The name game

Did you have a good weekend, everybody? I spent mine nursing my wrenched neck, watching old films from the 1950s and 60s and marveling at just how much time the average woman seems to have spent on her hair back then. I can’t imagine having the time to tease, truly I can’t.

Last time, I called your attention to the perils of introducing too many characters all at once in the first few pages of your novel, or even in your opening chapter. Again, I think TV and movies are partially to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Introducing your character more slowly will allow the reader to tell the players apart without a program, and thus render the ones you do introduce early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of history in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in a text, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

This is particularly the case in books where characters have similar names. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in —een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves… I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla.

Yes, yes, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys the book. Opt for clarity now.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to go to the length of avoiding names that begin with the same first letter — not just the similar sounds — at least for major characters. Why? Well, to the skimming eye, one of the easiest clues that it can skip a word is a capitalized first letter: if your protagonist is named Samuel, then it’s natural for the speed-reader to assume that every capital S refers to him, and move on.

Try reading this passage as rapidly as you can:

***Samuel cursed his luck: thanks to Maggie, he would have to explain yet again that he had been raised by wolves. Not the kind of upbringing that made for lighthearted cocktail party conversation; people tended to back away from him at the first mention of a howl. (How Samuel missed howling! But investment bankers did not do such things in polite society.) Important people like Edgar, his boss-to-be, would definitely not be amused.***

See how easily your eye slid from the first Samuel reference to the next? When the same letter is used repeatedly, however swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

***Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.***

See how perplexing that is to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but…) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time. As I pointed out yesterday (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically for the past two years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood book buyer.

Not out of any hatred of the written word, necessarily, but out of sheer self-defense. In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ’em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors, not the big ones, that get submissions rejected.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

I’m bringing this up again, because frankly, I know it’s nit-picky of me to ask you to cull the characters in your opening scenes, just as I know that the advice to make sure your interview scenes always have more going on in them than just the exchange of information is in fact setting the writing bar rather higher than most published books. I could easily understand if you felt from time to time that the standards I urge here are higher than they may actually need to be in order to get your work a fair reading.

But the fact is, it is rather rare for a submission that isn’t technically first-rate to receive a fair and complete reading at an agency, unless it happens to fall upon precisely the right desk at precisely the right time. Emphasis upon complete: as any agency screener would tell you — any honest one, at any rate — they are trained to look for reasons to reject manuscripts, not to accept them.

And that means, necessarily, that good writing often gets bypassed because of rather nit-picky reasons.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and completely by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

Back to the nit-picking tomorrow, then, eh? In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What’s in a name?

I think you would have laughed to see me out last night with my godparents, my friends: we went to an opera, where not only did singers belt their characters’ deepest and darkest toward the back wall of the rather small and cramped auditorium; at certain points, marionettes acted out what the characters were hiding from one another. In the middle of an aria, my partner Rick leaned over to me and whispered, “They can’t have been reading your blog lately.”

Obviously, the composer hadn’t — not entirely surprising, as the opera was first performed in 1625; I doubt its author, Francesca Caccini, blog-surfed much. A pity, as the opera included a classic bad interview scene. Take a listen:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid. (You had to be there.)

This type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with here — couldn’t he argue back just a LITTLE? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene.

Why? Everybody chant it together now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement.

I had an ulterior motive in using the opera example, though, to make another point about how a screener might read an opening scene differently than another reader. To illustrate, take this little test: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do?

I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight. Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is EXTREMELY common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. Indeed, sometimes there are so many people lurching around that the reader does not know for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

Why might confusion on this point be problematic? In a word: Millicent. Agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1 (which is, unfortunately, how they would tend to diagnose the paragraphs above), they generally stop reading.

To use Millie’s favorite word: next!

So strategically, you might want to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. If you’re in doubt about how many is too many — there is no hard-and-fast rule — there are a couple of tests I like to use.

The first, and the simplest, is a modification of the one I used above: hand the first page to a non-writer, ask her to read through it as quickly as possible — and then, as soon as she’s finished, ask her to tell you who the main character is and what the book is about.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Because writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which, as we’ve been seeing over the past few days, can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our old pal Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: time is of the essence.)

The other test, which is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across, is to hand the entire first scene to that non-writer (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test) and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning. Then take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember — if she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene? Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be there, but not mentioned until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the ACTION of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three.

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live. And that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing an agency screener’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

Worth considering, at least, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

PS: I keep finding myself referring back to that lengthy series I wrote last November on reasons that agents might reject a submission based upon its first page. Since that series was so revealing and so very practical, I’m going to create a new category for it at right: First Pages Agents Dislike (or so they say). Before you next submit your work to an agent or editor, I would HIGHLY recommend perusing it.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most trustworthy one of all?

For the last couple of days, I have been yammering on about the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different issue.) Within this context, I asserted — perhaps rashly — that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers ROUTINELY engage in this sort of banter: people in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

*** “Wow, your eyes are SO blue, Snuggums!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?” ***

I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, and most of the human race. But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Snuggums and Muffin themselves. Such entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other, before the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads.

I doubt the conversation will be scintillating.

It can be equally deadly in print — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

*** “Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition — when we swam beneath skies of azure…” ***

You’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull of a speech like this in real life without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike. Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue.

Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty, one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6″, even if that is indeed the case. In fact, mentioning it in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors about which the average person is most likely to —

Well, let’s be generous and not call it lying; how about equivocating?

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application — but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form? Aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, and yet asserts that she is three years younger now?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer — he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Charles Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other?

Such scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing — and more interesting to the reader — than the transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you” or “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

And after all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers regularly show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what a certain well-known deceased writer was REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions just accept that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Yet in an interview scene — again, especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There’s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, the success of the Greek chorus narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES aside. Let your characters disagree; let them quibble.

And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

Keep up the good work!

Maybe they won’t notice

Last time, I leapt up on my soapbox to point out the pacing dangers inherent to sneaking too much background information or physical description into interview scenes early in a novel submission. (For those of you joining this series in mid-flight, an interview scene is one where a character — generally the protagonist — obtains information critical to the plot and/or character development from another character, extracted through dialogue.)

In both cases, I implored you to take this as your rule of thumb: while not everything that people say in real life makes good dialogue, it’s an excellent idea to make sure that all of your dialogue is in fact something a real person MIGHT say.

And, as I pointed out yesterday, real human beings tend not to tell one another things they already know — except about the weather (“Some heavy rains we’ve been having, eh?”) and the relative progress sports teams (“How about them Red Sox?”), perversely enough.

Adhering to this rule while revising usually results in trimming interview scenes substantially. This is particularly true for interviews that open novels, where Hollywood narration and dialogue stuffed with visual clues about characters tend to congregate — and thus are likely to do the most damage.

Why are these phenomena more dangerous here than elsewhere? It’s not fair, but if the first couple of pages of text are a bit heavy-handed, agency screeners like our old friend Millicent tend to assume that the ENTIRE text reads the same way. An assumption, as you no doubt have already guessed, that conveniently enables Millie to reject the descriptively front-loaded submission immediately and move swiftly on to the next.

I have seen a LOT of good manuscripts done in by this tendency; it’s genuinely hard to handle opening description well. Because this is such a common problem, as an editor, one of the first places I look to trim is that first scene — which, as I mentioned yesterday, is very, very frequently an interview scene.

Want to see why it’s problematic? Take, for instance, this piece of sterling prose:

***”Don’t you go rolling those large hazel eyes at me, Thelma,” Marcel warned. “It hasn’t worked on me since our days in the chorus twelve years ago, in that bizarre road company of Auntie Mame. And you can save the eyelash fluttering, too. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “That’s a fine criticism, coming from a man wearing false eyelashes. Just because you’re a drag queen doesn’t mean you can’t dress with some taste. I mean, bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

“What about you?” Marcel shot back. “In your puce bathrobe with purple magnolias dotted all over it still, at this time of day!”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. “Because you’re my best friend in the world, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: you’re too heavy-set for a miniskirt now, darling. Certainly if you’re not going to shave your legs. What are you now, forty-five and a size twenty-four?”

Marcel smoothed down his Technicolor orange wig. “At least at six feet, I’m tall enough to wear Armani with style. Your cramped five foot three wouldn’t even be visible on a catwalk.”***

Admittedly, the banter here is kind of fun, but a judicious mixture of dialogue and narration would convey the necessary information less clumsily, without rendering the dialogue implausible. Try this on for size:

***Thelma rolled her large hazel eyes. Even ensconced in a ratty puce bathrobe that barely covered her short, round form, she carried herself like the Queen of the Nile.

Unfortunately for her dignity, her icy hauteur act had grown old for Marcel twelve years ago, three weeks into their joint chorus gig in that chronically under-attended road tour of Auntie Mame. “You can save the eyelash fluttering, sweetheart. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “You’re a fine one to talk taste. Bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

His thick, black false eyelashes hit where his pre-plucked eyebrow had originally been; his current fanciful impression of an eyebrow swooped a good four inches higher, threatening to merge with his Technicolor orange wig. Even for a career drag queen, his moue of surprise was a bit overdone. “Will you be getting dressed today, darling?” he asked brightly. “Or should I just get you another bottle of gin, to complete your Tallulah Bankhead impression?”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. He was getting too heavy to wear fishnets every night; still, not bad gams, for a forty-five-year-old. “If you insist upon wearing a miniskirt, my sweet, you might want to consider shaving your legs.”***

Same information, but more naturally presented, right? But even so, all of that physical description makes the scene drag a bit, doesn’t it?

