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

curse-of-the-cat-people

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

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

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

39. Too many generalities.

40. The character shown is too average.

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

60. The details included were not telling.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, you get the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XV: but it really happened that way!

pearlfishers

I went to see THE PEARLFISHERS at the Seattle Opera again last night; since the tenor had been practically inaudible with the cast we saw the first time, we went back and saw the other, in which the baritone was practically inaudible. Oh, well, you can’t have everything — where would you put it? (As comic Stephen Wright has been asking plaintively for years. One should never borrow a good joke without attributing it.)

During opera mach II, I was thinking about you fine people and the list of common reasons submissions get rejected on page 1 we’ve been discussing, admittedly a bit one-sidedly, for the last couple of weeks. During the protracted opening scene with the acres of milling supernumeraries and ten minutes of heavily Balanchine-influenced prancing around (don’t even get me started on the five minutes of dance in Act III that’s apparently lifted directly from THE PRODIGAL SON), I kept murmuring to myself, “Um, haven’t we heard this dialogue already? And is it really necessary to tell the audience fifteen times that you’re dancing when the choreographer has placed ocular evidence at the front of the stage?”

I suppose that my response could be regarded as a sort of SCARED STRAIGHT for would-be editors — this is where hardcore manuscript screening leads, kids — but seriously, the opera’s first ten minutes ran afoul of a hefty percentage of our cringe list for openings:

3. The opening is about setting, not about story.
6. Took too long for anything to happen.
7. Not enough happens in the opening.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
32. Where’s the conflict?
38. Repetition (all of that explanation that they’re dancing in Sri Lanka)
39. Too many generalities.
51. Hollywood narration

It just goes to show you: judging one art form by the standards of another isn’t all that productive — so any of you who are planning to defend repetitious or Hollywood narration-based dialogue to your future agents and editors as something done in movies, plays, or on opera stages all the time might want to think twice.

I just mention. Back to not entirely unrelated business.

I’m writing today’s post between appointments, balanced on the rather unstable table of a coffee-purveying chain that shall remain nameless. While I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you a couple of days ago, and I freely admit it: was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print.

Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be bearable as written dialogue.

It may be that the patrons’ caffeine purchases haven’t hit their bloodstreams yet, but if they were on the page, our old pal Millicent the agency screener would be reaching for the Xeroxed rejection letters within seconds. You wouldn’t believe how similar the things one customer says to a barista are to the things the next customer says, and the next.

Which brings me to #31 on our list of common reasons submissions get rejected before the list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. If I may be so bold as to elaborate upon this excellent observation, permit me to add: and neither is real-life dialogue, necessarily.

This is a point I harp upon this particular point with fair regularity (and if you doubt that, please see the BUT IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY! category on the archive list at right), I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make ABSOLUTELY certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Suffice it to say that real-life events are so frequently shoved into otherwise fictional accounts wholesale so often that any Millicent worth her weight in lattes soon learns to spot ‘em a mile away.

Already, I sense some readerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some writers of the real point out querulously, “one of the virtues of fiction is the insight it gives the reader into life as it is actually lived. So how precisely is it a remotely negative thing if Millicent the agency screener thinks, ‘Oh, that bit seems real’?”

Counterintuitive from the writer’s perspective, isn’t it? It’s a storytelling problem, at base: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating real events into a fictional narrative, it’s undoubtedly jarring for the reader trundling along merrily within a fictional reality to suddenly be confronted with a scene or incident that is, as the LAW AND ORDER folks like to say, ripped from the headlines. Anything that pulls the reader out of the story by breaking the smoothness of the narrative’s worldview is bound to be distracting.

Which is a nice way of hinting obliquely that aspiring writers very frequently just drop in real elements — and real dialogue — into a story as if their very veracity were sufficient excuse to include them. From the reader’s point of view, that’s just not true; to get and remain involved, the story in from of him must appear to be one unbroken piece.

“But Anne,” the disgruntled pipe up again, “I can understand where that might be problematic in mid-book, after the story has gotten up and running, but on page 1, there isn’t an already-established narrative line to break, is there? It seems to me that if I should be dropping real elements into my writing wholesale — which I fully understand that you’re advising me not to do — page 1 would be absolutely the safest place to do it.”

