Manuscript revision VII: never assume a universal reaction

In my earlier discussion of freshness and why your want you manuscript to convey the subtle-yet-vivid impression that it has just popped out of the cultural oven — or at any rate isn’t a Twinkie that’s been sitting in the back of a cupboard for the last five years — I brought up the need to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance, or white, or male, or…)

Today, though, I want to talk about how stereotyping and other authorial assumptions of mutual understanding with the reader can water down the intended impact of a manuscript, even when the assumptions in question are not inherently offensive to the reader.

If I have not already made this clear, even amongst agents and editors who are not easily affronted personally, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. Why? Well, in a new writer, they’re looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult for a reader new to your work to tell where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s.

It’s just not as impressive as hearing from you directly.

Which is why, in some cases, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice. This is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: one of the points of the medium is to be as subjective as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant?

That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate voices in the blogosphere have tended to fall so flat, I think: their voices are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.

Which is, by the way, one of the most common critiques of MFA programs, and even writing groups. In some of these settings, the criticism goes, books end up being, if not written, then edited by committee: the authorial voice is nipped and tucked to conform to so many people’s opinions of what the work should be that the originality of the voice gets lost. In the industry, books like these are known as “an MFA story” or “workshopped to death.”

Does it surprise you that I, the queen of hogtying writers and forcing them to get an outside opinion of their work before they submit it, would bring this up? Ah, but as Aristotle tells us, true virtue lies in not taking a desirable trait to its most extreme form, but rather in practicing goodness in moderation. A fresh voice is an original voice, and just as adhering to stereotypes can muffle the originality of the writer’s worldview on the page, so can editing too much for what you think your readers want to hear — even if those readers are agents and editors.

In other words: make sure that your manuscript’s voice always sounds like YOU.

As with any rule, there are major caveats to sounding like yourself, or course. The first rule – and one of the ones most commonly broken by those new to writing – is that in order for your reader to be able to appreciate the nuances of your voice, you need to provide enough information for the reader to respond spontaneously to the action of the piece, rather than being informed that this is funny, that is horrible, etc.

Those of you who have taken writing classes are probably familiar with this rule’s most famous corollary: show, don’t tell.

The second cousin of this axiom is less well known: not everything that happens in real life is plausible on paper. And that’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? As Virginia Woolf tells us, “Good fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” While that is often true, what are we to make of the real-life experience that seems made-up when it’s translated into print?

Simple: fiction tends to adhere to rules of dramatic structure and probability; real life doesn’t.

So when you are looking over your manuscript with an eye to revision, remember this: “But it really happened!” is not an excuse that professional writers ever use — or that most agents and editors will ever accept. Why? Because it’s the writer’s job to make everything in the book seem plausible, whether or not it really happened.

Most writers don’t like hearing this, but not everything that strikes you personally as funny, outrageous, or horrifying is necessarily going to seem so in print. And it’s very, very common problem in novel submissions — common enough that I’m going to add it to the dreaded Manuscript Mega-problems list — for the author to assume that the opposite is the case.

Personal anger masked as fiction, for instance, usually does not work so well on the page. If the average agency screener had a dime for every manuscript she read that included a scene where a minor character, often otherwise unrelated to the plot, turned up for apparently no purpose other than annoying the protagonist, she would not only own the agency — she might be able to rival the gross national product of Haiti.

I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that have contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why. These scenes are pretty easy for those of us in the biz to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true — and it’s not as interesting as more nuanced conflict.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the incidents turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The writer is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not automatically translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader.

This is an assumption problem, every bit as much as including a stereotype in your work. But what the writer pitches, the reader does not always catch.

Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger at the fellow so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there crying, especially those of you who are veterans of a lot of writing classes. “I’ve always been told that the key to good writing is to tap into my deep emotions, to let them spill onto the page. Are you saying that’s not true?”

Good question. No, I’m not saying that you should write with your emotional flow valve permanently set on low. I think there can be a lot of value in those writing exercises that encourage the opening up of the writer’s emotional memory. In revision, it is often useful to bring in some of those techniques to increase the emotional potency of a scene, just as a Method actor might use a traumatic memory from her childhood to inform her performance of a character in pain.