Which brings me back to my closing question from yesterday: other than the fact that television and movies have accustomed us all to having an instantaneous picture in our heads of a story’s protagonist, is there a valid reason that a narrative must include a photographic-level description of a character the instant s/he appears in the book?

Consider for a moment the possibility that there is no such reason.

To be more pointed about it, consider it, perhaps, while sitting with a hard copy of your first few pages in your hand. Is there backstory or physical description that could come more gradually, later in the chapter or even later in the book?

Or — and this is a possibility that often occurs to professional readers of interview scenes, let me tell you — is that Hollywood narration or description-laced dialogue the book’s way of telling us that perhaps the book opens at the wrong part of the story?

Might, for instance, we learn more about Thelma and Marcel in a more graceful manner if, instead of beginning the novel with the dialogue above, it opened with a short prologue showing them twelve years ago, bright-eyed, innocent, and slim — and then jumped ahead to this scene, to show how they and their relationship have changed?

Dramatic, eh? One might even say character-revealing.

Of course, front-loading an opening scene with physical description is not necessarily an indicator of a structural problem. I suspect that often, writers who use this technique as a means of introducing description are driven primarily by a panicked sense that the reader must be told what the characters look like the instant they appear in the text — combined with a recollection that their high school writing teachers said that too-extensive physical descriptions are dull. So they’re sort of trying to, you know, sneak the physical description in when the reader isn’t looking.

Trust me, a professional reader is ALWAYS looking. It’s her job.

Looking specifically, in the case of an agency screener or editorial assistant ploughing through a mountain of submissions, for a reason to reject the manuscript in front of her. By avoiding the common twin traps of overloading the first scene with crammed-in backstory and physical description, a manuscript stands a much greater chance of cajoling Millicent into reading on to scene #2.

And we all want that, don’t we? Keep up the good work!

Five foot two, eyes of blue

Sorry to have skipped a day, my friends: a too-long writing session evidently made a couple of my vertebrae go on strike, and my chiropractor advised me to go easy on activities that might require, say, staring straight ahead for any period of time, operating a mouse, or looking down at a manuscript for hours on end while clutching a pen.

In other words, my usual workday. So picture me shrugging repeatedly as I write this.

Last time, I wrote about 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. Almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, after all, so it is worth triple-checking your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.

Why? Well, interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. So it would behoove you to pay particular 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 a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind I just heard the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene?

I’m guessing so; an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a phone 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. 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. Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife/woman and best friend/cop and partner discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

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 — and can he spare a cigarette?

“What kind of trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least a decade now, agents and editors all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open with conflict. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?

My long-term readers 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 in order to provide the audience with needed data. As in:

*** “So, Molly, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years. For the first four, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth.”

“Oh, Tad, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now. If only you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert, was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy.”

“Well, Molly, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Brian — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”***

Since I have lectured so often on this VERY common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. Suffice it to say that the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”

When you are scanning your submission for this type of dialogue — and you should — don’t forget to keep an eye out for its first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

***Link glanced over at his wife. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Gloria snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Link reached over to pat her on the head. “As your hairdresser, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.” ***

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? Well, again, it’s common, but that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, give yourself full marks. 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.

The only reason this information could POSSIBLY appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party.

That’s a pretty good test for Hollywood narration, incidentally: 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.

If you also said that Link and Gloria 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. My SO has just walked into the room, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, your eyes are green,” despite the fact that his eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want a reader to know it.

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out he already knew.

There you have it — two more excellent reasons to read your manuscript out loud before you submit it, my friends, and an even better reason to have a third party read it before you send it off to an agent or editor: to see if the dialogue sounds like something a real person might actually say (as Hollywood narration doesn’t), and to check that it is interesting enough to keep a reader moving from line to line in those interview scenes.

More on dialogue spiciness next time. In the meantime, I’m off to ice my neck. Don’t tell my chiropractor I wrote so much, please, and keep up the good work!

Blurting out those deep, dark secrets

I’m a trifle blue, my friends: a rather hefty chunk of my day got gobbled up by that bane of my existence, that bugbear to end all bugbears, having to explain again why, contrary to what Amazon continues to report (apparently at my publisher’s behest), my memoir is not in fact available for purchase anywhere on God’s decreasingly green earth.

It’s not the kind of news that a writer dreams about sharing with her public, certainly.

Actually, the people who contact me to ask about it are usually very nice — it’s just hard to be in a position to have to justify something so completely outside my control. (Seriously, just try trying to explain why someone else might think that they own your memories; I can tell you from experience, it’s not all that easy to do.)

Off with these depressing recollections, and back to work. Today’s topic, because it’s on one of my all-time favorite kinds of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

Why does that matter, unless the protagonist is a journalist of some sort, you ask? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

Nor is the interviewer role limited to solving overt mysteries; it’s rare that any novel does not contain at least one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” all call for satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are you already warming up the highlighting pens?

Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well. This is true, incidentally, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not get across the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our 62-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they forget that the scene must also be believable dialogue between two people.

The result, from the professional reader’s POV: many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation.

Or, to be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie?

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters: often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden. In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy that would make Hamlet himself start looking at his watch.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

And that’s what makes secrets interesting, right? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

How? By making the information-imparter more reluctant — which automatically both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult.

Automatically, this small switch makes the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information). A couple of fringe benefits: your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable. As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming… well, ordinary.

So eschew the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills.

Take, in short, a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up. The more difficult they are to find, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

More interviewing tips follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Stating the obvious

Before I get to today’s installment of the self-editing saga, here’s some worthwhile browsing for those of you who are planning to enter your work in a literary contest, well, ever: the ever-interesting Missy has posted a judge’s-eye view of poetry entries on her blog, the Incurable Disease of Writing. The judge’s perspective is so very different from the entrants’ that it really must be experienced first-hand to be fully comprehended, but Missy does a great job of giving writers an inside peek.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. Today I shall be dealing with a manuscript problem that is frequently invisible to the writer who produced it (myself included, I’ll readily admit), yet 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 gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about those most cut-able of sentences, statements of the obvious. If you’ll take the trouble to read on, I shall give you an example.

I heard some of you out there chuckle — you caught me in the act: the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of a self-evident proposition. Knowing that I am a writer addicted to giving examples, where else would my faithful readers look for further explanation other than later in the text? To the PREVIOUS paragraph?

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to give you a peek into the professional reader’s world: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do, faced with mountains of submissions — you’re 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 reactivity. To a professional reader in such a state, 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. Some 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 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 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 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. It’s the assertions of the obvious on a larger scale that 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 the larger-scale writing problem. 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 gunfire or the 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: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events — but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages, they can be deal-breakers. You’re better off cutting ALL of them — and yes, it’s worth a read-through to search out every last one.

Yes, even if your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have absolutely 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 everybody’s favorite agency screener, Millicent, just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that Millie will kindly overlook it amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you?

The trouble is, virtually all the time, these obvious statements appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. But provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin.

I’ve been using bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear on a page:

***The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake ate his pie with a folk, alternating bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry 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. But see how much of it could actually be cut by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

***The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry pie 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 85-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 cut counts. And 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 eat pie with cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

This 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, do. Hand your first reader the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask her 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.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my computer, which is sitting on my desk. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. You never can tell.

Keep up the good work!

The screen goes wavy

In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines to cut. Redundant lines can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbril and ride to the guillotine. Note just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

***Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge. “Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on his sawed-off shotgun. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.” ***

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that. But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

***Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.” ***

That’s 123 words, down from 231, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER) and unnecessary repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happenedearlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development – as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? – the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on – you DON’T want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it – but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

So be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, and keep up the good work!

Okay, I’m flattered

What is this shiny logo floating above today’s post, you ask? The excellent blogger Sean Ferrell has tagged my site for a Thinking Blogger Award, and I must say, I am extremely flattered. It’s a prize given to bloggers by other bloggers — specifically, by those who have won it before — writers who know from personal experience the joys and tribulations of opening oneself up in this unique way.

What makes me particularly happy about this is that the award is not merely given to well-written blogs willy-nilly: the rules specify that it should be bestowed upon blogs that made the nominator THINK. I couldn’t be more tickled, really, because I try very hard to make my posts thought-provoking, and it’s nice to know that a writer of Sean’s caliber recognized that.

Part of the award certainly belongs to the readers who have written in with comments — which I encourage everyone to do. You have helped expand this space from one person’s spouting off into a community for writers; thank you. Especially those of you who have suggested topics for posts or who have challenged me. I believe — and I hope the blog consistently illustrates this — that one of the primary gifts of the Internet is its ability to bring people together to share opinions.

Okay, enough of the Oscars™ speech; on to the nominations. In addition to getting to display this nifty little virtual plaque, recipients of the Thinking Blog Award are allowed to select 5 future winners. Only five! Where to begin?

I have been agonizing over the choice for the past week.

Seriously, it’s hard — there are a LOT of great blogs out there. First, I thought I would stick entirely to bloggers who, like myself, write on writing. But part of the purpose of this process is to introduce my readers to other blogs, and I know (via that most reliable of sources, a little bird) that many of those of you kind enough to visit here also visit other writing sites. Time to set my sites wider.