Actually, no: strategically, you’re going to want page 1 to exhibit not only your best writing — the better to entrance Millicent, my dears — but to be representative of the writing throughout the rest of the book. If, as is often the case in dialogue, the real is not as compelling as the fictional, it’s not going to be as effective an introduction to the rest of the book as a writer might like.

One of the things we’ve learned in this series is that in order to be grabbed by a manuscript, Millicent needs to be sufficiently charmed by the narrative voice and storyline from the very first sentence, so it is imperative for the writing to establish the author’s unique voice and worldview right away. If that first sentence — or anything on the first page, really — is at odds with the rest of the narrative, the transition is going to feel rocky whenever it comes. And if that displacement rocks the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on page one, it’s going to be pretty difficult for the reader to sink into the story.

Particularly if that reader is as jaded to the practice as Millicent.

But I said I wasn’t going to lecture you on the inherent perils of dropping the unpolished real into your manuscripts, didn’t I? Honestly, all I intend to do is nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the Idol panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel.

The editorial advice against utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters. (And if you doubt that, try explaining to a 14-year-old why anyone was shocked when Rosa Parks declined to proceed to the rear of a certain bus.)

Many, many writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Most of the time, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more. Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay.

This part of the process can be lengthy, even for a book that ultimately sells very well inded. Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed.

Often, it is longer — so a reference that seemed fresh as paint (where that cliché come from, do you suppose?) when it fell off the writer’s fingertips onto the keyboard will almost certainly be AT LEAST two and a half years old before it reaches readers of the published book.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript automatically sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About seven years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was seeking to add to an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books NOT to write.) So, as I tried to explain gently to the writer, this manuscript was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I pointed out, “this will make your book obsolete. You want readers to keep finding your book relevant, don’t you? Could you possibly come up with less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be adequately characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere. About a year and a half later, she contacted me to gloat: she had managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher.

The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air. It did not see a second printing.

My point is, be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones into your manuscripts — and seriously consider excising them entirely from your first few pages. The chances that Millicent will immediately exclaim, “Well, that’s an interesting example/analogy/temporal marker, but it’s going to read as dated by next week,” are just too hight.

Yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of NF books on current events, even ones recent enough that they could not have possibly gone through the lengthy pre-publication process I’ve just described. The next time you’re in that bookstore, take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform.

Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN — and at this point, even the latter might well strike an agent or editor as a dated credential. Mainstream culture marches on FAST.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do decide to disregard my advice entirely and include them, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names you cite correctly. Not only people’s names, but brand names as well.

Stop laughing; this is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir dunned for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ‘em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Make sure, too, that the sources you consult for verification are reliable; remember, it’s not as though everything currently posted on the Internet is spelled correctly. If you’re in serious perplexity about where to turn to double-check, call your local public library and ask where to start looking. But whatever you do, don’t just run them through a spell-checker — because the more up-to-the-minute those names are, the less likely your spell-checking program is to be aware of them — or check with kith and kin, who may also have been laboring under your misconception that it’s FDR that delivers flowers, rather than FTD.

Not that I wouldn’t pay good money to see President Roosevelt show up on my doorstep bearing a bouquet, mind you. I’m just saying that Millicent up on her presidential history might be a trifle startled to see him bounding out of his wheelchair today.

There’s an important lesson to take from this, over and above the perennial proofreading imperative to get technical matters right before submitting pages containing them: the written word is for the ages, not the moment. That can be easy to forget in catering to agents focused on what’s selling to publishing houses right now, but it’s nevertheless true. Nothing ages as quickly (or as badly) as last year’s pop culture reference.

Or, to get back to my initial nag, as last year’s cool catchphrase. If you’re devoted to reproducing actual conversation, you might want to bear that in mind, because, as anyone sentenced to listen to ambient chatter in a café could tell you, everyday conversation is loaded with catchphrases and references that would make the reader of ten years from now mutter, “Huh?” under her breath.

And the well-trained Millicent to shake her head over them right now. Choose your references carefully, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XV: a few more words about repetition…repetition… repetition…

broken-record

If you’ll permit me, I’m going to take a brief hiatus from running though our agent-generated list of reasons that submissions tend to get rejected on page 1 to discourse learnedly upon a related subject.

