First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in adult fiction, David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR

Dave McChesney author photoEllen Bradford author photo

My apologies for the must-have-been-agonizing delay between the prize posts for the first-place winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest and the second-place winners. Believe me, the lapse was not intended to be editorial: I’m excited about both of today’s winners, but I had a bit of a car-crash recovery setback earlier in the week. I didn’t want to risk sounding grumpy about two writers whose narrative voices I like quite a bit.

So a drum roll, please, for the joint winners of second prize in Category II: Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR.

While all of that portentous rumbling is still hanging in the air, let me take a moment to air one of my pet peeves: gratuitous quotation marks. The other day, a staffer at my physical therapist’s office handed me a special-ordered piece of medical equipment in this bag:

misused quotes

What, one wonders, was the writer’s intent in placing quotation marks around my name? Was he in some doubt about whether it was my real name — as in, This belongs to the so-called Anne Mini? Did he mistakenly believe that he was shipping this not particularly personal piece of equipment not to my PT, but to a monogrammer, and he wanted to make sure the right spelling stitched into it? Or had someone immediately behind him just shouted my name, and he was quoting her?

Was this merely a case of forgotten attribution? Is this an obscure quote from a book I do not know — a minor work of Charles Dickens, perhaps? Or, still more disturbingly, is this kind soul trying to let me know, albeit in code, that somebody out there is talking about me?

None of the above, probably: my guess would be that the guy with the marking pen thought, along with a surprisingly high percentage of the marking-things population, that quotation marks mean the same thing as underlining. He is mistaken.

Don’t ever follow his example. To a professional reader, the common practice of placing things in quotation marks to indicate either emphasis in speech (“Marvin K. Mooney, will you ‘please go’ now?”), a stock phrase (everybody laughed, because “all the world loves a lover”), or just to call attention to individual words on a sign (Fresh “on the vine” tomatoes, 3 for $2) simply looks illiterate. Sorry to be the one to break the harsh news, but it’s true.

So how should one use quotation marks? How about reserving them for framing things that characters actually say?

I know; radical. The next thing you know, I’ll be calling for aspiring writers to use semicolons correctly.

I do not bring any of this up lightly — or, indeed, purely to rid the world of a few more sets of perplexingly-applied quotation marks. Both of today’s entries grabbed the judges with their strong, distinct authorial voices, but each left us murmuring amongst themselves, speculating about what the writer’s motivations might have been.

Although these two first pages don’t actually have a great deal else in common — other than both beginning the text 1/4 of the way down the page, rather than 1/3; the addition of a single additional double-spaced line would have made a positive cosmetic difference in both — the judges agreed that they shared a certain kinship: the unanswered question might well lead even an agency screener who admired the writing to hesitate about reading on.

Why? Well, Millicent isn’t all that fond of unanswered questions on page 1, and with good reason: in order to be able to recommend a novel manuscript to her boss, she is going to have to be able to tell him (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

If Millicent can’t answer any of these questions. she’s going to have a hard time convincing the agent even to read the submission. (Actually, she prefers to be able to answer all of them by the bottom of p. 1, but she’s prepared to change her mind between then and p. 50.) And no, “But the writing is so good!” is no substitute for being able to come up with answers: books are pitched to editors within well-established categories.

So when a fresh, new narrative voice that does not appear to fit comfortably within an existing book category, our Millie is left in something of a quandary. How, she wonders, is she going to make the case for this book?

That’s a good exercise to apply to any manuscript, incidentally: reading a first page or book description and trying to figure out the book’s category is excellent practice for narrowing down your own. In that spirit, take a gander at Dave McChesney’s first page and book description; tell me, what do you think the category is?

Dave McChesney's p 1

If you found yourself murmuring, “Hmm, this reads like Naval Adventure,” you agree with most of the judges. Even more so if you additionally told yourself, “I’d bet a doubloon that there’s adventure awaiting those characters within the next page or two.” Although some of the judges felt that it might have been more of a Millicent-grabber to toss the characters straight into that imminent action, none denied that page 1 set up the expectation for excitement.

