Pet peeves on parade, part XVIII: Ivan who?

Hello, campers –
As those of you who have been hanging around the Author! Author! community for a while are, I hope, aware, I seldom rerun a former post wholesale. Oh, I’m not above taking an old post, dressing it in a new gown, switching out some jewelry, and sending onto the runway again, blinking at the bright lights, but it’s rare that I don’t add at least 5 or 6 pages of new material.

Today, I’m bringing you a post from last year’s Frankenstein manuscript series. It’s quite apt for our ongoing discussion of perennial professional readers’ pet peeves, but perhaps equally important today, I can post it with a minimum of keyboard time. I took a tumble earlier today, and I’m under doctors’ orders to take it easy.

This is as easy as I ever take it, apparently: I punched up today’s version only minimally. Enjoy!

Have you noticed a running pattern in the last week or two of posts on self-editing, campers? Have you dimly sensed that no matter where my suggestion du jour may begin, my narratives always end up taking a scenic detour through the joys of keeping the pacing tight in your manuscript? Has your significant other been shaking you awake, demanding that you cease muttering, “But does it have conflict on every page? EVERY page?” over and over again in the night? Have you found yourself clapping your hands loudly in boring work meetings, exclaiming, “Where’s the tension? Let’s get things moving here, people!” At family gatherings? At church? While waiting in line to vote?

Glad to hear it. My subtle indoctrination technique is working!

In case I haven’t yet dumped enough cold water on those of you intending to submit your writing to professional scrutiny any time in the foreseeable future: manuscripts or book proposal that drag their feet even a little tend to get rejected. Especially, as we discussed yesterday, those that meander within the first few pages. And while we’ve all read dozens of published books that have rocked us gently to sleep by page 4, and it truly isn’t fair that your manuscript is being held to a higher standard than THOSE evidently were, sitting around resenting the differential isn’t going to help you get your work published so effectively as making sure that YOUR manuscript is as tight as a drum.

I’m aware that the very notion makes half of you want to curl up into a protective ball around your manuscript, whimpering, “NO! You can’t cut ANY of it!” I know perfectly well that many, if not most, aspiring writers beard the heavens with bootless cries against the strange reality dictating that a manuscript should be publication-ready before it has an agent, who will probably ask the writer to change it significantly before sending it out to editors, anyway. I am even fully cognizant of the fact that from a writerly perspective, we love your writing — give us less of it doesn’t make much sense at all.

Yet a sober recognition of the extreme competitiveness of the literary market and the ability to self-edit in order to render one’s work more marketable within its ever-changing landscape are species characteristics of the professional working writer; while it’s not completely unheard-of for a first draft to be what ends up on the published page, by and large, producing a book-length manuscript purely from inspiration, without revision or even close subsequent reads by the author prior to an editor’s involvement, is roughly as rare amongst the successful author population as qualifying for the Olympics is amongst the world population.

I know you have it in you to approach this like a pro. Let’s talk conflict.

As I may have mentioned once or twice throughout this series, it’s an industry truism that a novel should have conflict — or still better, tension — on every page. While anybody who has had a half-hour conversation with me about the current state of the industry knows that I feel this standard should not be applied arbitrarily to every book in every genre, you should be aware of this axiom — because, I assure you, every agency screener is. In my ruminations on the subject, the word arbitrary tends to come up, as do the phrases knee-jerk reaction, radical oversimplification of a complex array of literary factors, and power run mad. I’ve been known to question whether, for instance, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, CATCH-22, or OF HUMAN BONDAGE could find a publisher today as new books, much less an agent.

Or, indeed, virtually any of the bestsellers of the 18th or 19th centuries. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is the opening page of the absolutely last word in exciting dramatic novels in 1819, IVANHOE:

Ivanhoe first page

“What is this?” a modern-day Millicent mutters under her breath, reading for the SASE that, being a conscientious submitter, Sir Walter Scott had included with his submission. “A book about furniture? A manual on room decor? Where is the conflict? And what’s the deal with the punctuation? Next!”

But that’s rich array of rejection reasons would not be what Sir Walter would hear, right? No, his only clue about why his submission was rejected would be this:

Dear Scott:

I read your submission with great interest, but I’m afraid your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with the story.

Another agent may well feel differently, and I wish you every success finding a home for this book.

Sincerely,

Millicent’s boss
Great Big Agency

I’m making light of it, but honestly, I have sat up many a midnight, worrying about all of the talented aspiring writers out there currently relying upon, say, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen as pacing role models, only to have their hearts broken by rejection by agents, editors, and contest judges who, rationally enough, base their assessments about whether a book is marketable upon what has been selling within the last five years, rather than upon the kind of abstract notion of Good Literature that most of us encountered in our English classes. To say nothing of writers who chose as their lodestar books released a decade ago, or even, in some especially fast-changing genres, just a few years back.

If you doubt that, I invite you to round up all of the agents who were trawling writers’ conferences for chick lit in, say, 2002, at the height of the post-BRIDGET JONES enthusiasm, and ask them whether they still rabidly seeking chick lit today. Those genuinely enamored of the genre have stuck with it, of course, but a good two-thirds of them subsequently spent a couple of years pursing the next big YA vampire classic. (2011 Anne here: or are currently as busy tumbling over backwards to avoid being affiliated with the next THREE CUPS OF TEA as they were a year ago trying to find it.)

My point is, publishing is driven as much by fads as by an appreciation for the beauty of a well-crafted sentence; in the mid-1980s, for instance, a novel’s being over 100,000 words was considered completely acceptable. Yet interestingly, the truism about conflict on every page has endured for a couple of decades now. There are plenty of agents and editors out there, and good ones, who do apply this standard to submissions, so you’re better off if you think about the pacing issue before you send your baby out the door, rather than later puzzling over a form-letter rejection, wondering if the pacing could possibly have been the problem.

Much of the time, it is. So much so that I feel a checklist coming on:

(1) If you’re editing for length, seeking out comparatively slow bits to shorten — or, dare I say it, cut altogether — should be at the top of your to-do list.

Actually, a search-and-minimize technique isn’t a bad idea even if length isn’t your particular bugbear, either, but it’s absolutely essential when editing for length.

What should go in the place of the trimmed bits? Conflict, of course.

(2) If you want to keep a slow scene, ramp up the conflict within it.

“But Anne,” those of you who write introspective books cry, “what can I do if my plot is, in fact, rather sedate? I can hardly make the supermarket down the block spontaneously combust in order to add spice to my domestic drama, can I? It would look so odd.”

This is a good question, and prompts me to ask another: what does tension on every page mean?

Should every character be fighting with every other constantly? Do you have to show things exploding at least once every 33 lines? Should the librarian in Chapter 2 pull a switchblade on your protagonist when he tries to check out a book on gardening?

No, on all counts. But how about these tension-increasers?

Some character could want something and not get it on every page, right, without gunpowder being involved.

A character could say one thing and do another.

Every conversation could contain some seed of disagreement.

That’s all realistic, isn’t it? After all, no two human beings are ever in absolute agreement on every point. At least no two I have ever known.

(3) Consider having allies disagree, harbor different motivations — or having the protagonist be less sure of her own.

Trust me, your protagonist’s relationship with her best buddy will come across to the reader as stronger– not to mention more true-to-life — if they have the occasional tiff. A person has to care more about a friend to maintain a relationship through a conflict than through periods of sunny agreement.

So make your characters fight a little for their friendships from time to time. They’ll seem more valuable.

Where overt disagreement is not feasible, then how about a differential between what your protagonist is saying and what she is thinking? The protagonist could habitually bite her tongue, while her angry thoughts run rampant. Internal conflict is definitely interesting.

(4) Seek out dialogue-only scenes and inspect them for lack of tension.

I’m talking about ALL scenes where the dialogue is uninterrupted by narrative text for more than, say, half a page. Reach for your manuscript, scan it for dialogue-only scenes, and check to see whether those scenes are sufficiently conflictual to maintain Millicent’s interest. Most of the time, they don’t.

Did I just hear the battle cry of all of those writers out there who were taught since their infancies that dialogue should speak for itself, and that it is inherently bad writing EVER to include a character’s thoughts in the midst of dialogue? Am I about to be on the receiving end of a body blow from those stalwart souls who have doomed readers to two or three pages on end of pure dialogue, devoid of other activity, or even markers of who is speaking when?

Oh, dear. How shall I put this gently?

If you are so gifted a dialogue-writer that you can convey every nuance of a relationship between two characters at a particular moment in time purely through dialogue, do so with my blessings. But honestly, if you have that particular talent, you might want to go into writing stage or screenplays. Novels, I believe, are places to show complex characters with interesting motivations, people who think and act as well as speak.

Personally, if I want to read transcripted conversations, a novel or memoir is not the first place I look. That’s what trial transcripts are for, after all.

I am aware, though, that there are plenty of writers — and writing teachers — out there who would disagree with me. (Look, Ma: conflict on this page!) If you prefer to follow their precepts, fine. But do be aware that it’s hard to maintain a sense of forward motion throughout pages of dialogue-only text, particularly if one of the speakers is a character the reader does not know particularly well.

(5) Consider the dramatic appeal of duplicity.

This is a great way to liven up those dialogue-only scenes. Few of us say everything that is on our minds at any given moment. Anyone who has ever been a teenager being lectured by a parent, for instance, or an employee shouted at by a boss, has direct personal knowledge of a situation where what is said out loud and what is thought is WILDLY different, where reproducing merely the dialogue would not give an accurate picture of what is really going on between these two people.

Almost everyone holds something back when talking to others — out of politeness sometimes, out of fear others, out of strategy, out of love. The struggle to express oneself without giving away the whole candy store is one of the great human problems, isn’t it? So why not let that struggle manifest on the page?

(6) Double-check all dialogue-based scenes for tension.

Is there enough conflict in them? If no emotion is being generated on either side of a discussion, there probably isn’t.

The conflict need not be large; an argument certainly isn’t appropriate to every scene. Are there a couple of small tweaks you could make to increase the tension between these characters, or the tension within the character’s own mind?

(7) Excise dialogue that doesn’t advance the storyline or provide memorable character development.

Is the conversation providing new information, or just rehashing what the reader already knows? If the latter, could the line be cut without the reader losing a sense of what is going on?

You’d be stunned by how often the answer is yes. Remember, repetition bogs down pace considerably. Trim as much of it as possible — yes, even if real-life characters would say precisely what you already have on the page.

(8) Scrutinize fill-in-the-friend scenes for conceptual redundancy.

Pay particular attention to scenes where the protagonist is telling another character what just happened; such dialogue is notoriously redundant. In fact, know a very prominent agent, one who gives classes and writes books to give advice to aspiring writers, who insists that any scene where characters are talking over ANYTHING that has already occurred in the book should be cut outright. However, since he also counsels removing any scene where the protagonist drinks tea, sips coffee, drives anywhere alone, or thinks about what is going on, I’m not sure I would advise taking his admonitions as revealed gospel.

But the next time you find your characters sitting in a coffee shop, chatting about what has happened in the previous scene, you might want to ask yourself: would the reader be able to follow what is going on in the book if this scene were cut?

(9) Check the beginnings of scenes (and chapters) for over-long set-ups.

Heck, check them for extra verbiage in general. The writing is often sparer at the end of a scene or chapter than at the beginning.

Why? Well, writers tend to compose in bursts, lavishing more time and detail upon the opening, hitting a groove in the middle — and rushing to get the rest of the scene on paper before that parent-teacher conference ten minutes hence. Openings also tend to be the most revised portions of text: if a writer comes up with a bon mot down the line, she will often insert it near the beginning of a scene or chapter.

(10) Generally speaking, a manuscript that has ups and downs will be perceived by the reader as more exciting than one that does not.

Consider changing the running order of the scenes. Alternating action scenes with processing scenes, or fast-paced scenes with slower ones, will give more movement to the plot.

(11) Experiment with varied sentence structure.

If you find yourself perplexed about the drooping energy of a scene whose action would seem to dictate tight pacing, try this trick o’ the trade: at exciting moments, make the sentences shorter than at more meditative times in your plot. That way, the rhythm of the punctuation echoes the increased heart rate of your protagonist. Your reader will automatically find himself reading faster — which, in turn, will make the suspense of the scene seem greater.

Good trick, eh? You can perform a similar feat with dialogue, to give the impression of greater underlying hostility between the speakers.

(12) Let the dialogue reflect the speakers’ breathing patterns.

We’ve talked about this one before, right? People breathe less deeply when they are upset; breathing shallowly, they speak in shorter bursts than when they are relaxed. Also, agitated people are more likely to throw the rules of etiquette to the four winds and interrupt others. It is not a time for long speeches.

Dialogue that reflects these two phenomena usually comes across to readers as more exciting than exchanges of hefty chunks of speech. If you are trying to make a dialogue-based scene read faster, try breaking up the individual speeches, providing interruptions; the resulting dialogue will seem more conflict-ridden, even if the actual conversation is not about something inherently conflict-inducing.

Seriously, it works. Consider this tame little piece of dialogue:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked. “I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like. The kids would love it; it would mean so much to them. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

Janie chuckled ruefully. “I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all. Even from preserves, though, the cherry cobbler you like takes a terribly long time to make. I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s pie recipe, the one she learned from that traveling pie pan salesman during the Great Depression. Infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey, with both: your Aunt Gloria certainly learned her lesson from that salesman well. But I’m sure that the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor, so to speak, show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

“Well,” Janie said, sighing, “you have a point, but I simply don’t have time to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

Not exactly a conflict-fest, is it? Now take a gander at the same scene with Albert and Janie taking shorter breaths — and some editorial rearrangement with an eye toward maximizing conflict. To make it an even higher dive, let’s maintain it as a dialogue-only scene:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, “to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

“I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like.”

“Even from preserves, the cobbler you like takes a long time to make.”

“The kids would love it. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

“I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all.”

“I’m sure the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

Janie sighed. “Look, I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s Great Depression cherry pie recipe…”

“Yeah, your Aunt Gloria certainly learned something from that traveling pie pan salesman.”

“…And infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it, even though the dialogue is almost identical? Hardly divorce-court material, even now, but now the scene isn’t about pie v. cobbler at all: it’s about clashing expectations within a marriage — and what does Albert have against Aunt Gloria, anyway?

If you really get stumped about where to break the speeches, try running around the block, then coming back and seeing how much of each character’s speech you can say out loud before you have to gasp for breath — thus allowing another party opportunity to speak up.

I swear that this really works.

(13) Consider the possibility that you may be able to convey the necessary tension by showing only part of the scene — or winnowing down a conversation to a quick exchange.

Sometimes, less honestly is more. If the goal is to put tension into this particular scene, do you really need more than the beginning and end of the Janie-Albert exchange?

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, ‘to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner. Your favorite cobbler takes an entire afternoon of my time, but I can throw together a pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Sufficient, isn’t it? That’s four lines of pure interpersonal conflict that could be dropped into any kitchen conversation between spouses of a certain age.

To coin a phrase, sometimes less is more. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XVI: but I don’t want to give away the whole candy store!

Have you noticed a theme running through the last few posts, campers? Yes, we’ve ostensibly been talking about dialogue, but in that fine tradition of narrative where there’s more going on than what’s going on, as Millicent the agency screener might put it, I’ve been sneaking in some other lessons as well. Many of them, as some of you may have noticed, have related to reducing the passivity of one’s protagonist(s).

On the off chance that I’ve been too subtle: a protagonist who merely observes the plot, rather than being a force — or, ideally, the primary force — driving it forward can bring an otherwise exciting story to a grinding halt while s/he ruminates. (Confidential to Elizabeth: you’re welcome.) Similarly, a protagonist who contributes minimally to a scene, remains silent, or does not respond to stimuli that would cause the calmest herd of elephants to stampede for the nearest exit can sap tension.

So it’s not entirely surprising, is it, that a protagonist who is purely reactive on page 1 might cause Millicent to worry about how exciting s/he will be to follow for the rest of the book? Let’s face it, even if the opening scene is chock full of unexpected conflict, seeing it through the eyes and psyche of a protagonist seemingly determined not to get involved, or even one who just doesn’t ask particularly incisive questions, may make it seem, well, less exciting.

Not to mention making the protagonist come across as less intelligent than the author probably intended. Last time, we saw how a character’s repeating what has just been said to him can markedly lowers his apparent I.Q. by a few dozen points. When a protagonist stops the story in its tracks to draw conclusions that would cause a reasonably intelligent eight-year-old to exclaim, “Well, duh!”, it can have a similar effect. Imagine, for instance, having to follow Pauline through a 380-page novel.

Pauline struggled against her bonds, but it was no use. Her tormentor must have been an Eagle Scout with a specialty in knotting, to tie her to the railroad track this firmly. “You don’t mean to…hurt me, do you?”

“Of course not.” Edgar sneered, twirling his mustache. “It’s the oncoming train that’s going to hurt you. Quite a lot, I should think.”