Actually, I’m going to go ahead and so it even if you won’t grant me permission, because this is important; I was merely being polite. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to stick as closely as possible to the list of rejection red flags, as I know that many of you are once again querying like mad and trying to get requested materials out the door, but as my focus throughout this series is on how to revise your manuscript to minimize its chances of running afoul of screener Millicent’s hyper-critical eyes, I feel justified in taking today to elaborate on a previously-made point.

So there.

Last time, in the course of discussing reason #30, over-use of dialogue in the name of realism, I blithely suggested that writers enamored of the idea of reproducing dialogue precisely as it is heard in real life try a little experiment: sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim. Afterward, go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using ONLY the dialogue that you actually overheard.

If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you either have an unusually high threshold for boredom or a great affection for the mundane. Either way, have you considered a career as an agency screener, where these traits would be positive boons?

It’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result of this exercise past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding REAL is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining.

Yes, Virginia, even if it happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Slice-of-life pieces can be quite effective IF they are short — but frankly, in my opinion, most of what goes on in the real world doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Far, far better to apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something BETTER than reality, I say.

Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives. “I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, to take the reason most relevant to us today, because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because I spoke earlier in this series about how little Millicent appreciates repetition of any kind; I also rattled on a bit last time about how conceptually repetitious most real-life dialogue tends to be. But today, I want to talk about repetition on a smaller scale, within the actual writing.

As I have pointed out before, the single most common word appearing in submissions in every book category is and. Leaning on this multi-purpose word can lead to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting the bubonic plague.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last.

But the results still aren’t pretty, from Millicent’s point of view. You would not believe, for instance, just how often the sentence structure, X happened and Y happened turns up in both submissions and contest entries.

From a hold-the-mirror-up-to-nature point of view, that’s completely understandable, because it’s structure that speakers use all the time. Even when writers are constructing narrative rather than dialogue, they tend to find this structure appealing: like stringing together sentences beginning with conjunctions, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow, as in:

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

See? Chatty, casual: the way your local poisoner is very likely to say it to her next-door neighbor, right? In a single sentence, it makes for a rather likable voice.

If this structure is used sparingly, it can work very well indeed — but as any professional reader who has been at it a while would be delighted to tell you, its advocates seldom seem to be able to restrain themselves. Let’s take a peek at several sentences of this type in a row, to see why it might annoy your garden-variety Millicent at the end of a long, hard day of rejection:

Esmeralda blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

See what I mean? Although each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English, it’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Esmeralda blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least flushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Lest any of you just thought, “Well, all Millicent would have to do is read on to the next paragraph” (or next page, or next chapter) “to discover that I know a whole lot of ways to structure a sentence; I’m not going to worry about that,” may I remind you of one of the most startling truths divulged in this series, that most manuscripts get rejected on page 1? If the opening paragraphs of a submission are structurally repetitious, how likely is it that she’s going to keep reading to find out if the writer shakes things up a little later on?

The sad fact is, most agents, editors, and contest judges would not, alas, at least while perusing a manuscript by an author with whom they do not already enjoy a professional relationship. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure.

Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of an X happened and Y happenedsentence within half a page. (See why I felt this issue was important enough to interrupt our review of the Idol list to cover?) At minimum, it would be very much in your submission’s best interest to ferret out over-use of the word and.

So while you are going over your first page with a fine-toothed comb in the wake of this series anyway, why not identify and considering reworking ANY sentence in which and appears more than once? Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:

In avoiding the police, Zelda ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions.

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ classic comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spend all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.)

I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. YOU may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading agency screener to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve sensed disgruntled rumblings out there since I mentioned point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format restrictions on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

Clearly, then, these matters are not under my personal control, so kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of — gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

Sometimes repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of either the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events — which, if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, should automatically make you cringe at the idea of boring Millicent.

It’s not always a fair assessment of an and-ridden text, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader. Do keep it up.

Since your revision eye is getting so sophisticated, let’s consider the opposite possibility: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry? Or did you think you were the only writer in the history of the world who did this?

Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.

It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important.

Which — you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which is not exactly the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right?

When in doubt, revise to minimize the ands. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”

I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way.

