,” a contention which, if true, renders it even more surprising that I’d never even heard of it before. However, since the back cover’s incorrectly contends that THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, the novel for which our Edith won the Pulitzer Prize — the first woman to do so, incidentally — was her first, whereas if memory serves, THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY came out a good 7 years before, and the lovely THE HOUSE OF MIRTH 15, perhaps the claim of classicism is exaggeration for marketing purposes, rather than a statement of historical fact.

THE WRITING OF FICTION is very thought-provoking, however; it’s sort of what you would have expected a grande dame of letters to have blogged about the current state of literature in 1924, had blogs existed back then.

Yet quite a lot of what she has to say remains astonishingly applicable to today’s writers. Take, for instance:

The distrust of technique and the fear of being original — both symptoms of a certain lack of creative abundance — are in truth leading to pure anarchy in fiction, and one is almost tempted to say that in certain schools formlessness is now regarded as the first condition of form.

Now, the verbiage might be a bit old-fashioned, but this is a true friend. Not entirely coincidentally, it is also sentiment that agents and editors still express at writers’ conferences all the time. They’re perpetually receiving manuscripts that lack structure, either due either to deliberate authorial choice or a writer’s lack of literary experience.

Apparently structure-less scenes containing dialogue are particularly common. Proponents of slice-of-life fiction — an approach that tends to win great applause in short stories, and thus in writing classes that focus upon short works — will frequently make the mistake of trying to make dialogue in a novel absolutely reflective of how people speak in real life.

Why might that be problematic, you ask? Well, ride a bus or sit in a café sometime and eavesdrop on everyday conversation; it’s generally very dull from a non-participant’s perspective.

More to the point, it’s often deadly on the printed page. Real-life conversation is usually repetitive, cliché-ridden, and frankly, not all that character-revealing. It requires genuine artistry, then, to reproduce it well in manuscript form.

Or, as Aunt Edith might have put it, it takes technique. For some pointers on how to put that technique in action, you might want to check out the DIALOGUE THAT RINGS TRUE and DIALOGUE THE MOVES QUICKLY categories on the archive list at right.

For the moment, I want to return to what Aunt Edith was saying. Because I know that you’re all busy people, I’ll skip her comparison of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (whose WAR AND PEACE, you may be amused to hear, Henry James once called, “a loose baggy monster,” speaking of structure) and move on to the next part that deals with technique:

…the novelist who would create a given group of people or portray special social conditions must be able to identify himself with them; which is a rather long way of saying that an artist must have imagination.

Not so fast there, Edith: this analogy is a false friend. I think you’re conflating empathy with one’s characters with the ability to imagine what it would like to be them, usually related but not identical phenomena. The first involves feeling for one’s characters enough to present them, if not sympathetically, then at least with fairness; the second can be purely a matter of conjecture, without necessarily involving any actual empathy with the characters at all — or, indeed, any information about how such characters in real life might actually feel or think.

Hey, if it’s purely a matter of imagination, why not just project your own feelings and thoughts onto them? Or, to fall back on my earlier example, to a reader who is already steeped in the culture you’re describing, it’s going to make a big difference whether a character within that culture says actuellement when he actually means en fait, right?

Here, imagination could lead a writer into a fairly major mistake. Another common mistake springing from relying too heavily on imagination alone — no, make that two: characters made up out of whole cloth tend to be prone to falling into stereotypes, and if the author doesn’t care about a character enough to empathize with him, why should the reader?

Ponder that last one a moment. I’ll wait.

The stereotyping problem is particularly rampant, and not just in terms of clichés. Think about how villains, or even just plain unlikable characters, tend to be portrayed in fiction — or in memoir and creative nonfiction, for that matter. One sees quite imaginative but essentially unsympathetic approaches to bad guys all the time.

And even to not-so-bad guys. Few writerly attitudes lead so surely to two-dimensional characters as the dismissive assumption that the reader isn’t going to like ‘em, anyway.

As it happens, I have a GREAT example right at my fingertips. Not long ago, a friend from my home town alerted me to the fact that a recent bestselling account of the rise and fall of a Napa Valley wine dynasty contained a rather odd reference to my late father, Norman Mini. Not all that surprising; he was, among other things, quite a well-respected winemaker descended from centuries of winemakers; it would have been rather difficult to write about enology in Northern California without at least passing reference to someone in my family.

Yet when I looked up the actual reference, it was quite apparent that his winemaking acumen had nothing to do with why the author had mentioned him: on the page, he comes across as that paragon of writerly false friends, the straw man who is mentioned only to be knocked down.

Speaking of phrases that wouldn’t translate all that well into other languages.

The funny thing is, enough of the facts in the story she tells are correct that you might actually have had to meet the man (or interview someone who had, as her website claimed she had done in some 500 instances) in order to realize just how far from the truth the book’s account is. How is that possible, you cry? Well, although the bulk of the anecdote about him is more or less as it happened, barring some easily-corrected factual errors (which is why I am not mentioning the book or the author’s name here, in order to allow her time to correct them in the next edition), the purport of the anecdote as folks in my former neck of the woods have habitually told it for the last 30 years showed him in quite a positive light, even a charming one.

As the anecdote is re-told in this book, however, he comes across as a quite sinister character.

I’m sensing some disbelief out there. “Just a moment, Anne,” come the incredulous murmurs. “Again, how is that possible, since the book in question is nonfiction? Isn’t the whole point of objective reporting to avoid this sort of contretemps? Just the facts, ma’am.”

Well, not having written the pages in question myself, I naturally cannot be absolutely sure how an ostensibly true story ended up untrue on the printed page, but my guess would be that the author relied on a false friend or two. A lack of authorial empathy, perhaps, combined with an incomplete set of facts, with the holes filled in by imagination.

What did that look like in practice? Actually, the misrepresentation was quite skillfully done: the author simply opened the anecdote by describing my father as a Napoleonic 5’4″ of bowl haircut aspiring to be taller, thereby establishing him as self-deluded. From there, all it took was some generalities about how his outspokenness rubbed a few people the wrong way to convey the impression of an abrasive, in-your-face lecturer. (Quoth my learned and soft-spoken father: “Never trust someone whom everybody likes. He’s got to be lying to someone.”) The author then went on to bolster the impression of thwarted power selective quotes from another source, something Henry Miller wrote about my father in BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH.

Et violà! After such a set-up, what reader wouldn’t look upon the anecdote that followed with a jaundiced eye?

While I can think of any number of problems with this approach — up to and including the fact that I know from long extended-family experience that once a biographical untruth appears in print, it will be repeated elsewhere; lies are far more durable than truths, evidently — here are the three least contestable:

(1) my father was fully 6 feet tall;

(2) his hair was so curly that he could not possibly have achieved the haircut she described as integral to his character, and

(3) a full reading of even the page from which she had cherry-picked Miller quotes would have demonstrated clearly that the man I knew as Uncle Henry intended the passage she cited to create exactly the opposite impression in his book from what she was trying to convey in hers.

Since Edith Wharton was notoriously careful about checking factual details, I can’t believe that she would have approved, despite her quip above. Since neither my father nor our Edith are, alas, still around to defend their points of view, I naturally tracked down the author’s website and e-mailed her to point out — politely, I thought, given the provocation — that her book contained a few inaccuracies.

Her response was, at best, huffy. Her research for the book had been extensive, she explained to me so it was unlikely that she had made a mistake. In making her case that perhaps I was at fault, she cited by name three people known to me in my early childhood as The Nice Man Who Gave Me a Puppy, Mr. Bob, and That Woman Who Broke Up Mr. Bob’s Marriage as the most likely sources of, say, a misidentified photo, if indeed any misidentification had occurred. Although she was willing to believe that I hadn’t contacted her just to insult her, I really should have checked her book’s 800 notes before even considering contacting her, because any photo would probably (her word) have been cited there.

Yeah, I know — I seriously considered posting her answer in its entirety as the centerpiece about how NOT to respond to a question from a reader, ever. Simply thanking me for my note and telling me that she would look into it would have served precisely the same purpose — getting me off her back, me with my annoying propensity to regard things like height and incidents that occurred within my memory as matters upon which I have a right to express myself — without leaving me with an anecdote that any professional author would have expected me to pass along to at least a couple of other people.

The general rule of thumb for avoiding insulting one’s readers, in case you’re wondering, is that an author should ALWAYS be polite to anyone who approaches her about her book, even if she feels that the yahoo currently in front of her is being rude. Even if the author is in the right, bad word of mouth tends to spread much, much faster than “Gee, I met this author, and she was so nice.”

Human nature, I’m afraid. Just as an untruth in one biography tends to spawn repetitions in the next ten, a rebuffed reader can tell fifty potential book-buyers to stay away from that jerk — or 5,000, if he chooses to share the anecdote online. The rise of the Internet has made bad reputations much, much easier to establish.