Cast your eyes over the book’s description, though, and see if you think the proverbial shoe still fits the assumed book category:

McChesney synopsis

Still sounds like a rollicking Naval Adventure, doesn’t it? Or do I sense some puzzled head-scratching out there?

“Wait just a doggone minute, Anne,” head-scratchers across the English-speaking world protest. “He hopes to quickly set out for his world, England, and Evangeline, but finds obstacles continually placed in his path? In the known world? Does this take place in a different world, or this one? And if it’s the former, shouldn’t that be made clear to Millicent on page 1?”

Well caught, head-scratchers — and in answer to that last question, a resounding yes. Let’s take a gander at how Dave himself categorizes his book:

SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, the second Stone Island Sea Story, combines Naval Adventure and Fantasy. An additional yet similar world gives these voyagers of the early nineteenth century more seas to sail and challenges to meet. Uniquely, they are aware of and able to control their journeys between the two worlds.

An interesting notion, right? But you can already hear Millicent slapping her forehead and muttering, “How on earth am I going to define this book for my boss?”

Universally, the judges felt that in fairness to Millicent, some fantasy elements should appear on page 1. Otherwise, they argued, it was simply too likely that when she came upon fantastic happenings later in the manuscript, she might conclude — wrongly in this case — that Dave did not know that he was genre-jumping, or that the authorial choice to present a fantasy premise in a completely dedicated naval fantasy voice was in fact a choice, not a misunderstanding of how book categories work.

That’s why Dave’s taking the quite large risk of telling Millicent in his brief book description (and presumably in his query) that this is a category-crosser is quite smart. True, there is not a great deal of demonstrable overlap between the readership of these two categories. (Which is why I am bound to mention marketing advice agreed-upon by a full half of the judges: since this is such a strong Naval Adventure voice, why not write a straight Naval Adventure first, land an agent that way, and then segue into fantasy with the NEXT book?) Also, if an agency is not open to the possibility of combining these two disparate categories in a single book — or, in this case, a series — its Millicent may well reject the query on that basis alone.

So why is it smart to give her the opportunity up front? Because for a truly genre-expanding novel to make it into print, it’s going to need an agent willing — nay, eager — to take on the challenge. Trust me, it’s far, far easier on a writer emotionally to find out a particular agent is not up for it at the querying stage, rather than several years into an unhappy writer-agent relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that Dave’s query has already passed muster with the Millicent guarding an agency very much up for this challenge. How might Millie respond to this first page?

Dave's edit

As you may see (and we have continually seen throughout this series), how a professional reader responds to a page of text can be extraordinarily different from how an ordinary reader might. I would be surprised, for instance, if many of you had caught the verb repetition in lines 1 and 2, or the lack of a necessary paragraph break on line 8. (It’s a bit confusing to have one person speak and another — or in this case, several others — act within the same paragraph.) Or, really, to be actively annoyed by the almost universal Baby Boomer tendency to compress the phrase all right into alright.

I blame album cover lyrics for the ubiquity of that last one. (If you don’t know what album covers are, children, ask your grandparents.)

Nor would the average reader be likely to gnash her teeth over the preponderance of tag lines, those pesky he said, he mentioned, he groaned speaker-identifiers, but Millicent’s choppers are unlikely to remain ungnashed. Why? Well, one of the standard measures of the reading level of the target audience is the frequency with which tag lines appear: in books for early readers, for instance, who may well be reading aloud or having the book read to them, tag lines are virtually universal.

“See Spot run, Dick,” Jane said.

“I see Spot run,” Dick replied. “Run, Spot, run.”

