Let’s all play a guessing game!


I know, I know: for weeks now, I have been promising to launch into a lengthy series on common manuscript problems and professional readers’ pet peeves, as a follow-up to my late series on polishing contest entries to a high gleam. I do intend to so launch, I assure you, but first, I’d like to prep the ground by tackling a phenomenon that often renders it difficult for aspiring writers to regard their own work with the critical eye necessary for good revision to take root.

My, that opening was cryptic, wasn’t it? Good; today, I would like the speculative part of your brain firing on all cylinders. (And speaking of cryptic: I only just noticed that the gentleman on the far right in the photo above is someone who was long a major deity of the publishing world, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf. How’s that for a happy coincidence?)

Why do I want your mystery-sniffing noses to be a-twitchin’? Because the phenomenon I have in mind is so pervasive that it tends to permeate not only the pre-submission stages of the publication process, but often rears its ugly head all through an author’s career.

Think I’ve teased you enough? Not by a long shot. Here for your diagnostic pleasure are five scenarios involving very different manifestations of the phenomenon in action. See if you can figure out what it is.

All five of these situations, incidentally, are common.

Cryptic scenario 1: Alcibiades has just sold his first novel, GARDENING FOR BEGINNERS, to Bennett, an editor at a major publishing house. Carlton, Alcibiades’ agent, has negotiated a manuscript delivery date that permits his client the month of last-minute polishing he prefers, as well as time to incorporate a few minor changes Bennett has requested. Although the advance is small, Alcibiades is thrilled.

Once the manuscript lands on Bennett’s desk, Alcibiades assumes, as many writers new to the business do, that his own work is over, so he can go back to his next book and day job. But no: upon consultation with the marketing department, Bennett requests a few more changes — including the addition of a funeral in a plot where no one currently dies, in order to ramp up tension and sympathy for Ermintrude, the protagonist. Because the pre-publication clock is already ticking, these revisions need to happen very quickly.

Despairing, Alcibiades looks over the list of requested changes, some of which are far from superficial. Should he, for instance, introduce a new character merely in order to kill her off, in the manner of a hunter releasing tame pheasants in order to shoot them for sport? And what’s so wrong with that 50-page flashback dealing with the thrill of victory and agony of defeat for Ermintrude’s second-grade hopscotch team, thus laying the foundation for her later passion for one-legged war veteran Lance?

Instead, he shoots off an e-mail to Bennett, trying to explain why none of the changes are actually necessary — and even if they were, they would not be possible to make within the very tight timeline he’s been allowed.

Bennett, to put it mildly, disagrees. Words like slow, pointless, and does her hopscotch partner really need to have polio? begin to trouble the phone lines.

After two weeks of increasingly heated exchange, Carlton intervenes to make peace, and Alcibiades resentfully makes the changes.

Calm reigns for several months, but our hero is still bruised from the encounter. One day, Alcibiades receives an e-mail from Bennett: the marketing department has asked for the title to be changed. Could he please choose amongst the following three options, or suggest a better one of his own: SEX AND DEATH IN MOSCOW, POLLINATED BY WASPS, or WHORTICULTURE.

This time, Alcibiades’ trigger is much easier to trip, and he instantly composes a stinging reply, explaining with a lucidity that would have made the situation clear to an unusually slow four-year-old why he chose the original title.

Bennett responds that the marketing department knows what it’s doing. The situation again escalates into a bitter exchange of views, and once again, Alcibiades is forced to accept a change that he does not believe will be good for his book.

WHORTICULTURE receives good advance reviews and sells moderately well for a first book. Alcibiades does everything the marketing department tells him to do — sets up a website, appears at the signings they schedule for him, lassos his friends into generating glowing reviews on Amazon — and even manages to draft his next novel, GARDENING TECHNIQUES OF MIDDLING DIFFICULTY, while he’s promoting it. Yet when Carlton telephones Bennett to pitch his new book, the latter exhibits some resistance to reading it.

“But why?” Alcibiades demands when Carlton tells him about it. “My book is selling pretty well — and believe you me, it hasn’t been easy to explain that title in interviews.”

Carlton hesitates, obviously attempting to put something diplomatically. “He says that you’ve gained a reputation for being difficult.”

Cryptic scenario 2: Dahlia feels as though all of her dreams have come true — after years of querying, Françoise, one of the top agents in her book category, has just signed her to a year-long contract for her memoir, NORMAL OVERLOOKED TEEN: THE TRIUMPHANT REFORM OF AN UNDERAGE EXISTENTIALIST .

“I want to read the book again,” Françoise tells her, “and then I’ll have a few notes for you. Nothing major; the book’s terrific. I just want it to be in the best possible shape before I start sending it to editors. Oh, and you might want to think about shortening that title. It doesn’t make a good acronym for a memoir: NOT TRUE.”

A tad disappointed that there’s still work to be done — like many writers new to working with an agent, Dahlia had assumed that once her book was in her agent’s hands, her own share of the labor would be over — she generates a few title possibilities, then clears her schedule of everything not absolutely essential in anticipation of Françoise’s feedback.

It’s hard for a junior candy factory executive to take any time off in the pre-Easter season, but since surely everyone must know that April is the big chocolate-covered tulip crunch, she figures that Françoise must be very hot on the book.

Three months later, she’s still waiting for feedback. Timidly, she sends a box of caramel-laced bunnies with licorice whiskers, along with a note taking all of the blame for the delay upon herself. “We had a marshmallow meltdown,” she writes, “but now that the sticky situation has been cleared up, I’m all yours again.”