So I sat down and made a list of blogs that gave great practical advice, and another list of those whose writers made the mouth water with great writing packed with sensual details, and another of ones that stood out to me as being especially good at generating reader response…

97 nominees later, I decided I needed to simplify my criteria just a bit.

The list below represents a cross-section of blogs that I think deserve a wider readership. Thought-provoking and well-written, they cover a broad array of subject matter, from the ultra-practical matter of feeding oneself to the philosophical questions of everyday life. Best of all, each has changed my mind about something, big or small, through a post. Here they are:

Jordan’s Muse: those of you who were reading Author! Author! last summer probably remember Jordan Rosenfeld’s guest blogs; she’s the upbeat writer, editor, and writing teacher who cheers us up when the road to publication gets long, urging us to concentrate upon what we want to achieve, rather than the slings and arrows of rejection. We could all use more cheerleaders for the art like this.

Orangette: I’m a HUGE fan of good food writing; having done it (under a nom de plume), I know from experience how difficult it is to convey the sensations of taste, aroma, and texture well on the page. Orangette’s writing is delightful, of course, but for me, what makes her blog stand above the many other excellent food blogs out there is how well she writes about the recipes that DON’T work out — this is definitely not a blog written by someone pretending to be the perfect chef. She makes me laugh, cook, AND think, a potent combination.

Greentime: technically, Rhett Aultman and Amy Hale’s provocative (and relatively new) site is a vlog, but it includes enough good writing that I feel justified in including it. Concentrating upon practical environmentalism, Greentime combines great discussions with solid research. I can honestly say that this site has made a difference in how I live my life on a day-to-day basis.

Dude, Why Do You Have a Winnowing Fork? After my save-the-world last choice, I wanted my next nominee to be pure joy — and given my comic predilections, I could hardly not have included a funny blog, could I? Polly Tropia’s site is in many ways the Platonic blog: it ranges all over the place; it’s thoughtful, and it’s often laugh-out-loud funny. (Her post “No Atheists in Bed” is a particular favorite of mine.)

Lifehack: is a reliably thought-provoking blog devoted to the practicalities of organizing one’s life and time, always a big issue for every writer. While it is a trifle visually busy, if you have ever found yourself procrastinating for more than a day or two on a big writing project, you should run, not walk, to this helpful Australian site. Although Lifehack does regularly take on the big self-help books’ myths on productivity, it primarily concentrates upon pointed, hands-on particulars that actually can help you clear time and desk space to work on your next book.

Congratulations, all 5: you have been tagged for a Thinking Blogger Award. If you find your site on this list, here’s what you should do:

1. If (and ONLY) if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think. Please, remember to tag blogs with real merits (i.e., relative content) and above all – blogs that really get you thinking!

2. In that post, link the award site so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.

3. Optional: Proudly display the Thinking Blogger Award. It’s also nice if you post a comment on the Thinking Blog’s site with a link to the post that you wrote, so its list of winners can remain current.

To all of these bloggers, to all of my readers, and especially to Sean Ferrell, keep up the good work!

Repetition — and repetition. And did I mention repetition?

Can you stand another few posts on self-editing? I hope so, because after a very refreshing day off yesterday (translation: I edited, and then I had a nice, long, my-fiancé-wondered-if-I’d-been-eaten-by-wolves length writing session. Woo hoo!), I’m raring to go.

Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. As each ship-shaped (literally) car took a new crew of tourists into the ride itself, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying voice while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride.

And that, my friends, is how one grows up to be an editor.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth — it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations, as I mentioned last week — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?”  you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

The great recent example of this, of course, is the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.” Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It’s funny in the series, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping.

At base, this is another trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.

Who could have predicted THAT?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring. And here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a project for a rainy day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue HADN’T made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? No? Well, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.

It’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep up the good work!

What was that again?

For the past week or so, I have been talking about ways to self-edit your work in order to pick up the pace. In pursuit of that estimable goal, I went on a tear yesterday about redundancy, particularly word and phrase repetition. Today, I shall shift gears a little, to focus on concept repetition.

I dealt with this obliquely a few days ago, in my posts on eliciting telling little details. Again and again in manuscripts, I see good narratives sidetracked by a compulsion to explain what has just occurred, as though the author did not believe that the specifics of an incident, exchange, or character revelation could possibly have conveyed his intention for the scene.

Or, less common but still worth mentioning, summarizing what is about to happen BEFORE the scene occurs, as in, “I had no way of knowing that the events of the next day would shatter my childish innocence forever.” Personally, as a reader, I like to be surprised when childish innocence is shattered — don’t warn me in advance.

At base, both of these kinds of summary are based in an authorial lack of trust in the reader, I think: to a professional reader’s eye, they demonstrate that the writer is having a hard time believing that his target reader can follow the prevailing logic.

Thus, he explains what is going on, just to be sure. As in:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. It offended her sensibilities as a civilized person. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.

I may be leaping to unwarranted conclusions here, but I would assume that the number of potential readers whose sensibilities would NOT be offended by the sight of a human sacrifice is small enough that a contemporary writer might safely regard their critique as negligible. Personally, I am apt to assume that my readers are not given to sacrificing human, goat, or anything else that wiggles, so I would trim this passage accordingly:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.

Has the passage genuinely lost meaning through this edit? I think not — but it has lost a line of text, and believe me, when your agent calls you up and tells you, “The editor says she’ll take the book if you can make it 5,000 words shorter!” you’ll be grateful for every single expendable line.

Sometimes, the author’s mistrust of the reader’s level of comprehension is so severe that he go so far as to recap a particular set of facts’ importance as if the paragraph in question were in the synopsis, rather than in the text. For example:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew,” Doris said, wiping her nose for the tenth time. She was prone to allergies that stuffed up her nose and rendered her vision blurry; moving here with her husband, Tad, her two adorable children, Newt (6) and Stephanie (8), and their pet ocelot Rex into a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers, then, had probably been a poor idea.

Such a paragraph might work very well in a synopsis, serving as an agent or editor’s first introduction to Doris and her family, but in a manuscript, it reads awkwardly. (Try reading it out loud.) Since so much information is crammed into so few lines, it does not flow very well, so this passage would be a poor choice for the opening of a novel, or even the beginning lines of a chapter.

Yet if it appeared later in the text, wouldn’t the reader already know that Doris was married, had two children and an ocelot, and had moved recently? Wouldn’t this information be redundant, in fact? Besides, as any comedian can tell you, nothing kills a good joke so quickly as too much explanation.

Such global statements pop up in mid-text more often than you might think in submissions, though. There’s a reason you wouldn’t think it, if you read a fair amount: editors at publishing houses tend to leap upon this particular species of redundancy with all the vim of Rex pouncing upon a nice piece of red meat; as a result, one doesn’t see it much in published books. All the more reason to excise similar passages from your submissions.

Look how much snappier poor Doris’ plight is with the background trimmed:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew.” Doris wiped her nose for the tenth time, ruing the day she had bought a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers. It doesn’t matter if the scenery is magnificent when your eyes are too blurry to discern either distant mountains or your own driveway.

Partially, I think, reiterative over-explanation turns up in manuscripts because our ears have been trained by movies and TV to EXPECT redundancy. Almost any important clue in a screenplay will be repeated at least once, and often more, just in case some poor slob in the audience missed it the first time.

There is a long theatrical tradition of this stripe of redundancy, I’m told: in ancient Greek drama, a chorus provided frequent recaps of what had happened so far in the play. My college classics professor opined that this handy service, a sort of 5th century BC Cliff Notes, made it easier for spectators to nip out to have compact affairs with temple dancers and their neighbors’ wives; they could always catch up on the plot when they returned.

It’s amazing what one retains from long-ago lectures, isn’t it? You should have heard what he thought those figures cavorting on the sides of vases were doing.

But readers have an important advantages over the audience of a play — or at least they did before TiVo and rewind-able videotapes: books are cleverly designed so you may turn pages forward OR backward. Thus, if a reader has forgotten a major fact already mentioned in the text, she can flip back and look for it, right?

The moral: trusting in your reader’s intelligence — or at any rate her ability to figure out where to find information revealed earlier, even if she cannot recall it in detail — is an important key to keeping your pacing tight. If your plot requires additional explanation here or there because you’ve moved too swiftly, believe me, an agent or editor will will be happy point it out to you.

More tips on weeding out insidious pace-slowers to come next week. In the meantime, try not to stress out too much about your income taxes, US-based readers; at least this year, they are not due on the anniversary President Lincoln’s assassination, as they usually are. Now THAT’s a decision that cries out for further explanation, isn’t it?

Keep up the good work!

The end of the line

A brief announcement for those of you who were planning on seeing me at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference this summer or taking my Seattle-area pitching class prior to it: the Pitch Practicing Palace’s staff has decided that we will not be operating at PNWA this year, and I have already informed the PNWA that I will not be teaching the class for them again. I have, in fact, resigned from the organization after many years’ membership.

Struggling through negotiations to provide these services for conference attendees was taking up far too much of my time, energy, and patience. I believe I can do more good here than by fighting with people who apparently do not understand that pitching is both stressful and a learned skill. I won’t bore everyone recapping the events of April 2 and thereafter, or dealing with the personalities involved. Suffice it to say that my mission here is to be upbeat and supportive of my readers, and I believe I can do a better job of that if I sever all ties to an organization that has made it quite clear that it now wishes it had never asked me to be its Resident Writer for 11 months in 2005-2006.