Next time, onward and upward with the rejection red flag list. Keep those editing spectacles handy — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIV: Dear John, you might want to think about streamlining your dialogue — and checking to see if the fine folks to whom you’re submitting have posted guidelines for your benefit

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

— Mark Twain

I seldom post calls for submissions to publications, particularly online ones — there are so very many of them, after all, and as one of the primary joys of agent in life is that somebody else markets one’s writing, I don’t have much personal incentive to do the requisite background research — but I have to say, the relatively new Ink-Filled Page’s call for submissions from 6 – 12th graders completely won my heart with the meticulous specificity of one of its guidelines:

We are specifically looking for fresh, untold stories and unique voices that draw us into the world of the story. While we know and love many Jo(h)ns, we are inundated by character Jo(h)ns. We ask that you only submit characters by that name if it is necessary for the story.

Stumbling across this filled me with rapture; this is one of the best expressions of a professional reader’s pet peeve that I’ve seen for a long time. Not only it tell you clearly what particular super-common manuscript condition will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance, but it explains why seeing just one more Jon or John will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance. Yet mindful of the remote-but-not-inconceivable possibility that stories exist where the inclusion of a John is absolutely unavoidable — the mind positively reels, doesn’t it, with images of battalions of Jons and Johns battering mercilessly upon writerly doors worldwide, demanding entrance to the printed page? — the guideline begrudgingly informs the prospective submitter that Johnning it up is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense.

Don’t you wish that everyone who solicits submissions were that up front about what irritates them — and what fate is likely to meet the hapless writer to commits those faux pas? And yet as a longtime professional reader and frequent contest judge, I can tell you right now that despite the pellucid clarity of this restriction, the callers-for-submissions in this instance will STILL be up to their navels in characters named Jon or John.

Or possibly even Jo(h)n, just for the comic relief. My point is, it’s extraordinarily likely that most submitters will either not notice or choose to ignore this request.

Do I hear the abundant Johns out there rising to second that? “Darned right, Anne!” they and their h-less brethren shout as one. “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases? And who are agents, editors, contest judges, and professional readers to tell us what to do, anyway?”

Well, to be literal for a moment, they’re the people who can make sure that your manuscript is seen by the right eyes, are empowered to make the decision to publish it, have the capacity to award it a great big blue ribbon and abiding fame, and see what everyone else is submitting these days. Theirs may not be opinions an artist wants to take into account while making creative choices, and it’s certainly every writer’s prerogative not to, but by and large, they tend to be pretty well-informed pronouncement-makers.

As glorious as it would be if every rule-breaker did it consciously, as a magnificent gesture toward artistic liberty, that’s apparently not the usual reason that submitters dismiss this kind of admonition. Most of the time, adhering to such formal requests would make little or no artistic difference to a submission, at least from a reader’s perspective; even more of the time, failure to honor expressed preferences is not the only problem the submission has, especially if it is an entry to contests with unusual formatting restrictions.

Which is why most professional readers, particularly experienced contest judges, would tell you that most submitters don’t read submission requirements very carefully, even when, as is the case with most literary contests, the sponsor’s printed literature and website make it quite, quite clear that deviation from the rules is a disqualification-level offense. Apparently, there are a whole lot of would-be entrants and submitters out there who just assume that whatever format and content they have happened to have selected for their own pieces will automatically be acceptable to the professional readers to whom they decide to submit it.

And when these well-meaning-but-myopic folks hear otherwise, they often feel betrayed, as did the Johns above, demanding, “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to write anything he darned well pleases?”

Well, off the top of my head, I can come up with three reasons. First, as I’ve discussed extensively in earlier posts, the sheer volume of submissions leads screeners and contest judges to use formal criteria (like adherence to posted preferences, standard format restrictions, and the kind of unpromulgated pet peeves this series has been examining) to narrow the field to those submissions that are, in their opinions, closer to being ready to publication-ready. Liberty-loving writers may have a problem with that, but the second reason, the fact that in order to work successfully with an agent or editor, a writer needs to be able to follow directions fairly well, is difficult to dispute.

Which renders the third reason a trifle less easy to swallow: informally, one does hear quite a few professional readers cite the high percentage of manuscripts that don’t honor posted guidelines as a primary reason that so few agencies and publishing houses actually provide such formal guidelines anymore. “Why bother?” such off-the-record informants will inquire rhetorically. “The writers will ignore them, anyway.”