In fairness to my rebuffer, I probably should have contacted her publisher directly about the quite easily verifiable factual errors, The extent of her research was something she also boasted about on her website, which should have placed me on guard that she might conceivably be touchy about it: as experienced nonfiction writers tend to assume that thoroughness is the minimum requirement for the job, not an additional selling point, it’s rare for the author of a nonfiction book on a not particularly contentious topic actually to list the number of interviews she conducted. In the bio on her website, no less.

All that being said, it would be easy just to write this situation off as poor research — I suspect what actually happened here is that she mistook someone else for my father in a photograph, and just didn’t bother to double-check. (There I go again, fact-hugging.) But let’s think about the writing strategy involved in producing the questionable impression on the page:

a) An author had a real-life character she wanted to use for a specific purpose in her book. In order to make that character come to life, she uses her imagination. I suspect all of us can identify with that, right?

b) Because that specific purpose was negative, she chose her descriptions (and, in this case, quotes) in order to bolster that effect — again, something most writers do.

c) In a search for telling details that would convey the desired impression — which, lest we forget, was necessarily a product of the writerly imagination, since the author never actually met the man she was describing — and because she was not approaching the character with empathy, she selected bits that conformed to her preconceived notion of the character. Again, this is a fairly standard writing practice.

d) Unfortunately, the research that provided those bits was insufficient, and she ran into trouble.

Obviously, this was an instance that annoyed me, as did her reaction to my pointing out the factual errors in this part of her book. (If I understood her correctly — and her response contained enough spelling and grammatical errors that I’m not sure that I did — she was trying to argue that my recollections of my father’s height were more likely to be mistaken than her research.)

But did you notice the narrative trick I employed in telling you this real-life story — one that I used to comic effect even in the last paragraph?

No? Let me be brutally honest about my writerly motivations: I was writing an anecdote about a person I have some legitimate reason to dislike, so I don’t have a lot of incentive to present her with empathy, do I? So while the facts in the anecdote are all true, my telling of them clearly reflected that dislike — and in order to make you, dear readers, dislike her, too, I used my imagination in order to create motivations for her.

Oh, all of the actions I described did in fact occur. But there is no such thing as a story that creates its own tone or word choices, is there?

Starting to get the picture?

If those of you who write memoir are shaking in your booties, you probably are. The fact is, for all of the blather about the desirability of objective distance from one’s subject, if a writer is trying to create an emotional response in the reader, objectivity is often not possible. Nor, especially in memoir, is it always desirable.

However, an ostensible just-the-facts presentation is sometimes a false friend to the reader — and to the writer as well. Yes, even in fiction: if a writer tries to scare up some empathy for even the characters the reader isn’t supposed to like, the result is usually more complex characters and better character development.

In other words, it’s a better means of creating three-dimensional characters.

Case in point: in the anecdote I told above, the characters were pretty black-and-white — the maligned late father, the unsympathetic writer. Yet had I exercised a bit more empathy toward the latter, I could have told factually the same story, yet conveyed the impression of a more well-rounded — and consequently more interesting, from the reader’s perspective — villain. Lookee:

An old friend pointed out to me that a bestselling book contained some rather odd assertions about my father. I checked, and it was true: the anecdote about him was told unsympathetically, and the physical description was so off-base that she could only have been describing someone else. She specifically said that he was eight inches shorter than he actually had been, for instance, with straight hair fashioned into a haircut that had not been fashionable since ancient Rome.

Puzzled, I contacted her and asked: was it possible that someone had misidentified a photo for her? Would she be open to correcting the factual errors in a future edition?

She responded so quickly that she must have received the message on her Blackberry. She was on a research trip for her next book, she said, and thus could not possibly check her notes to see if I was correct until she got back to her office; if my story did turn out to have merit, she would of course take steps to correct the minor errors in future editions. However, if I had troubled to check through the book’s 800 notes about her 500 interviews — a number that would have represented approximately 20% of my home town’s population at the time, incidentally — the photograph in question was doubtless referenced, so she doubted that she had any errors. She was quite sure, she concluded, that I hadn’t intended to impugn her journalistic credibility by implying that she hadn’t done her homework properly.

I was entirely mistaken about my father’s height, in other words; presumably, she had a source that had said so. Clearly, I owed her an apology for having brought any of it up at all, especially when, as the author of a single book that sold well, she is so important to the literary world that her research trips are times of well-advertised mourning in bookstores everywhere. At the very least, I should have waited until she got back.

Quite a different story, isn’t it? Yet in some ways, she’s a more effective villain in the second version than the first: by allowing some of her good points some page space, she comes across as having more complex motivations. (I also think this version is funnier, because it presents more of her response from her perspective, rather than mine.)

“Philosophy is not insensitivity,” as brilliant novelist, nonfiction writer, and inveterate fact-checker Mme. de Staël tells us. An authorial inability — or outright unwillingness — to empathize with her characters’ points of view does not always equal an admirable objectivity. Sometimes, it’s the result of a failure of imagination, rather than a surfeit of it.

But in order to create well-rounded, plausible characters, whether from scratch out of one’s imagination or lifted from real life, a good writer needs both empathy and imagination.

Okay, so maybe I wanted to tell this particular story — which, as you may be able to tell by how miffed I am about it, just transpired about a week ago — more than I wanted to engage in banter with Edith Wharton. As a writer, that’s certainly my prerogative: I have the power to focus my narrative in the direction that I find the most satisfying. And as a blogger, I also have the power to return to the debate with Edith in a future post. There honestly is a lot to talk about there.

Hey, the lady had some great insights into true and false friends.

Which brings me back to some semblance of my original point — believe it or not, I did have one throughout this long, wide-ranging post. First, it always behooves a writer to read widely, whether in doing manuscript research (cough, cough) or just to see how others have done what you’re trying so hard to do well. If you don’t have access to a thoughtfully-constructed, inspirational library like La Muse’s, start asking writers you respect for recommendations.

Most writers are book-lovers, after all. It’s a question that seldom fails to elicit a smile at a book signing, even from the most retiring author.

Second — and you’ve heard this one from me before — just because someone’s won a Nobel prize in literature (or has 800 notes in her bestseller) doesn’t automatically mean that everything she says in print is true. Use your own judgment, especially about writing advice.

Don’t be afraid to examine a gift horse’s dental hygiene before accepting it as your own, if you catch my drift.

Third, if you’re writing about real people, the false friend of ostensible objectivity is no excuse not to treat them with the empathy with which a good writer habitually approaches her fictional characters. Quadruple-check your facts before committing them to the printed page, and try to present even the characters you don’t like as well-rounded, plausible characters. You may even find that they work better as villains that way.

You also never know whose daughter is likely to blog about you, right?

Keep up the good work!

The Hilarity of Carnage, by guest blogger Jonathan Selwood

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Hello again, all — Anne here. For those of you who have found the ongoing Author! Author! series on subtle censorship a trifle, well, depressing, I have a great treat in store for you today: a guest post by Jonathan Selwood, in my humble opinion one of the funniest dark comedy writers currently drawing breath within the continental United States.

Who better, then, to share his thoughts on dark comedy with all of us here at Author! Author! — or to talk about the risks a writer takes by walking the thin line between outrageously funny and just outrageous? Or, frankly, to lighten all of our moods whilst enlightening us?

How funny a writer is Jonathan, you ask? Well, while reading his first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (Harper Perennial), on an airplane, one paragraph started me laughing so hard that passengers in adjacent rows came tumbling out of their seats to come to my rescue, convinced that I was having some sort of fit that required immediate medical attention, if not actually turning the plane around. When I had caught my breath enough to apologize and read the relevant paragraph to my would-be helpers, their laughter kicked up such a din that two flight attendants came running. (They thought the passage was pretty funny, too.)

That’s right: parts of this novel are so subversively funny that they disrupt air travel. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Would this be the right moment to tell you that THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE is available for sale at Powell’s, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine books? Or that if you want to read more of Jonathan’s words of wisdom on the writing of startling comedy, you could also check out his earlier guest post on this very site?

Or that he’s recently yielded to popular demand and started a blog, Terminal Alienation? He describes it as n exercise in Evangelical Absurdism. Its goal is not just to support the billions of terminally alienated people around the globe, but to help snuff out the last flicker of hope in those still holding a tenuous connection to the culture at large.

All of which is to say: I’m overjoyed that he has agreed to guest-post. I hope that those of you who are planning to push the proverbial envelope in your writing pay close attention and come up with good questions, because it honestly is rare to be able to glean insights from a comedy writer this talented.

So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to Jonathan Selwood. Take it away, Jonathan!

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“An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.” — Groucho Marx

1992 was the year I first read the novel Lolita, first saw the movie Reservoir Dogs, and first decided to dedicate my life to writing. The connection? Dark Comedy.

As far as literary genres go, Dark Comedy is usually considered something of a bastard child. While it can certainly sell well, it rarely rakes in the staggering sums of mass market blockbusters like Da Vinci Wears Prada Traveling Pants. And yet, it’s precisely its lunatic fringe position within the culture that makes it — in my unbiased opinion — the greatest genre.