There’s no accounting for taste, eh?

My deepest apologies to any of you who made plans in the expectation that the PPP would be available or who were looking forward to the class. I shall try to find another venue for the latter, but rest assured, I shall be writing EXTENSIVELY about pitching between now and then.

Enough of all this unpleasantness. Let’s all get back to work.

Vary your word choices!

That ripple of titters you hear out there in the cosmos, dear readers, is the sound of every soul for whom I have ever critiqued a manuscript guffawing: the title of today’s post is something that I have been scrawling in the margins of manuscripts authored by writers living and dead since I first started proofing galleys in my early adolescence. Today’s piece of self-editing advice comes deep from the lair of my most fire-breathing editorial pet peeve: repetition.

It is not an uncommon source of annoyance amongst professional readers; as any good line editor can tell you, a tendency to become a trifle miffed in the face of writing that could be better is, while perhaps a handicap in polite society, a positive boon in his line of work. I was, of course, trained to react to it from my cradle: in my family, developing a strong editorial eye was considered only slightly less important than learning to walk; it was simply assumed that the children would grow up to be writers. My parents would not so much as commit my name to a birth certificate without first figuring out how it would look in print.

It’s true. Ask the nurse who kept trying to get them to fill out the paperwork.

I come by my pet peeves honestly, in other words, and believe me, this one gets some exercise, especially now that computer use is practically universal amongst writers.
Why? Word and phrase repetition is substantially harder to catch on a computer screen than in hard copy, even on the great big editor’s model currently gracing my desk. I’ve seen 25-pound Thanksgiving turkeys carried on smaller surfaces, but even so, I prefer to edit on paper. And even then, I still read the final version out loud, to check for flow and repetition problems.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: NEVER let a submission tumble into a mailbox until after you have read it in its ENTIRETY, in HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. There are manuscript problems that simply cannot be diagnosed any other way.

I had a hard lesson in this truth myself recently, after I had spent a couple of months working on a book proposal. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of trying to market a nonfiction book, a proposal is as nit-picky a document as they come. Rather than demonstrating that the proposed book is interesting and well-written by, say, handing the finished book to editors, the book proposal limits the actual chapters seen to only one or two — and even those come at the end.

What comes first? A lengthy description of what the book is about, why the author is the best current inhabitant of the earth’s surface to write it, and how it is going to blow every other similar book on the market out of the water. The author is expected to name the volumes to be thus trajected into the air specifically, critiquing them with the full knowledge that the editors who worked on them might well be reading the proposal imminently. Next follows a raft of marketing information, identifying the target readership, naming every mortal organization that might conceivably welcome a speaker on the topic, and so forth. After this exercise in tact, the hapless author is expected to come up with entertaining, well-written descriptions of chapters that have not yet seen the light of day.

THEN comes the sample chapter.

In other words, the NF writer has to prove, over the course of 50 or so pages of discussion of matters inherently less interesting than the subject matter of the book itself, that she can write. Piece o’ cake. It is a format in which a typo is both more important and harder to catch — because, let’s face it, the less fascinating a document is, the more the brain wants to skim through it.

By the time I began printing out the 15 copies for submission, I was relatively certain that the proposal was typo-free, so I did not proof it in hard copy. That was not purely an ego-based decision: there were other readers, too. I am writing the book with a very accomplished woman who lives on the other side of the country, in that OTHER Washington, so every draft of every page has flown back and forth electronically dozens of times. My agent (who wrote a great blog post on THE ROAD the other week, by the way. Would I be represented by someone UN-opinionated?) is an excellent line editor in his own right, and he had given feedback on two versions of it. Surely, I was safe.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

So there I am, printing up copy 12. (I like to print all the physical copies of my work that my agents will be circulating, so I can check each page individually. If a photocopier mangles pg. 173, it’s hard to catch.) Out of habit, I read the latest page out of the printer — and realized with horror that for some reason, three lines on page 47 were in 11-point Times New Roman, not 12-point.

It was a difference so subtle that only a professional reader would have caught it — and then only in hard copy. None of the three of us had noticed in the electronic versions, and I have no idea at what point the switch could have occurred, but that typeface change did subconsciously make those lines seem less important. Since it was a page in the middle of the proposal, though, fixing it would require reprinting ten pages of every single copy I had already printed.

Oh, please — was there even a second of viable suspense here? Of course, I reprinted it. I could always use the discarded pages for scratch paper, and then recycle them. Heck, I could even use them to print up a hard copy draft of the next manuscript I’m planning to send to my agent, so I can check for this kind of mistake properly.

My point is, no matter how sharp-eyed you are, or how smart — my proposal had been read numerous times by two people with Ph.D.s AND an agent, recall — you’re better off proofing in hard copy. A fringe benefit: on paper, it is far more apparent when you’re overusing certain words and phrases.

Which brings me back to my pet peeve. Editors hate repetition for a very practical reason: text that repeats a particular word, phrase, or even sentence structure close together is more tiring for the eye to read than writing that mixes it up more.

Why? Well, let me give you an illustration, as well as I can on a computer screen. Try to read through the coming paragraph as quickly as you can:

Without turning in her seat, Mandy suddenly backed the car into the garage. The garage door closed, sealing her and the car inside. The car was warm, cozy, a great place to die. No one would come into the garage for a week, possibly more, and the children never came in here at all. Thinking of the children, Mandy sank back into her seat, the car’s solidity as comforting as a sturdy umbrella in the midst of a sudden downpour. Without thinking, Mandy pushed in the car’s lighter, heating its coils for the benefit of some future cigarette that might never be smoked.

Okay, stop. Notice anything about how your eye moved down the lines? If you’re like most quick readers, your eye tried to jump from the first use of Mandy’s name directly to the next; it’s a very efficient way to skim. If you’re a more sensitive reader, the repetition of “the garage” twice within four words and “the car” twice within five might have led you to skip the next line entirely.

Apart from encouraging skimming — the last thing you want an agency screener to start doing to your work, right? — word and phrase repetition gives a professional reader the impression that the target market for the book in question is not as well-educated than more diverse set of word choices would indicate. (This is true, incidentally, even if a repeated word is polysyllabic, although to a lesser extent.) The more literary your writing, the more problematic such a perception can be.

The average adult novel is aimed at roughly a tenth-grade reading level; literary fiction tends to assume a college-educated reader, and uses vocabulary accordingly. So whenever you see those ubiquitous Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham quotes about never using a complex word when a simple word will do, realize that both wrote for audiences that had not, by and large, shifted the tassel on a mortarboard cap.

There is yet another reason to avoid word and phrase repetition whenever possible: it tends to slow down the pace of a scene. Let’s take another look at poor Mandy’s final moments with all of those redundant words removed and replaced with specific details — note how much snappier her trip to meet her Maker is in this version:

Without turning in her seat, Mandy suddenly backed into the garage. The door closed, sealing her inside. The car was warm, cozy, a great place to die. No one would come to this end of the mansion for a week, possibly more, and the children never ventured in here at all. She sank back into the rich leather upholstery, the Mercedes’ solidity as comforting as a sturdy umbrella in the midst of an unexpected downpour. Without thinking, she pushed in the lighter, heating its coils for the benefit of some future cigarette that might never be smoked.

It’s definitely a smoother read, isn’t it, without all of those eye-distracting repeated words? Yet look how many more character-revealing specifics I was able to incorporate — why, Mandy moved up several tax brackets in the second-to-last sentence alone. And although it reads more quickly and comfortably, it’s actually not substantially shorter: the original was 103 words, the revised version 97.

If weeding out repetition in just one paragraph can yield this kind of dramatic result, imagine all of the room you could clear for telling little details if you eliminated similar redundancies throughout an entire manuscript. You might want to print out a copy of your book — perhaps on the back of all that paper I had to discard from my proposal — and try it sometime.

There are, of course, many flavors of redundancy to torment editorial souls. Next time, I shall dive into another very common species that, in its most virulent form, has broken the tension of many an otherwise worthy scene. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Congratulations to long-time reader Brian Mercer, who has just sold an article to Llewellyn Publications. Way to go, Brian!

(And please, everybody, remember to keep sending in news of your triumphs, so we can all celebrate. I love reporting good news about my readers’ writing careers!)

Good-bye, Unk, and thanks

By the hushed tone of my mother’s voice last night, I knew that someone close to us both had died. Barely audible through a crackling cell connection that has to run through a series of Pacific-carved cliffs to get to me, it took her five tries to convey whose passing had so depressed her: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Suddenly, the world felt smaller.

Not that either of us had ever met the great writer personally — a trifle surprising, in my mother’s case, as she spent the 1950s married to a fairly prominent science fiction writer who certainly shared many readers with Vonnegut. At the time, SF was a small, close-knit world; my late Uncle Alec regularly published short stories in GALAXY. Like Vonnegut, most of the members of that early SF community were prone to complain bitterly about how the literary establishment ignored the fact that some great writing came out in genre form.

Anybody who has read more than one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels is already familiar with the lament, I suspect. Suffice it to say that those of us who write now have every reason to be grateful to Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, and scores of other great toilers in the SF and fantasy genres, for proving once and for all that genre and smart, literate writing are not mutually exclusive.

