Were you surprised that I took the weekend off? It’s part of a new plan of mine, called GETTING A LIFE, over and above my writing. Having just finished a major revision — and composing a list of what I had and had not revised at the editor’s suggestion — I felt the need to, well, not work my usual 7-day week this week. Call me wacky.
“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you cry. “A list of changes in the manuscript? Why? And why on earth would any sane person ask a writer to produce such a list immediately after completing a revision, when the writer is likely both to be exhausted and a trifle touchy about her choices?”
The list of revisions is not all that unusual a request, once an editor at a major house is involved with a book. Essentially, it’s a time-saving technique. (Remember last week, when I was telling you about how busy such people are? Well…) Since manuscript changes are often quite subtle, and the editor is not going to sit down and read the old version and the new side-by-side (sorry to be the one to break that to you), many agents like to have the author provide a list, to forestall the objection that not enough of the requested changes were made.
Also, in the unlikely (a-hem) event that the editor does not have time to read the whole thing again, with such a list in hand, it would technically be possible for an editor to flip through and see what changed very quickly. Essentially, the list is the equivalent of having the author produce the kind of 1- or 2-page report that editorial assistants routinely provide on a project being considered.
I’m giving you a heads-up about it now, because very frequently, such a request comes as the proverbial ball out of left field to the writer, who is then left scrambling. If you know it’s a possible future request, you can just keep a list while you are revising. Clever, no?
And no, Virginia: no one in the industry will ever ask you for such a list for revisions performed BEFORE they saw the manuscript in the first place. So unless you want to get in practice maintaining such a list (not a bad idea, actually), there’s really no reason to keep track of your changes in such a concrete way until after you sign with an agent. But thereafter, it can be very, very helpful to be able to say, “What do you mean, I didn’t take your advice? Here’s a list of what I changed at your behest!” and be able to back it up.
Okay, back to demystifying the Idol list. (If that sounds as though I have suddenly begun speaking in tongues, please see my post for October 31.) I know I’ve been harping on it at some length now, but my theory is that conference advice is not all that useful as long as it remains, well, general. I think it’s important to take the overarching principles and show how they might be applied to a specific manuscript.
That being said, today’s group is the most literal, and thus the easiest to remove from a manuscript. These are the rejection reasons that are based upon sheer repetition: any agent in the biz has not only seen these phenomena before at least 147 times — and thus will automatically assume that a submission that contains them on the first page is not fresh — but has, in all probability, seen any particular one at least once already on that same DAY of screening.
So best to avoid ’em, eh?
I know, I know: a great deal of the advice out there, including mine, is about standardizing your manuscript prior to submission. But standard format and avoiding certain common mistakes is, perhaps counterintuitively, a way to make the individuality of your writing shine more. To put it the way my grandmother would: fashion can make almost anyone look good, but if a woman is truly beautiful, wearing conventional clothing will only make it more obvious that it is the woman, and not the clothes, who caught the eye of the observer. (Need I add that my grandmother was VERY pretty, and that a great many of her metaphors were style-related?)
The rejection reasons listed below are something different: they are common shortcuts that writers use, and thus, not particularly good ways to make your writing stand out from the crowd. Using the numbering from the original list, they are:
9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. Specifically singled out: our old pal, a character’s long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame.
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse to describe her long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame.
Why do I identify them as shortcuts, and not clichés? Well, obviously, the clichés are clichés, but the rest are the kind of logical shorthand most of us learned in our early creative writing classes. Introduce the character (which manifests as “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”). Show perspective (“This can’t be happening.”). Add a twist (“And then I woke up.”).
The result is that agents and their screeners see these particular tropes so often that they might as well be clichés. They definitely don’t scream from the page, “This is a writer who is doing fresh new things with the English language” or “This story is likely to have a twist you’ve never seen before,” at any rate, and when a screener is looking to thin the reading pile, those are not the messages you want to be sending.