Tragedy, in simplest terms, is the story of a character who falls away from society and its rules and therefore suffers — think Oedipus. Comedy is the story of a character who is initially alienated from society and its rules, but happily rejoins in the end, traditionally with a wedding — think Elizabeth Bennet. (Yes, I know these are gross oversimplifications, but bear with me.) Dark Comedy combines elements of both Tragedy and Comedy to critique society itself–think Humbert Humbert.

By its very nature, Dark Comedy has to be the bastard child. A comedic novel with a sociopathic child molester for a protagonist (i.e., Lolita) is always going to upset the mainstream, because it’s supposed to upset the mainstream. It’s hands-down my favorite novel of all time, and it even upsets me — particularly now that I have a child of my own. But given the truly deplorable state of the economy, the environment, and just about everything else in the world right now, WE SHOULD BE UPSET!

Lolita is not some sick attempt on Nabokov’s part to make us sympathize with child molesters, it’s an absolutely genius attempt to make us reexamine American society as a whole. There will always be “mainstream” people trying to ban Dark Comedy — from Catch-22 to South Park–precisely because it’s a very real threat to society and the “mainstream” they hold so dear. At the end of a Dark Comedy, there’s no tragic lesson warning us not to break the rules, nor is there a society-reaffirming marriage. But if the work is successful, it can expose the flaws in society itself.

As if that wasn’t enough, where a regular comedy (or, to be more derisive, a “Light Comedy”) will make you laugh, a Dark Comedy will make you gasp. The most obvious example is when a standup comedian tells a joke that’s right on the line. If it goes over, it will likely be the funniest moment of the entire show and elicit that bizarre “Ahhhhhh…” sound that humans produce when the laughter center of their brains suffer petite mal seizures.

Of course, that’s a big IF the joke goes over. Not only is Dark Comedy the funniest form of humor (again, in my unbiased opinion), but it’s also the most likely to flop. And while a standup comedian can quickly move on to the next joke and at least have a chance of making the audience forget, a novelist is most likely going to get his book tossed onto the bedside table for good.

So, in addition to being the greatest and funniest literary genre, it’s also the most risky. But hey, if you were a coward, you never would have thrown your hat into the literary ring in the first place, would you?

Let’s face it, people don’t make a “rational” decision to become writers. It’s an inherently irrational pursuit, and in the years since I decided in 1992 to be a writer, it’s only become more irrational. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, than I think it’s safe to assume you require immediate hospitalization.) So if the pursuit is irrational in the first place, and we’ve already established that you’re not a coward, why not go all the way?

I invite you all to join me on the Dark Side…

Oh, and if you live in the Northwest (or anywhere else, for that matter), pre-order a copy of Portland Noir. Not only do I have an (unbiased, yada yada yada) masterpiece in there, but it’s really a great collection.

portlandnoircover selwoodExplore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America’s most beautiful but enigmatic cities through brand-new stories by Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It’s a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.

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selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse. He also enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XXI: but wait, there’s more!

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

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

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

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

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

How exceptional, you ask? Well, I don’t mean to alarm you, but PUBLISHERS WEEKLY laid off its editor-in-chief earlier this week. (You will be greatly missed, Sara Nelson.)

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along.

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

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

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

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

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

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

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

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

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

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

In light of the recent revelations about certain peanut butter manufacturers, it might be more accurate to call this the Oreo or Top Ramen index right now, but you catch my drift.

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

I know; it’s annoying.

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

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

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

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

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

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin.

Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue. They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

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

Trust me on this one.

5. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

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

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

And remember, nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom.

If you choose to open with humor, run it by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Since even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny, I’m going to spend some time next week talking about how to scare up some genuinely useful feedback.

6. Unlikable protagonists.

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

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

I can think of a few more long-standing writing red flags that didn’t make it onto the Idol list — over-use of the passive voice, for instance, or dialogue that doesn’t either flesh out character or advance the plot — but I shall save those for the craft discussion of another day. (Which is, I suppose, another way of saying that I’ve had a long day and I’m pretty exhausted.)

For now, suffice it to say that Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), if the writing on page 1 isn’t remarkable, it doesn’t matter if the writing on page 15 is brilliant, because it’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there.

I’m going to sign off for today and go to sleep, but rest assured, I have a treat in store for you tomorrow, as a reward for having worked hard throughout this lengthy and often downright depressing series. Until tomorrow, then, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XVII: portraying a life less ordinary, or, would it kill you to give your protagonist a quirkier life?

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I think going over our list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 one by one is being very fruitful, but heavens, there are a LOT of them, aren’t there? I’m moving through them as swiftly as I can, but still, it feels a bit like wading through mud. Not to nag, but I suspect it feels that way in part because folks haven’t been chiming in too much lately. That could mean one of three things: you don’t have anything to say, you’re all off madly pulling together queries and submissions now that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has passed, or this series has stunned and shocked you into a coma.

Of course, there have been one or two things going on in the outside world, too. But regardless of the reason, I would like to reiterate: if you have questions about any of this, PLEASE ask them. My goal in going over all of this so thoroughly is to be helpful, after all.

Today, I want to deal with the rejection reasons that did not fit comfortably into the kinds of general categories we’ve been discussing so far. The odd ducks, as it were:

39. Too many generalities.

40. The character shown is too average.

41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.

60. The details included were not telling.

Shaking your head over the practically infinite subjectivity of this set? That’s not entirely coincidental, you know: just as one agent’s notion of fresh is another’s idea of weird, one agent’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

And this is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality in our prose? (Which, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men.) Weren’t we all ordered to write what we knew? (Which led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle class white teenagers, mostly male.) Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? (Which left us all sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.)

I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I?

Unfortunately, from an agent’s point of view, all of the good students obediently following this advice has resulted in a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. Every day, Millicent the agency screener reads of universal protagonists (read: ordinary people) in situations that their authors know intimately (read: ordinary life) acutely observed (read: the ordinary seen through a magnifying glass).

There’s nothing wrong with portraying all of that ordinariness, per se. It’s just that Millicent sees so darned much of it that it’s hard for an average Joe or Jane protagonist in an ordinary situation not to strike her as…

Well, you get the picture.

Millicent is screening to find the extraordinary manuscript, the one with the fresh worldview, spin, or writing style applied to a story about a character (or characters) who are different enough from character(s) she’s seen before to remain interesting for the length of an entire book.

Aspiring writers, particularly memoirists, often seem to fail to take that last part into account when preparing their submissions: if the story presented does not appear from the very first line on page 1 to be about a fascinating person in an intriguing situation, the manuscript is going to be a tough sell to everyone from Millicent to her boss to an editor at a publishing house to a contest judge. So if a book is about an Everyman living a life with which an ordinary reader might identify, it’s IMPERATIVE that he demonstrate some way in which either he or his story is not ordinary right away.

Why? Because otherwise, the manuscript is far too likely to get dismissed as just not very interesting or surprising.

It’s not for nothing, you know, that agents complain about how many submissions they see that #6, took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story’s taking time to warm up, as well as #7, not enough action on page 1. Many, if not most, first pages have no conflict on them at all, but are purely set-up.

Such an opening scene may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from the business side of the industry’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — a slow opening translates into hard to sell.

And, to be perfectly frank, professional readers simply do not have the time or the patience to read on to see what this story IS about. Millicent might well risk being a few minutes late for her lunch date for the sake of a page of gorgeous prose, but if she doesn’t have an inkling of a plot by the end of it, she’s probably not going to ignore her stomach’s rumblings long enough to turn to page 2.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, this is not how submissions would work if I ran the universe. If I did, all good writers would be eligible for large, strings-free grants, photocopying would be free, and all of you would be able to share the particularly delicious pain au chocolat I am enjoying at this very moment. It’s so gooey that the bereted gentleman (yes, really) at the wee round table next to me offered a couple of minutes ago to lick the chocolate off my fingers so I could readdress my keyboard in a sanitary manner.

The habitués of this coffee shop are exceedingly friendly, apparently. And very hygiene-minded. Or perhaps I have stumbled into — gasp! — the lair of the cat people.

This (the ordinariness of characters, that is, rather than licking chocolate off fingertips; stop thinking about that and get back to work) is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. An interesting character in an interesting situation is featured in practically all of their personal ads advice on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOTA paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie.

That sort of thing. Interesting and surprising are synonymous more often than fans of the ordinary might think.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure to his team? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?)

So I ask you: could you work an element of surprise onto page 1 of your submission, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

Before you chafe at that, remember that lack of surprise can render a protagonist less likable, even for readers who do not, like Millicent, drop a book like a hot coal if the first few paragraphs don’t grab them. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, given how often writing teachers lecture about the importance of opening with a hook, this justification for keeping the opening lively is seldom mentioned, but it is in fact true: ordinary characters tend not to be all that engaging, precisely because they are average, and thus predictable.

For most readers, an unpredictable jerk is more interesting to follow than a beautifully-mannered bore, after all. It’s hard to blame Millicent and her cronies for that.

Or if it won’t work in your story to open with something surprising, how about vitally important? I don’t necessarily mean important on the global scale, but within the world of the story you’re telling.

