Manuscript Revision VI: Not THAT old saw again!

For the last few posts, I have been talking about capturing the elusive quality of freshness in your submissions, and triggers that may lead a harried agent or editor to decide that your book is not fresh — or even is ordinary. To avoid this fate, it’s a good idea to take some pains to avoid these triggers.

Today, I would like to talk about one of the most common ways that fiction and nonfiction submissions both tend to mark themselves as ordinary in the eyes of professional readers: stereotypes.

Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. And since the audience has, over time, learned this shorthand language, many filmmakers rely upon it heavily.

This is why, in case you were curious, in the TV and movie universe, almost all “regular guys” are invariably commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women are be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel is Mafia-connected, if the plot requires it; every white Southerner is bigoted, and every politician is corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead. Although men invariably do the proposing in these plots, they all have cold feet just before their weddings (and want to have wild bachelor parties where they sleep with total strangers); all women want to be married, and nearly everyone is a heterosexual, except perhaps the heroine’s best friend, to show that she’s not prejudiced (yes, that’s shorthand, too). And the lead will always, always learn an important lesson — although, of course, in a sitcom, he will have forgotten it utterly by the next week’s episode.

This kind of shorthand requires audience collusion, you know: most of us have become so inured to our complicity in it that we don’t even blink when it happens. The moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience in THE DOORS, we all already knew that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge; all we needed to do was wait for it.

Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring, both on a screen and on the page. As soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Yawn. Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? Snore. And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?

Don’t get me wrong — I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his deservedly long career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.

And, alas, this type of shorthand is not limited to film. It has found its way — oh, how abundantly — into novels. Many, many writers incorporate these stereotypical plot elements and characters into their work. Why? Because TV and movies have made those stereotypes so very accessible that almost every reader will recognize them.

If I find such predictable elements boring, reading a couple of hundred manuscripts per year, imagine how the redundancy must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Apart from every other argument against stereotypes, they are incredibly, indelibly, excruciatingly ordinary.

The sad thing is, incorporating them is often unconscious on the part of the writer. It seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.

Unfortunately, the screener at an agency tends not to be among the immobile-eyebrowed masses. Just because a stereotype is widely accepted is no reason that YOU should reproduce it. And here’s a hint: if a joke is permanently associated with a particular character in a movie or a TV show, chances are that it will not reproduce well on paper. It dates the manuscript terribly, and often, it’s not even funny.

And if you are still tempted to incorporate a current pop culture catch phrase, would you mind doing an experiment first? Try writing one of Billy Crystal’s 1980s Saturday Night Live catchphrases into a scene out of context and showing the result to someone unfamiliar with his magnum opus. Like, say, a 13-year-old. No fair explaining why people originally found the joke funny.

You’ll be lucky if it generates even a fleeting smile from a teenager, even with the explanation.

If the idea of your submission’s reading like 150 others your dream agent has seen that week doesn’t scare you into rushing to your computer to do a stereotype-and-pop-culture-cliché search, perhaps this will. Remember how I told you yesterday that a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read his submission, and so it makes sense to assume that it will be read by someone of a different age, sex, race, political affiliation, etc. than the writer? I advised you then to scan your manuscript for things people unlike you might find inappropriate.

Well, now I am going to ramp up that level of scrutiny. Assume that this crucial reader — crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not — believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. Is it really worth gambling that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office?

Come on — you know what I’m talking about. As anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, as well as other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?) And those jokes — and the assumptions that underlie them — turn up with surprising frequency in the dialogue of novels. When combined with another stereotype or two, it can become a bit much.

Again: how sure are you about who will be reading your submission? Isn’t it just possible that it will be someone who picks up your manuscript longing for it to be the first one this week where a Native American character actually WALKS into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness?

I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write, or wash all of your characters’ mouths out with metaphorical soap. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned yesterday who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.

That’s just a fact.

And perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages daily about what was going on in our lives (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how office-bound Americans got their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime before blogging became popular), but like many people, Mark was no creative writer. When he started to run out of material, he started forwarding jokes that he’d found on the Internet.

Jokes, unfortunately, that he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.

Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist and two that were racist, I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny writer, I even rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it and would stop forwarding such jokes to me.

You can see this coming, right? Yep, I had accidentally hit the REPLY ALL button.

When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. It was, in short, a bloodbath.

It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office.

How did I figure it out? Two subtle clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” — and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, imploring me for confidentiality, but thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get summarily fired for being bad sports if they said anything about it. (I suspect they were right about that, too — the boss had sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails I received.)

Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients would take them the same way we did.

And that is always a mistake.

In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship — which, given that we’d been friends since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?

When you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt feelings or raise hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school — and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her — because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.

You never can tell.

Besides, you’re more talented than that. You don’t need to resort to stereotypes to get your point across, any more than you need to have your characters mouth clichés instead of original dialogue. You’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.

I just know it. Keep up the good work!

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