In most adult fiction, on the other hand, tag lines are deliberately minimized. Although the frequency with which they are expected to appear does vary from book category to book category (chant it with me, campers: there is no substitute for reading widely in your chosen book category, to learn its norms), most of the time, it’s simply assumed that the reader will be able to figure out that the words within quotation marks are in fact being spoken aloud by a character without the narrative’s having to stop short to tell us so.

After all, quotation marks around words can only mean that either those words were spoken out loud or the narrative is trying to cast doubt upon the authenticity of something (as in “I see you’re wearing your ‘designer’ dress’ again, Alice.”), right?

Typically, tag line minimization is achieved by incorporating other action or thought into a dialogue paragraph — or simply to alternate between already-established speakers. Like so:

“Oh, there’s Spot at last.” Jane blew on her freshly-filed nails to free them from dust before she applied screaming red polish. “And there he goes. See Spot run, Dick.”

Dick backed against the wood-paneled wall, eyes wide. “I see Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”

Jane lowered one heavily-lashed lid, the better to aim her gun. “How would you feel about following Spot’s example, Dick?”

“Pretty darned good.”

“Then run, Dick, run, before I change my mind and turn you into Swiss cheese.”

These are all easily-fixed matters of style, however. There was one obviously deliberate authorial choice, however, that left the judges scratching their heads as if they had wandered into a dandruff convention. Millicent almost certainly would have the same reaction. Any guesses as to what on this page might engender that response?

If you flung your hand into the air, shouting, “Oh, I’ve been scratching my head raw over this one, too! Why are Original Vespican, Original, Baltican all in italics? They aren’t foreign words, are they, or the names of ships, which could legitimately be italicized?”

Apparently not — from how they are used here, they may be the names of nationalities or tribes. If that’s the case, however, it’s hard to guess what the authorial point of italicizing them could possibly be: one does not, after all, routinely employ italics when talking about Swedish fjords or Navaho rugs.

Presumably, there is a perfectly sound rationale behind this authorial choice — Dave’s been an active member of the Author! Author! community for years, and never have I known him to set at naught the rules of standard format for frivolous reasons. I said as much to the other judges, in fact. But they felt — and I must say I concur — that however valid it might be to include those italics in the published version of the book, at the submission stage, the manuscript should omit them.

Why? Well, as we all know (at least I hope we do), manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. Double-spacing, for instance, and doubling dashes. While it might conceivably be possible for a writer to justify an occasional deviation from standard format, remember, the submitter is literally never there when Millicent screens his manuscript; it is going to need to stand on its own merits. And Millicent is not all that keen on formatting originality: she knows all too well that any fancy formatting in the published book would be the editor’s call, not the author’s.

In Dave’s case, then, it could certainly be argued that no one but his future editor is genuinely qualified to determine whether those italics should remain or not. However, that perfectly legitimate point is not likely to help him much at submission time, if Millicent gets tired of scratching her head over it.

So I offer up this question for your pondering pleasure: since Millicent’s delicate eyebrows are so very likely to be lifted beyond the point of comfort by those page 1 italics, wouldn’t it be more prudent for Dave to hold off on those italics-by-choice until he can discuss it with his future editor? That way, the risk of the italics triggering rejection drops to zero, and he can still make a case for including those italics in the eventual book.

Isn’t it amazing how much issues ostensibly unrelated to either the quality of the writing, the strength and consistency of the narrative voice, or even the inherent excitement of the story can affect its submission chances?

With that capacious question ringing in our ears, let’s turn to Ellen Bradford’s extremely likable page 1:

Ellen Bradford p1

Engaging, isn’t it? I must say, this one won me over in spite of myself: as a professional reader, I tend to be a trifle suspicious of self-deprecating narrators; it’s hard to keep it up for the entire length of a book. It’s even harder to do if the narrative is genuinely funny, as this page is — self-deprecating humor often lends itself to one-note storytelling, and even when it doesn’t, those who do not get the jokes are wont to write off the narrator as whiny.

Hey, I don’t control readers’ reactions. I just tell you about ‘em.