Before any of you rend your garments, exclaiming, “How on earth can I conform to your standards if you won’t tell me what they are?” let me hasten to add: yes, this logic is indeed circular. If not promulgating pet peeves meant that submissions didn’t get rejected for exhibiting them, that would make more sense, from a writerly point of view.

All of which is to say: if you’re planning to enter a contest or submit to an agency or small publishing house that does go the extra mile to render its screening criteria public, read its rules carefully. Several times. Then follow them to the letter, because the rule-mongers have actually done you a great big favor by telling you up front what they do and do not want to see.

If you’re not willing to do that — because you’re too busy, too committed to presenting your work precisely as you would like to see it in print, or just haven’t fallen into the laudable habit of checking whether those to whom you’ve decided to commit have such guidelines posted on their websites — I would suggest considering not submitting to those who do post their preferences. Save the contest entry fee.

I can tell you from experience, hell hath no fury like a screener who knows for fact that the often-repeated manuscript problem in front of her is specifically barred by her agency, contest, or publishing house’s published submission standards.

But enough about the guidelines that are easily accessible to aspiring writers. Let’s get back to the ones that we’re expected to guess.

Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:

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.”)

I dealt with the first three on this list last time, of course, but It’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: 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, 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 who don’t know, 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 industry-wide objection. 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 fairly 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. “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 folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive – or, to put 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 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. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? 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.

More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session from which I derived the list of pet peeves we’ve been discussing. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case.

Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.

*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.

*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)

*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)

*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue – which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?

So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?

If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.

Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.

99.9% of the time, it won’t.

Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party.

It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.

I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Move it along. In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.

Besides, it’s just a fact that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!” or even “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases?”

More common first-page rejection reasons follow anon. Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIII: in praise of individuality, or, a few thoughts on character-revealing dialogue

i-have-a-dream

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

But that’s not why everyone is celebrating, is it? No, the country is ringing with joy from sea to shining sea for just one reason: the long, long Thanksgiving-to-MLK-Day Do You REALLY Want To Query NOW? annual downtime is now officially over.

Okay, so maybe not everyone is dancing in the streets because of that. Grant me some poetic license here.

So for all of you who have been holding your breath and avoiding the post office: you once again have my blessing to send rafts of queries and submissions to agents. True, they still need to get tax information out to their clients by the end of the month (the IRS keeps an eagle eye on royalty payments), but by now, the New Year’s Resolution rush of queries has died down to a trickle, a mere overlay atop the usual weekly avalanche.

Translation: Millicent the agency screener is a WHOLE lot less grumpy today than she was two weeks ago.

Of course, you don’t actually need to send out those requested materials this very instant. One might, for example, want to spend the next week or so checking in here on a daily basis, to absorb the discussion of the rest of the reasons that submissions often get rejected on page 1.

Or not. 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 related to dialogue.

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:

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 about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling 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. 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 problem is legitimate to discuss as dialogue.

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 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, maybe 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.

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: these are a great many 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 when 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 that was 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 Ipause 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?”

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. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 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.

Let it 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.

I’ll tackle the rest of the dialogue-related reasons next time. Enjoy the rest of MLK Day and the inauguration, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

35. The story is not exciting.

36. The story is boring.

38. Repetition on pg. 1

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

57. The writing is dull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, what’s the problem here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or even — brace yourself — in the first chapter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean, most submissions are rejected on page 1? Isn’t that a trifle…judgmental?

Hello, campers –

We open today with a pop quiz: quick, name all of these Supreme Court justices, as well as the presidents who appointed them. I’ll give you a minute, starting — now!

Just kidding. No one seems to remember that Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens.

Speaking of judgments, I didn’t mean to take quite so long a New Year’s hiatus, but here it is January 5th before I hop back onto the proverbial horse again. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break.

Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.

Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s usually friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers.

Now that I’ve returned, let’s get back to business as swiftly as possible. For the next few weeks, we’re going to be concentrating on a topic near and dear to aspiring writers’ hearts: minimizing the probability of one’s submission’s getting rejected on page 1.

In answer to the gasp I just heard, yes, you read that correctly. To break even more bad news, while submission screening standards admittedly do vary slightly from agency to agency and publishing house to publishing house, rejection within the first page of a manuscript is the norm, not the exception.

