Before I get started on today’s self-editing extravaganza, my friends, let’s all hear it for new reader Kerry, who very generously posted a comment over the weekend about how to deal with that pesky Autoformat feature in Word that insists upon changing all of our standard format-mandated doubled dashes into emdashes, those long, word-to-word lines that we writers know better than to include in our manuscripts. Quoth Kerry:
On the Mac, you go to Tools, then Autocorrect…, then AutoFormat As You Type. You can then uncheck the “Symbol characters…” under “Replace as you type.”
You can do it on the PC, too, but it’s not in exactly the same place. On the PC (I’m using Word 2002), here’s what you do: Go to Tools, AutoCorrect Options…, AutoFormat As You Type, and unclick “Hyphens (–) with dash (emdash).”
Doesn’t the very notion of NOT having to swear under your breath while watching your computer undo your hard work lighten your spirits and make your little toes begin to tap? It certainly does mine. Thanks, Kerry!
After the sentence-level self-editing tips of the last week or so, the kind that had your eyeballs glued to your manuscripts, I thought it might be something of a relief to sit back for some conceptual editing. Today, I want to talk about editing to make your characters more active, both to improve your manuscript’s pacing and to make your protagonist more likeable.
We’ve all read books starring the passive protagonist, right? He’s the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist as the plot put-puts along, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.
Let me share a secret: any screener, agent, editor, editorial assistant, and/or contest judge who has been at it more than a week automatically rolls his/her/its eyes when such a protagonist lumbers his way across the pages of yet another manuscript. Because, you see, a similar malaise plagues the lead in, oh, 85% of the manuscripts they see. At least in a scene or two.
So tell me: how are they usually going to treat to a submission whose first chapter features a passive protagonist? Or whose first five pages does?
Starting to sense an overall pattern here? Folks in the biz see positive oceans of submissions with problems, so the more common a manuscript problem is, the more likely they are to have a knee-jerk response to it.
How knee-jerk, you ask? A very famous agent told me a few years ago that he automatically stops reading a submission the moment the protagonist sits down in a car or begins to drink coffee, tea, or any other non-alcoholic beverage in the company of another character. At that point, he says, the action almost invariably is put on hold.
Translation: a protagonist does not need to be passive for very long to be diagnosed as such. (Or even particularly passive.)
Over and above notoriously low thresholds of agent boredom, this phenomenon presents a genuine obstacle to the creation of a compelling narrative. It’s hard for a reader to sympathize with someone who is purely acted-upon without pushing back, at least in some miniscule way.
It’s no accident that early screenwriter Elinor Glyn advised those who would create screenplays never to allow their heroes to feel sorry for themselves for more than a minute on film.
She meant a literal minute, by the way, not a figurative one, but her advice easily translates into a page for our purposes here. If there’s an ongoing plot problem — and there should be more or less constantly throughout a story, to keep the pacing tight — audience members and readers alike prefer to see the protagonist DOING something about it. Even if that something is completely misguided.
Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it is completely misguided; poor life choices for a character are often great fun for the reader, right? One of the quickest ways to add complexity to a two-dimensional character is to have her act out of character at some point early in the book.
To be fair, the vast majority of protagonists are not uniformly passive (and for good reason: it’s a challenge to construct a storyline around a static character). In most manuscripts, the hero lapses only occasionally into total observation mode.
Unfortunately, they often do so during those interview scenes I was discussing a few weeks back. You know the ones: our guy Jerry is on the trail of a secret that could bring down City Hall while his brother, Arnold, is sitting on death row, accused of a murder he didn’t commit that was — mirabile dictu! — actually committed by someone at the bottom of THAT VERY SECRET. Jerry has been rushing all over town, dodging bullets, in order to seek out answers, yet anytime he bumps into someone who might be able to shed light on the matter, he just sits there while the source spills his proverbial guts.
Even, amazingly, when the source has just spent the last 50 years in excruciating emotional pain, keeping that particular portion of his guts inside. Go figure.
Frequently, Jerry doesn’t even have to ask a single question beyond, “What do you know about it, old timer?” to provoke this innard exposure. (Passive protagonists’ skin apparently secretes some sort of truth serum.)
As I mentioned before, TV and movies have inured most of us to this kind of spontaneous truth-telling; it has seeped into our collective consciousness to the point that it seems almost normal.
Why, just last night, I was tapping away on my computer while my SO Rick was watching the season finale of one of the five million LAW & ORDER franchises. By the time I had finished my post and sat down next to him, there were only ten minutes left. A harried-looking woman was on the witness stand, being grilled about a long-ago rape. Apparently, she’d kept the identity of her rapist a secret for the past 26 years.
I got up to fix myself a sandwich.
“How can you leave at such an exciting point?” Rick asked.
I yawned. “Because she’s about to blurt out that she was raped by her father. Are you hungry?”
THAT’s how common this kind of interview scene has become: the instant we in the audience learn that a character is hoarding a great big secret, we EXPECT the whole truth to pop out of her mouth within minutes.
So hard, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission.
Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE. And in the opening scenes of a novel, often even less than that.
You can see your assignment coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s not going to be as bad as you think.
Go through your manuscript, scene by scene. No need to read for specifics; the general sense will do. If your protagonist is not the primary actor in any given scene, mark it, as well as any scene where she is observing action around her rather than participating in it.
Employ different kinds of markers for these two types of scenes; top and bottom folded page corners or Post-It™flags will do. If you really want to be thorough, you can make a list of scenes as you go, marking them accordingly.
After you’ve rated the scenes, go back and revisit those where the protagonist is not the main mover and shaker. Could adding a line or two here or there beef up her presence in the scene? Could she ask some of the questions currently in the mouth of a third party, for instance, or take a more aggressive stand against a villain? Or against her mother?
Could you, in short, inject some conflict into every page of the scene? How about every half-page?
Now turn to the scenes where the protagonist is watching what is going on. This one is going to sting a little: ask yourself honestly, without weighing in the balance how much you like the writing, whether this scene is actually essential to the book. If not, could you cut it?
I know, I know: some of my favorite scenes are quiet, too. But it’s often apparent to an outside observer (like, say, an editor) that a protagonist is merely observing a scene because it’s not central to the plot or to her character’s development. And when a scene adds to neither, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.
Tomorrow, I shall delve into the nitty-gritty of ferreting out protagonist passivity. In the meantime, enjoy shutting off that annoying Autoformat feature, and keep up the good work!