Her eyes widened to the circumference of her Aunt Bettina’s favorite teacups, the ones with the wee lilacs painted upon them. “Are you trying to kill me? Why? What have I ever done to you?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Depressed, he flopped onto a nearby pile of burlap sacks. “I just have this thing for tying pretty women to railroad tracks. You happened to be here.” He buried his head in his elegant hands. “God, I really need to establish some standards.”

Was he weakening? Over the roar of the engine, it was so hard to be sure. “Edgar? If you don’t do something, I shall be squashed flatter than the proverbial pancake.”

He did not even lift his head. “I doubt it. With my luck, a handsome stranger will suddenly appear to rescue you.”

A shadow crossed her face. “Why, hello there, little lady,” a stranger blessed with undeniable good looks said. “You look like you could use some help.”

She had to shout to be heard over the wheels. “Yes, I could. You see, Edgar’s tied me to the train tracks, and there’s a train coming.”

Miffed at me for ending the scene before we found out it Pauline survived? Come on, admit it — you were tempted to shout, “Well, duh!” in response to some of Pauline’s statements, were you not? Who could blame you, when apparently her only role in the scene is to point out the obvious?

Millicent would have stopped reading, too, but she would have diagnosed the problem here differently. “Why doesn’t this writer trust my intelligence?” she would mutter, reaching for the nearest form-letter rejection. “Why does s/he assume that I’m too stupid to be able to follow this series of events — and a cliché-ridden series of events at that — without continual explanations of what’s going on?”

That’s a question for the ages, Millicent. In this case, the writer may have considered Pauline’s affection for the obvious funny. Or those frequent unnecessary statements may be Hollywood narration: instead of the narrative’s showing what’s happening, the dialogue’s carries the burden, even though the situation must be clear to the two characters to whom Pauline is speaking.

Or — and this is a possibility we have not yet considered in this series — this scene is lifted from a book category where the imperiled protagonist is expected to be purely reactive.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions; what would be considered normal in one may seem downright poky in another.

Case in point: our Pauline. Her tendency to lie there and wait for someone to untie her would be a drawback in a mainstream fiction or high-end women’s fiction manuscript, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon. Heck, if this example were WIP, Pauline might not only be tied to a train track — she might be menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun.

As opposed to, say, a bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down with large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack. The latter would make a great heroine of an Action/Adventure — and the last thing Millicent would expect her to be is passive.

Unless, of course, Pauline is the love interest in a thriller. Starting to see how this works?

Even if she were a passive protagonist in a genre more accepting of passivity (usually in females; in the U.S., genuinely passive male protagonists tend to be limited to YA or literary fiction), it would dangerous to depict the old girl being purely reactive on page 1: the Millicent who reads WIP at the agency of your dreams may also be screening fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or any of the other genres that tend to feature active female protagonists. As a general rule, then, it’s better strategy to show your protagonist being active and smart on page 1.

Which is to say: place your protagonist in an exciting situation, not just next to it.

Also, you might want to make it clear from the first line of page 1 who your protagonist is. Not who in the philosophical sense, or even in the demographic sense, but which character the reader is supposed to be following.

Stop laughing; this is a serious issue for our Millie. Remember, in order to recommend a manuscript to her boss, she has to be able to tell the agent of your dreams what the book is about — and about whom. Being a literary optimist, she begins each new submission with the expectation that she’s going to be telling her boss about it.

Unless the text signals her otherwise, she’s going to assume that the first name mentioned is the protagonist’s. Imagine her dismay, then, when the book turns out a page, or two, or fifty-seven later to be about someone else entirely.

I can still hear you giggling, but seriously, it’s often quite hard to tell. Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a fairly typical opening page in a close third-person Women’s Fiction narrative. Based on the first few lines, who is the protagonist?

Were you surprised by the sudden switch to Emma? Millicent would have been. Perhaps not enough to stop reading, but enough to wonder why the first half-page sent her assumptions careening in the wrong direction.

That little bait-and-switch would be even more likely to annoy her on this page than others, because Emma seems like the less interesting protagonist option here. Not only is she an observer of the action — Casey’s the one experiencing the tension, in addition to having apparently been married to someone with allegedly rather nasty habits — but she comes across as, well, a bit slow on the uptake.

How so, you ask? Do you know very many super-geniuses who have to count on their fingers to tell time?

Now, as a professional reader, it’s fairly obvious to me that the writer’s intention here was not to make Emma seem unintelligent. My guess would be that the finger-counting episode is merely an excuse to mention how the rings threw the dull light back at the ceiling — not a bad image for a first page. But that wasn’t what jumped out at you first from this page, was it?

Or it wouldn’t have, if you were Millicent. There are three — count ‘em on your fingers: three — of her other pet peeves just clamoring for her attention. Allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your initial scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

Probably not, if you were reading purely for story and writing style, instead of the myriad little green and red flags that are constantly waving at her from the submission page. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her — and consider whether they would have bugged her in submissions in other book categories.

Opening with an unidentified speaker: Millicent remains perpetually mystified by how popular such openings are. Depending upon the categories her boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me give voice to the question that Millicent would be asking herself by the middle of the third line: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by not identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99.9% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game we already know she dislikes, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. As we have discussed, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as both old-fashioned and unnecessary. Which leads me to…

Including unnecessary tag lines: chant it with me now, campers: unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines (he said, she asked, they averred) aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Quotation marks around sentences are pretty darned effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

Most editors will axe unnecessary tag lines on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. If you are not sure about the norms in yours, hie yourself hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and start reading the first few pages of books similar to yours. If abundant tag lines are expected, you should be able to tell pretty quickly.

Chances are that you won’t find many — nor would you in second or third novel manuscripts by published authors. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts. So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism.

Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well — a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited. Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the one that follows. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors — every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1’s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about: this is such a common page 1 (and Chapter 1) faux pas for both novel and memoir manuscripts that some professional readers believe it to be synonymous with a first-time submission. In my experience, that’s not always true. A lot of writers like to take their time warming up to their stories.

So much so, in fact, that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4. Or 54.

How does this happen? As we’ve discussed earlier in this series, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anybody spot a slight drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary — and the protagonist as similarly ho-hum The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

Those of you who like slow-revealing plots have had your hands in the air for quite a while now, haven’t you? “But Anne,” you protest, and not without justification, “I want to lull my readers into a false sense of security. That way, when the first thrilling plot twist occurs, it comes out of a clear blue sky.”

I can understand the impulse, lovers of things that go bump on page 3, but since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense at the submission stage. Trust me, she’ll appreciate that bump far more if you can work it into one of your first few paragraphs.

Here’s an idea: why not start the book with it? Nothing tells a reader — professional or otherwise — that a story is going to be exciting than its being exciting right from the word go.

Bear in mind, though, that what constitutes excitement varies by book category. Yes, Millicent is always looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict, but what that conflict entails and how actively she would expect the protagonist to react to it varies wildly.

But whether readers in your chosen category will want to see your protagonist weeping pitifully on a train track, fighting off lions bare-handed, or grinding her teeth when her boss dumps an hour’s worth of work on her desk at 4:59 p.m., you might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page makes that conflict look darned fascinating — and that your protagonist seems like she’d be fun to watch work through it. Whatever your conflicts might be, keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIV: am I talking to myself, or is this guy not holding up his end of the conversation?

“A man of genius can hardly be sociable, for what dialogues could indeed be so intelligent and entertaining as his own monologues?” – Schopenhauer

Last time, I went on a rampage about one type of dialogue that tends to get professional readers’ proverbial goats: the astonishingly common practice of constructing tag lines centered upon verbs that do not imply speech. This one’s a goat-napper for good reason: since the whole point of the he said part of a dialogue paragraph is presumably to alert the reader to who is speaking those words encased within quotation marks, it’s both illogical and rather annoying when the text chooses to shoehorn a non-speaking activity into the sentence. As in:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Since neither scooped nor contemplated are speaking verbs, they cannot reasonably be expected to form the basis of a tag line, right? What the writer actually meant was this:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Now, that first comma makes sense: Hamlet said is the tag line completing the dialogue sentence. If a reviser were looking to minimize the number of tag lines in a scene — advisable in most types of adult fiction or memoir, to avoid a Jane, see Dick chase Spot feel to the text — that comma could be replaced by a period, and the original pseudo tag line transformed into an ordinary narrative sentence.

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

After raising this issue and suggesting a couple of viable solutions, I was all set to go merrily on my way — then, as so often happens, some thoughtful readers took issue with one of the fixes. The quite interesting debate in the comments centered around the question of whether the actual speech in a sentence like

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

meant something different than

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

The literal meaning is the same, of course; the question here is a matter of rhythm. In the first version, the speeches before and after the tag line are presented as a single sentence: “My uncle may be a murderer, but you can’t fault his taste in wine.” The comma implies only a minimal pause in between the two halves. In the second version, the period indicates a longer pause: “My uncle may be a murderer. But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Unquestionably, there is a difference, but would it really matter to most readers? Probably not, unless Hamlet were in the last stages of emphysema, rendering the utterance of a sentence of the length of the first too great a strain on his lung capacity to be plausible. Even Millicent, our favorite long-suffering screener of submissions to agencies, would regard both versions as acceptable, unless the text had already established a speech pattern for Hamlet that rendered either length of pause uncharacteristic.

Was that giant collective gasp I just heard an indicator that some of you had not been carefully constructing individual speech patterns for your major characters? Or did half of you just realize that a professional reader might well be paying attention to how and whether the dialogue permits those characters to breathe?

If you’re like most aspiring novelists, it was probably a little of both. Writers new to dialogue usually concentrate almost exclusively upon the content of what their characters are saying, rather than how they are saying it: it’s no accident that in most submissions, any given line of dialogue could come as easily out of one mouth as another. The vocabulary or grammar might vary a little, but essentially, all of the characters are speaking in the same voice.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “So am I.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“That would work for me. We could also swing by that all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re crazy,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “I don’t like tacos enough to die for them.”

In short bursts, this type of dialogue can work very well. It’s not particularly character-revealing, but it gets the job done.

It’s a lost opportunity for character development, though. Look what a difference simply giving one of the characters a different cadence and larger vocabulary makes to this perfectly straightforward scene.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “I believe it. It’s been an utterly exhausting day.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“If you that sounds tasty to you. We could also swing by that delightfully greasy all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re insane,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “No taco in the world is worth spattering our brains on the pavement.”

The literal meaning is quite similar, but now, a reader could tell simply by the cadence and vocabulary who is speaking when. There’s also more tension in this version: because most readers assume that complexity of speech is an indicator (although not an infallible one) of complexity of thought, the differential in vocabulary could hints at the potential for underlying conflict. Does she want him to talk more, so she is being wordier — and does that attempt annoy him sufficiently that he wants to scare her by driving dangerously? Was he fired that day, and he’s working up nerve to tell her that their days of going out to fancy restaurants are gone for the foreseeable future? Or has he simply been angry with her for the entire exchange, and was expressing it by being terse with her?

Quite a bit of bang for the revision buck, is it not?

The individuated speech patterns also could reflect what occurred just before this exchange, or ongoing conflict. Her lines would take more breath to say than his simple declarative sentences, as well as more effort: is he conserving his energy because he is dog-tired, or is he the strong, silent type? Did he perceive her statement about the greasiness of the food at the taco stand as a dig about his eating habits, something she has been nagging him about for the entire book? Or do these two people suffer under a chronic failure to communicate, and so they take refuge in discussing only mundane topics like whether they would prefer cheeseburgers or tacos?

Seem like a lot to read into an ostensibly ordinary exchange? Professional readers tend to like dialogue that operates simultaneously on several different levels, not only dealing with what is happening in the moment, but with ongoing dynamics. Such exchanges are not only about what is said, but what is left unsaid.

The pros even have a name for this kind of scene, albeit a rather cumbersome one: there’s more happening than is happening. One also hears it as there’s more going on than is going on, but you get the point. Instead of using the dialogue as a blunt instrument to move the plot along, reserving character development for the narrative sections, complex exchanges move the plot along while revealing character, conflict roiling under a seemingly placid surface, long-concealed resentments, etc.

That’s a nifty trick, one that requires a sophisticated understanding of the characters and the story to pull off. It also requires an acceptance of the notion that the point of dialogue is not merely to reproduce how people speak in real life. Just as not every real-world action is worth depicting on the page, the bare fact that someone might actually say something does not necessarily render it entertaining dialogue. A novelist is not, after all, just a transcriptionist: a writer’s job is to improve upon reality, to embroider upon it, to show it to the reader in new and unanticipated ways.

Which is why, should anyone out there have been wondering, Millicent tends to get bored pretty by conversations that don’t seem to be going anywhere, even if the actual exchange is, as they say, ripped directly from real life. It’s hard to blame her, either, when so much of the dialogue she sees runs rather like this:

“Have a hard day?” Ophelia asked.

“Yes.”

“I did, too.” She glanced at the clouds swiftly gathering over the moat. “Looks like rain.”

“Sure does. Did you bring the cat in?”

“Of course. You might want to bring the car into the garage, in case it hails.”

“It’s certainly been cold enough,” Hamlet agreed, “especially at night.”

“Um-hmm. Could you take the recycling to the curb on your way out?”

“Of course, hon.”

Yawn. We’ve all heard a million conversations like this, but since they are not particularly interesting to bystanders in real life, why would we buy a book to see them reproduced on the page? Or, to recast this in revision terms, if a discussion neither advances the plot nor reveals some heretofore-unseen aspect of character, why keep it?

Perhaps I’m an unusually demanding reader — I hope so; it’s my day job — but if dialogue is not entertaining or informative, I’m just not interested. If a character is spouting things that anyone might say, those stock phrases tell me nothing about who she is as an individual. All that standard chit-chat tells me is that the author has conflated realistic dialogue — i.e., speech that sounds as though a real human being might actually have said it — with real dialogue, actual speech transcribed on the page.

Learning to tell the difference is an essential skill for a novelist (and it’s pretty helpful for a memoirist as well). Why? To a professional reader, every line of dialogue has to earn its place on the page.

I heard all of you slice-of-life lovers gasp and mutter, but honestly, you would be hard-pressed to find even a single professional reader who would agree that any given line of dialogue has a right to appear on a manuscript page just because an actual person said it. Selectivity is the soul of good writing, after all. Realism is fine, in moderation, but after one has read a few thousand manuscripts in which characters say scads of not-very-interesting things simply because people talk that way, dialogue that is merely realistic can lose a lot of its charm.

Hey, didn’t someone mention something about the desirability of dialogue that serves more than one narrative purpose? Or did I dream that?

Exchanges that rely solely upon sounding like actual speech can seem especially trying if the one in front of Millicent happens to be the 10th or 20th of the day’s crop of manuscripts that features dialogue-only scenes. Why are they so common in submissions? Because an astonishingly high percentage of aspiring writers believe that dialogue in a novel is supposed to read like an excerpt from a play.

We’ve all read dialogue-only scenes, right? These exchanges that take the classic writing advice to make the dialogue itself, not an adverb in the tag line, say everything that needs to be said. After establishing who the two (seldom more) discussants are, the speeches alternate, sometimes for pages on end. Due to the subsequent absence of tag lines, descriptions of tone, mental asides, etc., the writer necessarily relies upon the reader to keep track of who is speaking when.

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

“You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

“You’re not always the one.”

“Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

“Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

This isn’t terrible dialogue, but you must admit, there’s nothing much happening here except what’s happening. Because of the presentation style, all the reader sees is what is on the surface. That’s not entirely coincidental: such exchanges are usually predicated on the assumption that human beings say precisely what is on their minds 100% of the time.

“So much for subtext,” Millicent mutters. “When I bicker, I like to think that my jibes connect on a variety of complex levels.”

I’m with you, Millie: I seldom find long dialogue-only scenes especially realistic, even if the speeches themselves ring true. Why? Well, the import of face-to-face human interactions seldom lies entirely in the words spoken. Tone, body language, nervous tics, grandiose gestures — all of these play into how one party interprets another’s intended meaning. By presenting the dialogue only, the writer is leaving the reader to fill in all of these potentially important details herself.

Then, too, at the risk of shocking you, it’s been my experience that few people say precisely what they mean every time they open their mouths. No one is perfectly articulate at all times, and frankly, who would want to be? Good manners alone dictate that not everything one thinks should come hopping out of one’s mouth.

Ask your mother. She’s with me on this one.

Speaking of not speaking out of turn, I’ve been sensing those of you who favor dialogue-only scenes squirming in your chairs for quite some time now. “But Anne,” tone-eschewers everywhere point out, “my high school English teacher told me that really good dialogue doesn’t need additional narrative text. If the dialogue genuinely fits the character and the situation, all of that body language stuff is merely window-dressing.”

I mean no disrespect to your sainted English teacher, squirmers, but that’s ridiculous. Admittedly, it was a very common type of ridiculousness in high school classrooms for about 40 years — specifically, the years when it was fashionable to try to teach every freshman to write like Ernest Hemingway. In recent years, adjectives and adverbs have come back into style.

