And? And?

Hey, great news, everybody: reader Jeff Jacobson has written in to say that he has landed an agent! A good one, too: Steve Laube of the Steve Laube Agency.

Congratulations, Jeff! May your writing career continue to prosper – and may I continue to have such wonderful news to report about my readers early and often.

So keep your chins up, everyone – it CAN be done.

Yesterday, I urged you to scan your submission pages (in particular, the first five) for over-use of the words and, but, and then; in fact, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

What was I thinking, you ask, to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Well, quick-reading agency screeners and contest judge are routinely ordered to subtract points for grammatical errors – and that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence, is always high on their penalty list. As is word repetition.

So take up your marked pages, please, and let’s observe the frequency of and.

If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed two major patterns of usage: in lists and in the HUGELY popular X happened and then Y happened structure. See if you can spot ‘em here:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow. Outwardly composed, he smiled and extended his hand to Emile.

Although these types of repetition may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they come across as structurally redundant on the page. Let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow. Outwardly composed, he smiled and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic – they lull the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed. Why? Because the eye automatically jumps between repeated words on a page. The result: submission pages that are read far, far more quickly than any of us might wish.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure, but while you are editing, it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. As in:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons.

It’s a subtle problem, but did you spot it? To eyes trained to catch redundancy, even this minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge. Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, this kind of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars; unless one is looking for it, it’s easy to overlook.

Thus the highlighting pens.

The other common and structure, X happened and Y happened, is a very frequent stylistic choice for relatively new writers. It’s appealing, as I mentioned yesterday, because like beginning sentences with and, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow.

You’re already cringing, aren’t you, in anticipation for the conclusion that so often follows upon a declaration that a writing device is pervasive?

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure. Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third usage of this kind of sentence within half a page.

While you are self-editing, then, it’s a dandy idea to rework any sentence in which and appears more than once. Chances are high that it’s a run-on:

In avoiding the police, Zelda ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions.

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect. If you choose to do this, strategically speaking, you should avoid using it ANYWHERE else in the text except in these arpeggios of evocative lists.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, which are technically grammatical no-nos. You may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a super-quick agency screener to tell the difference? Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies writing habit.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, the manuscript is going to get rejected, almost invariably.

Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of being ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best.

At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of –gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

As with the use of then, it pays to be extremely selective. Sometimes the repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of either the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events.

This is not always a fair assessment, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: do I really need to tell the reader this? Or is there a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? (X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics, I have noticed.)

Which leads me to the opposite possibility, and a more conceptual editing question: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly?

Is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK TO THIS LATER?

Almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry? When the point is just to get lines down on a page – or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.

It’s a great strategy – as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

The results for the scene can be a bit grim when we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important. This leads to overloaded sentences where four or five genuinely exciting actions are all crammed together.

Which – you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which is not exactly the response you want from an agency screener, right?

When in doubt, revise. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole. Keep those highlighters handy — and keep up the good work!

10 Replies to “And? And?”

  1. Writing is hard! The more I read, the harder it gets. (I considered starting that question with an “and” but decided against it) 🙂 But seriously, thanks so much for all this practical advice. Now that Miss Snark’s blog is no more, yours is the only writing blog that I read daily. Thanks!

    On a semi-related note, I’ve been using a program called Text Aloud to have my computer read my almost finished novel to me, as I couldn’t face the idea of reading the whole thing out loud myself. You’re definitely right about the value of hearing it, rather than just reading it – I’ve caught lots of errors this way. Thanks for your advice!

    1. Glad to help, Sharon!

      I hadn’t heard of Text Aloud — what a great idea; it would certainly save on throat lozenges. I can’t imagine how it would handle inflections.

  2. Whenever I feel that tendency to just rush through a scene, I stop writing. I need to come up with a reason to be excited about that scene before I write it, or I need to find a way to work around the scene. If I’m not genuinely interested in a given scene, it’s a sure bet that no reader will be. I used to just plow through the occasional such scene, thinking that they would be forgiven as needed bridges within my work, but I’ve learned my lesson on that. Great post!


  3. I liked your comment about “flattening the highs and lows of a story.” That’s something I’m becoming conscious of in my writing, especially since my natural style is a wordy one. My book’s running long in any case, so I’ll be using all these tips to go back and cut, cut, cut.