One of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to elevate the importance of what is going on in the opening to that character. A protagonist or narrator’s caring passionately about the outcome of a conflict practically always renders a scene more interesting, because it prompts the reader to care about the outcome, too.

Of course, this is a whole lot easier to pull off in an opening scene that features a conflict, right? Which, as #32. Where’s the conflict? suggests, is not as common to those first few pages as agents and their Millicents might like.

That’s why too-typical teenage characters often fall flat for screeners, incidentally: a character who is trying to be cool and detached from a conflict can often convey the impression that what is going on in the moment is not particularly important. But what’s more engaging than a protagonist who feels, rightly or wrongly, that what is going on before the reader’s eyes is the most important thing on earth right now? When the protagonist wants something desperately, that passion tends to captivate the reader.

All of which leads us nicely to critique #41, the stakes not being high enough. “Why should I care?” is a question screeners ask with distressing frequency. If a book opens with the protagonist in an emotionally-fraught or otherwise dangerous situation, Millicent may answer that question may be answered immediately.

Which is, in case you’d been wondering, one of the reasons lecturers as writers’ conferences so often spout the advice to start a book with a conflict already in progress. It’s not from a rabid desire to excise quiet scenes from literature in favor of action movie-type antics; it’s a means to draw the reader into caring about what is happening to the protagonist.

Okay, so it’s also a way to avoid boring Millicent, but good writing has been known to multi-task.

It doesn’t always work to open with an honestly life-or-death situation, of course, but far too many novels actually don’t start until a few pages in. As I’ve mentioned before (and shall no doubt mention again), it’s not at all uncommon to find a terrific opening line for a book on page 4 or page 10, or for scene #2 to be practically vibrating with passionate feeling, while scene #1 just sits there. (Again, I think this is a legacy of the heroic journey style of screenwriting, which dictates that the story open in the protagonist’s everyday reality, before the challenge comes.) Choosing to open with a high-stakes scene gives a jolt of energy to the reader, urging her to keep turning the pages.

I sense some disgruntled shifting in chairs out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” some suspense-loving rules lawyers protest, “if I begin on a high note, the story has nowhere to go but down. Isn’t it more surprising if I start small, then startle the reader with a bang?”

Many, many writers want to keep something back, to play their best cards last, to surprise and delight the reader later on. But for very practical reasons, this is not the best strategy in a submission: if this series has made anything clear, it is that you really do need to grab a professional reader’s attention on page 1. Preferably within the first paragraph.

#39, too many generalities, is a trap that tends to ensnare writers who are exceptionally gifted at constructing synopses. How so? Well, In a synopsis, it is very helpful to be able to compress a whole lot of action into just a few well-chosen words; it’s a format that lends itself to a certain amount of generalization. To folks who excel at this, it’s tempting to introduce a story in general terms in the book itself.

As any professional reader could tell you, those who do not excel at summary also fall prey to this temptation pretty often. Generalizations abound on page 1.

So why do agents frown upon this practice? Well, it feels to them like the writer is warming up, rather than diving right into the story.

Sound familiar? It should by this point in the series: your garden-variety fiction or memoir agent is looking for good, in-the-moment sensations on the first page, visceral details that will transport her quickly to the time and place your characters inhabit. The writer is the travel agent for that trip, and it’s your job to make the traveler feel she is actually THERE, rather than just looking at a movie or a photograph of the events described.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: too many writers rely too heavily on visuals.

Sensual details sell. Or, to put it another way: doesn’t your protagonist have a NOSE? What about fingertips?

Conveniently enough, this segues very nicely into #60, the details included were not telling. This is editor-speak for a manuscript that mentions specifics, but not ones that are very evocative. They don’t help set the mood of the piece, nor do they give the reader a sense of place. They just say what’s there, period.

These details are, to harken back to my first point, ordinary.

For instance, I could tell you that the café I currently inhabit is brightly-lit, with windows stretching from the height or my knee nearly up to the ceiling, small, round tables with red-varnished wooden chairs, and a pastry case full of goodies. A young and attractive barista is making the espresso machine emit a high-pitched squeal. I just held the door for a woman on crutches who was wearing a yellow rain slicker and a green scarf, and four of us here are working on laptops.

That description is accurate, certainly, but what did it tell you as a reader? I could be in virtually any café anywhere in the world; it is probably raining outside, but my reader does not know for sure; you don’t even know the sex of the barista.

But what if I added the telling detail that, in order to work, I have had to turn my back to the glass doors keep sending fog-chilled blasts past my skirt as patrons shed their coats in the doorway? That gives you both seasonal detail and information about me: I am concentrating; I am wearing a skirt despite the cold weather; I am not expecting to meet anyone I know here.

Or what if I mention that the barista’s three-day stubble reminds me of a Miami Vice-loving guy I dated in college? That both describes the guy in my peripheral vision and tells the reader my age, in rough terms.

Or that I am bouncing my leg up and down at roughly the same rate as the fresh-faced girl in sweats across the room, scowling into a sociology text book? That conveys both caffeine consumption and the fact that I’m near a university.

Get the picture?

Now how much more do you feel you are here with me if I add that the air is redolent with the smell of baking cheese bread, the oxtail soup of the flat-shoed retiree at the table next to me, and the acrid bite of vinegar wafting from her companion’s I’m-on-a-diet salad? What if I work in that I have been moving my cell phone closer and closer to me for the past 15 minutes, lest the clanking of cups, nearby discussions of Nancy Pelosi and the war in Iraq, and vintage Velvet Underground drown out my call to flee this place? What about if I tell you that the pony-tailed busboy currently unburdening the overflowing wall of meticulously-labeled recycling bins — a receptacle for glass, one for plastic, one for newspaper, one for cardboard, one for compostable products — is a dead ringer for Bud Cort, of HAROLD & MAUDE fame, put down his volume of Hegel to attend to his duties, and ran his beringed hand across the Don Johnson clone’s back as he passed?

All of these details help convey a sense of place, and of me as a character (a rather nervous one, I notice from the last paragraph; must be all of the coffee I’ve been drinking) within it. Thus, these details may properly be regarded as telling.

The wonderful short-short story writer Amy Hempel once told me that she believes that the external world her characters inhabit is only relevant insofar as it illuminates the character’s mood or moves the plot along. I’m not sure I would put it quite so baldly, but I think this theory can be applied very productively to lackluster ambient detail. If a protagonist is sad, I want to hear about the eucalyptus trees’ drooping leaves; if she is frenetic, my sense of her heartbeat will only be enhanced by the sound of cars rushing by her as she jogs.

And, of course, if I’m going to be told about her shoes — which, I must confess, don’t interest me much as objects, since I’m not the heroine of a chick lit novel — they had better reveal something about her character.

Few good short story writers would think to take up space with unrevealing details, but even very good novelists frequently get bogged down in description for its own sake — and if you doubt that, revisit our initial list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 for abundant evidence of just how often submitters tumble into this particular pitfall. But I’ve noticed in my travels that if the details are interesting, revealing, and yes, surprising, professional readers like Millicent tend not to squawk about them much, even if there are a few too many. If the description is peppered with revealing details, it is hard for it to feel extraneous to what is going on.

All right, I’ve outstayed the beret-wearing finger-lover, so I am going to venture out onto the street now. Since my feet are practically rattling on the floor, I probably should not drink any more coffee.

Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part X: Millicent’s frequent sense of déjà vu, or, the benefits of venturing off the beaten path

Revisiting my posts from a couple of years ago on reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1, I notice that I have been feeling compelled to add quite a bit of commentary, so much so that they are essentially new posts (which is why I’ve stopped doing the boldfaced introductions, in case anyone has been wondering). I’m not entirely sure whether this is due to how much the literary market has changed since I originally ran this list in the autumn of 2006, and how much is that, having edited, commented upon, and judged for contests scads of manuscripts in the intervening time, I have developed more pet peeves of my own.

I suspect it’s a combination of both. But I’m not the reader we’re discussing in this series, am I?

Here, we’ve been talking about the pet peeves of agents, editors, and the screeners they employ to accept or, more commonly, reject manuscripts. For the last couple of days, I’ve been going over something that is seldom discussed at writers’ conferences, in craft seminars, or even socially amongst aspiring writers, the possibility of submission’s getting rejected because it just doesn’t strike Millicent the agency screener as particularly exciting.

Funny, isn’t it, that although pretty much every writing teacher will underscore the importance of opening with a hook — an arresting conflict or strong image that draws the reader into the story from line 1, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a 1-line pitch for a book — very few seem to bring up the opposite possibility, inducing a yawn? Yet to understand what makes a hook effective, shouldn’t we writers give some thought to what might bore a reader in an opening?

More to the point of this series, shouldn’t submitters be casting a critical eye over their first pages before mailing them off, asking, “If I were Millicent the agency screener and this was my 25th first page before lunch, would I be turned off by anything in this opening?”

Yes, yes, I know — it’s painful to contemplate the possibility of even a line’s worth one’s own writing being less than scintillating, but it’s actually a much, much more useful exercise than the one usually conducted at the few writers’ conferences that devote seminar time specifically to opening pages. Some of you have probably been to these, right? They tend to be panel discussions where the published and their agents and/or editors discourse about what does and doesn’t grab them in an opening, using examples from books that have been out for years.