The fact that there was a period in 20th-century American literature when they went out of style is why your English teacher encouraged you to minimize their use in tag lines, by the way. S/he was trying to discourage you from engaging in 19th century-style tag lines, known for their heavy reliance upon adverbs to add meaning to speech. Basically, s/he didn’t want you to write like this:

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed laconically, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted with some asperity. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die,” he said morosely.

“You don’t want anything of the sort,” she replied irritatedly. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother,” he pointed out angrily, “the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother,” she said understandingly, “I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

A little of this style of tag line goes a long way, doesn’t it? Your teacher had a point: if the narrative relies upon how a character said something to convey the primary meaning of the speech, rather than the content or word choice, the dialogue plays a less important role in the scene. The practice discourages packing the maximum meaning into every line of dialogue.

What those of us for whom English class is but a far-off memory tend to forget, however, is that having students write dialogue-only scenes was an exercise intended to break the habit of leaning on tag lines, not a prescription for good dialogue. To extend that exercise and pretend that play-like exchanges are the only way to write dialogue well is to ignore the fact that most of the good novels of the last century have not embraced dialogue-only scenes as the norm.

In fact, acknowledging that human beings sometimes experience mixed motivations and respond to stimuli not in words or thoughts, but with their bodies has been a hallmark of literary and women’s fiction for several decades now. Or, as editors like to put it, “Could we get out of the protagonist’s head and into her body every so often, please?”

That’s not to say, of course, that dialogue-only scenes are never effective on the page — but like so many other high school English teacher-endorsed narrative tricks, it’s radically overused, and often applied to scenes where a fuller presentation of character, motivation, and non-verbal clues about what is going on would provide the reader with a better reading experience.

How so? Well, isn’t one of the primary benefits of a close third-person or first-person narrative the ability to show the reader what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head, torso, legs, and psyche? Dialogue-only scenes take that advantage and throw it out the window.

And with it often flies the sense that more is going on that meets the eye. Take a gander at how easy it is to add complexity to Hamlet and Ophelia’s philosophical debate by allowing for the possibility that the protagonist in this tight third-person scene has mixed motivations — and that her discussant is sending her non-verbal clues as to his mood.

Hamlet hung up the phone with a bang. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Oh, God, he was at it again. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

Ophelia hauled out her standard soothing argument and dusted it off for reuse. “You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

He slumped in his chair like a schoolboy waiting outside the principal’s office. “If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

He picked at his nails, even though he knew it annoyed her. “Easy for you to say.”

Her jaw ached with the strain of not nagging him to stop. “And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

His face lit up; was he enjoying this? “You’re not always the one.”

She pictured him wrapping the lamp cord around his neck, jumping off the nearest bridge, sticking his pinkie into the light socket, but her tone remained sympathetic. “Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

Yeah, well, you’ve turned out to be no bargain, either, sweetheart. “Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? Not a syllable of dialogue is changed from the previous two examples, but now that we can see Hamlet’s behavior and hear Ophelia’s thoughts, the scene is infused with an adrenaline burst of conflict. On the surface, it’s not a fight, but few readers would not catch the underlying tension between these two characters.

To put it bluntly, that makes this a more interesting scene. Why? It operates on more than one level.

“But Anne,” those of you who shrink from depicting conflict on the page pipe up gently, “this makes Ophelia seem really hostile. If she were my protagonist, I would worry that readers would find her completely unlikable.”

That’s a completely legitimate concern, sweetness-mongers, but remember, in that last example, she’s not saying any of those things out loud. In fact, she is making a substantial effort not to be aggressive. She’s merely disagreeing with him.

And that would tend to render her a more interesting protagonist, from Millicent’s perspective; her inbox is perennially stuffed to the gills with books about people too nice (or too shy) to disagree with anyone, ever. Interpersonal harmony may be quite nice on the page, but it can make for some pretty stultifying dialogue.

Not sure why unvarying sugar and spice might get a tad tedious? Here is a representative sample of the kind of conflict-avoiding dialogue super-nice protagonists tend to utter.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning.”

“That’s awful.”

“After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard.”

“That’s so unfair.”

“I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

“You’re only one person. You can’t do everything.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“Really?”

Had enough yet? Millicent has. If you’re not sure why, allow me to ask you: what precisely do Ophelia’s lines add to this scene, other than a vague undercurrent of supportiveness?

On the fence about that one? Okay, let’s apply a standard editorial test for whether a section of dialogue has slipped into the realm of monologue. Here it is again, with all but Ophelia’s first line excised.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning. “After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard. I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

Pretty much the same, isn’t it? By lobbing softball questions that do little more than prompt Hamlet to continue, Ophelia is not a full participant in this scene — she’s a bystander.

Surprisingly, while this kind of monologue-enabling behavior can seem quite supportive in real life — who doesn’t like someone to make sympathetic noises while pouring out one’s woes? — it usually does not render a protagonist more likable on the page. Why not? Well, think about it: is Ophelia helping move the plot along in the last set of examples? Or is she slowing it down by contributing dialogue that doesn’t add anything substantial to the exchange?

To be fair, a single scene of harmonious agreement is probably not going to lead the average reader to begin muttering, “Get on with it, plot.” That sort of response tends to greet the habitually non-confrontational protagonist.

But Millicent is not the average reader, is she? Particularly in dialogue gracing the opening pages of a manuscript, she wants to see not only conflict — external or internal — but dialogue that reveals character. Beyond the fact that Ophelia is generally supportive of Hamlet, what does her dialogue in that last example reveal?

So if the protagonist seems passive and not prone to complex reactions on page 1, would you keep reading just because she seems like a human being who might be nice to know in real life? Or would you shout, “Next!” and move on to the next submission in the hope of discovering a protagonist more likely to do something to move the plot along or surprise you with unexpected depth?

Don’t worry; I shan’t make you give your answer out loud. It might make you seem less likable to other writers.

Softball questions like “Really?” and “How so?” are one means of disguising monologue as dialogue. Another is to have one of the participants in a discussion go on far longer than most real-life hearers would tolerate. In everyday life, people can’t wait to give their opinions: they interrupt, ask questions, contradict, offer anecdotes from their own experience.

On the manuscript page, however, characters are all too given to waiting in tranquil silence while another character lectures them. Often, such speeches devolve into Hollywood narration, permitting the writer to wedge information that both parties already know into the dialogue, so the reader can learn about it, too.

Go ahead and pitch that softball, Ophelia, so Hamlet can take a swing at it.

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden. You see, Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without Dad’s noticing. He was a sitting duck. You know how loudly he snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Uncle Claudius must have seen his chance to hold onto the throne — which, as you may recall, he had been occupying while Dad was off at war. Now that Dad was back, he was in line for a serious demotion.”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder. This seems completely far-fetched to me.”

“That’s because you aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing. He’s been after her for years, and while she’s done nothing but encourage him in public, she’s been sending him awfully mixed messages. Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest? You thought she was only trying to prevent us from winning, or to push me to pop the question, but I’m positive that she was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

“I did think that at the time, I’ll admit. But you still could be imagining most of this.”

Given how strongly Ophelia disagrees with what Hamlet is saying, it’s rather surprising that she lets him go on at such length before she even attempts to chime in, isn’t it? If this were a real-world argument, she would have jumped in every time he paused for breath.

How might a reviser know when that might be? You probably saw this one coming: by reading the scene IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD. Unless Hamlet has the lung capacity of an Olympic swimmer, he’s not going to be able to get the extensive arguments above out of his mouth in single breaths. The exchange would probably be closer to this:

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden.”

She hated it when he stopped taking his medication. “Where anyone might have seen him do it?”

“But the garden was empty. Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without his noticing.”

“Claudius was wearing body armor that night. He couldn’t have budged without waking every bird in the garden.”

“You know how loudly Dad snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it.”

She changed tactics. Maybe humoring his fantasy would calm him down. “Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it was possible. Why would your uncle want to kill his own brother?”

He looked at her as though he thought she’d tumbled off her rocker. “Because he didn’t want to give up the throne, of course. Now that Dad was back from the war…”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder.”

“You aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing.”

Not that old court gossip again. “Do you honestly believe that he has a chance? He’s her brother-in-law, for heaven’s sake.”

“Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest?”

Darned right she remembered: Gertrude had never been light-handed with her hints about their getting married. “She just didn’t want us to win. I could limbo circles around her.”

He leaned close, whispering conspiratorially. “She was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

Reads more like an argument, doesn’t it? That’s not only the effect of editing out the Hollywood narration: by breaking up Hamlet’s soliloquies into reasonable bursts of breath expenditure, the rhythm of the scene increases markedly.

Speaking of energy expenditure, that’s quite a few examples for a single post. Rather than lecture you further, I shall save my breath for future posts. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIII: repetitive activities and other things that wouldn’t be interesting to most readers if you set them on fire

Before I launch into today’s festivities, campers, I would like to call your attention to some festivities on this coming Saturday, April 9th. At 6 p.m., Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience will be holding its annual fundraising dinner and auction. A door prize for all attendees: a pre-release copy of Harold Taw’s The Adventures of the Karaoke King.

What a creative promotion idea, eh?

If Harold Taw’s name sounds familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while, it should: Harold is the long-time member of our little community whose first novel got plucked out of the plethora of entries in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and brought to publication through AmazonEncore. I plan to be raising a toast to his book’s astonishing journey to publication at his book release party at Elliott Bay Books on April 27th, by the way, while folks are marking calendars; I’d love to lead the wave in an Author! Author! cheering section.

As eagle-eyed readers may have been able to discern through the lines of that last paragraph, I love announcing my readers’ triumphs along the long and bumpy road to publication. Keep that good news rolling in, everybody!

While we’re on the subject of subtleties of the tossing-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window variety — how’s that for a light-handed segue? — I’d like to devote today’s post to a species of manuscript problem that seems to be practically invisible to most writers who produce it. The fact that it is so hard for a self-editor to catch, however, in no way impairs its ability to irritate professional readers like our old pals, Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, to madness.

“Not again!” Millicent exclaims, her fingers itching to reach for the form-letter rejection pile. “This submission has gotten caught in a conceptual repetition loop!”

Surprising that a subtle problem could engender such a strong reaction? Don’t be: professional readers are trained to focus on the little stuff. Millicent in particular is trained to be on the look-out for typos, formatting problems, missing words, and all of the other signs that a manuscript is at least one revision away from being ready to market to editors.

Or, to express it in her terms, a submission that causes her itchy fingers to make actual contact with that stack of rejection letters. “Next!” she cries.

Yes, I know: I harp quite a lot on the importance of a manuscript’s being completely clean — at least in the opening pages — in order to skirt the specter of knee-jerk rejection, but I’m continually meeting very talented aspiring writers who complain about how often their work is getting rejected…but haven’t taken the time to remove, or even notice, the seven typos within the first two pages of their texts. While it’s certainly understandable that someone who wants to write for a living would be shocked or even horrified upon learning just how high professional standards actually are, this is no time to be in denial: assuming that one’s first draft is going to meet those standards without further revision or even proofreading has led thousands upon thousands down the primrose path to rejection.

Has that sunk in this time, or shall I play another verse on my harp? My fingers are all warmed up now.

To be fair, even writers who have been working on their craft for years are often stunned to realize that the pros pride themselves on noticing everything. And with good reason: contrary to popular opinion, to a pro, the proper use of language is an integral part of an author’s literary style and voice, not a purely cosmetic addition to it.

As a freelance editor, I find it fascinating how often aspiring writers equate Millicent’s focus on proper language use — which is part of her job, incidentally — with a dislike of good writing. In reality, quite the opposite is usually true: the people who choose to work in agencies and publishing houses almost invariably love beautiful writing and strong stories.

Paradoxically, this affection for the well-constructed sentence often renders reading a promising submission or contest entry more irritating than one where the writing just isn’t very good. “Oh, dear,” Mehitabel says, shaking her head regretfully over a page full of potential, “I hate it when this happens. If only this writer had taken the time to notice that he’s made the same point four times over the course of this scene, it would have been so much more compelling. Next!”

Seem like a petty reason to knock an otherwise well-written entry out of finalist consideration? Actually, it’s a rather common one. As I hope has become clear over the course of this series on notorious professional readers’ pet peeves, the manuscript problems that cause Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel to rend their garments are not always major gaffes like an authorial indifference to punctuation or a storyline that provokes the ejaculation, “Huh?” every other line.

They see those kinds of submissions, of course, but astonishingly often, the irritant is simply a page of text that makes the same point too many times. Why, here’s an example of that species of scene coming along right now.

See if you can catch the subtle narrative problem that might elicit a cry of, “Next!” Actually, you might want to hunt for three of them.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse flicked the blindingly white tablecloth over the polished oak surface. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He settled the cloth over the table. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities, Alphonse.”

“Nonsense.” He smoothed the tablecloth over the flat surface, checking for any lingering wrinkles his iron had missed. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

“But Alphonse, we can’t afford to keep you.”

He lowered a fork into its proper place. “I don’t cost much, Carol. I live mostly on my tips.”

She pounded the table, making the fork dance. “Alphonse, you live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” Alphonse reached to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” Carol shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the fork and spoon he had just placed. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

Alphonse laid down a soup spoon. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Come on, admit it — by halfway through this excerpt, you wanted to shout, “Criminy, Alphonse, enough with the table-setting! Move on to something else.”

So would Millicent, and she has the power to enforce that preference. Being editorially trained, she’s more likely to express it as, “Um, couldn’t most of the inter-dialogue narrative have been replaced very adequately by Alphonse set the table with care?” but you get the picture, right? To an intelligent reader who is paying attention, attenuating the description of a process by mentioning each and every step can make a scene seem much longer than it is.

In a case like this, where the activity is not inherently interesting — he’s setting a table, for heaven’s sake, not cross-checking the details for the first manned flight to Venus — it can be downright irritating. That page space could have been used for far more fascinating ends.

We’ve discussed a version of this phenomenon before, right? The Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem dogs many a manuscript submission: instead of just stating that a character does something relevant, like answer a ringing doorbell, the narrative will describe him hearing the ring, rising from his seat, taking step after step across the room, opening the door into the hallway, passing down the hallway, approaching the front door, grasping the knob, turning it, and pulling.

All of which could quite nicely be summed up as The doorbell rang. Yves answered it., right?

The meticulous-minded have had their hands politely raised for the last few paragraphs. Yes? “But Anne,” process-huggers protest, “I don’t agree that Alphonse has a WATR problem. The passage above merely shows his attention to minute detail, showing (not telling) that he’s a perfectionist. That’s legitimate character development, isn’t it?”

Well, in a way, detail-hounds. Yes, it demonstrates character; it’s just not the most interesting way to do it. Nor are these details in and of themselves likely to hold the reader’s attention.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about these problems being difficult to catch in one’s own work. To Alphonse’s creator, all of the mundane specifics above may well be gripping.

Remember, though, just because a character might conceivably perform an action isn’t necessarily enough reason to include it a manuscript. Since this is a process that it’s safe to assume every reader will have observed before, however, the page space would be better spent demonstrating his attention to detail in an activity with which most readers will be less familiar — constructing a multi-layered wedding cake, for instance.

Or at least one that tells the reader a little more about what kind of restaurant it is. Take a gander at how much more revealing this scene is if our Alphonse busies himself prepping the restaurant’s signature dessert.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse sharpened his personal paring knife — off-limits to the rest of the wait staff — on the whetstone he kept in his left pants pocket. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He wiped the gleaming knife on his handkerchief. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities, Alphonse.”

“Nonsense.” Holding his breath, he began cutting the zest off an orange in one long strip. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

She held her breath, too; if his blade slipped, the curly peel would be too short for the flames to dance down its liquored length to the customer’s coffee cup. “But Alphonse, we can’t afford to keep you.”

A perfect peel tumbled from his knife into the waiting silver bowl. “I don’t cost much, Carol. I live mostly on my tips.”

“Alphonse, you live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” Alphonse studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” Carol shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the brandy awaiting his match. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

With a pointing finger, Alphonse laboriously counted all of the ingredients on his café brulôt cart. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Nice way to combine character development for him and information about the restaurant, isn’t it? By killing the proverbial two birds with one stone, the reader is not only treated to a more interesting process to observe, but is faced with far less repetitive and predictable activity throughout the scene.

Speaking of repetitive, did you catch the two subtle narrative problems remaining in the text? Hint: one is on the scene level, and the other is on the sentence level.

If you grasped the nearest tablecloth, waved it over your head, and exclaimed, “The constant name repetition is visually most annoying,” help yourself to an extra orange off Alphonse’s cart. The characters’ names are mentioned far too often than is necessary for clarity. Indeed, since the only two characters in the scene are of different sexes, the narrative sections could dispense with all but the first of those eye-distracting capital letters.

But the narrative repetitions of their names actually account for relatively few if the iterations. The real culprit here is the extremely pervasive phenomenon of having the characters address one another by name far more often than people actually do in real life.

