Is that dialogue I see before me?

I was called in as a last-minute replacement contest judge — yes, it happens; regularly-scheduled judges drop out all the time – at a time I shall simply designate as recently, so it will not be apparent which contest it is. (But it was really, really recent.) I highly recommend stepping up to judge a contest from time to time; there’s nothing like spending a long weekend with a small mountain of entries to get a very tangible sense of what agency screeners face each and every day.

I refer, of course, to the constant joy of revelation. Oh, and so much repetition that spontaneous combustion starts to seem marginally attractive, just to have some diversion.

I was in a fiction category this time, not my usual donnybrook. Most of the time, I step up for NF categories, because, generally speaking, it’s far harder to find experienced judges for NF. But this time, it was a couple of dozen 15-page (max) novel excerpts. After such a lengthy short chapter orgy, I felt I could not exist another instant on this terrestrial sphere without passing along the following piece of gleaned wisdom:

It is a whole lot easier than one might suspect to bore someone who has just read twenty manuscripts. All your really have to do, should you aspire to it, is to write like everyone else. The easiest way to do this, apparently, is to construct dialogue.

Remember a month or two ago, when I went on a rampage about the drawbacks of the ever-popular dialogue-only scene? (Okay, I could be referring to several different posts here: this is a pet peeve of mine as an editor and as a blogger.) I suggested gently, if memory serves, that such scenes tend to be frowned upon by many professional readers: if you want to make your points entirely through dialogue, the industry wisdom runs, write a play.

Novels, on the other hand, have been known to include such decorative details as character development and environment description. Little things like that. Yet most of us were taught at some point in our writing development that GOOD dialogue should reveal so much about the characters from whose mouths it is ostensibly falling that description is, well, kinda superfluous.

As someone who spent quite a few years teaching, let me let you in on a wee teaching secret: exaggeration is often a very effective way to make a point. You might want to take tutorial truisms with a grain of salt, therefore. As in one that you might purchase at Costco, and a forklift would deliver it to your car.

To put it another way, if you had just finished reading your 1500th 10th-grade story where every character says things angrily, sadly, or scornfully, you might well feel that some extreme measures were called for to reduce the sheer number of adverbs your eyeballs might be forced to scan in future. You might conceivably say tell your students to avoid them like the proverbial plague.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying here: many, many dialogue-only pushers are not motivated merely by a love of spareness, or even a hatred of intra-text description. Much of the time, they are trying to cut down on all of those adverbs – and the tag lines they grace. (You remember tag lines, right? They’re the he said and she exclaimed part of the dialogue. A surprisingly high percentage of the time, most professional readers will tell you, they’re not necessary.)

In running full-tilt from the Scylla of over-reliance upon adverb-laden tag lines, however, many writers run smack into the Charybdis of over-terseness in their dialogue. As in pages at a time where there is nothing but dialogue as far as the eye can see. No softening indications of tone or body language; no indications of the room where the dialogue might conceivably be taking place, or indeed that the conversation is taking place in a tangible location at all; not even a hint that every speaker might not be telling the truth 100% of the time.

Because, of course, in real life, everyone speaks in a monotone while holding perfectly still, standing in a featureless, all-white room while doing it, and says everything that crosses his mind with perfect candor. Can’t throw a cupcake at a single party in North America without hitting someone engaged in THAT type of conversation.

And heavens, does this make contest entries (and submissions) similar! I hate to break anyone’s bubble here, but I have it on pretty good authority that after the fifth or sixth such dialogue scene in a row, the underdeveloped characters in one might conceivably start to seem a heck of a lot like the underdeveloped characters in the next. In fact, it is not at all hard to imagine a situation where such characters might begin to blur together after a while.

I’m not saying that every judge or screener would read so quickly that this would happen, of course. Just the ones with, you know, lives. Think about it: what professional reader has time to take a 15-minute break between reading projects to clear her head?

Actually, I think play-like dialogue in novels has quite a few significant drawbacks, over and above how common it is. First, it encourages the kind of real-life exchanges that, while undoubtedly a reflection of how people speak in authentic situations, is deadly dull on the page. Unless you’re Samuel Beckett (who wrote PLAYS, people!), you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to get the average reader (let alone a professional one) to sit through sterling exchanges on the order of:

Sonia: Is the tea ready?
Simon: Yeah.
Sonia: I had to buy the tea myself today, you know. Didn’t you see the note on the refrigerator?
Simon: No. Isn’t there any sugar?
Sonia: No, there isn’t, because time, in case you haven’t noticed, is not infinitely flexible. I do not have the eight extra hours in the day you seem to think I have, nor do I have jet packs installed in my feet. You, on the other hand, work in a grocery store. Is it too much to ask for you to reach into Aisle 2 from time to time to grab a tin of tea?
Simon: Ah. Good tea.

