Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XII: reading from the other side of the envelope

I’m sitting in a Berkeley espresso place right now, surrounded by people who apparently stepped directly out of either my memoir (my parents were local beatniks) or the novel currently in editorial limbo (my protagonist’s parents were local hippies). Seriously, I could cast movies of either very comfortably without walking outside into the prevailing misty fog.

Why am I here? Well, I’m waiting to be interviewed for a documentary about Philip K. Dick. My mother is in front of the cameras right now, and since, as filmmakers and physicists agree, the process of being observed changes that which is being observed, I have taken myself off to blog. This is only the second time I’ve ever allowed myself to be interviewed about Philip (contrary to what the PKD estate claims on its fan forum), and the first on film, and I’m finding the process absolutely fascinating. Naturally, any procedure that encourages my mother to drive around Berkeley with a movie camera strapped to the hood of her truck gets my vote, but now I’m thinking that I should add a short chapter to the memoir about it, the observed observing the observers.

Okay, back to business, before I am called upon to reminisce again. I think taking on the Idol rejection reasons (see my post of October 31) one by one is being very fruitful, but heavens, there are a LOT of them, aren’t there? I’m moving through them as fast as I can. I’ve gotten a lot of great questions from readers while I have been going through them, matters about which I normally would have written a post right away, but I did not want to disrupt the Idol flow. I’m anxious to get back to them!

Today, I want to deal with the rejection reasons that did not fit comfortably into general categories — the odd ducks, as it were:

39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
60. The details included were not telling.

Shaking your head over the practically infinite subjectivity of this set? There’s a good reason for that: just as one agent’s notion of fresh is another’s idea of weird, one agent’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

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

I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I? A quick survey of my fellow espresso-drinkers here in Berkeley reveals that most of them received similar advice in their formative writing years.

Unfortunately, from an agent’s point of view, all of the good students following this advice has led to a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. (See #6, took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story’s taking time to warm up, as well as #7, not enough action on page 1.) These opening scenes may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from a marketing professional’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — such an opening translates into
“hard to sell.”

And, to be perfectly frank, most of them simply do not have the time or the patience to read on to see what this story IS about. Remember that burnt-tongued unpaid intern whom I told you to channel last week? She might well be a few minutes late for her lunch date for the sake of a page of gorgeous prose, but if she doesn’t have an inkling of a plot by the end of it, she’s probably not going to ignore her stomach’s rumblings long enough to turn to page 2.

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

The locals are very friendly, apparently. And very hygiene-minded.

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

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?) An interesting character is surprising, at some level: could you work an element of surprise onto page 1, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

One of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to raise the importance of what is going on in the opening for that character — which leads us nicely to critique #41, the stakes not being high enough. “Why should I care?” is an extremely common question for screeners to ask — and if the book opens with the protagonist in an emotionally-fraught or otherwise dangerous situation, that question is answered immediately.

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

It doesn’t always work to open with an honestly life-or-death situation, of course, but far too many novels actually don’t start until a few pages in. Seriously — it’s not at all uncommon to find a terrific opening line for a book on page 4 or page 10, or for scene #2 to be practically vibrating with passionate feeling, while scene #1 just sits there. (Again, I think this is a legacy of the heroic journey style of screenwriting, which dictates that the story open in the protagonist’s everyday reality, before the challenge comes.) Choosing to open with a high-stakes scene gives a jolt of energy to the reader, urging her to keep turning the pages.

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

#39, too many generalities, is a trap that tends to ensnare writers who are exceptionally gifted at constructing synopses. In a synopsis, it is very helpful to be able to compress a whole lot of action into just a few well-chosen words; it’s a format that lends itself to a certain amount of generalization. It is tempting, then, to introduce a story in general terms in the book itself, isn’t it?

So why do agents frown upon this practice? Well, it feels to them like the writer is warming up, rather than diving right into the story. The average fiction agent is looking for good, in-the-moment sensations on the first page, visceral details that will transport her quickly to the time and place your characters inhabit. The writer is the travel agent for that trip, and it’s your job to make the traveler feel she is actually THERE, rather than just looking at a movie or a photograph of the events described.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: too many writers rely too heavily on visuals. Sensual details sell. Or, to put it another way: doesn’t your protagonist have a NOSE?

Which segues very nicely into #60, the details included were not telling. The wonderful short-short story writer Amy Hempel once told me that she believes that the external world her characters inhabit is only relevant insofar as it illuminates the character’s mood or moves the plot along. I’m not sure I would put it quite so baldly, but I think there is a lot to this. If a protagonist is sad, I want to hear about the eucalyptus trees’ drooping leaves; if she is frenetic, my sense of her heartbeat will only be enhanced by the sound of cars rushing by her as she jogs. And, of course, if I’m going to be told about her shoes — which, I must confess, don’t interest me much as objects — they had better reveal something about her character.

Few good short story writers would think to take up space with unrevealing details, but even very good novelists frequently get bogged down in description for its own sake. (See the Idol list for abundant evidence that this is not the best strategy on page 1 of a book.) But if the description is peppered with revealing details, it is hard for it to feel extraneous to what is going on.

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

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

But what if I told you that in order to work, I have had to turn my back to the glass doors that keep sending fog-chilled blasts past my skirt as patrons shed their coats in the doorway? That gives you both seasonal detail and information about me: I am concentrating; I am wearing a skirt despite the cold weather; I am not expecting to meet anyone I know here. Or that the barista’s three-day stubble reminds me of a Miami Vice-loving guy I dated in college? That both describes the guy in my peripheral vision and tells the reader my age, in rough terms. Or that I am bouncing my leg up and down at roughly the same rate as the fresh-faced girl in sweats across the room, scowling into a sociology text book? That conveys both caffeine consumption and the fact that I’m near a university.

Get the picture?

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

All of these details help set a sense of place, and of me as a character (rather nervous, I notice from these details; must be the coffee) within it.

All right, I’ve outstayed the beret-wearing finger-lover, so I am going to venture out onto the street now. My call may come at any minute, and I probably should not drink any more coffee.

Keep up the good work!

PS to Matthew: I answered your (very good) question via that same June comment; I try to respond to questions actually on the site as much as possible, so folks later reading those posts may see the response, too. I’m going to try to write a blog on the subject next week, too, though — I suspect that you’re not the only one in that particular boat!

2 Replies to “Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XII: reading from the other side of the envelope”

  1. With this ongoing and intensive series on Idol Rejection Reasons, I hope that fellow writers don’t become so obsessed with the first page that they forget to write the rest of the book! Once the entire story is “on paper” one can edit, revise, polish, and punch up those parts that need it. Most particularly, one can revise the first page and the first chapter to make it more agent friendly!

    1. Good point, Dave! I might even go so far as to call this series a tad obsessive: I do think it’s important for everyone to realize that, contrary to common writerly expectation, just because an agent asks to see a submission doesn’t necessarily mean that the agent will read it all. Or even most of it. That comes as a shock to a lot of people: it’s genuinely counterintuitive, from the writer’s POV.

      But don’t worry, this series is almost over — and we can move on to the rest of the book!

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