As a group, aspiring writers seem to adore this. Editorial opinion on why varies: some of us maintain that writers tend to compose lines of dialogue in short bursts, rather than entire scenes, so they don’t notice how often their characters are barking their names at one another; others assert that writers just like the names they have picked for their characters to want to see them again and again. (It’s not all that uncommon for first-time novelists to believe that simply changing a name will completely destroy the reader’s conception of the character, as if the name choice were so significant that no other character development was needed or wanted.) The more practical-minded believe that writers sometimes overuse name repetition in dialogue deliberately, to make it easier for readers to follow who is speaking when; the more cynical think that writers repeat the names to remind themselves who is speaking when.

If it’s the last, it’s not a bad strategy — at the composition stage. Alternating lines of dialogue where the count has gotten off is another of Millicent’s pet peeves, after all. It’s surprisingly common in submissions, and it’s often an instant-rejection trigger. Proofreading each and every line of dialogue that does not contain a tag line (the he said bit that identifies who is speaking), then, can make the difference between Millicent’s remaining involved in a dialogue scene and “Next!”

At the polishing stage, though, the training wheels should come off: the extraneous name markers need to go. Fortunately, if the scene is clearly written, with each character’s dialogue being distinct from the other’s, these cuts can be made with virtually no cost to the story.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse sharpened his personal paring knife — off-limits to the rest of the wait staff — on the whetstone he kept in his left pants pocket. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He wiped the gleaming knife on his handkerchief. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities”

“Nonsense.” Holding his breath, he began cutting the zest off an orange in one long strip. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

She held her breath, too; if his blade slipped, the curly peel would be too short for the flames to dance down its liquored length to the customer’s coffee cup. “But we can’t afford to keep you.”

A perfect peel tumbled from his knife into the waiting silver bowl. “I don’t cost much. I live mostly on my tips.”

“You live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” she shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the brandy awaiting his match. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

With a pointing finger, he laboriously counted all of the ingredients on his café brulôt cart. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Did it surprise all of you self-editors that I kept Carol’s shout of “Ambrose!” That’s the one that has the strongest emotional resonance: essentially, she is trying to call him back to reality. Now that all of her other repetitions of his name are gone, it stands out as it should.

There’s one final pet peeve that remains uncorrected — and no, it’s not the dubiously-constructed clause about the pointing finger. I’ll give you a hint: there’s an improperly-formatted tag line haunting this scene.

Or, as Millicent would put it: “Studded is not a speaking verb! Neither is reach! Next!”

Not positive what she’s talking about? Okay, here are the offending sentence from each version, ripped out of context.

“Well, then,” Alphonse reached to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

See Millie’s point now? No? Okay, would it help to know that what the author originally meant was this?

“Well, then,” Alphonse said, reaching to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

The problem lies in the first two versions of this sentence using reach or stud, respectively, as substitutes for said. Since only verbs that refer to speech may legitimately be used in a tag line, the end result is improper — and a misuse of that first comma.

How so? “Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, is a run-on sentence. In a tag line, the comma indicates that a speaking verb is to follow. So while this is correct:

“I’m coming, Harry,” Celeste said.

This is not:

“I’m coming, Harry.” Celeste said.

Nor is:

“I’m coming, Harry,” Celeste put on her hat.

Those last two look very wrong, don’t they? Yet you would not believe how often these errors appear in otherwise well-written dialogue. My theory is that it’s a Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon: aspiring writers may write tag lines correctly the first time around, but come revision time, they change the verb without noticing that they have not altered the punctuation to match.

Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel can’t believe the frequency with which tag line problems crop up, either, but their explanation tends to be less charitable. “If these people want to write dialogue professionally,” they ask one another over flaming cups of coffee, “why wouldn’t they take the time to learn how tag lines work? Or to proofread?”

You have to admit, those are pretty darned good questions. If you’ll just hang around while I set the table for 18 people, perhaps we could discuss them at length.

Just not, please, on the manuscript page; both life and Millicent’s overloaded reading schedule are too short to read repetitive descriptions of uninteresting activities. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what we have here is a failure to communicate — in a business that’s all about communication

What do you mean, most manuscrips get rejected on page 1? That’s ridiculus.

I can’t believe you’re telling us that presentation can count as much as writing style. Agents know to look past any minor problems to the actual writing.

I hate Millicent. She must hate literature, or else how could she possibly reject subission so quickly?

The publish industry has become completely shallow. They only care about what sells, so it’s impossible for a genuiney talented new voice to get heard. Why even bother?

You got me, commenters on my series on professional readers’ pet peeves: the publishing industry doesn’t care whether books sell or not; it’s a non-profit enterprise devoted to the promotion of literary art. Nor are agencies at all market-oriented: while they don’t actually object if one of their pet authors happens to have a book that sells well, they can all afford to take on every project that appeals to them, regardless of whether they think they can sell it or not. Agents have limitless time to proofread — or even copyedit — their clients’ work before submitting it to editors, so it doesn’t matter what shape a manuscript is in when they take it on, and since they never specialize in a particular kind of book, they take chances on writing they just like all the time. In fact, they have so much time on their hands in any given workday that Millicent the agency screener doesn’t actually exist: she’s a figment of my imagination, intended to fill you with fear. In practice, every agent in the United States sits down to read every single query submitted, as well as every syllable of every requested manuscript, before making up her mind whether to reject it or not. Since only bad writing gets rejected, this of course an easy task.

In short, there’s no need for a naturally talented writer to take the time to learn how to format a manuscript, much less proofread it. Or, heaven forfend, find out how the publishing industry actually works.

Do I even need to shout, “April Fool,” campers?

I sincerely hope not. I’m writing about real-world phenomena here, not my opinion about how promising new talent ought to be discovered. I’m only telling you about the norms; I didn’t invent them. But now that some of you have brought your concerns about how difficult it is to get published to my attention, I’ll just wave my magic wand, and…

Oh, wait a minute: not being the Literature Fairy, I can’t change the publishing world upon request. No matter how often aspiring writers plead with me to say I didn’t really mean it when I said that there are practical things they can do to maximize the probability of their work making it past Millicent, I’m simply not in a position to alter reality in this respect. Sorry.

Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I’ve chosen to take the hard path here at Author! Author!, concentrating on craft and marketing issues, rather than just being a cheerleader for writers in general. I don’t believe (as some writing gurus out there apparently do) that it helps aspiring writers much to view the submission process through a rosy, hazy glow: as both a lover of literature and a great believer in the intelligence of writers, I would rather show you the actual conditions under which your work is going to be evaluated, encourage you not to worry about the factors that are outside your control, and, yes, to urge you to consider altering your texts to improve your chances of impressing Millicent.

Rather than, say, investing your energies in resenting Millicent for existing at all. It’s not her fault that the competition to grab an agent’s attention is so very fierce.

Surprised to see me defending her? Don’t be: I’m rather fond of our Millie. Without her, it simply would not be possible for agents to give even a passing glance to the avalanche of queries that constantly arrive in their offices. Then, too, it’s hard not to feel protective toward someone writers routinely blame for a system she did not create.

Heck, blame is putting it nicely: because most aspiring writers understandably don’t tend to think of their own queries or submissions as just one amongst the thousands an agency receives, many just assume that if they are rejected, the problem must lie in the obtuseness of the reader, rather than in any problems in the manuscript.

From Millicent’s perspective, this doesn’t make sense: there is quite a bit of truth to the industry aphorism that most manuscripts reject themselves. Not merely via the kind of opinion-influencing pet peeves we’ve been talking about throughout this series, but through plain old weak writing. Or a story that’s just not very interesting, or one that’s not original. Or — and this often comes as a gigantic surprise to those new to the process — because it’s not the kind of book that her boss habitually sells.

And frankly, in most cases, it genuinely is possible for a sharp reader to spot these problems within the first page. Sometimes with in the first couple of lines. Most of the time, it’s not a particularly hard decision, or one that ties her up in agonies of indecisiveness. To put it bluntly, from where Millicent is sitting, the vast majority of submissions deserve to be rejected.

To most aspiring writers, this attitude would come as a surprise, and with good reason: all they believe is being judged in a submission is the writing style and the overall story. The former is either good or bad, their logic tends to run, with few possibilities in between: if the writer is genuinely talented, it will be instantly obvious to an agent or editor.

If the prose needs work, well, that can always be fixed down the line: it’s the voice that counts. Regardless of how hard the text may be to read due to typos, skipped words, light gray type because the printer cartridge was running on empty, etc., an agent who truly loves literature is going to read the entire submission, because, after all, why would she ask for 50 pages if she didn’t intend to read every word? Nor will she worry about niggling marketing issues like who the target audience is for the book: good writing sells itself. And even if it didn’t, that would be the publishing house’s problem, not the author’s.

Is here where I get to shout, “April Fool!” again?

Unfortunately, no: while not all aspiring writers draw out the logic to this extent, this is the basic mindset reflected in the comments at the top of this post. These sentiments — including, heaven help us, the spelling — are not exaggerations to make a point: they are honestly representative of the feedback I have gotten from aspiring writers over the years whenever I have gotten specific about red flags in manuscripts.

Oh, not all of the feedback takes this tone, of course; this is merely a vocal minority. The Author! Author! community is rife with urbane, sensible aspiring writers who honestly do want to find out why some manuscripts get rejected and others do not. Which is why most of the protests that inevitably arise whenever I start going through common reasons that submissions get rejected on page 1 — as the vast majority of them do, much to the chagrin of aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world — tend to take a much more dignified, thoughtful tone.

Not to mention being spelled better. Why, just today, incisive reader Nancy posted this well-argued comment on yesterday’s celebration of pet peevery:

Thanks for the post. I’ve been giving some thought to page one & chapter one revisions. But one thing bothers me about this post & how you present it. It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.

I love this kind of comment, because it both reflects a very natural resentment common amongst aspiring writers and an understanding rare amongst submitters that Millicent actually has an incredibly difficult job — much, much harder than it used to be before the advent of the home computer permitted the number of queries and submissions she has to get through in any given week to skyrocket. I’m not convinced that there are more people who want to get books published now than ever before, but technology has certainly made it significantly easier for the aspiring writer to get her work in front of Millicent’s aforementioned bleary eyes.

Oh, you had thought that she uses form-letter rejections — or, increasingly, no rejection letter at all — because she likes them? Au contraire, mon frère: it’s a matter of available time. Think about it: it’s her job to narrow the tens of thousands of queries and hundreds of requested materials packets down to the couple of dozen of manuscripts her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly read himself for consideration for the four or five (at most) new client slots he has this year.

Which is to say: our Millie doesn’t magically get more hours in the day if the current flock of submissions happens to be especially good. Talk to the Literature Fairy about that.

But that’s not how aspiring writers think about the submission process, is it? To the garden-variety hopeful querier or submitter, it’s practically unthinkable that the other writing projects the agency receives would have any effect on how an agent might view her book.

All that ever matters are the story and the writing style, right? Right?

From Millicent’s point of view, no. She is in charge of mediating the competition for those few client spots, not rewarding every prettily-worded submission that she sees. If her agency hasn’t been able to sell a story like the one in front of her for the last couple of years, she’s going to lean toward rejecting it. Furthermore, she reads too many manuscripts to believe that the way the text appears on the page is not reflective of how serious a writer is about his craft; she has observed too many book sales to regard whether an editor is likely to find the opening pages too slow as irrelevant to whether the manuscript would appeal to her boss.

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate, exacerbated by form-letter rejections that don’t let the writer know whether Millicent rejected a manuscript on page 1 or page 25. Or if abundant typos prompted her to stop reading, or if the story just didn’t interest her. Or — and this is positively mind-boggling, from a writerly perspective — whether she loved everything about the manuscript, but her boss just didn’t think it would sell in the current literary market.

Don’t think that’s a legitimate concern? Okay, let me ask you: why are you seeking an agent for your manuscript? Do you not hope and expect that agent to sell your book to a publisher?

Interesting to think of it in those terms, isn’t it?

Now that we are in a marketing mindset, let’s return to Nancy’s central question about yesterday’s post: if a writer bases a decision about what scene should open a manuscript upon what she thinks will appeal most to Millicent — or even gives some serious thought to how her book might appear to someone who read only the first page — is she pandering to the agency and, by implication, compromising her art? Or is she merely being market-savvy, and are the two mutually exclusive?

A perfectly legitimate set of questions from a writer’s point of view, right? To Millicent, they wouldn’t even make sense.

Why? Well, for the same reason that the question of selling out vs. artistic integrity has traditionally been much more of a concern for aspiring writers than ones who already do it for a living. From a professional point of view, there is not a necessary trade-off between good art and good marketing. If there were, getting published would be solely the province of those who don’t care about literary style, right?

“If an aspiring writer believes that,” Millicent says, scratching her head, “wouldn’t my being interested in his book be an insult? And how could a writer justify admiring an established author, who by definition writes for a specific market? This sounds like a Catch-22 to me — an unusually-structured novel that became a major bestseller, by the way — if playing to an audience necessarily means throwing one’s artistic values out the window, why would anyone who liked good writing ever read a successful author’s work?”

Allow me to translate, Millicent: aspiring writers sometimes assume that there’s only one right way to tell the story they have in mind — and that the author is only person who can determine what that running order is. From this point of view, it’s equally harmful to artistic freedom of expression for an editor to ask a writer to change the opening scene as for the writer to feel compelled to rearrange the text to begin with action, because someone giving advice on the Internet said — accurately, as it happens — that you tend to reject slow openings. In essence, both imperatives are based upon the assumption that it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the most effective way of telling a story in order to sell a book.

“Please tell me,” Millicent replies, “that you’re about to shout, ‘April Fool!’ Are you seriously suggesting that it’s artistically inappropriate for an agent to say, ‘Okay, new client, I like your book, but it would resemble other books in your chosen category — and thus be easier to sell to the editors who acquired those books — if you rearrange the running order?’ Most published novels get revised fairly heavily between when an agent picks them up and publication, and while new authors tend to kick up a fuss about it, most ultimately agree in the long run that the requested revisions actually improved their books. So I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone on my side of the submission packet who would say with a straight face that the author’s original version is the best or only way to structure a book.”

If you listen closely to both sides of this argument, you can hear how it comes back to that perennial difference of opinion about how and why books should get published. On the one hand, many aspiring writers would like to believe that it’s Millicent’s job — and the publishing industry’s duty — to base decisions upon what to accept and what to reject solely upon writing talent (defined by potential, rather than what’s actually on the page) and the inherent interest of the story (defined in artistic terms, and not by what readers might actually buy). On the other hand, many agents and editors — and their Millicents — proceed on the assumption that it’s the writer’s job to create interesting, marketable manuscripts written in a strong, unique authorial voice appropriate to the target audience’s already-established likes and dislikes.

A good writer, in their opinion, is one who can pull off this high-wire act without compromising the book’s artistic value.

Which is in fact possible, as the work of all of our favorite authors attest. But if a writer trying to break into the biz chooses to think of the demands of art and the market as necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s a significantly more difficult high-wire act to complete without tumbling to the ground.

And honestly, in my experience, speeding up an opening scene or making it read more like a story in its chosen book category seldom involves doing great violence the text. It’s often as simple as moving that great exchange on page 4 up to page 1, or drafting a conflict-ridden scene from later in the book to use as a prologue.

Or — brace yourselves, purists, because this one is going to sting a little — going into the composition process realizing that it would be desirable to open the book with conflict, rather than a scene where very little happens or one loaded with constant digressions for backstory. While you’re at it, including a strong, sensual opening image would be nice.

That’s not a matter of the market dictating content. That’s a matter of understanding how readers decide whether to get invested in a story or not.

I’m not just talking about Millicent, either. Plenty of readers habitually grab volumes off bookstore shelves and scan the first page or two before buying a book, after all. While readers’ pacing expectations vary widely by book category (and sometimes by country: even literary fiction published in the U.S. tends to start much faster than similar books published in the U.K.), you must admit that it’s rare to find a reader who says, “You know what I like? A story that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere until page 148.”

Is that blinding glare spreading across the horizon an indication that a whole lot of light bulbs just went off over a whole lot of writers’ heads? You performed the translation for yourself this time: the publishing industry — and its first reader, Millicent — believes it is doing right by its customers by habitually rejecting slow-opening books or those with plots that don’t seem to be going anywhere for the first 200 pages. It’s protecting them from — well, perhaps boredom is a harsh term, but certainly disappointment.

What makes publishing types think that they know what readers want? They have the sales statistics for what readers are already buying sitting in front of them.

Instead of debating whether past sales are necessarily indicative of the kind of book that will strike readers’ fancies a few years hence, let’s take a moment to consider from what Millicent is protecting the reading public. Generally speaking, it’s not vividly rendered, fascinatingly written exemplars of cutting-edge prose that send her groping for the form-letter rejection pile. A startlingly high percentage of what any screener or contest judge sees reads like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. It was cold in the castle. Myra shook her long, red hair down her back, shivering. She was tall, but not too tall, a medium height just perfect for melting into Byron’s arms. She walked from one side of the room to the other, pacing and thinking, thinking and pacing. The walls of the room were covered in tapestries needled by her mother who spent years bent over them. Myra barely glanced at them now.

Come on, admit it — you wouldn’t really blame Millicent if she rejected this, would you? The writing’s not interesting, the sentence structure is far too repetitive, and nothing’s really happening. About all it has going for it, from a professional perspective, is that all the words are spelled right.