In the bad old days, SF, like mystery, horror, romance, and other genre fiction, was officially held in contempt by the literati. Science fiction novels were almost never reviewed by the mainstream press, a fact that rendered Vonnegut’s undoubted popularity doubly impressive. Hard as it is to comprehend now, SF was treated a little like pornography those days: nice people read it voraciously in secret, in the privacy of their own homes, but they took wincing pains never to discuss their taste for it amongst the snobbish.

Those who admitted such predilections openly were odd, somehow beyond the pale of polite society. Such people held their own conventions, for heaven’s sake. They believed it was perfectly legitimate for adults to read — and even own — comic books. They dressed up as characters from Star Trek. They understood how computers worked.

Even today, one still bumps into literati who retain this old attitude, confusing snobbery with discernment. A couple of years ago, at one of those publishing world cocktail parties where everyone drinks bad wine, I told an eminence grise of literary fiction who sits on the boards of several major grant foundations about the memoir I was writing about my relationship with Philip. If the grand dame had been wearing a skirt, she would have instantly swept it aside so I would not touch it. “Well, obviously,” she intoned, curling her aged lip, “I never read science fiction.”

Back in the day, even well-established SF authors were often treated by the press as though their success were some sort of a parlor trick, a word-based scam to fool a credulous reading public. Philip used to do hilarious impressions of the reporters who came to interview him: “Are you well-known in your field?” they would ask the Hugo Award winner, whose work had been featured as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. “I wouldn’t know. Naturally, I never read it.”

Or, still more maddening: “Do you write real fiction, too?”

Genre fiction IS real fiction — and potentially important fiction, too. As my mother said, sighing unhappily into the phone, when Vonnegut’s PLAYER PIANO came out in 1952, readers went mad with joy, and with disbelief: no one else was writing anything remotely like it at the time.

Or at any rate publishing it, which as we writers know often amounts to the same thing.

Kurt Vonnegut (he dropped the Jr. very emphatically after his father died) wrote smart books on smart topics. He wrote in such a spare, economical style that I was stunned to learn that he had been John Irving’s writing teacher in graduate school. (Yes, THAT John Irving, king of the modern-day Dickensian novel.) His comic timing was flawless, and he had the temerity to insist — in print, and often — that writing was an important contribution to humankind.

Or, as he would have put it, mankind. Female characters were certainly not his strength as a writer, nor his focus — interesting, in someone who wrote so much about evolution and reproduction. I must admit, after a blazing literary love affair with his books so marked that I literally wore out three copies of CAT’S CRADLE in high school, he lost my attention after TIMEQUAKE, where it became abundantly clear that his target readership uniformly sported Y chromosomes.

Frankly, I felt a bit betrayed. For those of us XXers amongst his fans who had been waiting for decades for him to create a believable female character (JAILBIRD’s Mary Kathleen O’Looney was his closest, and certainly his funniest), who had been making excuses to our friends for his depictions of rape (especially in WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE), his blaming the decline in reading in the US on women writers came as something of a shock.

At least, it did to me. For years, I had worshipped the man as an advocate of art, a writer brave enough to speak out on political issues, and most of all, an unparalleled crafter of words. If I hadn’t respected him so much, the slap would not have hurt.

I know, I know: it’s customary to speak no ill of the dead, and the difference between the admiration one has for a favorite writer at 15 and at 40 is the realization that all of our heroes have feet of clay. That’s what makes them interesting as characters, over and above their achievements, those contradictions.

But — call me zany — I suspect that for the next week or two, there will be no shortage of articles out there calling attention to the genius, the humanity of Kurt Vonnegut. Already, I have read no fewer than three obituaries that claimed — unfairly, I think — that he essentially wrote the same novel over and over 19 times. (Um, JAILBIRD? MOTHER NIGHT?) Already, there is no dearth of print pointing out that SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE is an anti-war novel that has arguably influenced more readers than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

I am all in favor of everyone in the world reading both, by the way. They’re both marvelous books.

Since we’re all writers here, however, and complex, I am not going to pretend that Vonnegut’s writing didn’t occasionally madden me. It did — but it gave me many more moments of joy, and a real glimpse growing up into the power of the intelligently-applied creative word. He was a terrific writer, and we are all diminished by his passing.

To American writers of my generation, he was the cool, wacky, Einstein-haired uncle who always said precisely what he thought. Anyone who does that throughout the span of a 55-year writing career is bound to annoy his nieces and nephews a little from time to time.

In CAT’S CRADLE, when Bokononists are about to commit suicide, they say, “Now I will destroy the whole world.” But a writer’s world, particularly one as well-peopled as Kurt Vonnegut’s, is not destroyed when he dies. His vision lives on in his books and — at the risk of invoking a standard eulogy cliché — in the readers whose lives he touched.

So good-bye, Uncle Kurt, and thank you, ten million times over, for Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater — and yes, even that bimbo extraordinaire, Montana Wildhack. Thank you for the RAMJAC Corporation, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the last great realist painting, and the transformative power of the Galapagos Islands. Thank you for books that I wrote about on my college applications after reading until the covers fell off. Thank you for an entire shelf of tattered, well-beloved volumes, work I love enough to critique 30 years after I first read them. (Hey, I started young.)

The world is a better place because you lived, and because you wrote. That’s as fine a eulogy as any writer can hope to deserve. Best of luck in whatever alternate reality now contains you, and if you were right about the non-linearity of time, enjoy all of your planes of existence. Don’t forget to write — and thanks for all the good work.

More fun with marking pens

For those of you joining this series in progress, I’ve been writing for the last week or so about keeping the pacing of your work tight. Slow manuscripts make editors grind their teeth and agents shake their heads in private, yet astonishingly few writing books and seminars address the issue at all, except to opine that for the purposes of submission, faster is, on the whole, better than slower.

There are a couple of good reasons for this genteel avoidance of an unpleasant subject, I suspect. First, editing for length and pace IS an unpleasant subject for contemplation where dear self is concerned, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but most of the writers of my acquaintance (including, I’ll admit it, yours truly) get kind of annoyed when an agent or editor says, “Love your writing! How about giving us 15% less of it?”

Or, to take what used to be a stock agents’ pronouncement a few years back, when we are told that a first novel should be more than 100,000 words, regardless of what might actually work best for the text. (That’s 400 pages in Times New Roman, by standard estimation techniques.) The truism on the subject has become a little more lax in the past year or two, thank goodness: now, pronouncement-mongers tend to say anywhere between 80,000 (320 pages) to 120,000 (480) is usually fine.

As someone who attends quite a few writers’ conferences in any given year, I, for one, was pretty darned relieved when the wisdom du jour changed. During the arbitrary 100,000 period, I always hated that inevitable moment when someone stood up and asked an agent how long was too long for a manuscript. The air of gloom that descended upon the room at the reply was palpable.

As much as I object to arbitrary standards — 125,000 words strikes me as less arbitrary, because binding costs do get higher at that point — I have to say, like most of us who edit for a living, I’m a fan of the tightly-paced manuscript. I practice what I preach, too: in the novel currently in my agents’ capable hands, I cut 20 pages entirely through eliminating individual lines.

So believe me, I feel your pain, self-editors. But like most people who read manuscripts by the score, that doesn’t mean that I don’t start muttering, “Get on with it.” Sorry.

The second reason I think the issue of manuscript-tightening doesn’t get much attention in conference classes, writing seminars, and publications aimed at writers is that just as it’s genuinely difficult to say with any precision how long a book one has never read should be, it’s also hard to give general advice about pacing that applies to every manuscript. Every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text.

Thus my asking you to take marking pens to your manuscript. To identify what could use trimming, you need to recognize your particular writing patterns.

So back to the nitty-gritty. Yesterday, I asked you to sit down with some of your favorite chapters throughout your book and differentiate by colored markings abstract vs. concrete sentences. Obviously, every manuscript needs both, and the appropriate ratio of abstract to concrete varies quite a bit by genre.

Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me I looked like trouble in a B movie. I cherish that.)

However, it is worth noting that agents and editors see a WHOLE lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones — which renders a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes.

So generally speaking, if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off.

Dig up those yellow-and-red pages from yesterday and pull out that yellow highlighter again. This time, mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

These kinds of sentences are harder to show out of context, so bear with me through a small scene. The sentences destined for yellow overcoats are in caps. (Sorry about that; one of the limitations of the blog format is the difficulty in incorporating italics and other such frivolities to designate certain text.)


WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Emintrude asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”


Again, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

Finished? Okay, now humor me a little and get a third color of pen — let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate — and mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail. You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from yesterday, but plow ahead nevertheless.

Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what “Get out of your character’s head!” means, at least not most of the time. Generally, it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a telling detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or… well, you get the picture.

In other words, it’s yet another way that editors bark at writers SHOW, DON’T TELL. What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart?

Well, among other things, it may well be more popular with professional readers — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses. Thus, a novel that conveys protagonist response in other ways a significant proportion of the time will enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses so VERY common? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.) Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud.

That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract chronic soliloquization.

Whichever it is, most manuscript would be better received if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression. Let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Ermintrude was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Bertrand’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Bertrand!” Ermintrude’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How yellow is it?

