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!