This is a voice that a lot of readers would quite happily follow for chapters on end — but is it compelling enough to carry Millicent on to page 2?

That’s not at all a frivolous question, or even a reflection upon the writing here: let’s face it, Millicent doesn’t make it to page 2 in most submissions. And contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the quality of the writing is not always the determinant of whether she flips the page.

Remember, our Millie likes to be able to answer the basic questions about a submission in at least a cursory way by the bottom of page 1. To recap: (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

Take another gander at Ellen’s page 1. How many of those questions would you be comfortable answering?

Oh, it establishes the protagonist and the tone of the book beautifully; one could even make a pretty good guess that the target market is women insecure about their appearance — which is to say pretty much all of us. But what is this book about? Where would it sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble?

Because the judges were all about book category-appropriateness, the contest’s rules asked entrants to provide a brief paragraph dealing with questions (b) – (e). Here’s Ellen’s response:

Pith and Vinegar will turn the world of adult fiction on its ear. Or its kidney. Take your pick. But what remains non-negotiable and absolutely, undeniably 100 percent pure fact is that adult fiction will be resting on an unfamiliar body part.

As will the story’s heroine.

Again: funny, even charming. But did it answer those professional questions, beyond alerting us that it is fiction aimed at adults?

Is it Mainstream Fiction? Women’s Fiction? Chick lit? The judges were inclined toward the latter, but let’s take a peek at the longer book description, to see if we can find out more.

Pith and Vinegar synopsis

Okay, so the book sounds like a hoot; I give you that. And now we know that it is Women’s Fiction — which is fabulous, as this is a voice that would appeal to many, many readers in that target market. There is surprisingly little funny fiction out there right now featuring larger female protagonists, so you go, Ellen!

But this description would be at a very serious competitive disadvantage at most US-based agencies. Care to guess why?

If you already had your hand in the air, crying out, “But Anne, those paragraphs are not indented, and she skipped a line between paragraphs!” give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You are quite right: in dealing with the publishing industry, every paragraph should be indented. Block-formatting just looks illiterate to Millicent.

You wouldn’t want her to think you were the kind of person who would shove quotation marks around perfectly innocent words and phrases for no apparent reason, would you?

No, but seriously, folks, this is a trap into which well-meaning aspiring writers inadvertently stumble all the time. An agency’s submission guidelines ask for an unusual addition to the query packet, or the form-letter positive response to a query requests a much shorter synopsis than the writer has on hand. So he tosses something off — only to realize with horror a few days after he sent it that those additional requested materials were not in standard manuscript format.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, think of it this way: which would you prefer, Millicent’s starting to read your synopsis with an open mind, or her harrumphing at the first sight of it, “Oh, no — I wonder if the manuscript is improperly formatted, too,” and beginning to peruse your word with a pre-jaundiced mind?

There’s another common generator of Millicent’s knee jerks back on page 1. Let’s take a gander:

Ellen's edit

A couple of those points caught you by surprise, didn’t they? Almost universally, Millicents are a mite touchy about having jokes explained to them, at least on the page. After the tenth time it happens in a single day of screening, it can start to feel like a minor insult to one’s intelligence.

And there’s some justification to that: the writerly impulse to over-explain has does typically have its roots in a fear that the average reader won’t get it. Much of the time, those fears are unfounded; inveterate readers are a pretty savvy bunch, and professional readers even more so.

Here, those fears are definitely unjustified — it would be perfectly easy to follow the metaphor without, say, the narrative’s informing us three times that it is indeed a metaphor, or repeating the word potato every few lines. With an image that strong, it’s a safe bet that the reader is going to remember it.

Yet our amusing narrator seems far more afraid that the reader’s mind will stray off the relevant spud than to let us know where the story is set, how the narrator fits into the world she is depicting (perhaps she works at the Bloodworthy News?), or even the time frame — because, let’s face it, a lot of women have felt potato-shaped across a broad array of contexts for at least the last century. (They might well have felt that way before, but bathroom scales were not widely available until the 1920s, so they didn’t have numbers to back up the general impression.)