All of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you don’t believe this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and green-marked sentences — note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow between those Christmas colors, you might want to go back and mix it up more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the three-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the yellow-to-color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is time-consuming, and a test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear picture of this, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.) Good self-editing takes bravery, my friends — but I know you’re up to it.

Keep up the good work!

Decorating beyond the front door

No, I was not kidnapped by the Easter Bunny, the Passover Pine Martin, the Equinox Ferret, or any other furry critter puzzlingly associated with the rites of spring: after last week’s twin furors, I thought it might be a dandy idea to — gasp! — take a couple of days off. In a row.

I know; radical.

Last time, I wrote about those telling little details that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges everywhere when they appear nestled in a manuscript — particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” making the reader sit up and say, “Hey, maybe I should NOT toss this in the rejection pile.”

As eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. But an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Was that chill I just felt the cumulative effect of all of you first page-perfecters out there going pale? “I just spent eight months on my first five pages,” I hear these wan wraiths stammer. “If I brought the entire book to that level of polish, I would need to live to be 112. I doubt that I’ll still be up to a book tour by then.”

I hate to be the one to tell you this, O pale ones, but most writers revising for submission stop the high gloss treatment far too soon. Around page 50, on average, because we’ve all been told that’s the first chunk an agent will ask to see.

The result is a whole lot of manuscripts that raise tremendous expectations in screeners’ breasts — only to lapse into what is fairly obviously less worked-upon writing around page 52.

While it is true that having brilliant early pages is one of the best calling cards a book can have, consistency is a far more appreciated writerly skill than writing advice-givers tend to imply. (And before the quote-mongers who emblazon famous thoughts on calendars start shouting that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, let me remind you that the early part of the quote is almost always omitted: the original read, “A FOOLISH consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

So there.)

Back to my point: a book’s audition period can go on for most of the manuscript. An excellent agent of my acquaintance, for instance, tells me that he reads the first 185 pages of any manuscript he is considering actively looking for reasons to reject it. Beginning on page 186, he is looking for reasons to ACCEPT it, because he’s already invested so much time in it.

So, naturally, whenever I meet a writer who is planning on querying him, I say, “Psst! Make sure your pp. 150-200 are magnificent!”

Why might a professional reader toss aside a book after having loved it for, say, 190 pages? Usually, a lack of consistency in the writing: great writing early in the book raises expectations for the writing later in the book, necessarily. In the industry, a book that achieves this difficult feat is declared to have lived up to the promise of its first chapter.

Naturally, this is a little unfair, but after one has read approximately 7 million early chapters chock-full of telling little details, one has generally become resigned to seeing their frequency diminish later in the text — but not like it. It’s kind of a letdown, like when that the terrific conversationalist with whom you had three great dates blurts out on Date #4 a glowing paean to a politician whom you consider, at best, a corrupt megalomaniac.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.

I must admit it: as an editor, once I have seen evidence that a writer possesses the twin gifts of observation and the ability to handle detail deftly, I have been known to mutter angrily at the manuscript before me, “You’re a better writer than this! Give me your best work!”

So now that I have scared you to pieces about the importance of consistency, how can a revising writer tell if, say, the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to start enough to displease a professional reader’s eye?

Try this experiment: print out three chapters of your manuscript, the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book. (Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often.) Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.

While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form — everything from “Angelique felt envious” to “Georgine was a shop welder of immense proportions” to “Edward was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.”

Got that? Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood. Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — what you are looking for are passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like.

To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include, “Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin,” “Georgine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop,” and “Edward was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.”

Beginning to see patterns here? Good.

Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, here’s a helpful little editorial trick to apply: be sure to double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted — such summaries tend to lurk in their environs. When you find them, ask yourself, “Is this summary necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page — from our POV, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — we may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing who dote on telling little details.

Okay, I need to sign off for today, but please don’t throw those marked-up pages away: I have more plans for them. Yes, going through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb is a whole lot of work, but believe me, when your book is on the uphill side of page 185, and the agent of your dreams is trying to decide whether you have the consistency of style to pull off an entire book, you’ll be very, very glad you bought those marking pens.

Keep up the good work!

These foolish things… remind me of you…

Yesterday, while discussing ways to increase the tension of your submission pages, I brought up those gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little details that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which telling little details appear in a manuscript is — for me, at least — one of the primary factors in determining whether to keep reading.

Why? Well, more than almost any other device, they give the reader insight into the author’s worldview. A good writer sees the world around her with unique eyes, and — ideally, at least — powers of observation heightened to an extent that many non-writers would actually find painful. This requires pretty sensitive nervous tissue, as H.G. Wells pointed out: he liked to call writers Aeolian harps (that’s a fancy way of saying wind chime, in case you were wondering), responding to our perceptions of the world through our art and, he hoped, making it better in the process.

Wells is now best-known for his science fiction, of course, but in his lifetime, many of his most popular novels were about social interactions. His Mr. Britling Sees It Through, for instance, was considered at the time THE definitive work on the British home front during the First World War. My favorite of his social novels is The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, a comedy about marriage and the establishment of decent, affordable apartment buildings for young working women. (Okay, so his political beliefs were not hidden here.) If anyone wants to see sterling examples of what I was discussing yesterday, the distinction between polite dialogue that drags and polite dialogue that sings, this novel is a great place to do it — it contains masses of both.

You’d thought I was just digressing on a favorite author and had wandered off-topic, didn’t you? I confess, I’m a bit tired, with all the furor of the last week, but I’m not THAT tired.

The tiny little details that our sensitive nervous tissue lead us to notice — the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, as the song says — are a large part of what makes great writing seem almost miraculous to readers. Not everyone notices the worn-down heel of the left shoe of the man in his interview suit, after all, or the way the eyes of the president of the local charitable organization occasionally glaze with hatred while her mouth is loading the members with drippingly complimentary gushings.

Feeling special yet? You should: being aware of these telling little details is a gift, I tell you, and most writers don’t rely upon it heavily enough in constructing their narratives.

And to someone whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, every day, seeing that gift wasted can start to get pretty annoying. “Where are those delightfully unexpected little insights?” they think, running their fingertips impatiently down page 1. “Where is the evidence that this writer sees the world in a way that will change the way I see it myself?”

A tall order, yes, but — wait, do I hear some cries of distress out there? “Did you just say,” a strangled voice asks, “page ONE? As in my manuscript should produce evidence of my unique worldview and uncanny eye for telling little details THAT soon?”

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at last November’s series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1. It’s a pretty sobering group of posts.)

Some of you may find the necessity for cajoling reading more than a few paragraphs from people who, after all, asked you to send a chapter or 50 pages or your entire book. If you’re a novelist, it can be especially galling: presumably, if your forté as a writer were brilliant single-page stories, you would be entering short-short competitions, not writing 400-page books, right?

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to this view — if I ran the universe, agents and editors would be granted an entire extra day per week, so they could read at least 10 pages into every submission they request. Writers would get an extra day, too, and lots of paid vacation time, so we could polish our work to our entire satisfaction before we sent it out. And the Easter Bunny would live in my back yard for all of April, instead of just tomorrow morning.

Unfortunately, I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe. If we writers want to be successful, it behooves us to recognize that submissions are often read very, very quickly, and adapt our first few pages to that reality.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that. But before you condemn the rigors of the industry too vigorously, take a moment to consider the conditions that might lead to someone at an agency or publishing house to conclude that it would be desirable, or even necessary, to give a requested manuscript only a page to establish the author’s brilliance.

Those of you who were reading this blog last fall probably remember that old writers’ nemesis, the unpaid (or poorly-paid) agency screener. (She’s been with us long enough that I think she should have a name, don’t you? How about Millicent?) If you will recall, Millicent is the world’s most impatient reader, the one to whom you pray your manuscript will not be assigned: while some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millicent is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

It is now 12:10, she’s just noticed a run in her tights, and your manuscript is the next in the pile. How easy do you think it is going to be for it to impress her into reading past page 1?

I bring up Millicent not to scare you, or even to say this kind of reading situation is the norm for submissions — but since a writer has absolutely no control over the mood of the person deciding whether to accept or reject his manuscript, it is worth preparing your submission so that it would impress EVEN Millicent at her most frustrated. That’s just good submission strategy.

Actually, I have a quite a bit of sympathy for the Millicents of the agenting world, as well as Monroe, the editorial assistant who is her equivalent in publishing houses. They are expected to read reams and reams of paper very, very fast — and for this Herculean effort, they are not necessarily always paid. Often, this work is assigned to interns. If it’s the summertime, Millicent is probably on break from a good Northeastern college, someplace like Barnard, and since her parents can afford to support her while she takes an unpaid but résumé-building job, she’s probably from an upper-middle class background.

If it’s the rest of the year, or she has already graduated, she is probably paid — poorly — and lives in an apartment the size of a postage stamp with four other girls with similar jobs. Millie would not have gone into this line of work had she not liked reading — in fact, she may have writing aspirations herself, or she may want to become an agent or editor, so taking a job screening queries and submissions seemed like dandy on-the-job training at the time.

But now, after weeks on end of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of rather similar storylines, her capacity for appreciating literature has markedly dimmed. Sometimes, when she is especially cranky, a single line of awkward dialogue or two lines free of conflict can make her feel downright oppressed.

And your manuscript will have to get past Millie, and often also a senior assistant who has been screening manuscripts for even longer and has an even shorter boredom fuse, before it lands on the agent’s desk.