Can anyone see a problem with culling from that particular set of examples in order to help writers who are trying to land agents and publishing houses today?

If you said that what sold ten or fifteen years ago would not necessarily wow an agent or editor today, give yourself three gold stars and a pat on the back. When aspiring writers complain — admittedly with justification — that their favorite authors breakthough books probably couldn’t land an agent these days, the pros tend to shrug and say, “Why would anyone be surprised by that? The market is constantly changing.”

But you’d never know that to walk into most conference panels on craft, let alone on opening pages, where the examples tend to be rather long in the tooth. For instance, at a seminar on hook creation I attended not long ago, 5 of the 6 panelists selected as their favorite example of a stellar opening the first lines of Gabriel García Márquez’ A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

A stunning specimen of an opening for a book, certainly, but it was first published in 1991. Would it really work today, or would Millicent mutter, “Oh, great, another knock-off of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.” (Millicents tend to be rather well-read.) Or — and this is the most probable reaction — would she roll her eyes and say, “Make up your mind which timeframe this book will be in, already! Next!”

More proof, in case you needed it, that the times they are a-changin’.

Speaking of which, a writer friend of mine forwarded an interesting article in the New York Times that actually contained some good news about reading rates in this country, something of a novelty these days. Apparently, for the first time since 1982, the percentage of adults who say that they’ve read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the previous 12 months actually rose in 2008.

I suspect that I would be happier about this news if consuming a short story or poem didn’t require a rather different level of commitment to reading than polishing off an entire book, or if the markets for the various types of writing weren’t wildly different. We’re just supposed to rejoice over increased readership in general, I guess.

No word on whether these wordhounds bought the works in question or checked ‘em out of the library, though, or whether those newer to habitual reading were more likely to do one or the other. From the point of view of those of us who write for a living — or want to — this is a rather important follow-up question, but I gather that this particular census did not make specific inquires in this direction.

As a professional reader, I’m all about asking the follow-up questions. I look at a poll like this and immediately wonder, “Gee, are these new readers snapping up the latest that’s on the market, or are their friends who have been reading voraciously for years passing along their dog-eared paperback copies of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE?”

Oh, you thought that’s all there was to that conference anecdote? Not by a long shot — if you’d attended that panel I mentioned above, the first sentence of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE would instantly start rattling around in your cranium the instant anyone mentioned analyzing the dos and don’ts of book openings for the rest of your natural life.

Why was that particular example so memorable? Well, in addition to the panelists’ devoting a full 15 minutes of the half-hour seminar to enthusing about that opening and no other without once even raising the possibility that what agents and editors seek in a submission might have changed just a trifle since 1991, they also missed something else about this opening that rendered it a less-than-perfect example of what they were trying to show.

That something was so obvious to me that I actually started timing how long it would take for anyone to mention it. Five minutes before the end of the seminar, when the moderator finally recognized my impatiently raised hand, I asked, as politely as I could, “I love A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE’s opening, too, but could you give a couple of examples of great book openings that were written in English?”

5 of the 6 panelists looked at me blankly. Apparently, it was news to them that they had been reading GGM’s work in translation for years.

Why bring this up within the context of this series? Even in translation, A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was a magnificently influential book for English-language writers; for years afterwards, Millicents across the English-speaking world were seeing many, many manuscripts that opened similarly.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I doubt, personally, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose), Márquez should have been blushing for a decade, based upon those submissions. So how effective do you suppose Millicent found such openings in, say, year 8 of seeing them?

Exactly: what began as brilliant had through sheer repetition begun to seem banal and derivative.

Another novel that apparently affected masses and masses of novelists was Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES. How do I know? Well, take a gander at the opening:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

A grabber? Definitely. But look how many agents’ pet peeves it spawned on the Idol list of rejection reasons, just a couple of years after it came out:

9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”

44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.

45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.

In answer to what half of you just wondered: yes, when asked, all three of the agents who generated this list did spontaneously mention that they’d been rejecting many, many more submissions on these bases since THE LOVELY BONES had come out. Which just goes to show you why so many great books from the past would have a hard time getting the Millicent stamp of approval today: they would seem derivative of themselves.

Fame for originality can create its own type of predictability. Kind of an interesting paradox to contemplate, isn’t it?

While you’re busy pondering it, let’s revisit that subset of the list of rejection reasons dealing with the many ways submissions disqualify themselves by not grabbing Millicent the agency screener within the first page:

35. The story is not exciting.

36. The story is boring.

38. Repetition on pg. 1

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

57. The writing is dull.

Last time, I took issue with the difference between not exciting and boring, as well as the many, many reasons that a writer might be temped to repeat words, phrases, dialogue, or even action on page 1 without necessarily thinking of it as redundancy. This time around, I’m going to finish out this list with the style-oriented items on this list, the ones that involve a reader’s judgment about how the sentences in question are actually written.

Yes, I realize what I just said; I’m going to let the implications of that last statement sink in for a bit. In the meantime, let’s look into some more ways to avoid boring Millicent, shall we?

#55, took too many words to tell us what happened, is admittedly the most subjective reason on the how-to-bore Millicent list, as perceptions of wordiness are as personal to the reader as perceptions of beauty. For some writers, overwriting takes the form of sounding as though the word processor swallowed a dictionary and is coughing up every obscure three-syllable word in its technological stomach, but for most, it’s a matter of trying to cram too much information into any given sentence. In its simplest form, it tends to look a little something like this:

Bewildered yet not overcome, the lovely Clarissa pushed her long, red hair back from her fair-yet-freckled forehead so she could think better, a process with which she was not overly familiar, not having been brought up to the practice in her twenty-six years as Bermuda’s most celebrated debutante. Since the horrid pestilential fever that had so nearly claimed her life and had taken her handsome brother, harp-playing mother, flamenco master third cousin, and verbally abusive pet parakeet, she was ever-careful about over-heating herself through the the exercise of rigorous, excessive, or prolonged mental effort of any sort. Not for her the perplexing parliamentary papers of her grandfather, the stern advocate for planters’ rights yet friend of the downtrodden slaves who never failed to come near his petite lamb chop, as he had so loved to call her while he was still alive, without his august pockets crammed with sweets, pretty trinkets from far-off lands that he had picked up for a song at the local bazaar, and, always, a miniature of Clarissa and her mysteriously vanished yet equally beautiful twin sister, snatched at babyhood by brigands unknown.

Tremulously yet bravely, she sank gracefully against the gold-flocked wallpaper, gay with fleurs-du-lys, as tears of abject confusion clouded her usually sky-blue eyes and she felt for the comforting sofa beneath her, a gift from her now-dead but exceedingly generous whilst living mother back in their days of familial plenty, not to say opulence, before cruel Papa had been forced to auction off her favorite pony, Red Demon, who had merely mauled those silly Miller girls from across the river on that terrible day when Clarissa’s one true love, Roberto, had been swept away by piranha. If only she had listened to her beloved dog, Lassie, who kept barking vociferously at her as though trying to say, “Lady, your boyfriend’s fallen into the river!”

Seating herself with her delicate hands resting upon the still-sumptuous red velvet of her dress, a hand-me-down from Grandmamma, whose prowess at swordfighting was still the stuff of island legend…

Okay, what’s the problem here?

If you can’t see a number of reasons that this opening might make Millicent take umbrage, I can only suggest that you go back to the beginning of this series and read it all the way through again. But for our purpose of the moment, I ask you to consider only one question: what has actually happened in the course of this barrage of prose?

In the timeframe in which the story appears to be set, all that has actually occurred is that Clarissa pushed her hair off her forehead and sat down to think, right? Yes, yes, the author happened to stuff quite a bit of background information into this opening, too, but at the expense of moving the plot forward.

Or, as Millicent might put it rather less charitably, “I’m two-thirds of the way down page 1, and all the protagonist has managed to do is sit down and feel sorry for herself? Next!”

Overwriting tends to be forgiven a bit more readily in publishing circles than underwriting — partially because it’s a bit rarer than just-the-facts writing, partially because published authors’ first drafts tend more toward the prolix than the spare — but still, it’s not unusual for Millicent to get annoyed if a submission takes three paragraphs to say that the sky is blue and the protagonist is frightened.

Like redundancy, excessive overwriting is hard to sell to editors. Publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them. If you’re not sure whether you’re overburdening your opening pages, run them past a few first readers.

The last reason on our not-exciting sublist, #57, dull writing , also responds well, in my experience, to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. Unfortunately, I am far, far too talented to be able to produce a practical specimen of dull writing my own construction — not to mention far too modest to mention my brilliance and good looks — and I’m far, far too ethical to use any of the examples I have seen in my editorial practice.

But I’m betting that although writers often don’t know when they have produced it, pretty much everyone recognizes it when they see it in other writers’ work.