Second, as I mentioned above, it pushes narrative character development out of dialogue-based scenes, which strikes me as something of a waste of a good scene. Third, such dialogue rests upon the logical fallacy that human beings just blurt out everything relevant about a situation in ordinary dialogue. (I would explain the problem with this, but in the interests of space conservation, I shall instead refer my readers to anyone who has ever had a conversation with an unpleasant boss, a coworker with B.O., a relative with political views different from oneself, or who has ever heard a eulogy or a toast at a wedding. Absolute truthfulness is simply not the norm for human interaction.)

The fourth reason is really a corollary of the third: as a matter of craft, dialogue-only scenes render depicting undercurrents between people, if not impossible, then at least far more difficult than it needs to be. As the Idol agents pointed out, scenes that have more than one thing going on in them are far more eye-catching (and interesting) than those that deal only in the obvious.

Dialogue-only scenes convey the impression that there is precisely nothing going on between the discussants but the subject of the conversation. The reader may well know different from earlier, non-dialogue parts of the book, but within the context of the discussion shown, the speakers have no bodies to speak of, apparently, no emotions worth mentioning, evidently, and no motivations, ulterior or otherwise, that they would not be more than happy to bellow at the nearest bystander.

Personally, I have never been in on such a conversation, but hey, they must exist: recently, I read fifteen of them in a row. I can’t imagine where. Or how recently.

Regardless of whether such conversations do actually occur in real life, or whether you (or your revered writing teachers) are fond of seeing them in print, consider this: is reproducing such an incredibly common writing technique really the best way to make your contest or submission stand out in the crowd?

I leave it up to you to decide. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part III: will someone hold this massive grain of salt for me?

The last couple of days’ posts have been kind of in-your-face, haven’t they? Sorry about that – it’s the nature of the beast, when the ruling out of submissions is the subject. It makes us all feel as if we’ve been mauled by wildebeests.

Still, there’s no need to despair: to succeed in this business, all you need to do is make your initial pages technically perfect, fresh without being weird, and not hit either any of the pet peeves listed on the Idol list (see Halloween post) or personal ones that the agent in question might have. Your characters need to be original, your premise interesting, and your plot riveting, beginning from Paragraph 1. Oh, and you need to be lucky enough not to submit your brilliant novel about an airline pilot on the day after the agent/screener/editorial assistant/editor has had his/her heart broken by one.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, my work is done here. Let me know how it all turns out!

Okay, so it’s not such a piece of cake: it’s a genuinely tall order, and a long list of don’t can be very, very intimidating. Before you throw up your hands in despair, let’s break down the Idol list of rejection reasons into bite-sized chunks.

The first thing to realize about this list of agents’ pet peeves is that some of them are, in fact, personal pet peeves, not necessarily industry-wide red flags. The trick is recognizing which ones. Right off the bat, a cursory glance at the list identified these as probably personal, rather than endemic:

15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life.
25. The first lines were dialogue.
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
37. The story is corny.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
46. The story is written in the second person.
47. The story is written in the first person plural.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.

How do I know these are not widely-shared rejection criteria? Well, experience, but also, critical analysis. Allow me to explain.

Before I start dissecting them, however, one caveat: just because these particular pet peeves are agent-specific does not mean that you should simply disregard them. If you are planning to submit to any of the agents on that particular panel, it would behoove you to take them very seriously indeed: one of the reasons that savvy writers go to conferences, after all, is to pick up information about the specific likes and dislikes of particular agents, right? Use this information strategically, to help target your queries and submissions to the agents most likely to enjoy your work.

When you’re listening to such a panel, there are a couple of signals that will alert you to something being an individual’s pet peeve, rather than a general rule. First — and this happens surprisingly frequently — the person uttering it will actually say, “Maybe it’s just my pet peeve, but…” or “It really bugs me when…” It’s a pretty safe bet that what is said next is a personal preference.

I know: it’s subtle.

Also — and this happened on the Idol panel — sometimes an agent will express an opinion, and the other agents will guffaw at him, fall over backwards in surprise, slap him across the face and tell him he’s an idiot, etc. Again, all of these are pretty good indicators that we’re not talking about a widely-recognized agency norm here.