And that’s during periods when agencies and small publishing houses aren’t especially swamped.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne?” some of you ask with quavering voices. “Dare I ask what happens when they are especially swamped? Like, say, right about now?”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: during high-volume periods, anecdotal evidence suggests that page 1 rejections soar even higher.

Why might the percentage rise at certain times? Well, place yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with both opening all of those query letters and giving a first reading to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

The reason for screening is simple, of course: logistics. A reasonably well-respected agent might receive a 1000 queries in any given week; if Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already have clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

How likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading, right?

Given the imperative to plow through them all with dispatch, then, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense — or even be handed a list — of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. I leave it to your sense of probability.

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 2!”

While I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for very long, if a writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book — place yourself once again in Millicent’s loafers: if you walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be crankier than usual right about now. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case some of you have been wondering, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year, while Millie is still digging her way out of that mountain of papers. I’m not suggesting holding off for long, though: the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks. So if you wish to send out your queries and submissions sometime after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, you may do it with my blessings.

Brace yourselves, because all of this is merely preamble to today’s topic: how to avoid the wrath of Millicent while running the page 1 gauntlet.

Fortunately for aspiring writers everywhere, the vast majority of Millicents share certain rejection triggers, so it is possible to learn what they are and screen one’s own manuscript for them. Even more fortunately, a small handful of agents are kind enough to go around to writers’ conferences and talk about them.

The series that follows is the result of my taking very, very good notes at one such conference a couple of years ago. Although some new pet peeves have doubtless cropped up in the meantime — every megabestseller brings its own wave of easily-rejected copycat submissions, for instance — most of the ones mentioned here are classics, still guaranteed to raise the hackles of virtually any Millicent currently screening manuscripts in North America.

Therefore, I don’t have too many qualms about rerunning this series more or less as is — arguably, these are some of the most important posts I have ever run. Since I gather that most of the members of the Author! Author! community visit the archives but sparingly, if at all, I can’t resist dragging these posts back up to the top of the pile, as it were.

You didn’t expect me to leave you twiddling your thumbs for the next few weeks, did you? Enjoy!

As some of you know, I attended a couple of literary contests this month, partially as teacher, partially as seeker of continuing education (which all writers, published or not, should do from time to time, to keep those skills fresh and project-ready), and partially as observer for you fine people. Bar none, there was one panel that generated more buzz than all of the other classes at both conferences put together: the infamous Idol panel at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

Why infamous? Well, picture this, my friends: brave souls submit (anonymously) the first page of their novels, which are read out loud by a perfectly wonderful reader (the excellent Jack Whyte, who could make the telephone book sound gripping). During the readings, as the uncredited writers quake in their chairs, the three agents on the panel shout out “STOP!” at the point where they would cease reading the submission.

It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. And this at a conference thrown by the legendarily courteous-to-strangers Canadians.

This event, which actually resembled the Gong Show more than American Idol, went on for a trifle over two hours. Since last year was a real bloodbath, the agents were making an effort to be nicer this year; I have it on the best possible authority that there was some behind-the-scenes squabbling about who would get to be the Paula Abdul equivalent, the one who would find nice things to say. With that mindset, it was probably inevitable that the agents were much, much kinder: this time around, perhaps half a dozen submissions were read all the way to the end of the page.

Brutal, true, but what better way to see just how quickly agents (and their screeners) make up their minds about a submission? Most aspiring writers don’t want to believe that work is rejected on partial readings, but here, there was no doubt about how and why these agents were moving submissions into the reject pile within a paragraph or two.

And, lest we forget, since the submissions were being read out loud, none of these rejections could possibly be for reasons of poor formatting, spelling problems, etc. This was purely on storytelling alone.

The shock of realization for most of the attendees, as you might well imagine, was considerable. Not only for the brave souls who had submitted their work — and many kudos to them for such stoic courage — but for everyone else as well, at such tangible proof that getting a submission accepted was every bit as hard as it is rumored to be. You could feel the air in the room change palpably as the writers there got it at last: the quick rejections are not really born of meanness, but the fact that they see so very many manuscripts that are so very, very similar.

No writer likes to think that about his own work, right?

The repetition across manuscripts was, to put it mildly, rather an astonishment to a lot of the writers in the room, but to those who have been hanging around this blog for a while, it should not come as much of a surprise to you. The fact is, the standard stylistic advice has lead to a handful of pretty standard openings — and after even just a half an hour’s worth, it became very apparent just how stultifying all that similarity can be.