Dull writing usually runs to the opposite end of the terseness spectrum from overwriting: in many instances, it’s lean to the point of emaciation, with one verb doing the office of fifteen, adjectives reined in severely, and adverbs banished altogether. Its point is to tell the story — or, as commonly, a portion of the story that the writer doesn’t want to show in much detail or first-hand — as quickly and in as few words as possible.

This approach can work well for some book categories, but by and large, professional readers tend to regard the point of narrative prose not as an exercise in coughing up a purely bare-bones story, but as an art form in which the artist renders the story fascinating through how he chooses to tell it, the charming embellishments and insightful character development that render the reader’s journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point B enjoyable.

To understand why Millicent might feel this way, an aspiring writer need go no farther than your garden-variety cocktail party. We’ve all been cornered by someone who insists on telling us dull anecdote after dull anecdote, aren’t we? While successful anecdote-tellers are apt to please their listeners with building dramatic tension, amusing vocal mimicry, or even the choice of unexpected words that elicit a chuckle through sheer surprise, the dull anecdotalist makes the fatal mistake of assuming that the story itself is so inherently interesting that it doesn’t matter how he tells it.

And tell it he does, remorselessly ploughing forward despite his listeners’ glazed-over eyes, desperate glances toward other bunches of party-goers obviously having a better time, and repeated declarations that they must be getting home to check on kids they don’t actually have.

To Millicent, a run of dull writing is like being trapped in a closet with an anecdote-teller of this kidney for hours on end. All she wants is to get away — and the simplest expedient for doing that is to reject the submission as quickly as humanly possible.

The sad thing is, since the rise of the heroic journey story structure as novel blueprint, many novels open with material that even the writer considers the least interesting of any in the book — the normal, everyday world soon to be left behind. Since it is only the jumping-off point, many aspiring writers seem to think, why invest a great deal of narrative space and/or writing style to it? Or to the background information so many new writers are eager to stuff into the first page or two? There’s much better stuff in a page or two — or a chapter or two.

I can give one very, very good reason to open with your best writing, early-page style minimizers: because if Millicent isn’t wowed by that first page, she’s not going to keep reading. She’s going to assume, and with some reason, that what she sees on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing in the rest of the book.

Changes the way you think of a submission to know that, doesn’t it?

The best way to determine whether your first page has any of these problems is – and you should all know the tune by now, so please feel free to sing along — to read your submission IN HARD COPY, OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

Trust me on this one. But now, back to the pondering already in progress.

Were you struck when I mentioned above that only the last couple of items on the how-to-bore-Millicent list were style-based? That’s reflective of a trend observable on the Idol list of rejection reasons as a whole: had you noticed how many more of them were about content and storytelling than about writing style per se?

I don’t think that’s accidental — or insignificant, especially given that this particular list of rejection reason concerned only the first page of any given submission, a point at which most manuscripts are far more concerned with providing background information than telling the story of the book.

Which leads me back to a boredom-defeating strategy I mentioned in passing yesterday, and clever and insightful reader Adam was kind enough to elaborate upon in the comments: while scanning the early pages of your manuscript for rejection red flags, you might want to consider the possibility that your book should start somewhere rather later than your current page 1.

I’m quite, quite serious about this. I can’t tell you how many great first lines for books I’ve found on page 4, or how many backstory-laden first scenes could have been cut altogether. Background, contrary to popular writerly opinion, does not necessarily have to come first in a book.

Or even — brace yourself — in the first chapter.

Just as explaining why a joke is funny right after telling it tends to kill its humor, overloading the first few pages of a book with backstory is often a major storytelling mistake. We’ve all see it work sometimes, of course, but in practice, an opening scene tends to grab a reader (especially an impatient one like Millie) a bit faster simply to introduce an intriguing protagonist already embroiled in an exciting situation, and fill in the backstory gradually or later on.

I’m not advising that you simply throw out your first scene on general principle — it pays to be wary of one-size-fits-all editing advice. But I would advise conducting this diagnostic test: save your current first chapter in one document, and open a new document. Write a fresh opening scene that presents something surprising about your protagonist; make that scene as active as possible. Then hand both your current opening scene and the experimental draft to a first reader you trust. Ask her to read both, wait half an hour, then have her tell you what happened in each. While you’re at it, find out which version of the protagonist struck her as more likable.

If her recall of the fresh scene is substantially better, you might want to consider changing the opening of your manuscript — not necessarily by substituting the experimental scene, but by lightening its explanatory load.

What makes me think that the scene with more explanation is not going to be as memorable? Simple: action in the moment is almost always more memorable to a reader than summarized backstory — and backstory in a first scene is almost always summary. It happens offstage, as it were.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen authors front-load opening scenes with backstory; it used to be considered perfectly acceptable. And at one time, the first lines of both A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and THE LOVELY BONES would have struck Millicent as absolutely unique and fresh.

The times they have a-changed. Being cognizant of that may help save you from falling into one of the most frequently-seen rejection-trigger traps of all: “I’ve seen this a thousand times before.”

Next time, to what I suspect will be everyone’s grateful relief, I shall be moving past the boredom-related rejection reasons and on to juicier ones. Keep those opening pages spicy and original, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The president-elect’s passive protagonist, fair use of other people’s words, and a change in my long-standing strategic advice

Happy the one whom the muses love,
the one from whose lips language flows sweet.

— Hesiod

I thought about you the other night, readers, while I was listening with what I will admit was great pleasure to a certain acceptance speech…

Okay, before I go on, I should stop and say: I am not bringing this up to invite political debate. In the interests of making this site as accessible to as broad a range of writers as possible, I have a general policy of discouraging two types of discourse here at Author! Author! — I remove any language that would not be appropriate for the family hour, if you catch my drift, and I avoid discussion of political beliefs, mine or other people’s. However, I’m going to make an exception today.

Why? Well, the speechwriters made me do it: did you catch the narrative problem in the president-elect’s speech, a classic storytelling no-no, one we have discussed at some length here in the past? Say, in its primary illustrative anecdote?

Yes, decades of editing manuscripts does warp how one hears things. Why do you ask?

I refer, of course, to the anecdote about 106-year-old Georgia voter Ann Nixon Cooper. An inspirational story, undoubtedly, and an apt one for the occasion — which is precisely why it bugged me that it was not presented in a more effective manner. More importantly for our purposes here, its narrative problem is one to which submitted manuscripts are notoriously prey.

So let’s take an instructive walk through the text of the anecdote, shall we? (Word to the wise: ignore the misused semicolons; they’re not the biggest problem here.)

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you notice the narrative problem, one that substantially weakened the hearer’s (or, in this case, reader’s) sense of the protagonist? Anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would have. But admittedly, not all of us are blessed with Millicent’s ability to leap to conclusions about protagonists’ characters (big hint) from the word choices in the narratives they inhabit.

To see what this text would look like from a professional reader’s perspective, let’s highlight all of the verbs for which the admirable Ann was the subject:

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America…At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot…When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose…When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved…She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.”…A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”

Did you catch it that time? No? Okay, let’s isolate all of those verb phrases — what do they tell you about the protagonist of this story?

She was born
she was a woman
she’s seen
she lived to see
she saw
she was there to witness
She was there
she touched her finger to a screen
she cast her vote
she knows

If you said, “Hey, wait a minute — these verb choices make our Ann seem like an awfully passive protagonist; the verb choices imply that she didn’t actually do anything until she cast her vote this year, as if she were merely an observer of the events of her time, rather than a participant in them,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Any professional reader would have derived this impression, too, simply from the word choices.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how much something as simple as the selection of verbs can affect a reader’s perception of a character? Especially, as in this case, when the verb choices are repetitive, conceptually as well as literally.

I’m going to be honest with you: this particular type of stultifying verb choice is so common in submissions that as an editor, I found myself thinking by the time the president-elect uttered the second passive verb in this anecdote, “Oh, please tell me that the first active thing she does in this story ISN’T going to be voting for him…”

Seriously, I did. Ask anyone who was sharing a room with me at the time.

Passive verb choices don’t only affect the pros’ perception of a protagonist, however. As a reader (okay, originally a hearer), I would have found Ann’s story substantially more engaging had it depicted the protagonist doing more than just sitting around and observing. I would bet a nickel that a more active telling would be more factually accurate, too: wouldn’t you tend to assume that someone who has lived through such exciting times would have done some pretty darned interesting things over the course of 106 years?

That nagging feeling that the narrator is concealing interesting material is precisely why a novel, memoir, or NF piece with passive protagonist tends to grab Millicent and her fellow agency screeners far less readily than a telling of the same story that presents the protagonist as actively engaged in the depicted events.

Gripping protagonists DO, not just observe. Yes, even in NF anecdotes — and no, an exciting story does not necessarily an active protagonist make.

Do I sense some shifting in chairs out there, at least amongst copyright-huggers? “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out, and rightly. “I appreciate seeing a concrete example of a passive protagonist in action — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — but didn’t you use a pretty hefty chunk of someone else’s writing to illustrate your point? Is that kosher?”

Well caught, chair-shifters: a writer should always exercise caution in quoting the work of others.