Take, for instance, #25, when agent Daniel Lazar’s having flagged a submission because the first lines were dialogue. Now, this is a pretty sweeping criticism, isn’t it? A lot of very good books open with dialogue. So how did the people in the Idol audience know it was his pet peeve? Well, he began his critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but…” And after he said it, the agent sitting next to him turned to him and said, “Really?”

Starting to get the hang of this?

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if you’re your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it. Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

This can be very, very tough for writers who have just spent a small fortune on a conference, pitched to five agents, and had requested materials rejected to do. Yet at even the best conference, no group of agents small enough to fit in the same room, much less on the same panel, are a representative sample of how the entire industry will react to your work. I know it’s discouraging, but it just doesn’t make statistical sense to throw up one’s hands after a single round of rejections.

To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for an agent to submit a client’s work to as many as 50 different editors. If #48 says yes, that’s a win, just as surely as if #1 did. Should you really be any less tenacious in marketing your book to agents than you would expect your agent to be in marketing it to editors?

Now that you know why it is so important to differentiate between what you absolutely must change on your first page and what you should change for a particular agent’s eyes, let’s go back to our list of rejection reasons. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Why is that particular one problematic?” Often, the most obvious answer will be that it’s the agent’s personal opinion.

Let’s apply this test to #15, the opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. On the panel, Rachel Vater cited this reason quite often, but neither of the other agents mentioned it. (Did that make your personal-preference antennae perk up, campers?) She gave those who were listening another clue: a couple of times, she cast this objection as, “Well, I’VE never done what the character does here…” Ding ding ding!

Even if she had not been kind enough to flag this as a personal preference, we probably could have figured it out. In this context, she specifically singled out a character who shook his head to clear an image or bring himself back to reality, as in, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.” Now, as an editor, I do have to admit, this is an action that one sees occur with GREAT frequency in manuscripts; in fact, I suspect one could make a pretty good case without trying very hard for labeling it as a cliché.

However, this is not how the rejection reason was phrased, was it? No, it was cast as “this is something a normal person would not do.” Unless we’re talking about psychopathic behavior, a statement like this is almost certainly based upon personal experience. Everyone’s opinion of normal is different.

So what this critique is really saying is, “People in my circles and from my background don’t do such things.” Fine; good to know: now we can target the submission away from the agent who cannot imagine doing such a thing and toward an agent who can.

Getting the hang of this yet?

The same logic test can be applied, with the same result, to #33 (agent can’t identify with the conflict shown, which is obviously based upon personal taste) and #37 (the story is corny, which must be based upon the observer’s background and worldview). Note the preference, and move on to the next agent.

If you get the same response from a few different agents, it might be worth a second look at your opening pages for plausibility. For the sake of your future success, it is probably worth bearing in mind that an awfully high percentage of agents and editors are from upper-middle clad backgrounds, and thus graduated from rather similar English departments at rather similar liberal arts colleges, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. Their brothers (and sisters) dated one another’s sisters (and brothers). If you can’t imagine reading from such a point of view, it might behoove you to find a first reader who can, to subject your manuscript to the Minor Ivy Plausibility Test.

The personal preference test, believe it or not, can also be applied to reasons associated with voice choice. Yes, I know: since it’s a technical matter, it seems as though rules should govern whether it’s acceptable, right? Not really. There are plenty of agents and editors who don’t like the first person voice much, and, as we saw on the list, other voices may raise hackles: 46. The story is written in the second person; 47. The story is written in the first person plural. What could such statements be OTHER than personal preferences?

#48 (the narrator speaks directly to the reader, making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story) is also a personal preference about narrative voice, albeit a more subtle one: for some readers, including the agent who cited this rejection reason, a first-person narration that breaks the third wall is jarring, a distraction from the story. However, there are plenty examples of published books that have used this device to great comic or dramatic effect: I would not send the agent that expressed this preference THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, for instance.

Now, I suspect that those of you intrepid souls out there devoted enough to literary experimentation to write a narrative in the first person plural (like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) or second person (like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY) are probably already aware that your work will not be to everyone’s taste, any more than excellent fantasy writing will be to the taste of an agent who prefers hard-bitten realism. But this doesn’t mean that the experiment isn’t worth trying, is it? Just choose your querying targets accordingly.