On the bright side, originality leapt out at the numbed crowd like a flame from Godzilla’s mouth, often startling everyone into spontaneous applause.

If that was true for single pages read aloud by a superlative reader, think how much greater both the cumulative effect of boredom and the pleasing electrification of something honestly different would be to an agency screener who reads hundreds of first pages in a day.

And that’s without the addition of the possibility that the screener is having a bad day. As I believe I may have suggested ONCE OR TWICE before, a writer simply can’t assume a charitable reading for a submission. To get a realistic sense of how your work will fare on an agent’s desk, you really do have to look at that opening with the assumption that the agent will be looking for reasons NOT to read the rest of the submission, not reasons to read on.

Naturally, this looking-to-dislike attitude does not continue for the entire reading, of course. If an agent decides to keep reading, eventually, she does start looking for reasons to like it. How far in, you ask? Well, I’m not sure that there is a common breaking point, but the last agent I asked, a very good one who likes writers a lot, said that he is routinely looking for reasons to reject a manuscript up to page 175. After that, he says, he begins reading for reasons to sign the author.

Ouch.

Since the Idol session really was a crash course in reasons submissions get rejected — on the first page! — I decided that the best way to serve my readers during it was to write down every general reason that any of the three agents gave for continuing or not continuing with a submission. In the days to come, I shall talk about the specifics in some detail, but for today, I’m simply going to list the reasons. The resulting list is long, but well worth perusing.

The first thing I would ask you to note: the length of the This is Why I Would Read Beyond the Page 1 list vs. the extent of This is Why I Would Not Read Farther reasons. As I’ve pointed out before — in this post, even — they’re looking for reasons to reject, not reasons to accept. So if you were planning to submit unrevised pages under the assumption that your future agent will overlook any small problems for now, concentrating on the beauty of the writing or cleverness of the premise, you might want to give some thought about whether it genuinely serves you to presume that your submission will receive the benefit of the doubt.

The second thing to note, please, is that ALL of these comments were based upon A SINGLE PAGE, and often on the first few lines or first paragraph alone. Their judgments are stunningly quick.

Which, again, echoes the typical screener’s response, right?

The third thing — and the last for today, because I don’t want to scare you into conniption fits is that since the agents were hearing these submitted first pages, rather than reading them, that ALL of these are matters of style, rather than matters of presentation.

This is Why I Would Not Read Farther:
1. An opening image that did not work.
2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
7. Not enough happens on page 1.
8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. (The most I counted in a single submission was 5.) Specifically singled out: a character’s long red or blonde hair.
15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. Specifically singled out: a character who shakes her head to clear an image, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.”
16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: the woman ran through the forest…
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph is a long time).
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
31. Real life incidents are not always believable.
32. Where’s the conflict?
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
34. Confusing.
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring. (Yes, they did differentiate between this and the one before it.)
37. The story is corny.
38. Repetition (on pg. 1!)
39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
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.
45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.
46. The story is written in the second person, which is hard to maintain.
47. The story is written in the first person plural, which is almost as hard to maintain.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.
49. The narration is in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate.
50. An adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often assumed to be YA. So if the agent doesn’t represent YA, such a protagonist may trigger automatic wonder about whether this book is not in a category s/he does represent.
51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t 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 used: “She squawked.”)
53. The writing switched tenses for no apparent reason.
54. The action is told out of temporal order.
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
56. The writing lacks pizzazz.
57. The writing is dull.
58. The writing is awkward.
59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.
60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions. Specifically singled out: “She did not trust herself to speak,” “She didn’t want to look…”
61. Too many analogies per paragraph.
62. The details included were not telling.
63. The writing includes quotes from song lyrics.
64. Overkill to make a point.
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”
71. “Why is this written in the present tense?”
72. “It just didn’t work for me.”
73. “It didn’t do anything for me.”
74. “I like this, but I don’t know what to do with it.”

This is Why I Would Read Beyond Page 1:
1. A non-average protagonist 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 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.”

And all of these comments, recall, was just from the first page of all of these submissions. Often the first few lines.

Well may you gulp.

Tomorrow, I shall start picking apart the hows and whys of these critiques, so you may spot them on your first pages. In the meantime, try not to panic, and keep up the good work!