Are you seeing a running theme here, though? Both of these winning entries left Millicent guessing about a few significant matters at the bottom of page 1 — and in both cases, one of those significant somethings was the book category.

But that’s actually not the primary reason that a well-trained Millicent might not turn the page. Any guesses?

Hint: the problem I have in mind is noted twice on the marked-up example above.

Yes, that’s right: the single-sentence paragraphs. Aspiring writers just love these, and as we’ve discussed, they can work well in moderation — to introduce a bit of genuinely startling information or a plot twist that might get lost to the skimming eye if the sentence were attached to the paragraph above or below.

The vast majority of the time, that’s not how such one-line paragraphs turn up in manuscript submissions, however. A surprisingly high percentage of writers who aspire to be funny seem to believe that a single-line paragraph is the only way to designate a punch line, a tactic about as subtle as following Millicent around with a drum kit and executing a rim shot each and every time she reads a joke.

Think about it: if the reader can see from across the room that a joke is coming, because every joke that preceded it in the text was also in a single-sentence paragraph, hasn’t the narration lost the element of surprise so crucial to maintaining a humorous tone all the way through the book?

That doesn’t appear to have been Ellen’s motivation in creating the single-sentence paragraphs here, though; my guess is that they are intended to reflect the greater-than-full-stop pause these statements might carry in verbal speech. Regardless, breaking the it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph rule doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the narrative — certainly not a large enough bang to outweigh the risk of a very well-read Millicent’s knee jerking over it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here are the opening three sentences as submitted:

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato.

Well, metaphorically speaking, I was a potato. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Got those firmly in mind? Now cast your eyes over them with the single-sentence paragraph problem removed in the most obvious manner imaginable — although while I’m at it, I’ll do a spot of trimming.

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato. Well, metaphorically speaking. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Was any meaning lost in that transition? Any nuance, even? Is there anything to prevent someone reading it out loud from emphasizing that first sentence?

Of course not. The same holds true for the other single-sentence paragraph. Let’s review it in context:

A few stray hairs perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right.

I may in some tiny and insignificant way, have resembled a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes, like a potato.

And here it is again, cleaned up a trifle:

A few stray hairs, perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right, I may, in some tiny and insignificant way, resemble a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes.

Okay, so that was more than a trifle, but you know how I (and Millicent) feel about word repetition and comma use. My point is — and you probably saw this coming, right? — that stand-alone paragraph wasn’t actually adding anything significant to the text. The next paragraph was able to absorb it into its first sentence with no loss of meaning at all.

What lesson are we to derive from all of this? Several, actually. First, I clearly was eager to jump back into the swim of commenting on these entries — this is a long post, even by my standards. Second, while it may require a bit of plot massage, the more you can show Millicent of the book’s tone, what it’s about, who the protagonist is, and so forth by the bottom of page 1, the happier she will be.

Finally, as we’ve been seeing throughout this series, even a very well-honed narrative can often benefit from a bit of judicious revision. Just to stick that bug in the ear of all of you who are going to receive requests for pages in the months to come: fight the urge to send off those pages instantly; it’s well worth your time to re-read those pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before popping ‘em in the mail or hitting SEND.

Do I need to remind you about Millicent’s jumpy knee? Don’t make me pull out another quotation mark example to get her going.

A few more contest entries to come, then it’s on to Synopsispalooza, beginning on Saturday. Well done, Ellen and Dave, and keep up the good work!

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

pre-butchered fir tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

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

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

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

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

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

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

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

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

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

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

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

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

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

7. Unlikable protagonists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proofread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

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

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

7. “Good opening line.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of dialogue revision…

speechgraphic

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

— Mark Twain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No accounting for taste, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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