    One problem I’m having is, while it’s not difficult to spot weak writing, it’s harder to spot good writing because when it’s good, it’s invisible. The last really well-written book I read was Elmore Leonard’s “Mr. Paradise,” but his style is so spare as to be skeletal. I get the impression it’s taken him years of practice to whittle away every extraneous word and arrive at his current minimalist style.

    I wonder if you have some tips on how to recognize, analyze, and learn from good writing?

  4. Wow, that’s a big question, Kim! I love the idea of doing a series on analyzing good writing — as an editor, I naturally see less of it than is probably good for me. Let me give this some thought.

    My first reaction was that good writing hits people so differently that it’s hard to generalize — coming across a really great sentence literally gives me goosebumps, for instance, but that’s a relatively rare reaction. My responses tend to be very visceral, but then, I’ve spent many years looking at text and asking myself, “Is it giving me that oh-my-God-this-is-great feeling? How could it be altered so it would?”

    Maybe it’s a matter of courting that feeling. I notice that when I edit, the sections that tend to elicit it are not necessariy just well-written — they are original. They feel true, as John Irving would say, and they read as though they could not possibly have been written by anyone but THIS author.

    That’s genuinely hard to pull off — and since most of us are so used to trying to emulate writing we admire (blame our English teachers, I guess), it can be a little scary. Several years ago, I was in a critique group where one member hadn’t really found his voice yet. Month after month, when we would exchange chapters, his writing was good, but uneven.

    And then one month he sent us all a new opening for his book. The opening paragraph almost had a shimmer to it — and it was completely apparent to all of us that he had finally found his true voice. We all went crazy with praise — and the next month, he sent a chapter from a new book.

    Backing away from one’s own voice happens more than one might think: the notion of both achieving technical excellence AND sounding like no one else is difficult to wrap one’s brain around. Especially in an industry where one is expected to offer, “Well, my writing is like Sarah Vowell’s, but the story is pure Umberto Eco” as a descriptor.

    My father used to say that the first half of learning to write entailed figuring out what you liked (rather than what someone else had told you was good) and copying it. In the process, he thought, you would gradually start to see ways to improve upon the style you admired, and thus make it your own.

    I’m not sure that I believe this technique would work for everybody — I am a rather prolix writer, but I admire the heck out of Jerzy Kosinski’s super-spare BEING THERE, for instance — but I do suspect that most writers could improve their work by sitting down seriously with passages in books they love and asking, “Hmm, how could I do this better?”

    I shall continue to ponder this, though. It’s a great question.

  5. Anne,

    Your blog has become an important ritual to my writing. I’ve been reading it ever since Miss Snark posted a link to you and have learned so much. Snark’s since retired and left a void in the writers’ galaxy. Might you fill it? I’m curious about whether you’ve decided to critique query letters. I know you opened that question back in March, but I’m not sure what you decided.

    Please keep blogging!

    1. Glad to hear you keep stopping by, Kris! I was taken by surprise by Miss S’s retirement. I think my orientation is rather different from hers — we approach submissions from opposite sides of the agency, after all — but I think many of us will miss her.

      Starting next week, I expect to be getting back to marketing issues again — I really do need to spend some serious time on pitching before conference season gets into full swing. Since many of the aspects of preparation are the same for pitching and queries, just after the pitching series would be a fairly natural time to take up querying again.

      So much to write about — so little time!

      I’m still pondering whether to give feedback on actual queries, though. Miss Snark did that very well (although I did not always agree with her), so at the time, it didn’t seem as though the web needed another query critiquer. Also, I’m not entirely sure how I would make such posts interesting to those whose queries were NOT being reviewed.

      So I guess I would turn the question back to you, and anyone else who wants to weigh in on the subject: if you would like to see me take a couple of weeks to comment on real query letters, what do you anticipate getting out of it? What would you like to see addressed about queries?

      1. I was being greedy! I want candid criticism and brutal honesty from an experienced source, and I suspect you do that well. Yes, Miss Snark succeeded in providing a gazillion examples through her Crapometers, but that resource is gone. I certainly learn by example, but it is difficult to find scathing honesty when one’s critique members care about the feelings of the author.

        If you intend to focus next on pitching, I’ll be satisfied! The most difficult thing for me about querying, is creating an effective hook. Your discussion of pitching will lend itself to that issue well.

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