It had better not bore her. Especially if, as occasionally happens, your manuscript is the next on her list to read immediately after she has broken up with her loutish boyfriend, she twisted her ankle clambering up from the subway, or she’s wondering how she’s going to pay the rent. And if poor Millie has just burned her lip on her non-fat double-shot tall latte… well, let’s just say that the first few pages of your manuscript had best be tight.

And feature at least a few delightful little details that will make Millicent sit up, forgetting her bright magenta lip, and cry, “Eureka! This writer showed me something I’ve never seen before, presented in magnificent, clear prose! Forget my lunch date — I have something to READ!”

The miracle of talent, as Mme. de Staël tells us, is the ability to knock the reader out of his own egoism. Let your first pages be living proof of that.

I think you have it in you; that gift of insight is what made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Don’t let the difficulties of the submission process dim that mission. Millicent, and readers everywhere, will be the better for the originality of your insight.

Keep up the good work!

Characters an agent might like — but your mother might not

I’ve been writing for the past couple of days about the desirability of structuring your submissions to avoid that most subjective of pitfalls, being boring. The problem is, a lack of tension — an extremely common cause of agency-habitué boredom — is one of the hardest traits for a writer to spot in her own work.

Partially, I think, this is the result of our working so hard on plotting. The protagonist needs to get from Point A to Point B in a scene, and if the narrative gets her there in a fairly expeditious and plausible manner, we tend to be satisfied.

For the first draft, anyway.

I suspect, too, that most of us worry about making our protagonists seem like nice people a touch too much, at the expense of other, more risky character development. As I mentioned the other day, manners are certainly delightful and desirable in individuals, but when courtesy takes over dialogue for any length of time, the result can be deadly. Take, for example, this sterling bit of prose:

Everett lifted his hat, a well-creased Homburg inherited from his father, a man known all across the greater Boston area for his impeccably-groomed head.
“I’m delighted to meet you, Maude.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” Maude waved him to a chair. “May I offer you anything to drink? Coffee, perhaps?”

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Nothing, thanks.”

Maude began to burrow in her purse. “I suppose you are curious about why I asked you here.”

“I am, rather.”

Okay, I’m going to stop here and ask couple of pertinent questions: first, did you notice how the pace of the scene stopped DEAD after Everett thanked Maude? There was a palpable lull, from which the reader was only saved by all of that purse-rummaging.

I tell you, lovely manners can be death to a scene. Minimize their appearance.

Glance over the micro-scene again. Are you curious about what happens next? Do you want to hear more about either of these characters? To be blunt about it, have you in fact learned anything from that group of 78 words (yes, I checked) that could not have been easily conveyed in all of its glory in the following 36?

“Coffee?” Maude asked.

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Why did you ask me here?”

See how much snappier the second version is? Partially, this is due to my having used a tried-and-true editors’ trick: not having the characters answer questions just because they are asked. While of course it is polite in the real world to respond directly and promptly to the queries put to one, a narrative that exhibits a slavish adherence to having all questions answered the very instant after they are put — and having characters answer them absolutely directly, truthfully, and completely — can get boring FAST.

Why? Well, characters who do this — as most characters in most novels submitted to agents and editors do — are the last thing you want an interesting character to be: predictable. REALLY predictable.

Take another gander at the shortened scene: does Everett come across as particularly impolite? Not really — both characters still come across as relatively nice people, but now, the reader is not invited to dwell on their manners — which, by definition, are impersonal, rather than habits that reveal individual character, right? — but instead is drawn into the mystery of why Everett has been asked to this strange dorm room.

Let me repeat something I just said parenthetically, because it may be on the final exam: manners, like clichés, are reflections of social norms, not individual characteristics. Therefore, while showing a character deviate from good manners or mangle clichés can be effective character development, cliché-spouting (dangerous even as a comic device, in a submission) and courteous speech actually do not tell the reader much about the characters who emit them.

So when your protagonist shows what a nice guy he is by saying please, thank you, and asking about acquaintances’ mothers’ respective healths, he is not actually revealing who he is as a person. He might be revealing something about the people who raised him — while no one can deny that part of Elvis’ complicated charm was that he called people older than himself “sir” and “ma’am,” the fact that he habitually did so was certainly his parents’ and teachers’ doing — but part of the point of good manners is that they are used socially to avoid insulting anyone.

Which for most people means concealing a part of their true identities, at least for the moment. Complete honesty tends not to be polite — and, as anyone who has spent 20 consecutive minutes with a small child can tell you, politeness is the learned skill, not truth-telling.

And while absolute truth-telling is actually rather rare in adult life, except in small bursts — please tell me that no one is shocked to hear me say that — small, inadvertent pieces of self-revelation are lovely, aren’t they? I love to find them in a new writer’s work, as evidence of a good eye and a sharp insight into human nature.

I am not alone in this; telling little details are beloved by professional readers, partially because a manuscript peppered with ’em is actually rather a rarity to encounter. A shame, really — but let me turn the question around to you:

Given the choice, would you rather read a page of dialogue that showed a protagonist SAYING one polite thing after another? Or a page that showed the protagonist talking about something else entirely, perhaps engaging in conversation that reveals something about his relationship with the person sitting across from him, or a passion of his own — and then showed him leap to his feet, without even thinking about it, to give his seat to his grandmother?

Put like that, the choice is kind of obvious, isn’t it? Sounds like the first cousin of those old workhorses “show, don’t tell” and “actions speak louder than words.” Or the now seldom-used adage from before the crowned heads of Europe began to tumble, “You can tell a lot about a man by the kind of lace edging his shirt.”

How can self-editing writers tell if the manuscript in their trembling little hands incorporates enough of this kind of telling little detail? Ah, that is one of the great burning questions of the writing life — and a subject for tomorrow, my friends.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Is that line really necessary?

Yesterday, I waxed poetic on the subject of boredom — not your usual garden-variety ennui, but the more specific type of “Get ON with IT!” impatience that tends to infect agents, editors, and their screeners if a manuscript drags for more than, say, a quarter of a page — which is, as I’m sure has already occurred to you, an absurdly short amount of text upon which to base any judgment whatsoever. As I pointed out in my last post, the standards by which the rest of the world, including that large segment of it that happens to read books, gauges boredom is not really applicable to your manuscript.

Your submissions will ultimately be more successful if you edit them with an eye to the industry-specific tolerance for slowness. It’s just a fact.

Did I just hear a groan of disbelief out there? “Wait just an agent-boring minute,” I hear some of you who favor slower pacing cry, “I can’t open three books at my corner bookstore without finding pages upon pages of slow build-up. I’ve read award-winning novels where positively nothing happened until p. 42 — and even then it was subtle. So there must be agents and editors out there who appreciate slower work.”

You’re right; there are — a couple. And if your pacing tends to be on the slow side, I cannot urge you strongly enough to run, not walk, back to the bookstore where you found those gently-paced novels and take another look at them. I’d bet a nickel that they all share at least one of the following characteristics:

*The book in question is not the author’s first published book.
*The book in question was not written by an author who is still living now.
*The book in question was first published outside the United States.
*The book in question isn’t a novel.

Or, if none of these things is true, then:

*The book is self-published.
*The book was represented by an agent who picked up the author more than ten years ago.

Why am I certain? Let me take them one by one, reserving the most common for last.

If the book is older, wildly different standards of pacing used to apply, because the readers at whom new books were aimed had quite a bit more time on their hands. Remember, until the 1990 census, the MAJORITY of Americans did not live in cities. How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm without a good book?

Now, the publishing industry aims very squarely for city- and suburb-dwellers. Commute readers, for instance, and the fine folks who listen to books-on-tape in their cars. These people have less time to read than, well, pretty much any other human beings in the whole of recorded history, as well as more stimuli to distract them, so agents and editors are now looking for books that will keep the interest of people who read in shorter bursts.

At least, US publishers have swung in this direction. In other countries, different standards prevail. Why, in the U.K., it’s considered downright stylish for nothing to happen for the first 50 pages, a pace that would make anyone in a Manhattan-based agency reject it by page 4.

One also encounters slower pacing — and more uneven pacing in general — in nonfiction books. This is often true even if the author is as American as apple pie, his agency as New York-oriented as Woody Allen, and his publisher as market-minded as, well, an NYC publisher. So why the tolerance for a slower NF pace?

Simple: nonfiction is not generally sold on the entire book; it’s sold on a single chapter and a book proposal. Thus, the agent and acquiring editor commit before they have seen the final work. This allows slower-paced books to slip through the system.

Which brings me to the first on my list (and the last in our hearts), the comparatively lax pacing standards applied to books by writers who already have a recognized fan base. Established writers have leeway of which the aspiring can only dream with envy.

The kind of dream where one rends one’s garments and goes on frustrated rampages of minor destruction through some symbolically-relevant dreamscape.

As I am surely not the first to point out, the more famous the writer, the less likely his editor is to stand up to him and insist upon edits. This is why successful authors’ books tend to get longer and longer over the course of their careers: they have too much clout to need to listen to the opinions of others anymore.

A writer seeking an agent and publisher for a first book, particularly a novel, does not have this kind of clout. Indeed, at the submission stage, the writer does not have any clout at all, which is why I think it is so important for writers’ associations to keep an eye on how their members are treated. (At a good conference, for instance, the organizers will want to know IMMEDIATELY if any of the attending agents or editors is gratuitously mean during a pitch meeting.)