Oh, you may laugh, but part of Millie’s job consists of saving the literary world from the rampant misspellings that characterize the average submission — and an astonishingly high proportion of otherwise rather well-written ones. Let’s don her super heroine’s cloak for a moment, to see just how difficult the decision to reject such a manuscript would be.

If you opened the day’s submissions and saw this novel’s opening, how likely would you be to recommend that your boss read it? Or even to turn to page 2 yourself?

This is not a particularly egregious example of the type of manuscript problem Millicent sees on a daily basis. If the formatting, spelling, grammar, and capitalization issues bugged you, you were reading like a professional: when a pro looks at a page like this, what she sees is how it could be improved. In this case, so much improvement is needed that she would automatically reject this submission. Better luck next time.

But if you were reading this page as most aspiring writers read their own work, you probably saw something different: the charm of the story, the rhythm of the writing, the great use of specifics. You would have reacted, in short, rather like Millicent would have had the page above been presented like this.

Now that the distractions are cleared away, it’s rather nice writing, isn’t it? It ought to be: it’s the opening of Nobel laureate in literature John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As those of you prone to thinking cynically about how hard it is to get published nowadays may be pleased to note, it would be nearly impossible for an aspiring writer to get this first page past Millicent today, even in the second format. Actually, even a very well established author might have difficulty getting this published now: that many ands in a row would put many a professional reader off. Essentially, this is a long list, rather than a fully fleshed-out description.

It’s also, by current standards, a rather slow opening. “Who is the protagonist?” Millicent cries. “And what is this book about?”

Based upon this page alone, it appears to be primarily about the writing — and that renders the peculiar sentence structure and choice to open with this material even more pertinent. John Steinbeck, no doubt, considered those run-ons artistically necessary; presumably, he also had a reason for electing to begin his story with this series of lists. When you have a Nobel Prize in literature, your readers may well be tolerant of this kind of thing. Even as a reader quite fond of the book that follows, though, I can’t concur in his choices: this page 1 does not even remotely do justice to the fabulously quirky characters and hilarious plot twists to come.

“This book is funny?” Millicent asks incredulously. “Could have fooled me.”

Actually, the opening page fooled you, Millie, and it’s hard to hold anyone but the author responsible for that. In Uncle John’s defense, though, his target readership would have grown up on Victorian novels, books where the early pages were often devoted to establishing time and setting through generalities. (And in the passive voice: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) It just goes to show you, the standards of what constitutes good writing are constantly evolving.

“Aha!” Millicent shouts triumphantly. “So much for the notion that good writing is always good writing. Take that, writers who want to blame me for readers’ ever-changing tastes! If I advised my boss to snap up every manuscript that would have sold readily 10, 20, or 150 years ago, I would not only be ignoring current literary tastes, but doing a disservice to those old-fashioned writers. It breaks everyone’s heart when we can’t place a book we love.”

That doesn’t require translation, I hope. Part of my goal in presenting Millicent’s pet peeves is not only to help aspiring writers realize that there is a human being, not a literature-evaluating machine, reading their submissions, but that since professional readers honestly do tend to like good writing, it genuinely annoys them to see a nicely-written opening marred by technical problems. Or a story with a lot of potential squandering the reader’s attention with too much backstory up front. Or — you were anticipating this one, weren’t you? — a beautifully worded first page making itself hard to market by eschewing conflict.

Is that the same thing as requiring a writer to compromise his artistic integrity or harm the story he is trying to tell? She doesn’t think so, nor, I suspect, would anyone else who reads manuscripts for a living. They have faith, even if aspiring writers don’t, that a genuinely talented storyteller will possesses the skills and creativity to structure her tale to grab the reader from the top of page 1.

Which most emphatically does not mean, as today’s commenter suggested, that every opening needs to read like the first scene of a thriller: “I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”

Yes, she is — and so was the argument in yesterday’s post. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, I specifically urged everyone not to begin page 1 with explosions or other genre-inappropriate activity:

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

Many, many aspiring writers misunderstand this point, so I am glad that Nancy brought it up. Allow me to restate it in clearer terms: no one is seriously suggesting that it would be desirable, or even appropriate, for a good writer to shoehorn conflict onto page 1 that doesn’t arise from legitimate plot elements and/or character development. Nor is anyone telling you that action-movie pyrotechnics are necessary to attract Millicent’s positive attention. To conclude that the publishing industry insists upon this kind of action at the opening of every book it decides to publish is to ignore what has actually appeared on page 1 of the vast majority of novels published in the United States this year — or, indeed, any year.

To professional readers, then, it’s downright puzzling to hear aspiring writers complain that the publishing industry has turned its back on non-sensational writing. Once again, we run into a translation problem.

This one arises, I suspect, from responding too literally to the words action and conflict. Although countless aspiring writers misinterpret marketing admonitions like open with action, throw the reader right into the book’s central conflict, and make sure there is action on page 1 to mean we’re not interested in any stories that could not be made into action films, that’s simply not what the advice means. (That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I was careful to phrase the rejection reason yesterday as not enough happens on page 1 and the story takes to long to get started, not as the more commonly-heard open the book with action.)

In literary circles, action and conflict can refer to relatively quiet activities. Yes, nearby objects blowing up are one kind of action, but so is the protagonist taking steps to try to challenge a situation she finds onerous, even in a very small way. Conflict can involve a Bruce Lee-style kung fu brawl, but it can also be a character silently disagreeing with the speech his boss is making, his subtle body movements demonstrating his ire. Neither term could be fruitfully applied, however, to the protagonist’s sitting around and thinking, multiple characters complacently agreeing with one another, or paragraph upon paragraph of backstory distracting from the current scene.

Even as feedback on a specific text, the advice open with action seldom means supply all of the ladies in the opening quilting scene with switchblades, and make sure that quilt is bloody by the bottom of page 1! Typically, when a professional reader suggests rearranging the running order or revising the scene to add action, it’s as an antidote to a scene that drags. Adding interpersonal conflict, placing a barrier in the protagonist’s path, or just plain having something exciting happen (“Look, there’s an albatross flying by, Grandma!”) are all standard ways to speed up a slow scene.

Again, none of these tactics would necessarily involve compromising the artistic integrity of the manuscript, interfering with the basic storyline, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the middle of a sedate tea party. Implementing them successfully may, however, require some good, old-fashioned creative thinking to come up with a means of introducing believable conflict onto page 1 — and, indeed, onto every page of the text.

Why? Because conflict is interesting; readers like it. Do you need a better reason than that? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XI: the many advantages of straying off the beaten path, or, did I drift off again?

I’m a bit drowsy today, campers; blame the lowering skies of a gray Seattle spring day. All I want to do is curl up with a cat or two and a new release by a promising first-time author. I would even feel virtuous doing that, because, let’s face it, if we all want to live in a world that’s open to giving a fresh voice a break, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep buying debut novels.

Oh, you hadn’t thought about it in those terms? Trust me, agents and editors do. They have to: those books are their bread and butter. And if you hope someday for a book to be your bread and butter, getting into the habit of supporting first- and second-time authors in your chosen book category is the single best way to encourage the agent and editor of your dreams to keep an open mind toward books like yours.

That’s more than enough moral reasoning for a sleepy day, I think. Since I don’t have Millicent’s ever-present too-hot latte in my hand, I’m going to devote today’s post to the kinds of faux pas that tempt her to keep downing them: opening pages that lull her into a deep, refreshing slumber. Or at least a jaw-cracking yawn.

I know, I know –-this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of my readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. Yet strange to report, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions snore-inducing. In fact, slow openings are common enough in submissions that no discussion of notorious pet peeves would be complete without some serious discussion of them.

Thus Millicent’s oft-burnt tongue: she’s just trying to stay awake. Not only due to the dreaded-yet-ubiquitous slow opening — you’d be astonished at how many manuscripts don’t really get going for 4, 5, or 23 pages — but also because once one has been reading submissions or contest entries for a while, the sheer repetition of certain premises begins to…be…

Oh, I’m sorry: did I nod off for a moment?

Frankly, I do not think we writers talk enough amongst ourselves about either of these widespread narrative problems. There’s a awfully good reason for that: since writers commit to spend months or years with a story, we’re usually pretty taken with the story. And nothing renders a section of prose more interesting than agonizing over every word choice, sentence structure, and comma.

So who can blame us if we don’t really notice that nothing much happens on page 1? Or Chapter 1? Or — and this is even harder for a self-editor to catch — if our openings employ similar narrative tricks to hook the reader’s attention and/or stray into plot territory that Millicent has already seen claimed by a few dozen aspiring writers within the last week?

Given how frequently similar tactics and premises crop up in submissions — and how very frequently those of us who read for a living complain about it to one another in private — it’s astonishing how infrequently agents, editors, or even writing coaches bring these problems to aspiring writers’ attention. Perk up your ears the next time you’re at a writers’ conference: when the pros give advice about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition don’t bore me is very seldom heard.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to a natural reluctance to admit in a room stocked to the brim with the authors of tomorrow just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while already know, the average submission gets rejected on page 1; one doesn’t hear that mentioned much at conferences, either. And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about implying in front of a group of total strangers that he has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

Hey, they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into an agents’ forum the morning after a long night of the kind of conferring that often happens in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening page 1, will ya? Now where is that conference volunteer with my COFFEE?”

On an entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned to those of you planning to give pitches at upcoming conferences that you might not want the first appointment of the day? Or one of the first several? (You didn’t hear it from me, but at the writers’ conference thrown annually in my neck of the woods, enough conferring goes on that on one memorable occasion, only two of the scheduled dozen or so pitch-hearers showed up for the scheduled morning pitch sessions. If we are to believe the agent who is still complaining about no one having told him that he could have slept in that day.)

Obviously, there’s nothing a writer can do about it if his page 1 — or morning pitch, for that matter — is being judged by someone in desperate need of a gallon of coffee and a B-12 shot, but one can maximize the probability of being the manuscript that makes Millicent’s eyes fly open. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid having your page 1 read like 4 out of the 16 first pages she has already screened that morning. Or like a third of what she has read in the last week. Even an innocuous writing or formatting problem may begin to annoy a professional reader after she has seen it 700 times.

In response to what half of you just thought very loudly: no, someone who has not had the experience of reading that many first pages probably would not know what those often-repeated problems are. (Although keeping up with new releases in one’s chosen book category would be an excellent means of learning what is and isn’t considered an outdated type of opening.) But yes, the pros honestly do believe that a serious writer would have taken the time to learn her craft well enough to avoid falling into these traps.

Oh, you thought I had devoted so many weeks of posts to common page 1 pet peeves because I liked chatting about them? I’m just trying to give you a peep into what it’s like to hold Millicent’s job.

They also expect, and with greater justification, that a talented writer with a strong premise won’t bore them before the bottom of page 1 — which is not by any means as easy as it sounds. These people see a LOT of plots, after all; if a Millicent is experienced enough to be able to tell from the first reference to a character’s hard childhood that he’s going to turn out to be the perpetrator of those seemingly random murders of everyone who was mean to him as a kid, it’s going to be difficult to keep her interested in the mystery.

And if that reference crops up on page 1 — as happens astonishingly often with plot flares — can you really blame her for muttering, “Well, I’ve seen this before; I want to see something fresh. Next!”

Okay, so maybe you can blame her, if it happens to be your submission over which she is muttering like one of the witches in Macbeth. But you can see why the sight of a genuinely fresh take on a well-worn premise might fill her with gleeful hope, can’t you?

Nor is predictability the only reason she might have the opposite reaction. Over the years, agents and their screeners have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them, and almost as many euphemisms. Trying to differentiate the various sub-species reminds me of that often-repeated truism about Arctic peoples having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying, I notice. Here, for your anxious perusal, are the most common reasons professional reasons give for nodding off over a submission.

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

There’s too much repetition on pg. 1 (!)

The narrative takes too many words to tell the reader what happened.

The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Millicent, however, is in a line of work where she actually does have to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting and boring.

Which is to say: all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m. All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

That startled some of you out of your late-afternoon doze, didn’t it? “But Anne,” past recipients of open with conflict admonitions point out, rubbing your blurry eyes, “I’ve always heard that the point of a hook is to draw the reader into the story. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that it mattered whether the opening was integrally related to the central conflict of the book.”

Well, I’m saying it now, and for a very good strategic reason. Remember earlier in this series, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends?

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1? Or what kind of novel it is?

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — by how many fiction submissions begin with frenetic action that has virtually nothing to do with the plot that follows, or that is wildly out of proportion with the action in the rest of the book. Because so many aspiring writers have heard that they should open their novels with conflict, Millicent’s very, very used to first pages that splatter the reader with blood or appall her with explicit violence. That alone won’t necessarily grab her.

Violence isn’t the only kind of conflict, after all. Nor is argument. Like so many other one-line pieces of writing advice, open with conflict is widely misinterpreted to mean a novel must open with a life-threatening (or life-ending) scene. While that may well work in a thriller, in most fiction book categories, it would be inappropriate.

So what kind of conflict do the pros have in mind when they spout this aphorism? Conflict between the protagonist and other characters, usually, or between the protagonist and a situation. A scene where the main characters disagree about how to solve the central problem of the plot. A disagreement between lovers. A winsome child abruptly noticing that her beloved cocker spaniel is missing.

Or, yes, a rural policeman stumbling upon some body parts, if that is genre-appropriate. Just make sure to pick a scene that is representative of both the story you’re telling and the prevailing tone of your book category.

If you aren’t sure about the latter, I have to ask: have you been reading enough recent releases of first- and second-time authors in your book category? (You didn’t think I’d tumbled off that high horse, did you?)

While you are conducting that little piece of self-examination, let’s move on to the next objection on our list, where’s the conflict? This cri de coeur gained considerable currency in the 1990s, when writing gurus began touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey to structure the story arc of a novel. Within that journey, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this can be an effective way to structure a book, there’s no denying that tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. I find this phenomenon fascinating, because most people’s everyday lives are simply loaded of conflict.

Oh, you’ve never had a coworker who got on your nerves?

Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1. Even if that conflict needs to be purely internal: Arnold cringed at the sound of plastic slapping into metal. Would Bruce never learn to treat the coffeemaker with respect? is, after all, as fraught with tension as Arnold stirred his coffee absently, unaware that Bruce had snuck up behind him, a filter full of steaming used grounds in his hand. They’re merely introducing different kinds of narratives.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how much and what kind of conflict is most appropriate to open your novel is to think about why writing teachers came up with the open with conflict aphorism in the first place: the many, many manuscripts that begin in a mundane present, introducing the protagonist and her environment before the central conflict of the book arrives to trouble her life. Millicent can’t even begin to count the number of page 1s she’s seen within the last month that began with something like this:

Arianna gazed out upon the blue-purple twilight, clutching her ever-present cup of tea. Peaceful tonight on Skullcracker Island, the perfect invitation to curl up by the fire with a good book. Spot rubbed purringly against her legs.

She bent to rub the furry orange head of her most recent shelter find. For a cat the vet had said was suffering heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder, the one-eared beast had certainly become affectionate quickly. “Don’t worry, Spot,” she crooned. “There will be a nice, warm lap for you soon.”

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

There’s nothing wrong with this as writing (although rubbed purringly might strike Millicent as rather purplish prose). In fact, it might work very well in the middle of the novel (if for some reason it were necessary to impress the reader with a great deal of information about that cat within a startlingly short stretch of text, and by telling, rather than showing).

But come on, admit it — even if the next line were

The axe severed her hand before the cat had finished rubbing against it.

you might have stopped reading before you got to it, mightn’t you? So would Millicent, in all probability. As a general rule of thumb (severed or not), if the first paragraph of a manuscript does not contain either conflict appropriate to the book’s category or a strong, nicely-described image, it may strike a professional reader as opening too slowly.

That got some goats out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” openers-with-conflict protest in injured tones, “I’ve always heard that I had to work conflict onto the first page, not into the first paragraph. Consequently, I’ve been making sure that my submissions feature a startling last line on the bottom of the first page, to tempt Millicent to turn to page 2. Are you telling me that she might not have been reading that far, since my first three paragraphs depict my protagonist chatting with her mother on the phone about nothing in particular?”

In a word, yes. And in several words: what on earth made you think that chatting about nothing in particular — your words, not mine — constituted opening with action?

Or, to answer your question on a more practical level: do you really want to make Millicent wait until the bottom of the page before depicting any relevant conflict? When she might not yet have had her morning latte? Or have slept more than a couple of hours last night?

The next two rejection reasons on our list — the story is not exciting enough to hold my interest and the story appears to be boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or — wait for it — the pace moves too slowly.

On the bright side, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it could be compelling reading. A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a paragraph or two.

Again, I doubt any of my readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under an impartial first reader’s eyes, just to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

Perhaps one that hasn’t had its morning latte yet, either. You might want to try scheduling your next meeting at 5 a.m.

The final three — too much repetition on pg. 1, taking too many words to tell the reader what happened, and the writing is dull — also respond well to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. As we have discussed earlier in this series, agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.