Françoise e-mails, apologizing profusely for the delay: she’s been just swamped with the sale of Colin Powell’s NO, I’M A REPUBLICAN, REALLY.

A few weeks later, she sends several pages’ worth of very specific change requests, including a suggestion that perhaps her tenth-grade mousy best friend Daphne be replaced with either a crack-smoking teen model who overcomes dyslexia to win an Olympic silver medal in hurdling or a stunningly-sculpted, promiscuous-yet-unpopular boy genius who will go on to become a software giant at the end of the book, in order to heighten the book’s potential for later movie sales.

“Of course,” she adds at the end of the note, “it’s up to you. But I would like to be circulating this within a month.”

Although Dahlia has been expecting this list — and had even requested it — she feels blindsided: there must be more than three dozen change requests here, none of them simple to apply. (Hadn’t that prom scene already been done in CARRIE?) Even if she took an unpaid leave from her job — which would mean leaving the Oompa-Loompas in the lurch in the middle of a major redesign for Kandy Korn — and worked on these changes full-time, this would easily be weeks’ worth of revision.

Realizing that she is too upset to have a productive conversation with Françoise about the situation, she stuffs the list into her bottom desk drawer along with the bones of her long-hated Algebra I teacher, promising herself she will get to them when she’s more reasonable.

Three months later, Françoise e-mails her: “When may I expect the revised manuscript?”

“Soon,” Dahlia writes back, glancing fearfully at the still-unopened bottom desk drawer. “I’m trying to clear enough time to do a good job. But it’s not easy — candy canes don’t grow on trees, you know, and I’m trying to keep the Peeps from walking out over dental benefits.”

Starting to gain some inkling of the shared problem here? Read on.

Cryptic scenario 3: Griffin has enjoyed substantial success in getting his short stories published, both through submission to magazines and entering his work in contests that include publication as a prize. Why, his trenchant examination of boy-on-bird love, WHERE THE HEART DARE NOT FLY, in a single year won the Giant Peach from the Atlanta Writers’ Consortium, came in second for the Golden Banana Slug in the Santa Cruz Fiction Fest, and appeared in a slightly modified form (the boy became a girl, the bird became Keanu Reeves, and all of the sex scenes were expunged) in Tiger Beat. Submitted in its original form along with a personal essay on beaver-farming whose complete avoidance of adjectives and adverbs elicited a personal note from the fiction editor of The New Yorker, his work earned him a $6,000 grant from the Canadian government along with a winter-long residency in an artists’ colony in Banff.

A detail-oriented soul, he delights in working and re-working his manuscripts until they shine, jealously guarding them from the scrutiny of others until he is sure they are perfect. (And if you think it’s easy to keep other writers from reading your work in the middle of a three-week snowstorm in Banff, you’ve got another thing coming.)

His credentials seem to catch agents’ eyes easily; most of his query letters for his novel engender requests for at least partial manuscripts. Yet even with this impressive track record, no agent has yet made an offer. So far, the most encouragement he has received was a hand-scrawled note in the lower-left margin of a form rejection letter, reading, “Help! I’ve been locked in the screeners’ room for the last 27 months. Save me! — Millicent. PS: do birds really act that way?”

Nonplused by their non-response, Griffin decides to pursue a route that has worked for him in the past: entering the first chapter of the book in a contest. If he wins, he reasons, that credential alone should convince an agent that his writing is publishable, and if he doesn’t, well, he has picked a contest that gives written feedback, so he will be able to learn precisely why he didn’t.

As he seals the entry envelope, though, he has no real doubt of the outcome: THE FLAMINGO FLIES BY NIGHT is a major work of literary fiction, obviously. His work has won prizes in the past; surely, the judges will see what the agency screeners evidently did not.

“Bird-haters,” he murmurs under his breath.

Months pass, and he still hasn’t heard back from the contest — and frankly, his canary is getting worried. The conference where the winners will be announced is now just around the corner, and don’t they have any idea how hard it is to get a seat on a plane that comfortably accommodates a cage? Sighing at the organizers’ lack of consideration, he makes his flight and hotel reservations.

Most of his friends and fellow ornithologists, naturally, assume that this means Frank is a finalist. But the skeptic that lurks in any crowd — in this case, a rogue goose-fancier who works down the hall, cataloguing seed supplies — can’t help but ask him, “If you’re not a finalist, are you still planning to attend the conference? I thought that your plan was to let your entry’s success speak for itself, not to pitch.”

Griffin brushes the inquiry aside laughingly in the moment, but later, in the dark of night, after the cloth is draped over his cage, he starts to wonder. Knowing that he will never be able to get to sleep unless he puts this nagging doubt to rest, he starts his computer and checks the contest’s website.

He is not on the list of finalists.

Nor is he there in the morning when he checks again, just in case he had read it incorrectly with sleep-deprived eyes. “Why didn’t they tell me?” he rages at some nearby finches. (They don’t know.)

Quietly, he cancels his flight and hotel reservations; fortunately, he had not yet registered for the conference itself. After all, what could he learn from a bunch of idiots too dumb to see the true value of his writing?

When the SASE containing the conference feedback arrives, he tosses it into the recycling bin, unopened and unread. Why should he bother? He has another contest to enter.

That one made you a little less sure of your diagnosis, didn’t it? I promise you, Griffin suffers from the same underlying problem as Dahlia and Alcibiades. So will Harriet, our fourth exemplar — but it’s her sad fate to wait until next time.

Since these examples have stretched into such a long post — and I have two more that I would like to share with you — I’m going to sign off for the day. Contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to answer the question du jour right away, but wait until you’ve had an opportunity to peruse all five.

Keep up the good work.

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