I’m not a lawyer, so do run off and consult one who specializes in copyright law if you are a quotation addict, but US-based authors observe some basic rules of thumb that help the inclined-to-excerpt stay out of trouble. It’s generally accepted, for instance, that political speeches are fair game for excerpts — they are, after all, usually read aloud, so one could arguably quote from that, rather than the printed version — but with published writing not yet in the public domain, anything beyond 50 consecutive words pushes the boundaries of fair use.

Beyond that, you will need to request permission from the copyright holder. As in formally, in writing, and often in exchange for payment.

And yes, authors are usually responsible for obtaining copyright permission, not publishers — and these days, the former are almost always the ones who end up paying for the rights, too. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

Oh, and if you wish to use an excerpt of ANY length from a song’s lyrics, you will need to obtain formal permission. (For an interesting and amusing description of just how difficult that can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest blog on the subject.)

While we’re talking about copyright protection — aren’t you glad that you brought it up? — this seems like a good time to announce that I have decided to reverse my long-standing position on whether NF writers should register the copyright for their book proposals and sample chapters before submitting them to agents and publishing houses. In the past, I have not pushed it; it seemed like an unnecessary expense added to a promotional process that can be quite expensive for the writer.

I am reversing that position, in light of recent events: I now believe that it is in a US-based NF writer’s best interest to register the copyright for a book proposal, sample chapter, and related promotional materials prior to submission, if s/he can possibly afford it.

Don’t worry, though: the last time I checked, it cost a grand total of $35 if you register your work online. Even if you elect to register via mail, it merely involves filling out a one-page form.

More of you are shifting in your chairs anyway, though, aren’t you? “But Anne,” some long-term Author! Author! readers point out, and who can blame them? “The last time you went over copyright issues — recognizing that you’re a lawyer, of course, but were only expressing opinions based upon your personal experience in the series of posts beginning here — I derived the impression that a writer owns the copyright to his work as soon as he writes it; the registration process is merely the legal confirmation of that fact. Is that not true anymore?”

Well, those of you who are worried about it would do well to consult an attorney well-versed in this area, but as far as I know, copyright does inherently rest with the author. Registration is the best way to enforce that.

For many types of manuscripts, enforcement is virtually never necessary. For novels and other books where the writing, rather than the subject matter per se, is the primary selling point, or for memoirs, where the author is the only person on the planet who can tell that particular story from that perspective, it’s unlikely that authorship would ever be a matter of debate.

NF proposals are a rather different kettle of fish, however: while a proposal’s writer obviously owns her own writing — synopsis, sample chapter, the annotated table of contents that sets out the planned book’s structure, etc. — it would not be technically impossible for another writer to co-opt a topic after a proposal is written. It’s not beyond imagining, for instance, that someone who reads a fabulous book proposal could try to run off with a beautifully fleshed-out concept, passing it off as her own. Or, heaven help us, for an agent to say, “Hey, that’s a great book concept!” and hand it to a better-established author.

If your heart just stopped, shouldn’t you be calling 911, instead of reading on?

I’m not saying that this happens often — thank goodness, it seems to be exceedingly rare, even in these ethics-trying tough economic times — but frankly, the authorial grapevine has been buzzing with some pretty astonishing stories these days. In some of them, I can’t help but notice that writers who were active protagonists, guarding their own interests zealously, seem to be enjoying happier endings than the passive ones who merely sat around observing changing conditions around them.

Again, I’m the last person that anyone should ask for legal advice, of course. I’m just saying that when I hear these stories, I’m very glad that I have been an active protagonist in my NF books’ storylines.

Watch those verb choices, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The untouchable starfish

Fair warning, campers: I’m not going to be posting again until the 25th or so. Sometimes, the only way to work through a knotty section of novel is to lock oneself up with it for days and days on end in some undisclosed location.

That’s right: I’m on a writing retreat.

Why in an undisclosed location? So one’s loving kith, kin, clients, neighbors, and everyone else who keeps telephoning one at home cannot track one down to say, “I know you’re busy writing, but I just had to ask you…” My set of kith, kin, etc. are pretty wily, bless ‘em, so I have taken pains to be well concealed.

Or perhaps I’m just lurking behind well-drawn blinds in my usual workspace. Only the Shadow knows for sure — or is it my hairdresser?

In the interim, I leave you with a parable to ponder.

Even in an intensive retreat, one needs to take the occasional break, to clear one’s head. I was slushing my way through the soggy sand adjacent to A Body of Water that Shall Remain Nameless when I stumbled — literally — over the jolly fellow above, minding his own business, just as I was minding mine.

(And no, I’m not actually sure that this is a male starfish; somehow, sexing echinoderms was a subject my otherwise excellent education skipped. Grant me some poetic license here. Call the starfish George and be done with it.)

The stereotypical child-with-a-pail noticed me crouching in a tidepool, attempting to discover George’s best side for photographic purposes. “A STARFISH!” he screamed, frightening the seagulls. “Dad, there’s a real, live STARFISH!”

Okay, so it wasn’t Shakespeare; more profound things have been said about sea creatures, undoubtedly. A fellow of George’s debonair charm clearly deserved a more lyrical tribute. But the kid was six, perhaps, and anyone could see that he’d never seen the like of George in the wild before.

Or of George’s cousin, Ambrose, sunning himself on the next rock over, or his great and good friend Justine, clinging to the underside of a nearby rock with some peculiarly green anemones. Our young friend greeted each with rapture and an impressively consistent grasp of the obvious: “Here’s another STARFISH! Dad, a STARFISH!”

Our young hero’s presumptive father, a lumbering beast of a man fetchingly attired in his best Twisted Sister T-shirt and lumberjack flannels, ignored his excited offspring’s first 27 or so iterations of this sentiment. He was better occupied in rolling around on a blanket, grappling a mature siren in leopard-print spandex who kept looking pointedly away from the child every time he cried out.

Surreptitiously watching the boy’s continued fruitless attempts to share his joy, I found myself hoping that she wasn’t Mom — likely, considering that the boy never tried to call her attention to anything — and that Dad was not our boy’s custodial parent. Maybe this was an exceptional outing, a date and visitation unexpectedly falling on the same day, perhaps due to some tragic accident that temporarily (please let it be temporarily) incapacitated all of the extremely competent caretakers who usually took the child to fun places and paid lots of attention to him.

“STARFISH!”

Although Exclamation #28 sounded to my untutored ear identical to those the child had uttered before, Dad seemed to find something exceptional in it; he disentangled himself from his date, leapt to his feet, and ran starfish-ward, screaming. “Ryan, don’t TOUCH it.”

Ryan was not, in point of fact, touching anything. He was pointing and shrieking: “Dad! A STARFISH!”

Evidently, the boy’s exceptional lung capacity was genetic, as was his extensive vocabulary: “Ryan, don’t get wet.”

“Here’s another STARFISH!”

“Don’t TOUCH it.”

Over the course of succeeding ten minutes of similar Edward Albee-worthy dialogue, any bystander within fifty yards would have learned that Dad’s opinions of proper beach behavior for a first-grader called for a complete avoidance of moisture, starfish (“STARFISH!”), sand, rocks, sea anemones (“LOOK!”), barnacles, pebbles, cast-off mussel shells (“A SHELL!”), and strange women fond of pointing any or all of the above out to a small child clearly thrilled to be encountering something new.

“BARNACLE!” (A word the lady had just introduced to his vocabulary.)

“Don’t TOUCH it. Don’t BUG the lady.”

The lady, I need hardly say, was not bugged by the child anywhere near as much as by good ol’ Dad.

The formerly-grappled siren, too, seemed to find the latter’s propensity to loom over Ryan, bellowing, less satisfying than his earlier activities. Perhaps she, too, was puzzled at such interest from a parent formerly content not twenty minutes before to turn his back whilst his child flung himself repeatedly into waves cold enough to render a wet suit advisable, or perhaps she was merely miffed that Ryan had not yet been carried off by a passing shark. Whatever her no doubt rich and complex motivations may have been, she wisely chose to recuse herself from the great debate.

“STARFISH!”

“Don’t TOUCH it.”

You know me, campers — like so many other professional readers out there, word and phrase repetition gets to me fairly quickly. I mean, shouldn’t one party or the other have noticed by now that saying EXACTLY the same thing to EXACTLY the same person was eliciting EXACTLY the same response as the last 15 times? If characters on a page kept saying the same things over again at a similar rate, Millicent wouldn’t just reject the manuscript; she’d burn it and do a little dance around its ashes.

Not only that — this scene was definitely slow; I would have cut virtually all of it. The essential conflict once established, the plot really didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Where was the character development? In what sense was this dialogue character-revealing? Where are the quirky tidbits and surprising statements that would make a reader want to see what these characters did next?

Allow me to let you in on a trick of the novelist’s trade: a character who bores the reader becomes unlikable QUICKLY. What’s more likely to court boredom than repetitious statements?

In the interest of changing the dialogue, then, if not to improve little Ryan’s starfish-related experience, I felt compelled to point out, “Excuse me, sir, but your boy doesn’t actually seem to be handling the wildlife. Perhaps you could assume that he’s heard you?”