Ditto with excess verbiage and lackluster writing: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is –- please chant it with me now — to read your opening page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and 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.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would give you some concrete examples, but I feel a well-deserved nap coming on. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part IX: how can I possibly get from here to the door without a guide?

Last time, I brought up in passing the dreaded Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem, a scene or paragraph in which a character does something, but the narrative gets so bogged down in detail that the important action gets watered down — and the reader gets bored. Instead of narrowing down the steps to complete a project to only what’s necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on, a WATR text mentions everything that happens.

If you were one of the many, many readers who responded to that last statement by muttering, “Well, not everything that happens — surely, few writers go down to the molecular level when describing relatively straightforward actions,” allow me to introduce you to Millicent, the intrepid soul charged with screening each and every query and submission all the writers in the English-speaking world are aiming at the agent of your dreams. She would be only too happy to tell you that she regularly sees descriptions that range from the itty-bitty:

The boss had only just begun lecturing the staff, but almost without noticing, Zelda found herself itching all over. Not just on the top layer of her epidermis, the stuff that separated her from the rest of the microbe-infested world, but right down to the dermis holding her together. Indeed, even her hypodermis felt like it was crawling with minuscule bugs. She pictured the very nuclei of her cells needing to be scratched.

to the grandiose:

After the magma cooled to form the valley, life slowly began to emerge from the primordial ooze. First small, cold-blooded creatures barely able to wrest themselves from the slimy waters that gave them birth, then warm-blooded animals that hid in terror from the giant lizards stomping outside their burrows. Gradually, ponderous dinosaur immensity gave way to grazing placidity and hunting ferocity. Late in the game, man came, in packs and tribes, and eventually, in covered wagons.

Close to where the first settlers had carved out sustenance from the unforgiving ground, Arnie made a latte for his seventeenth customer for the day. Ten minutes into his shift, and the café was already packed.

Mostly, though, our poor Millicent is overwhelmed by the obvious, descriptions so loaded down with the self-evident and the unnecessary that she begins to wonder how aspiring writers believe readers make their way through the world. Surely, if readers actually needed directions this specific, we’d all be in trouble.

Liza did a double-take. Was that her long-lost Uncle Max on the other side of the fairway, about to hand over his ticket, push open the small gate, and walk up the angled walkway to the Tilt-a-Whirl? She would have see for herself, but he was so far away, and the crowd so large! Summoning her resolve, she set off in the direction of the carnival ride, walking firmly, but stepping aside to let others pass as necessary.

When she bumped into people in her haste, she stopped and apologized to them. She veered around children waving cotton candy, lest she get it on her favorite tank top. That would be all she needed, meeting her mother’s favorite brother with a great big stain on her shirt!

Suddenly self-conscious, she paused in front of the funhouse to take a peek at her hair and make-up in the mirrors. They distorted her form and face so much that she could not tell if her stockings were straight. Sighing, she resumed her quest, but not before rummaging around in her capacious purse for a comb with which to set her hair to rights and lipstick to redo her lips.

I’m going to stop Liza’s trek to ask you something: do you still care whether she catches up to her uncle? Indeed, has the narrative’s constant digression into unimportant matters convinced you that Liza doesn’t particularly care if she catches up with him?

And while I’m asking questions, what would one do with lipstick other than apply it to one’s lips? Doesn’t the writer believe that the reader is smart enough to spot the word lipstick and draw the correct conclusion?

“Specifically,” Millicent asks with some asperity, “does this writer think I’m not smart enough to make that simple a connection?”

Oh, she might not hiss this question through gritted teeth upon encountering such over-explanation in her first few manuscripts on a typical Tuesday morning. If she hadn’t been too overwhelmed with the post-weekend avalanche of queries the day before, she might well be feeling benevolent as she sips her first latte. When she encounters the same phenomenon in her 37th manuscript of the day, however, she will probably be feeling less charitable — and by the end of a long day’s screening, she might be so sick of submissions that seem to be talking down to her that her ire is raised by sentences that indulge in relatively minor over-explanation, such as When the light changed, he walked across the street.

Even that slight provocation could make all of those lattes boil within her system. “How else would a pedestrian cross the street?” she growls the page. “And don’t tell me when a character does something as expected as crossing with the light — tell me when he doesn’t! Better yet, yank him out of that tedious street and have him do something exciting that reveals character and/or moves the plot along!”

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. Yes, it’s a trifle unfair that the last manuscript (or contest entry) to make a common error on that day would be judged more harshly than, say, the third one that did it, but it’s certainly not hard to understand why. There’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

That’s necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you had already spotted the same easily-fixable error 50 times today (or, heaven help you, within the last hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #51 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

And do try to develop some empathy for her, if only to make yourself a better self-editor. If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, ubiquitous writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? Good — you’re in the right frame of mind to consider trimming your pages of some extraneous explanation and detail.

It will require concentration, because these manuscript problems are frequently invisible to the writer who produced them. Yet they are glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

Let’s begin with that most eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

Caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph is an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in the following novel opening. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting + to enlarge the image.

obvious example 1

How did you do? Is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with, other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm. Have I spent my life blind to all of those toes that aren’t on feet?

Seeing a pattern? Or are you merely beginning to hear Millicent’s irritated mutterings in your mind?

If you immediately added mentally, “That would be the mind in your head,” then yes, I would say that you are beginning to think like our Millie. That’s going to make you a much, much better self-editor.

Why? Well, once you are attuned to the possibility of this reader reaction, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. In fact, let’s go ahead and state this as a revision axiom:

Any statement in a submission that might prompt Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger. Therefore, all such statements are prime candidates for cutting.

I heard a few jaws hitting the floor during the first sentence of that guideline, so allow me to elaborate: and yes, even a single “Well, duh!” moment might result in rejection, even if the rest of the submission is clean, perfectly formatted, and relatively well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject — which is, presumably, why there are more words on the page. I’ve put them there in the hope that you will read them.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

I feel you losing empathy for her, but remember: when someone is reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — one is inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows, possibly somewhere in the vicinity of the ears. I’ve heard rumors that eyes have been spotted on the face.

To a professional reader in such a state hyper-vigilance, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

As luck would have it, we have already discussed some of the more common species of self-evidence, have we not? To refresh your memory, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the ostensibly innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to the bland sentence, The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance, or the cessation of that hail of bullets/lava/space locusts that has been following them around for the last reel, or the pile of bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film and asks fearfully, “Is there a storm coming?”

Or — if we’re thinking like Millicent — the protagonist whose first response to the sight of flames (vividly rendered in the narrative, of course) is to shout, “Fire!” What’s he going to do next, suggest to the firefighters that they might perhaps want to apply something flame-retardant to the immediate environment?

Trust me: the firefighters already know to do that. And Millicent is quite capable of contemplating a paragraph’s worth of smoke, embers, and licking flames and concluding there’s a fire without the protagonist wasting page space to tell her so.

Taken one at a time, naturally, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding triggers – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Let’s take a gander at a WATR problem in its natural habitat — and to render it easier to spot in the wild, this one literally concerns walking across a room.

obvious example2

See why a writer might have trouble identifying the WATR problem in her own manuscript? Here, the account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process. As narrative in a novel, however, it would be quite dull for the reader, because getting that blasted door answered apparently requires the reader to slog through so many not-very-interesting events. Yet that requirement is purely in the writer’s mind: any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it another way, is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity?

If we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, all the revising writer would have to do is allow the narrative simply to jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic. The result might look a little something like this:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Quite a saving of page space, is it not? Yet do you think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text lingering on the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Take another gander at the first version of Jessamyn’s story: every detail is presented as equally important. So how is the reader to supposed to know what is and isn’t important to the scene?

Seem like an odd question? It should: it’s not the reader’s job to guess what’s crucial to a scene and what merely decorative. Nor is it Millicent’s.

So whose job is it? Here’s a good way to find out: place your hands on the armrests of your chair, raise yourself to a standing position, walk across your studio, find the nearest mirror — if necessary, turning on a nearby light source — and gaze into it.

Why, look, it’s you. Who could have seen that coming?

There’s another, more literary reason to fight the urge to WATR. What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it. As we saw last time, a list is generally the least interesting way of depicting anything.

So why would you want Millicent to see anything but your best writing?

Where should a reviser start looking for WATR problems? In my experience, they are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore. Humanity is saved!

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details swamp the story — and since they appear on page 1, the story doesn’t really have a chance to begin. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Besides, didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you protest, desperately rubbing your eyes (in your head) to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making extravaganza. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In a revised manuscript, at least. In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans. “Next!”), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week. Next!”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop — my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement. Next!”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting all such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you feel morally positive that your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

“What do you mean?” writers of the obvious protest indignantly. “I’m merely providing straightforward explanation. Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed? Maybe we ought to add that he lifted the glass with his hand, just in case there’s a reader out there who might be confused.

In fairness to the beer-describer, the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin, especially when describing a common experience or everyday object. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his cobbler with a fork, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood, in fact. But see how much of it could be trimmed simply by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every word counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so. In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look for it specifically.

How might one go about that? Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

It’s late now, so I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

Heavens, I lead an exciting life. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VIII: details that might give Millicent pause

I feel as though I’ve started a disproportionate number of my posts this year with sorry about the silence of X length, so I’ll spare you another repetition. Suffice it to say that while my spirit is very much with the Author! Author! community every day, the flesh is weak. At least in the wake of cars smashing into it.

As an editor, I can’t help but feel that if recovery was going to take this long, or be anywhere near this energy-sapping, some medical person should have at least dropped a hint of it in the first act, back in the summertime. This is one instance where a plot flare would have been really, really helpful to the protagonist. But no — until January, the major characters (and their major insurers) just kept stringing me along with false suspense.

And we all know how I, Millicent the agency screener, and professional readers everywhere feel about that. “Next!”

Actually, my energy is rather low today, too. However, I figured that getting back on the proverbial horse with an uncharacteristically short post right now was worth two longer posts at some dim, unspecified future point — because, let’s face it, it’s probably going to be as tempting tomorrow to say, “Oh, I’m just not up to it today,” isn’t it?

That’s not a bad rule for writing in general, by the way: it can add years to a writing project if the writer keeps saying, “Oh, I’m not really up to/don’t have time for/just don’t feel like writing today; I’ll wait until I’m feeling better/have an entire day/weekend/month free/am bashed over the head by an indignant muse.” There honestly is value in sitting down to write regularly, rather than only when inspiration happens to strike or the kids are off at fifth grade camp.

Why? Well, I don’t think I’d be giving away a trade secret if I pointed out that while inspiration is undoubtedly important to the writing process, there’s no getting around doing the actual work of putting words on a page.

Shall I assume that breeze ruffling the treetops outside my studio’s window is the collective huff of indignation from those who believe that writing is 99% inspiration, and only 1% conscious effort? Normally, I would pause to point out that one virtually never meets a professional writer who sits down at the keyboard only when s/he’s inspired: after one has been at it a while, and had the experience of incorporating feedback from agents and editors (or a really on-the-ball critique group), one learns that waiting for the muses to clamor isn’t a very efficient way to get a story on paper. Besides, if inspiration produces complex book ideas, it will take intense application to flesh them out. For every second of “Aha!” in the production of a good book, there are hours, days, weeks, or even years of solid, hard work to realize those aha moments beautifully on the page.

As my energies are a bit low, though, I shall resist. Instead, I’m going to devote today’s post to a whole raft of genuinely tiny writing gaffes that set professional readers’ teeth on edge.

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly so, “isn’t that what you’ve been doing throughout this series? We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now about Millicent’s pet peeves, manuscript ills that might not individually engender instant rejection, but that cumulatively might add up to it. Because, as you so like to point out, few submissions or contest entries are rejected for only one reason: like wolves, manuscript troubles tend to travel in packs.”

How nice that you remember my aphorisms so clearly, campers. We have indeed been discussing consistent Millicent-provokers — which, lest we forget tend to annoy Maury the editorial assistant and Mehitabel the contest judge with equal intensity. As the series have been moving along, though, I’ve noticed that we’ve been drifting toward larger narrative problems.

Today, I want to regale you with honest-to-goodness nit-picks. You know, the stuff that drives editors completely batty, but an ordinary reader might not notice at all.

Oh, you weren’t aware of how differently a professional reader scans a page than everybody else? It’s pretty radical. Take, for instance, the following passage. To a lay reader, as well as the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, it would be fairly innocuous, but to a pro, it’s as irritating as all get-out. See if you can spot why.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila’s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

Okay, why might this annoy Millicent after her fourth cup of coffee? After all, it’s not badly written (if I do say so myself): the pacing is tight, the emotion convincing, and only a few of passages is in the passive voice. (I had mentioned that most professional readers are specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently weak prose style, right?) It even produces suspense by showing, rather than telling that Sheila is scared.

So why would Millicent’s angry teeth marks be clearly visible on the rim of her disposable coffee cup by the end of this passage? Let’s look at it again, this time as a professional reader would see it.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila‘s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

See it now? All of that name repetition is eye-distracting on the page — and as Sheila is the only person in the scene, not even vaguely necessary for clarity. In fact, if this excerpt is from a close third-person narrative, presumably the entire book up this point has been about Sheila, arguably any unspecified she is going to be presumed to refer to her. So why irritate Millie by inviting her skimming eye to leap from one capital S to the next on the page?

First novels and memoirs are notorious for having the protagonist’s name appear multiple times on a single page. A great test for whether name repetition is actually necessary: if any given repetition of the name could be eliminated, and it would still be perfectly clear what’s going on, the proper noun may not be necessary.

Let’s go ahead and see if that’s the case here. While I’m at it, I’m going to eliminate the other word repetition as well.

She stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, she continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either her descent or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: shoe, shoe, silence, thump from above. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, she was taking stairs three at a time.

Doesn’t change the action much, does it? An argument could be made that the original version’s Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall was a trifle creepier than the revised list; I might well have advised keeping it. Overall, however, this draft is considerably easier on the eyes.

Again, the poor trees outside are being visibly oppressed by gusty sighs from experienced self-editor. “But Anne,” lovers of 19th-century novels protest, “as an aficionado of the passive voice, I feel a bit cheated by the revised version: you seem to have skipped some of the work I would have had to do. You changed only one instance of the passive voice, yet the italics marking the other two vanished. Why, when you didn’t rework those sections?”

Good question, adorers of indirect expressions of fact. I removed the italics because chances are, these uses of the passive voice would not have struck Millicent as particularly irritating.

Why not? Simple: she was not already annoyed by something else in this passage.

Wow — was that a thunderclap, or did half of my readership just simultaneously shout, “Aha!” to the heavens? I can’t say as I blame you: it often throws aspiring writers for a loop to realize that the same sentence might irritate a professional reader in one context, but be perfectly passable in another.

Let’s take a look at another example, a phenomenon almost as common as over-naming. This time, I’m going to leave you to guess what would get Millicent gnawing the edge of that coffee cup like a hyperactive rabbit.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the sunset back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age 10 could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Not a bad description, is it? If a bit architecturally unlikely: the windows would have had to be pretty massive to give a lady on the street such a clear view inside. But that’s not what might stop Millicent from giving up on this house by the middle of the paragraph.

Some of your hands have been waving impatiently in the air since that second sentence. Have at it: “Anne, this is a Frankenstein manuscript: the writer repeated the image about the sunset within a single line, something that is exceedingly unlikely to happen either in initial composition — unless it was intended as a narrative joke — or to be the author’s intent in a revised version.”

Give yourselves a gold star for the day, eagle-eyed revisers. You’re quite right: what probably happened here is that the writer began to change that sentence, but did not complete the revision. Cue, if not Dr. Frankenstein, than at least Millicent: “Well, this one is still a work-in-progress. Next!”

Award yourself two if you also caught the red flag in the final sentence: a number under 100 in numerical form, rather than written out. That’s a violation of standard format for manuscripts.

Since either of those gaffes might well have triggered rejection all by themselves — yes, really, especially if either occurred within the first few pages of a submission — let’s revisit this passage with them excised. The lesser pet peeve will still remain.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the dying day back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age ten could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Better already, is it not? But did that over-long third sentence give you pause this time around?

It would have stopped Millicent dead, like Sheila, in her tracks, if not made her choke on her last sip of latte. But why? Again, it is showing the house, not just talking about it; the details here are rather interesting. So what is the problem here?

If you instantly shouted, “This information is presented in a list, not in descriptive sentences,” grab another star out of petty cash. While a lay reader might not mind an occasional list of attributes in establishing what a space or a person looks like to a professional reader, that third sentence would read like the notes for a future version of this description, not the description itself.

Generally speaking, a list is the least interesting way to describe, well, anything — and isn’t it the writer’s job to describe things, places, and people beautifully?

To be fair, list sentences like the one above are considered a trifle more acceptable in nonfiction writing, although still not regarded as particularly scintillating prose style. In fiction, however, Millicent tends to read them as what they are: the single quickest way to slap a whole bunch of attributes down on the page.