Since the first-time writer needs to get her submission past the most impatient reader of all, the agency screener, she doesn’t have the luxury of all of those extra lines, pages, and chapters. The writing needs to be tight. Because only first-time authors ever hear that tedious speech about how expensive paper, ink, and binding have become.

In short, for a new novelist to break into the biz, most of the books currently taking up shelf space at her local megastore are not a particularly good guide to pacing.

The pacing bar has definitely risen in recent years. Five years ago, the industry truism used to be that a good manuscript had conflict on every single page – not a bad rule of thumb, incidentally, while you are self-editing. Now, the expectation is seldom verbalized, but agents, editors, and their screeners routinely stop reading if they are bored for even a few lines.

Particularly, as we saw in the Idol series last fall, if those few lines are on the first page of the submission.

This may seem like an odd thing to say, coming so close on the heels of last month’s series on industry faux pas, but of all the writerly sins encountered by agents, the manuscript that bores them is the most common — and among the most hated. So here’s a most sensible request for you to make of your trusted first readers, the ones to whom I sincerely hope you are showing your work BEFORE submitting it to the pros:

“Would you please mark the manuscript any time you began to feel bored for more than ten seconds?”

Such a question is not a mark of insecurity — it’s an indicator that a writer is being very practical about the demands of the publishing world now, rather than ten years ago. Or a century ago. Or in the U.K.

Keep up the good work!

Being chatty — in the right way

After the unpleasantness that prompted my last post (not resolved, but I am following up on it), I thought a nice, helpful post on craft would prove soothing to everybody. Although, in keeping with my newly-discovered rumored status as a Dangerous Iconoclast and Annoyer of the Mighty, I have decided to take on a craft-related topic I have literally never seen addressed in a conference or a class: keeping your pages interesting.

To paraphrase the most frequent exclamations from folks in the industry about it, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”

While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener, this might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: the average agent or editor’s maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is approximately well under a minute.

Not a lot of room for fudging there. So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15 — it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito.

And THAT is why, in case you were curious, writing gurus urge students to begin their works with a hook, to establish interest right away. But capturing a reader’s interest — particularly a professional reader’s interest — is not like tag: once you’ve hooked ’em, they don’t necessarily remain hooked. Think of maintaining interest as being akin to love: no matter how hard someone falls for you at first, if you do not keep wooing, that interest is going to flag sooner or later.

Too many aspiring writers take their readers’ interest for granted, an often-costly assumption. So let’s talk wooing.

In the industry, the standard term for what keeps a reader turning pages is tension. All too frequently, tension is confused with suspense, and thus taken less seriously as a writing necessity by writers in other genres. Suspense is plot-specific: a skillful writer sets up an array of events in such a way as to keep the reader guessing what will happen next. In a suspenseful plot, that writing-fueled curiosity keeps the reader glued to the page between plot points.

Suspense, in other words, is why one doesn’t get up in the middle of a Hitchcock film to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge, unless there’s a commercial break. You want to see what is going to happen next.

Tension, on the other hand, can stem from a lot of sources, mostly character-generated, rather than plot-generated: the reader wants to know how the protagonist is going to respond next, a different kettle of fish entirely. Sometimes tension-rich dilemmas are plot points, but not always — and this gives the writer a great deal of freedom, since it’s a rare plot that can maintain a major twist on every page.

Or even every other page. (THE DA VINCI CODE, anyone?)

Some of the greatest contemporary examples of well-crafted, consistent tension in novels are — don’t laugh — the HARRY POTTER books. (Yes, I know that they’re for children, but children grow up, and it would behoove anyone who intends to be writing for adults ten years from now to be familiar with the Harry Potter pacing.) Actually, not a lot happens in most of the books in this series, particularly in the early chapters: kids go to school; they learn things; they have difficulty discerning the difference between epoch-destroying evil and a teacher who just doesn’t like them very much; Harry saves the world again.

Of course, the lessons they learn in the classroom ultimately help them triumph over evil, but that’s not what makes the HARRY POTTER books so absorbing. It’s the incredibly consistent tension.

I’m quite serious about this. If J.K. Rowling’s publisher infused each page with heroin, rather than with ink, her writing could hardly be more addictive; there’s a reason that kids sit up for a day and a half to read them straight through. With the exception of the first 50 pages of the last book (hey, I’m an editor: it’s my job to call authors on their writing lapses), the tension scarcely flags for a line at a time. Technically, that’s a writing marvel.

This miracle is achieved not by magic, but by doing precisely the opposite of what the movie and TV scripts with which we’re all inundated tend to do: she gives her characters genuine quirks substantial enough to affect their relationships and problems that could not be solved within half an hour by any reasonably intelligent person.

Rather than making the reader guess WHAT is going to happen next, well-crafted tension lands the reader in the midst of an unresolved moment — and then doesn’t resolve it immediately. This encourages the reader to identify with a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) to try to figure out how that character could get out of that particular dilemma. The more long-term and complicated the dilemma, the greater its capacity for keeping the tension consistently high.

A popular few: interpersonal conflict manifesting between the characters; interpersonal conflict ABOUT to manifest between the characters; the huge strain required from the characters to keep interpersonal conflict from manifesting. Also on the hit parade: sexual energy flying between two characters (or more), but not acted upon; love, hatred, or any other strong emotion flying from one character to another, spoken or unspoken. Or even the protagonist alone, sitting in his room, wondering if the walls are going to collapse upon him.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for judging whether a scene exhibits sufficient tension: if you would be comfortable living through the moment described on the page, the scene may not provide enough tension to keep the reader riveted to the page. Polite conversation, for instance, when incorporated into dialogue, is almost always a tension-breaker.

“But wait!” I hear some of you slice-of-life aficionados out there cry.
“Shouldn’t dialogue reflect how people speak in real life?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it should, insofar as good dialogue reflects plausible regional differences, personal quirks, and educational levels. I’ve heard many an agent and editor complain about novels where every character speaks identically, or where a third-person narrative reads in exactly the same cadence and tone as the protagonist’s dialogue. Having a Texan character use terms indigenous to Maine (unless that character happens to be a relative of the president’s, of course) is very likely to annoy a screener conversant with the dialect choices of either area.

Yes, Virginia, the pros honestly do notice these little things. That’s one of the many, many reasons that it is an excellent idea for you to read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you mail it off; it really is the best way to catch this flavor of writing problem.

But it’s just a fact of the art form that the vast majority of real-life dialogue is deadly dull when committed to print. While the pleasantries of manners undoubtedly make interpersonal relationships move more smoothly, they are rote forms, and the problem with rote forms is that utilizing them absolutely precludes saying anything spontaneous. Or original.

Or — and this is of primary importance in a scene — surprising. Think about it: when’s the last time someone with impeccable manners made you gasp with astonishment?

Even rude real-life conversation can be very dull to read. If you don’t believe this, try an experiment: walk into a crowded café alone, sit down at a table near a couple engaged in earnest conversation, and start taking notes. Then go home and write up their actual words — no cheating — as a scene.

Read it over afterward. 99% of the time, even if the couple upon whom you eavesdropped were fighting or contemplating robbing a bank or discussing where to stash Uncle Harry’s long-dead body, a good editor would cut over half of what the speakers said. If the two were in perfect agreement, the entire scene would probably go.

Why? Because real-life conversation is both repetitious and vague, as a general rule. It also tends to be chock-full of clichés, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, jokes that do not translate at all to print, and pop culture references that will surely be outdated in a year or two.

In a word: boring to everyone but the participants. It’s an insult to the art of eavesdropping.

“Boring,” of course, is absolutely the last adjective you want to spring to an agency screener’s mind while perusing your work. Even “annoying” is better, because at least then the manuscript is eliciting a reaction of some sort.

But once the screener has a chance to think, “I’m bored with this,” if the next line does not re-introduce tension, chances are that the submission is going to end up in the reject pile.

That’s the VERY next line; you can’t count upon your manuscript’s ending up on the desk of someone who is going to willing to be bored for a few paragraphs. As a group, these people bore FAST.

How fast, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, my friends, but many of the fine people currently reading submissions across this great land of ours are disconcertingly capable of becoming bored within the first paragraph of a novel. Or, at the very most, by the bottom of the first page.

While we could talk all day about the ethics of agencies and publishing houses employing screeners and assistants with attention spans comparable to the average three-year-old’s — and I’m talking about a three-year-old who has just eaten two big slices of birthday cake here — I have to say, I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: most manuscripts suffer from an ongoing lack of tension.

And dull dialogue that does not reveal interesting things about the characters saying it is a primary cause. I know, I know, being courteous SEEMS as though it should make your protagonist more likable to the reader, but frankly, “Yes, thank you, George,” could be spoken by anyone. It doesn’t add much to any scene. And reading too many pages of real-life dialogue is like being trapped in a cocktail party with people you don’t know very well for all eternity.

“Deliver us from chit-chat!” the agency screeners moan, rattling the chains that shackle them to their grim little desks clustered together under those flickering, eye-destroying fluorescent lights. “Oh, God, not another attractive stranger who asks, ‘So, have you been staying here long?'”

Eliciting that kind of reaction — now THAT’s the kind of agent and editor annoying-tactic I think is worth investing some serious energy into exploring. But then, that’s just my opinion.

More on tension next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!