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.”
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!