That might not be especially problematic if such a sentence appeared, say, once or twice in an entire manuscript — although it’s a common enough pet peeve that I would strenuously advise against the use of a list description within the first couple of pages of a submission, or even within the first chapter. Unfortunately, writers fond of this type of sentence will often use it several times within a single scene.

Or even — sacre bleu! — a single page.

That last observation sent some of you scrambling for your manuscript, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised. List descriptions are ubiquitous in physical descriptions of, for instance, the variety indigenous to the opening pages of novels.

Often, several such sentences appear back-to-back, causing Millicent’s fingers to positively itch for a form-letter rejection. And who could blame her, confronted by prose this purple?

Sheila stopped short on the threshold, her long, red hair whipping around her head like an impetuous halo. She was dressed in a purple skirt that hid her fine, well-developed legs, an orange peasant blouse cut low enough to elicit a whistle from Figgis, the butler who opened the door, and a rust-colored belt that left no doubt as to the excellence of her corsetiere. Her lithe waist, elegant arms, and lengthy neck alone bespoke years of painstaking dance training under the tutelage of a bevy of governesses, while the proud tilt of her head, the willful flash of her eye, and imperious gesture at Figgis might have told an onlooker that she must have put those poor governesses through a merry hell throughout her formative years. Only her stout boots, betopped by fringed stockings, and the muddy lace of the pantaloons peeking out from beneath the folds of her gown belied the impression of a fine lady.

I’m not even going to try to revise that one: it’s a laundry list, in some portions literally. Surely, a talented writer could have come up with a more graceful way to introduce Sheila to the reader. At the very least, a writer with some sympathy for how many first pages Millicent sees in a week would not have opened the book with all of that tempestuous red hair.

Only long, blonde hair is more common for heroines. Would it kill you people to treat Millicent to the sight of a Dorothy Hamill pixie or a Louise Brooks bob every now and again, just for variety?

Another way in which lists often torture Millicent’s soul at screening time is in descriptions of physical activity by writers who — how can I put this delicately? — are evidently laboring under the mistaken impression that the primary point of writing is to tell the reader everything that happened, right down to the last twitch of a toe. Although on the page, not every action is equally relevant to what’s going on or even particularly interesting to see mentioned, a hefty proportion of aspiring novelists and memoirists routinely devote line after line to lists of actions that, frankly, the narrative could probably have done without.

And that’s unfortunate at submission time, as Hades hath no fury like a Millicent bored. It’s hard to blame her, either. See for yourself.

Sheila stopped short, contemplating the task ahead of her. In order to rescue that puppy, she would have to roll up her sleeves, hike up her skirt, and risk her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape, stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch once greeted visitors, shimmied across, and jumped lightly across the threshold. It was dark inside, cobwebby, dusty, and generally uncared-for. Reaching into her pocket — not the one concealed under her skirt, holding her identification papers, but the one just under the lapel of her close-fitting jacket — she felt around until her fingertips made contact with her great-grandfather’s trusty lighter, drew it forth, and struck it with the pad of her dainty thumb seven times until flame spurted from its top. Holding it high above her head so none of her long, red hair would catch fire, she placed one foot in front of another, moved out of the doorway, edged her way across the foyer, and walked toward the living room.

It’s not many lines of text, but ‘fess up: by the middle of the paragraph, you were ready to scream, “Get on with it, already!”

Millicent would be only too glad to join you in that refrain. Especially since all of the actually interesting and plot-relevant information in this passage could have been neatly summarized thus — and better still, shown, not told:

Rescuing that puppy would endanger her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape and stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch had once been. She brushed aside the cobwebs concealing half the doorway. It took seven tries to convince her grandfather’s battered gold lighter to produce flame. Holding it high above her head, she edged her way toward the living room.

Still not the happiest of phrasing, admittedly — but isn’t it astonishing how little taking out all of that extra activity detracts from the reader’s sense of what is going on? Now, Sheila appears to make up her mind, then take quick, decisive action.

One last pop quiz on Millicent-irking, then I shall sign off for the day. Assuming that all of these excerpts came from the same manuscript, why might a harried screener have been shouting, “Next!” by the time her overworked eyeballs encountered the first sentence of the last example, regardless of what followed it?

If you slapped your desk and exclaimed, “By jingo, it would be darned annoying to see Sheila stopping short anywhere after the first couple of times,” consider your quiz so covered with gold stars that your mom will post it on the fridge for weeks. Because reading one’s manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD is so very, very rare (except among you fine people, of course), aspiring writers tend not to notice how fond they are of showing their characters engaged in particular actions.

Nodding, for instance. Head-shaking. Turning. Walking. Or, in this case, not walking — stopping short.

Oh, come on — weren’t you wondering by the third repetition in this blog why I was so fond of the phrase? Imagine Millicent’s chagrin when Sheila stops short every ten or fifteen pages throughout the entire manuscript. Then picture her reaction when the next submission she screens has its own pet phrase, as does the one seven down the stack.

You would start gnawing on the edge of your coffee cup, too. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VII: why Millicent prefers casting calls to be open

It never fails, campers: every time I start talking here on the blog about Hollywood narration — when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader– the world around me hastens, nay, lunges to provide me with an abundance of examples. Indeed, one can hardly turn on a television set without encountering backstory being conveyed via dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well, and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all.

Nurse (catching up to Orderly in an antiseptic hallway): So how is Naomi doing today?

Naomi (seated sideways in wheelchair, limbs akimbo, face covered in bruises): Unnngh.

Orderly (clutching the handles of Naomi’s wheelchair passionately): “How should she be doing, Clara? What she needs is physical therapy and minute-to-minute care, but Dr. Barton treats her like a…thing. He doesn’t believe she will ever get better.

Nurse: Now, now, you know that Dr. Barton has a fine reputation. He’s been running Seacoastcliffwaterview Convalescent Hospital for seven and a half years now.

Orderly (lowering his voice): But what about those mysterious deaths in the wee hours of the morning, when, unlike most medical facilities that purport to give round-the-clock care, all of us on staff steal off to take four-hour naps?

Nurse (shaking her head thoughtfully): That is a mystery. But no good is going to come of asking disruptive questions.

Our hero (flashing identification from some city/county/federal agency too quickly for any human eye to glean any information whatsoever from it): Excuse me, but I’m trying to learn something about Mr. McGuffin’s death at two o’clock yesterday morning. Has anything unusual been going on here lately?

Nurse (exchanging meaningful glances with Orderly): No, nothing.

Naomi: Unnngh. Unnngh!

Orderly (patting her on her shoulder): There, there. I’d better get you back to your room for your 1:30 AM appointment with Dr. Barton. I just hope you’re going to last the night, honey.

Doesn’t exactly hide the goods, does it? Like much Hollywood narration, this sterling little exchange contains backstory that the reader (or, in this case, viewer) might legitimately need to know, but presented this ungracefully, Naomi might as well have been holding a blinking neon sign in her lap that read PAY ATTENTION — THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT TO THE PLOT.

Think about it — why else would the author bother to include such an improbable exchange unless it were going to be vital for the viewer (or reader) to remember later on? Like the otherwise unmotivated close-up in a movie (“Wait, I recognize the murderer now — the camera paused on his face for no apparent reason half an hour ago!), Hollywood narration is seldom subtle. It’s merely a shortcut for the writer.

It’s just so darned convenient, isn’t it? But as we saw above, it’s also conducive to another guaranteed professional reader-annoyer, a little something I like to call a plot flare: a line of text that warns the reader — sometimes in a subtle manner, sometimes by tossing a brick through the nearest window — about a plot twist to come.

The socially inept stepdaughter of foreshadowing, the plot flare believes it is being clever and unobtrusive, but usually, it’s anything but. It can pop up in the form of a coy clue, but it can also be as simple as an over-reaction to that old writing truism, never have a character vital to the book’s climax appear later than one-third of the way through the story:

Fiorello rushed into the thick of the dancing crowd, searching frantically for his baby sister. Bombarded by writhing bodies on all sides, he tried not to grope anyone as he pushed them out of his way.

He failed, apparently, vis-à-vis a punked-out blonde. “Hey,” she snarled, brandishing her spiked bracelet at him, “those belong to me.”

Fiorello blushed all the way from his receding hairline to his button-down collar. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss…Miss…”

“The name’s Allegra.” She flashed him a crooked smile. “Wanna dance?”

Was that Bitsy pogoing near the bandstand? “Oh, excuse me. I have to go.”

“Come find me sometime,” Allegra called after him, “when you’re in less of a hurry.”

Hands up, anyone who would be surprised when Allegra turns up in a coffee shop three scenes hence. Or 150 pages from now. Or if she — who could have seen this coming? — turns out to have a heart of gold that belies her tough exterior.

Believe it or not, this is actually rather subtle for your garden-variety plot flare. Most of the time, Millicent the agency screener finds herself gasping with annoyance over clues so broad that they seem to insult the reader’s intelligence. A popular choice: recounting what is about to happen under cover of a planning session.

Kirk mopped his manly but weary brow. “Here’s how it’s going to happen, everybody. Fifi, you keep the engine running outside the bank. George, you walk in wearing the Bugs Bunny mask. Arnold, you start juggling the flaming torches. While everyone is watching you, I’ll slip around behind the tellers, crack open the vault, and steal the million dollars. Then we’ll all meet back at the car. Any questions?”

Fifi raised a timid hand. “If it’s really that simple, why should anyone continue reading?”

“Ah, but we all know that any story focused on a heist won’t go exactly as planned.” Kirk tapped on his wrist. “Who lifted my watch? We need to synchronize them.”

Okay, so character aren’t always so obvious that they forget to pretend that they are not characters in a novel, but with common plotlines, they might as well be. If the path through the story is so well lit with plot flares that Millicent can tell the basic contours of the plot by page 6, she doesn’t have a lot of incentive to keep reading.

So here’s a radical notion: why not introduce some of that backstory later in the book, rather than within the first 5 pages?

Most novels and memoirs front-load their opening scenes with information about their characters’ pasts, and with good reason: that is how the writers think of these characters. But if the initial conflict is exciting enough, why slow it down with details that aren’t actually relevant to the situation at hand?

You want to see concrete examples, don’t you? Here is a fairly typical front-loaded opening, complete with standard-issue Hollywood narration:

Exhausted from working a fifteen-hour day at the non-union coal mine, Almanzo stopped at the neighborhood bar before returning to his long-suffering wife of four years, Jenny. He peeled the work coat from his strong, wiry frame, shedding black dust everywhere.

“The usual?” Joe the bartender asked.

Almanzo grinned, white teeth contrasting oddly with powder-dark skin. “Isn’t that the definition of usual? Boy, I’ve had a terrible day half a mile below the earth’s crust. Those old-fashioned rope-pulled carts are bound to break and crush somebody someday.”

Joe chuckled, pouring neat cognac into the snifter he always kept warm for Al at the end of the day. “Don’t be silly. Those ropes have been holding steady for a hundred years now.”

Almanzo sipped the potent brew. “Gee, I hope you’re right. Now that the safety inspectors have all been laid low by that mysterious flu, I don’t know how many miners would be killed if there were an accident.”

Harboring any doubts about what’s going to happen in the pages to come? Neither is Millicent.

So why give her and other readers the heads-up? Wouldn’t it be more exciting to begin slightly later in the story, saving the background for later on? In a manner, say, rather like this?

Rope stretched beyond its capacity makes a sound like a giant, stressed-out violin: a mammoth twang of frustration. Almanzo felt it reverberate down the mineshaft even before he heard the sound. He scrabbled his way halfway to side tunnel before it occurred to him to warn the men down the line.

“Runaway cart!” he shouted, but the creak of wheels drowned him out.

More of a grabber, isn’t it? You’d be surprised at how many manuscripts contain both the slow, backstory-laden opening and the conflict-focused one, usually in that order. Aspiring writers often seem reluctant to jump into the story. Unfortunately, if plot flares have already tipped Millicent off about the trajectory of the plot, she’s not likely to keep reading as far as that interesting action scene.

I’m bringing this up not merely to alert you to the plot flare phenomenon — trust me, once you start looking for them, you’ll spot them everywhere — but also as a revision tip for the unhappy many seeking to trim pages from their manuscripts. You might want to take a long, hard look at your opening pages and ask yourself: does the story begin on page 1, or are the opening pages devoted to backstory? If it’s the latter, what would happen if I cut the lead-in and just tossed the reader right into the central conflict of the book?

You might also want to take a quick peek at all of the dialogue scenes in the book. Because Hollywood narration is about backstory, rather than the scene going on in the moment, it can usually be excised with no ill effect whatsoever on the scene.

I sense some raised hands out there. “But Anne, that seems counterintuitive. A paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can replace pages and pages of backstory. So won’t I end up with a longer text if I cut the summary statements out of the dialogue?”

Not necessarily — often, that information isn’t actually vital to the story. Oh, it may be essential to understanding the character to know that she has three children, two ex-husbands and a current one, as well as an English sheepdog, but since there are probably scenes in the book that feature at least a few of those players and relationships, why stop the early pages of the book cold in order to introduce the information?

For most aspiring writers, the answer to that last question is pretty straightforward: because we’ve all seen both plot flares and Hollywood narration used so often in TV shows and movies that it seems like normal storytelling. The latter is one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information, after all, and plot flares are almost as common. (Oh, does anyone out there hear, “I would be lost without you, Muffy,” spoken by the protagonist in the first third of a film and not spend the next hour awaiting Muffy’s unfortunate encounter with a speeding bus?) Because we’ve all seen and heard it done so much, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory and foreshadow in these frankly pretty clumsy manners.

The inevitable result: Millicent spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already be aware that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

That, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest.

Oh, you thought I was going to give that advice a rest?

Why read it out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be possible to speak aloud. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true, or if part of it should be cut. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or anywhere else, for that matter. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as the major characters in their novels. By saying the dialogue (or first-person narration) in your voice, rather than your favorite actor’s, you’re more likely to catch awkwardness.

C’mon, ‘fess up: practically every aspiring writer does a little mental casting. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood narration in screenplays, we’re all used to hearing actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. So imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.

Mentally casting a familiar celebrity voice as your protagonist’s can also render it more difficult to tell when a joke is or isn’t funny — and render it nearly impossible to ferret out what the pros bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy. You can tell that a laugh is a bad one when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or — wait for it — a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.

It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life. You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is notorious for provoking bad laughter. By this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, a couple of years ago, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Much of the remaining screen time consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a ghost story; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

Because that theory has never been tested cinematically before.

For the benefit of those of you who have never seen a horror film, should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But my braver film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (clearly weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to soothe my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was probably lurking in my closet. As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly titled “The Mysterious Key and What It Opened.”

Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor.

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.”

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.”

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Gregory Peck and Sarah Bernhardt to read those very lines to you (or the efficient séance facilities), I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s actors’ job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

And even if they were, Hollywood narration is not especially plausible. Generally speaking, real people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems, it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other descriptive delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for backstory for an awfully long time.

Novel and memoir openings are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins. Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning precisely what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance.

We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can call upon scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because all of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. See for yourself:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “Why, hello there. Are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in New York, New York. When my girlfriend left me two weeks ago, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (edging her way into his good lighting: “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me psychic, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well. Their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes come to believe that such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the world nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Sir Lawrence Olivier as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. So if your narrative was relying upon tone and/or delivery to make the dialogue or first-person narration funny, poignant, surprising, or anything else, you’re going to run into difficulties at submission time.

Chant it with me now, campers: a professional reader can only judge a submission by what’s on the page. Don’t expect her to guess what your casting preferences are. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VI: seriously, dialogue was the only way to convey this information to the reader?

I begin today’s foray into the niggling little manuscript problems that drive Millicent the agency screener daily another few steps toward cynicism about artistic production with an anecdote. Back when I was in graduate school, I used to spend my summers working at a local hospital, writing patient education literature. When I wasn’t busy figuring out how to explain an MRI in a fourth-grade vocabulary, I was entrusted with guarding the office’s thermostat from the four menopausal women who kept yanking the controls from Antarctica to the Gobi Desert, as the day’s hot flash schedules dictated. No sooner would one sneak over to crank it down than another would appear to spin the dial upwards again. Not once did more than two of them manage to have the same temperature demands at the same time, so working in this environment comfortably required keeping both a tank top and a ski sweater in my desk, in order to avoid perishing from exposure.

So when Marni the medical coder came charging toward my desk one Friday, I instinctively dove toward the thermostat. She had more than the local weather on her mind, however. “Do you happen to have any rubber bands that will fit around this?” She held up pile of papers seven inches thick. “You know, just lying around.”

Since the supply cabinet stocker favored taunting the office staff with rubber bands apparently designed by orthodontists to tug braces a millimeter in this direction or that, industrial-sized rubber bands were not the kind of thing we happened to have lying around. “No, but I’m sure we could order some.”

Marni sighed and reached for the thermostat. “Never mind.”