However, I do think that there is a fundamental difference between trying to express your deeper emotions in an exercise and trying to convey a CHARACTER’s emotional response in a book. In the first case, the point is to concentrate the feelings as much as possible. In writing a novel or short story, however, or even a memoir, unmitigated emotion is often confusing to the reader, rather than character-revealing.

What do I mean? Well, I’m going to stop telling you, and show you.

I try not to do this very often, but to illustrate, I am going to revive an anecdote I told on my former PNWA blog last winter. (My apologies to those of you who have heard the story before, but its illustrative value outweighs my dislike of repetition.) While you read it, consider the question: what helps a writer to include in a text, and what does not?

My most vivid personal experience of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a month-long stay in a fragrant cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crapshoot.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. Of the 60 or so of us in residence, only 12 were writers; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and then returned to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first week, was most happy and productive there.

When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the emotional demands of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had come to the colony with their significant others, also artists: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young married couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. (Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.)

Sculptor Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his favorite of all, sensual. No one in the dining hall was really surprised at how often he brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of sculptures of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, and breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind — or his eyes — liked to wander. He was amusing enough, for a monomaniac. We had coffee a couple of times. I loaned him a book or two.

And suddenly, Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon in the dining hall.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I sat at a different table in the dining hall for the next couple of weeks. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable or my being distracted from the writing I had come there to do.

The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her completely unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a turkey sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our month-long residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, plus a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium that can only be described as lavish) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected — sensibly, I think — to read only highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it was not an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

The first two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff for any audience. When Gretel’s turn came, she stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

Her first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, a first person, present-tense description of Hansel and Gretel — helpfully identified BY NAME — having sex, in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act IN REAL TIME that included — I kid you not — a literal countdown to the final climax (his, not hers).

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launch that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

Now, I certainly have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece.

Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.” That’s a QUOTE, people!) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act described is over, it’s not the best sex scene imaginable. And let’s just say that her husband probably would have preferred that this real-time telling had taken longer than six minutes to read. A classic case, one hopes, of the real-life incident being better than its telling on paper.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her by now shattered husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this little number had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character sashayed into the scene, sat down at their table, picked up a turkey sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the details, apart from that fact that the narrative included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

Gretel read the piece extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me — that’s not just paranoia speaking, I assure you; her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away — never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

There was no ending to the story, no “three…two…one” this time. She just stopped, worn out from passion. I’m not even convinced that she read everything written on the page.

I was very nice to her during and after this hugely embarrassing event; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible — especially when they were against me — congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance in the dining hall after she had dumped her tray; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Oh, how I wish I could say this was the only time I have ever seen a writer do something like this to herself…

But the fact is, it’s downright common in novels. Rest assured, though, that revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves as screamingly from the pages of a submission as they did from Gretel’s podium. If you’re still angry about an event, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

And that can be deadly in a submission.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before submission becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage — but who won’t tone down your marvelously original voice.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human. And yes, this incident did really happen — and that’s why I am writing about it here, not in my next novel, tempting as that might be.

Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Manuscript revision VII: never assume a universal reaction”

  1. For any manuscript submission, can you give us the rule for indicating character thought? I have found ‘italicize only foreign words’ and ‘ underline anything that needs italicizing.’ Help!

    1. That is going to need to be the subject of an entire blog, or perhaps two, because it’s an issue that is hotly debated amongst editors. (Some say italicing thought is fine, some consider it a sign of poor writing.) It’s very frequently a perspective issue: if you’re writing in the first or tight third person, it may well be perfectly obvious to the reader when a sentence is the protagonist’s thought, without any fancy markers at all.

      I’ll try to get to it within the next few days.

      In the meantime: yes, do italicize the foreign words in your manuscript that are not proper nouns. But do NOT underline ANYTHING in your manuscript — that’s advice from back when everyone was using typewriters. Now, all underlining indicates is that it will cost a publisher more to print your book — over the course of a print run, even a few underlined words can lead to quite a bit of extra ink usage. Italics, by contrast, do not suck up more ink.

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