Another early English-class lesson has shown up with remarkable frequency on this list. Guesses, anyone? (Hint: the applicable rejection reasons are #9, the opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”, #14, a character’s long red or blonde hair, and #21, the character spots him/herself in a mirror.)
Congratulations, all of you graduates of Creative Writing 101: they all stem from the oft-repeated admonition to provide physical descriptions of the character right away. As in within the first nanosecond of their appearing in a scene.
Also, I suspect, a lot of us read short stories and books in our formative years that used the age, sex, and/or gender (yes, they’re different things: sex is biological, gender is learned) as THE twist. I, personally, have never gotten over my disappointment that Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ book A CLOCKWORK ORANGE glossed over the single most shocking line in the book, when we learn that the thief, rapist, and murderer who has been narrating the story is only 15 years old. (Hey, that was still shocking, back in the 1960s.)
Basically, all of these rejection reasons share the same underlying objection: there’s nothing wrong with providing some physical description of your characters right off the bat, of course, but by all means, be subtle about it. And need a full description come on page 1?
Yes, I know that movies and TV have accustomed us to knowing what a character looks like from the instant he’s introduced, but is there a particular reason that a READER’S first experience of a character need be visual?
We are left to wonder: why are characters so seldom introduced by smell? Or touch?
But no: day in, day out, screeners are routinely introduced to characters by front-loaded visual images, a good third of them bouncing off reflective vases, glasses of water, and over-large silver pendants. We’ve all seen it: the first-person narrator who catches sight of his own reflection in a nearby mirror in order to have a reason to describe himself. Or the close third-person narration that, limited to a POV Nazi-pleasing single-character perspective, requires that the character be reflected in passing sunglasses, a handy lake, a GAP window, etc., so that he may see himself and have a reason to note his own doubtless quite familiar physical attributes.
Just once, could a passerby gag on a hero’s cloud of cologne?
Setting aside for a moment just how common the reflective surface device is — in the just over two hours of the Idol session, it happened often enough to generate laughs from the audience, so multiply that by weeks, months, and years of reading submissions, and you’ll get a fair idea — think about this from the screener’s perspective. (Did your tongue automatically start to feel burned by that latte?) That screener is in a hurry to find out what the novel’s story is, right?
So ask yourself: is that harried reader likely to regard superadded physical description of the protagonist as a welcome addition, or as a way to slow the process of finding out what the story is about? And how is she likely to feel about that, 5 minutes into her ostensible lunch break?
I know; it’s disillusioning. But as I keep reminding you, no one in the industry regards the submitted version of a manuscript as the final version. Nor should you. If you’re absolutely married to an upfront physical description, you can always add it back in to a subsequent draft.
The last remaining reason — #12, the opening paragraph rife with jargon — is, too, a shortcut, usually a means to establish quickly that the character presented as a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, President of the United States, etc., is in fact a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, or President of the United States. However, how often do you think a screener — or any other reader, for that matter — gets a couple of lines into a novel, then throws it down in disgust, exclaiming, “There’s just not enough esoteric technical talk here! I just do not believe that this character actually is a doctor/lawyer/police officer/soil engineer/President of the United States!”
Doesn’t happen. The opposite, however, does: when there’s too much profession-specific word usage, it can be very off-putting for the reader. And for the screener. With predictable results.
Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? Are some of you saying, “But people talk like that in real life!”
Yes, they do. There are also plenty of people who say, “Um…” at the end of every other sentence, and mobs of nice folks who interlard every conversation with, “like” and “y’know.” Heck, there are millions of people in the world who speak Estonian — yet you would not even consider submitting a manuscript to an English-speaking agent or editor where every third word was in that fine language, would you? Even if your story were actually set in Estonia?
Save it — if not entirely, then at least until after page 5. Or after you have successfully cleared the submission hurdle.
We’re just whipping through this list, aren’t we? Soon, all of our first pages will be so snazzy that none of us will get rejected until page 2. In that happy hope, keep up the good work!