I should wrap up for today, but before I do, I want to take a quick run at another group of reasons, #42 (the opening scene is too violent), #43 (the opening scene is too gross), and #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). The first two are obviously in the eye of the beholder: a quick look at any bookstore will tell you that there is no shortage of violent material. So it can’t possibly be an industry-wide rule, right?

However, pay close attention when an agent draws a line about this: this is not an agent to query with a violent piece, and he’s doing the people who write violent pieces a favor by being up front about it. (For instance, an agent who asks that I do not mention him here — see post of May 10, 2006 for explanation — routinely tells conference attendees not to send him children-in-peril stories; he doesn’t like them.) Do be aware that although most of us have had writing teachers beat into our brains that a story needs an opening hook, to draw the reader in, it is possible to go to far.

And because 99% of the writers out there have had this advice beaten into their brains, too, agents see a LOT of shocking things on first pages. A super-violent opening scene, then, will not necessarily make your submission unique.

Which is why I slipped in #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). Yes, this is a matter of personal preference — how much violence is too much and how much is just right is in the eye of the beholder, just as much as ideal porridge temperatures were on the tongues of the Three Bears — but this one happens to be a preference that at LOT of editors share, and for good reason: it can be very hard to market a book that features a lot of violence against wee ones. And don’t even get me started about how hard it would be to sell a cozy mystery with a dead cat in it…

My overall point has, I hope, become clear. Everyone chant together now: “Never kill off the detective’s pet kitty.”

Well, yes, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb, but I was really thinking of a broader point about submission and conference lore: not everything that pops out of an expert’s mouth should be regarded as a hard-and-fast rule. Use your judgment, or you might end up staggering under the weight of such a heap of pronouncements that you’ll be terrified of breaking a rule every time you sit down at your keyboard.

I’ll try to demystify more of the Idol rejection reasons tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, part II: let’s see you try that with Jane Austen, buddy

As a follow-up to my series on differentiating between absolute rules of the trade (e.g., double-spaced, single-sided manuscript submissions) and stylistic advice (e.g., ideally, dialogue should be revealing enough that littering the text with adverb-heavy tag lines should be unnecessary), I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis yesterday. I’m eager to move along to my much-anticipated series on what new wisdom I gleaned at the two conferences I attended this month, but POVNs are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I wanted to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do.

For those of you coming to the discussion late, POVNs are those fine folks who go around telling other writers that there are, in effect, only two possibilities for narrative voice: the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. Philosophically, I have to admit, I find the idea that these are the only ways to tell a story troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Admittedly, my own experience trying to get a truthful memoir onto shelves near you has undoubtedly sharpened my sense that points of view vary. As some of you know, my memoir has been in press for the last year and a half, held hostage by a (the last I heard) $2 million lawsuit threat. At no point has anyone concerned suggested I was lying about the events in my book: the threatened lawsuit has been purely about whether I have the right to present the story of my family from my point of view, rather than someone else’s – like, say, the people who want the $2 million.

So I have seriously been forced to spend the last year and a half defending the notion that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds. Or at least that they would not insist that anyone who sees something from a different perspective should be hounded.

Enough about me and my books, however — let’s get back to how POVNs can affect you and yours.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is generally someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.) Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

To make it clear what the stakes are, I would guess that roughly 2/3rds of fiction submissions are written in the third person, so obviously, the question of POV choice in third person narrative is thrust upon agents and editors on a practically hourly basis. Of those 2/3rds, a hefty majority will include more than one POV in the narration. So, really, a POVN reader has a significant advantage in rejecting the day’s submissions speedily: if you were willing to stop reading the moment a second character’s impressions show up, you could reject most manuscripts before the middle of page 2.

This is not to say that you should abandon multiple perspectives if you love them, or that you should systematically strip your submissions of any insights but the protagonist’s, out of fear of rejection by a POVN. Again, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy.

Call me wacky, but if I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative.

These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen. To put it in terms of my posts of the last few days, the POVN wants all of us to regard his preferences as hard-and-fast rules.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)

“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost and for plotting reasons. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections. Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE.

(I’m assuming for the purposes of my argument here that every single one of you has read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which is perhaps not a warranted assumption. However, if you are even vaguely interested in writing humorous scenes in the English language, you really should do yourself a favor and check Aunt Jane’s work out of the library.)

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.

Keep up the good work!

Manuscript revision VIII: har de har har har

My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.

Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.

But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.

Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.

So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.

Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.

First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.

Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?

The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?

Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”

Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)

Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.

Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.

The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.

Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?

This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.

#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”

Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.

If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…

And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.

Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.

Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.

People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!