An interesting anthropological phenomenon, formerly unbeknownst to me, abruptly manifested: in Undisclosed Location, I now know, women apparently only speak to men in order to indicate immediate sexual availability, rather than, as in my neck of the woods, to convey information or to encourage an exchange of ideas. In a time-saving move unfamiliar to those of us who live elsewhere (thank goodness), the locals evidently regard the actual content of a woman’s speech as secondary, or even irrelevant.

Or so I surmise, for Dad forgot all about both little Ryan and the siren in his eagerness to follow up on what he clearly regarded as an invitation; turning his back on both, he covered the ten feet between us with the speed of a chargng rhino. Predictably, he put all of his mastery of language into the come-on: “You alone?”

I can’t imagine why Ryan’s mother let this treasure get away. To make matters worse, Leopard Lady hoisted herself off her sandy blanket love nest, all set to mark her territory. Or so I assume from her single contribution to the scintillating intellectual exchange, “Hey!”

Perhaps it was selfish of me, but it seemed to be time to leave Ryan to what I’m guessing is going to be a lulu of a childhood. I’m sure his future therapist will find it fascinating. I backed slowly away, as a prudent person does when confronted with wild animals in their natural habitat.

Fortunately for my escape prospects, the kid provided a timely distraction. “DAD! There’s MORE over HERE!”

Without taking his beady eyes off me, Dad shouted, “Ryan! Don’t TOUCH it.”

I was gone before little Ryan could find another starfish, but as I rapidly put beach between me and the now re-grappled couple (oh, you wouldn’t have looked back?), I kept trying to fathom the mindset of someone who would bring a child to a beach — for what seemed to be the first time, judging by Ryan’s excitement level — and expect it to be a non-tactile experience. Was he afraid of his offspring’s getting dirty? Had Dad perhaps not noticed the nearby massive ocean, notable for the cleansing properties of its water?

Or was he afraid of the kid’s harming the beasties? But if so, what could possibly have been his objection to Ryan’s handling the occasional rock or cast-off bird feather?

Once again, I cursed their family’s non-revealing dialogue. More articulate characters would have told me far, far more in many, many fewer lines.

Now, the scene I’d witnessed could have been atypical of the family, of course. Perhaps this is a parent who routinely introduces his offspring to the joys of particle physics, for instance, or square dancing. Perhaps on a good day, Dad is overflowing with new and exciting vocabulary for Ryan to learn; maybe, if the universe is a good and loving place, he will eventually teach his child that it’s possible to construct a sentence that isn’t a command.

Admittedly, too, no one concerned — including and especially, I would imagine, George the starfish. (“STARFISH!”) — was actually in favor of Ryan’s poking at living creatures in a way that might cause them pain. And I certainly wasn’t the one who was going to have to deal with the kid if a rogue anemone suddenly detached itself from its comfortable rock and lunged for his jugular.

Yet after I had left the happy menage-à-trois (at least on court-ordered visitation days) far behind, I began to worry about little Ryan’s future intellectual and artistic development. How thoroughly (and repetitiously) Dad had stomped upon excited discovery of the new!

Shouldn’t adults worry when kids DON’T find the world around them thrilling and interesting, rather than when they do? How many times will Dad express similar sentiments before Ryan learns not to express enthusiasm about learning something — and how many times after that before he stops even feeling it?

Should little Ryan grow up to be a writer — I would dearly love to read this scene from his point of view, wouldn’t you? — he’s going to need every iota of his sense of wonder intact and fully functional. (Not to mention having a somewhat larger vocabulary at his disposal.) For what, after all, lies at the heart of the trenchant and surprising observations of the world around us that we writers so love to tuck into our manuscripts, if not the capacity to identify quirkiness in the mundane and point it out to others?

So keep on getting excited by those starfish, Ryan. I was pretty thrilled to discover George, too.

May you all discover starfish of your own while I’m writing up a storm on my retreat; may your meaty insights serve you — and your future readers — well. May your dialogue be interesting and character-revealing. Most of all, keep up the good work!

A beautiful picture — and a few tips on increasing your protagonist’s interview skills

Isn’t that photo GORGEOUS? It’s by one of my favorite art photographers, Lana Z Caplan, from her new book, Sites of Public Execution. Here’s a description:

SITES OF PUBLIC EXECUTION: Photographs and stories of former sites of public execution around the world.

Paired with interesting facts and stories of the events that took place in these public places, sepia-toned photographs, shot in Beijing, Paris, London, Florence, Rome and Massachusetts, present the contemporary appearances of locales used for hangings, beheadings, and burnings, some in the transient fury of revolution, some in long-term state-sanctioned spectacles.

For a PDF preview of the book, please visit Lana’s website.

Normally, I wouldn’t post an announcement about a book of photography here on Author! Author!, but Lana’s work moves me deeply — so much so, in fact, that I have one of her pieces hanging where I can glance up at it frequently while I write. We met at an artists’ colony several years ago; then, the provocative work-in-progress hanging in her studio made me downright giddy.

And yes, I HAVE been posting quite a few announcements of new releases lately — for some reason, I know many, many talented people bringing out books this spring. I can only conclude that publishing houses have started weighing connections to me heavily in their considerations.

Or perhaps I just know a heck of a lot of writers. In any case, this spring has certainly enriched my bookshelves, let me tell you.

Okay: on to the topic du jour.

As we’ve been going through various common narrative problems, I’ve noticed something: either due to my excessive saintliness or a desire to save the best, if not for last, at least for later in this series, I’ve been concentrating for the most part upon avoiding some of the more notorious agency screeners’ pet peeves, rather than merely upon what tends to annoy me in a text. For the next week or so, however, I have decided to cut loose and lay bare the narrative problems that make me foam at the mouth, professionally speaking.

That’s right: for the next little while, it’s going to be all about me, me, me.

Today, I’m going to concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite kinds of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

I heard that tittering out there. Seriously, a protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know – and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know.

Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

It tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Reginald claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Janet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Fezziwig. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Reginald detached their clasped hands so quickly that Janet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Janet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Fezziwig bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why would an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader like me? Mostly, because it’s a lost opportunity for interesting conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Actually, writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a trifle impatient.

Why? Well, in essence, the protagonist becomes the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After awhile, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview would give the whole plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

However, before I do, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it tends to fall very, very flat with readers.

Why? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by DELIBERATELY withholding information from the reader.

As in details that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. Think about it: it’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain at least one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else.

Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are you already warming up the highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

This is true, incidentally, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not get across the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is – YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it NOT be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation.

Or, to be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches?

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy that would make Hamlet himself start looking at his watch.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

And that’s what makes secrets interesting, right? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are.

Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict? Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How? By making the information-imparter more reluctant — which automatically both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult.

Automatically, this small switch makes the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

A couple of fringe benefits: your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable. As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

So eschew the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills.

Take, in short, a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up. The more difficult they are to find, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

More interviewing tips follow next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The plague of passivity II: thinking…thinking…

Last time, I begin talking about the passive protagonist problem: when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it. As I intimated yesterday, passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers.

While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, there are at any given moment thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks that feature protagonists who do just that. Often for pages and chapters at a time.

So perhaps it’s understandable that screeners’ reactions to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from hot surfaces, after all.

“But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” I hear some of you asking, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?”

As is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, they DO talk about it — but usually in terms that you’d have to read 50 manuscripts a week to translate accurately. “I didn’t identify with the character” is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome, as well as, “I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book” and “There isn’t enough conflict here.”

That, and the ever-popular, “I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book,” of course. However, since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, it’s often difficult to translate it exactly: I have seen it mean everything from, “The first paragraph bored me” to “I hate books about brunettes.”

You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of “writing problem,” too.

I wish they would be direct about their feelings about lackadaisical characters, because frankly, it is not a reaction that every reader would have. In fact, I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists.

There’s good reason for it, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before. So we tend to think of people who do this as likeable, charming, interesting people.

The average agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion.

From a writer’ point of view, too, one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character. In the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist.

And that’s fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book.

Do be aware that from a reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is NOT automatically dramatic — and even thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading. In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic? Because during it, all of the protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota.

Here’s how it generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

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

2. If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters.

3. When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses.

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

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

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

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

Often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. But an inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally LESS likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

Again, real-life situations do not necessarily translate well to the page. While pitting virtuous and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page. Sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?

One of our collectively favorite means of showing resentment, angst, or just plain helplessness is to have the protagonist THINK pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to agents’ hearts), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

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

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

It’s well worth running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, or only in thought.

If it’s the latter, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand?

Also, keep your eye out for situations that might allow your protagonist to take a stand, even on matters not related to the central problems of the piece. Resistance is a form of control, after all, and even the most penned-in person can alter tiny things in her environment.

Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment, for instance? A roomful of menopausal co-workers responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes is inherently quite a bit more dramatic than our heroine and her cronies typing away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them, isn’t it?

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

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. Please bear in mind that before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

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

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends, but we can usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought, and keep up the good work.