I was baking in the tropical humidity the following Friday when she repeated the request, this time brandishing a nine-inch stack of papers. “I don’t think I have ever personally handled a rubber band that would encircle that,” I told her. “But since you seem to need large bands on a regular basis, why don’t you pick up a package at a stationary store, and have the hospital reimburse you?”

“No, no,” Marni said, slinking back into the undergrowth where tigers and cobras lay panting in the heat. “I just thought you might have some.”

By midsummer, I had arranged so many office supply catalogs along the path between Marni’s desk and the thermostat that visitors mistook them for seating. Yet still, every Friday, she would reappear to ask for rubber bands, teeth chattering or wiping the sweat from her brow, as the day’s temperature battle dictated.

“Marni,” I was begging by the end of the summer. “Why do you keep doing this to yourself? If you need the darned things, just get some!”

“Oh, no.” She tossed me a sad, disappointed smile. “I don’t really need them. I just thought you might have some around.”

From a character-development point of view, it’s easy to dismiss this as passive-aggressive behavior, right? Marni wanted the rubber bands, but was not brave enough to ask her boss for them; if she asked me often enough, I might break down and ask the fearsome Madge for her. Or I might have become so frustrated that I would invest some of my own cash in behemoth bands. Unfortunately for either of these plans, I always headed back to school in September.

I’m bringing this up not merely as an a example of how to work tension into an otherwise pretty mundane situation — hey, it allowed me to bring up at least two more temperature changes than I could have gotten away with otherwise — but because many, many aspiring writers employ Marni’s logic, if not her methodology. They want an agent to offer them representation, so they regularly send out queries and, when those queries are successful, submissions.

When those queries or submissions get rejected, these writers, like all writers, are sad and disappointed. But is their response to learn a bit more about the publishing industry, to find out if there is a standard format for submissions (there is), if there is an upper length limit that tends to trigger knee-jerk rejection (there is, but it varies slightly by book category), or if agency screeners are trained (and they are) to reject manuscripts that run afoul of certain common agents’ pet peeves?

Oh, I know that your response would be to invest the time in learning about these matters. But not all aspiring writers are as industry-savvy as you: like Marni, they keep doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting the outcome to be different next time.

I realize that it’s frustrating that agencies now only rarely give concrete reasons for rejecting a manuscript — and virtually never justify rejecting a query. Form letters with generalities are the most common response, if indeed an agent chooses to respond at all. There’s nothing an aspiring writer can do to change that.

He can, however, stop expecting that the rubber bands he wants will magically appear, simply because he wants them so much. He can plan ahead so Millicent will have fewer reasons to reject his next submission than did her counterpart at the last agency to which he submitted. He can change his behavior to increase the probability of the outcome he wants.

On a not entirely unrelated note, in my last post, I brought up how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if someone had planned for her to happen onto precisely the clues she needed to solve the book’s central puzzle.

What a happy coincidence, eh? And just in time to wrap up the mystery by the end of the book. Perhaps if she waits long enough, flying monkey will drop a carton of extra-large rubber bands at her dainty feet, too.

This marvelous atmosphere for coincidence is not only indigenous to the end of a plot, either. Ineffectual interview scenes are often employed to slow down a plot, creating false suspense. If the protagonist is too lazy, too distracted, or just too dimwitted to ferret out the truth early in the book, it’s substantially easier to keep the reader in the dark about salient details of the variety that might, if revealed, cause a reasonably intelligent reader to figure out whodunit by the end of Chapter 2.

A protagonist who is bad at asking questions — and his creative Siamese twin, the antagonist or supporting character who is suspiciously eager to cough up information — are also frequently used as means to speed up a narrative by shoehorning necessary information into the plot. It’s a classic tell, don’t show strategy, good for heaping backstory into the book, but typically, low on conflict, believability, and character development.

How might that annoy Millicent on the page? Observe, please, the lethal combination of a passive interviewer and a too-active interviewee compresses what could have been a relatively lengthy but conflict-filled interrogation scene into a few short exchanges:

interview bad

“Wait a second,” Millicent mutters upon encountering a scene like this. “Who is interviewing whom here? And what are all of those rubber bands doing in my desk?”

Well might she ask. This kind of inverse interview, as well as plot giveaways every bit this broad, turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries all the time. These techniques may well be the quickest way to tell a story, but they make it pretty easy to see the wheels turning in the authorial mind. That’s not a complex plot — that’s a straight line.

None of these quite legitimate complaints would necessarily be Millicent’s primary objection to the scene above, however. Any guesses? Hint: it’s one of her perennial pet peeves.

Oh, wait, that doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

Give yourself a pat on the back if you instantly cried, “This kind of implausible exchange pulls the reader out of the story!” Even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in more interesting ones.

Was that wind that just blew my cat from one side of my studio to the other the collective irritated sigh of those of you who have been laboring to revise Frankenstein manuscripts? “Oh, fabulous, Anne,” the bleary-eyed many whimper, wearily reaching for their trusty highlighter pens. “Now I not only have to scrub my manuscript until it gleams at the sentence level, but I also have to make sure all of my interview scenes are both plausible AND contain surprising plot twists? When do you expect me to be ready to submit this baby, 2018?”

Well, yes and no. No, I don’t expect you to spend years polishing your manuscript — unless, of course, it needs it — and yes, I do expect your work to abound in gleaming sentences, believable, conflict-ridden interview scenes, and twists I couldn’t see coming. So, incidentally, does Millicent.

That expectation, incidentally, serves her well in winnowing down any given day’s stack of submissions, because interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. Especially toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creator? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth.

At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am, right under this neon sign — discover me, already! ”

Since almost every book-length plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, it’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow, excitement, and plausibility. In fact, I would recommend making those interview scenes your first stops for tightening (or, less commonly, slackening) the pace of your narrative. Besides presenting a pacing problem, clues that seem too anxious to fling themselves in a protagonist’s way, feigning casualness when they are discovered littering the path, can actually render said protagonist less likable to readers.

Why? I refer you back to our question-averse reporter above. Just as it doesn’t make a character seem like a stellar interviewer if he just strolls into a room at the precise psychological moment that the taciturn miner who’s kept his peace for 57 years abruptly feels the need to unburden himself to the nearest total stranger, it doesn’t make a protagonist seem particularly smart if he happens upon a necessary puzzle piece without working to find it.

And the protagonist is not the only one who runs the risk of coming across as a trifle dim-witted: a mystery or conflict that’s too easy to solve or resolve doesn’t offer the reader much food for conjecture. Readers like to feel smart, after all; piecing the puzzle together along with — or even a little ahead of –the protagonist is half the fun, isn’t it?

It’s considerably less amusing when the protagonist just stumbles onto necessary information, is slow to act, or isn’t on the ball enough to ask the right questions of the right people. While a poor interviewer is almost always an obstruction to the reader finding out crucial information, too-garrulous antagonists and the interview scenes that enable their yen to spout monologue tend to make the stakes seem lower, causing the reader to care less about the outcome.

Why, you gasp in horror? As convenient as a suddenly chatty secret-hider can be to moving the plot along, information discovered too easily runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

Think about it: if the reader gets to watch the protagonist run down a false lead or two, struggle to remove that rock from in front of the cave to rescue the Brownie troop, a brace of nuns, and three golden retriever puppies gasping for breath within, genuinely have to put two and two together in order to make four, etc., it’s not only usually more exciting than an unresisted search, but your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined than if she just stands around while these things happen around her. She’ll also be more likable, someone a reader might be eager to follow throughout an entire book.

(I heard some of you gasp, but that last bit’s not a foregone conclusion. If the reader, particularly a professional one, does not either like or love to hate a manuscript’s protagonist, he’s unlikely to keep reading for long. Just a fact of the life literary.)

That plot-level logic applies equally to an individual interview scene. If the information the protagonist is seeking just drops into her lap, as it does in the example above, the reader has no reason to become invested in the search: after the first couple of times, tremendous, long-held secrets being blurted out will simply become the normal way the manuscript reveals things.

But what if our scheming reporter above had been forced to try really, really hard to pry Mrs. Quinine’s whereabouts out of Ernest Borgnine? What if he was not only recalcitrant, but had an agenda of his own? What if he told her half-truths that would require still more backstory to render useful? Wouldn’t the information she elicited — even if it consisted of precisely the same set of facts Ernest blurted out spontaneously in the version above — seem more valuable? Or at least more fun for the reader to watch her ferret out?

The answer to both of those last two questions was yes, by the way. As you would have known had you not been playing with those giant rubber bands.

Contrary to popular belief amongst that sizable portion of the aspiring writing community that apparently enjoys killing conflict on the page practically the moment it draws its first breath, readers like to see protagonists struggle to achieve their goals. It’s interesting, as well as character-revealing.

Stop shooting rubber bands in my direction. I was going to call on you. “But Anne,” those of you limp with revision fatigue murmur, taking aim, “complexity is all very nice, but I’m worried about my manuscript’s getting too long, or the pace starting to drag, if I start inventing a digressions in my hero’s pursuit of the MacGuffin he’s desperately seeking throughout my story.”

While it is quite reasonable to draw a line on the length of a manuscript you’re planning to submit to an agent, whether a particular scene seems overly lengthy to a reader is largely a matter of presentation, not actual number of lines on a page. There are plenty of short books, and even short scenes, that, to borrow a phrase from industry parlance, read long.

The trick lies in selectivity. Try ridding your interview scenes of plot shortcuts or too-easy revelations. Some suggestions:

(a) Any line in which anyone’s pointing out something obvious (“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s been walking around town, asking all of those pesky questions?”)

(b) Any line that consists entirely of one character agreeing with or simply prompting another to speak. While “Yes, dear,” and “You’re so right,” may be charming to hear in real life, it seldom adds much to a scene.

(c) Simple yes or no answers to simple yes or no questions. Yes or no is almost never the most interesting way to frame a question or response, and the latter often shuts off interesting follow-up questions.

(d) I don’t know tends not to add much to a scene, either, especially if a first-person narrator is given to saying it. If your protagonist doesn’t know, have her take steps to find out.

(e) Any new development that’s not actually surprising. (“Wait — you mean that your long-lost brother first described as a miner on pg. 4 might possess a map to the very mine we need to explore? Astonishing!”)

(e) Any scene where the interviewer doesn’t have to work to elicit information from the interviewee.

These may not seem like big cuts, but believe me, they can add up. In many manuscripts, making these revisions alone would free up pages and pages of space for new plot twists, if not actual chapters of ‘em.

It’s also worth your while to consider whether a low-conflict interview scene is even necessary to the storyline: could your protagonist glean this information in another, more conflict-producing manner?

That question is not a bad one to write on a Post-It note and stick to your computer monitor. If a scene — or even a page — does not contain recognizable conflict, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.

A grand place to start excising the unsurprising: the first scene of the book, since that is the part of any submission that any Millicent, agent, editor, or contest judge is most likely to read. If you’re going to have your plot surprise or your protagonist impress the reader with her interview acumen anyplace in the book, make sure that she does it within the first 5 pages.

That’s just common sense, really: an agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end. Therefore, it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where an irritated Millicent is most likely to stop reading.

Was that giant gust of wind the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene? I’m sympathetic to your frustration, but next time, could you aim away from my cat?

An AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a telephone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details. While he says, “Uh-huh,” four times.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

“Uh-huh,” she says. “Go on, Mrs. Smith.”

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis. “Uh-huh, that’s the problem,” one of them says ruefully. “But what are we going to do about it?”

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of bad trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins. Probably with a lot of agreement in it.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for the last decade and a half, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been imploring aspiring writers to open their books with overt conflict, to let the reader jump right into the action, without a lot of explanatory preamble. Conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information or character development very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a good long time are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know, apparently for no other reason than to provide the audience with background information as easily and non-conflictually as humanly possible.

As it happens, you were right, oh gigglers. Openings of novels are notorious for being jam-packed with Hollywood narration. As in:

“So, Serena, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Theobold, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“At least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Archie — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

“Yes, I know. How right you were to follow Archie’s advice, given that in his former, pre-atoll life, he was a famous psychologist, renowned for testifying in the infamous Pulaski case, where forty-seven armed robbers overran a culinary snail farm…

Well, you get the picture. That’s not just information being handed to the protagonist without any sort of struggle whatsoever; it’s backstory being spoon-fed to the reader in massive chunks too large to digest in a single sitting. Just about the nicest comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is a well-justified shout of, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the habitual cry of the Millicent, “Next!”

While we are contemplating revision, did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Serena for over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature. As character development goes, this is the equivalent of knocking Gilligan on the head with a coconut to induce amnesia when the Skipper needs him to remember something crucial: a pretty obvious shortcut.

Besides, as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did. Besides, revealing a character’s favorite book is not a very telling detail.

I hear writerly hackles rising all over the reading world, but hear me out on this one. Writers who include such references usually do so in the charming belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

It’s never a good idea to assume that any conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes, literary or otherwise. Or worldview.

But let’s get back to analyzing that Hollywood narration opening. Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Serena know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call. This is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It often lurks in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Will glanced over at his girlfriend. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Joceyln snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous.” Will reached over to pat her on the head. “Having been your hairdresser for the past three years, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

She jerked away. “Get your broad-wedding-ring-bearing fingers away from my delicate brow. What would your tall, blonde wife, Cynthia, think if you came home with a long, red hair hanging from that charm bracelet you always wear on your left wrist, the one that sports dangling trinkets from all of the various religious pilgrimage sights you have visited with your three short brunette daughters, Faith, Hope, and Katrina?”

Granted, few submissions are quite as clumsy as this purple-prosed exemplar, but you’d be surprised at how obvious some writers can be about introducing their characters. Remember, just because television and movie scripts can utilize only the senses of sight and sound to tell a story doesn’t mean that a novelist or memoirist must resort to Hollywood narration to provide either backstory or physical details. We writers of books enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to use narrative text to show, not tell, what we want our readers to know.

Pop quiz, campers: why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

If you said that Will and Joceyln are telling each other things they obviously already know, kiss yourself on both cheeks. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would not know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length. Thus, the only reason this information could possibly appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party.

Like, for instance, the reader. Who might conceivably prefer to be shown such details, rather than hear them in implausible dialogue.

How can a conscientious writer tell the difference between Hollywood narration and good old physical description? A pretty good test: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go — to free up page space for more intriguing material and good writing.

If you also said that Will and Joceyln are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary, and it’s not interesting conversation. I am a chatty person, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say over dinner, “Pass the peas — and incidentally, your eyes are green.”

My habitual tablemate’s eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want you to know it. But honestly, was just blurting it out — and to him, no less — the most interesting way to introduce this information?

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out that being possessed of a mirror — nay, several — he already knew.

Who could have seen that plot twist coming, eh? And aren’t we all stunned by the depth of that character and relationship development in the last few paragraphs?

While I’m at it, let me share one of my pet peeves, both on the page and in real life: men who keep commenting on how pretty their dates are. To their dates. As in:

“Mona, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say for weeks now…” Alex waited until the waiter had poured the wine and retreated. “Um, you look great tonight.”

She dimpled prettily. “Thanks. After a long day’s work at the nuclear physics lab, I figure I deserve a nice night out.”

“You have such pretty eyes. Brown, aren’t they?”

“Well, more of a neon green, since that radioactive spider bit me.” She reached across the table for his hand. “But enough about work. What did you want to say?”

He squeezed her hand. “I love your hair. So wavy and alive.”

Her hand flew to her scalp self-consciously. “Snakes are so hard to handle. I’ve just washed them, and I can’t do a thing with them. I wouldn’t recommend peeking into Medusa’s cage until we find an antidote.”

“You’re lovely, you know that?”

Mona suppressed a sigh. Did he honestly think she didn’t own a mirror? Well, come to think of it, if she looked in one now, she would be turned to stone. Perhaps he thought he was doing her a favor. “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you.”

He jerked his head sideways, to avoid the nearest snake’s trajectory. “I just love looking at you. That’s such a nice dress.”

You can hardly blame the snake for lashing out at him, can you? As gratifying as compliments are to hear, a flattery barrage like this should not be confused with conversation. Not only isn’t it particularly interesting for the reader — a simple physical description would have been a far more effective way to display Mona’s charms — but as we may see from her reaction, it isn’t even interesting to the person being complimented.

On the page as in life, a single compliment is sweet. But when fifteen of them tumble out of your dinner partner’s mouth, you start to wonder if he’s avoiding saying something. It’s auditory filler.

And did you notice that even after Alex has rhapsodized about her looks, we still don’t have a particularly clear idea of what Mona looks like? Oh, the narrative sentences give some specifics, but the dialogue is vague: she looks great, has pretty eyes, has mobile hair, is lovely, is sporting a nice dress.

Hardly enough to enable the reader to pick her out of a police lineup, is it?

Yes, a lot of people, especially shy ones, do pepper their conversation with compliments, but as we have discussed, the point of dialogue is not merely to provide a transcript of real-world conversations. It’s to entertain the reader, develop character, and move the plot along. And frankly, don’t you suspect that Mona has quite a bit more going on in her life than Will’s conversational choices are revealing?

Heck, those snakes seem to have more on their minds than he does. Keep up the good work!