Hitting the narrative target: your voice, your whole voice, and nothing but your voice

No, the photo above is not a lopsided bull’s-eye: it’s an aerial shot (okay, not a very high aerial shot, as I am not very tall) of a freshly-cut ornamental cherry tree — the one that used to be in my back yard, as a matter of fact. Can’t tell that we get a whole lot of rain in my neck of the woods, can you?

No, you don’t want to know about the freak of landscaping machinery that resulted in our needing to chop it down. But thanks for asking.

Yesterday, I brought up the subject of narrative voice — or, to be a bit more specific, the desirability of revising your manuscript with an eye to making it sound like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important.

Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else — to be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually AT LEAST a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

Let’s rewind a little. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, part of the reason that many aspiring writers become confused about voice is that — brace yourselves — not all published writing exhibit an original narrative voice.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from the chorus of readers who missed yesterday’s post, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers, take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing IS good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege. Evidently not.)

Books get published for all kinds of reasons, after all. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

To have a voice is to take a SIDE. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option.

In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices fit with all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself NOT to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write.

For instance, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles, for heaven’s sake, (when I was underage, as it happens), as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

(Some professional advice for anyone who should find herself writing wine descriptions: there are only a certain number of adjectives that may be safely and positively applied to any given varietal; nobody is ever going to object, for instance, to a chardonnay description that mention vanilla undertones. Go ask the enologist who blended the wine you’re supposed to be describing to give you a list of five, then start seeing how many of them you can use in a paragraph. Voilà! Wine description!

See? Every writing project is a potential learning opportunity.)

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naive Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right?

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

“Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

“Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston — ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

What might the latter look like on the page? Like a police report, potentially. Let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story in a just-the-facts-ma’am voice:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the 7′ x 10′ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the pinnacle of colorful, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would then subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

Another technical criterion often used in evaluating voice is consistency, as I mentioned last time. Having made a narrative choice, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters?

Your more sophisticated professional reader (Millicent’s boss, perhaps, who has been at it a decade longer than she has) will often also take freshness of voice and point of view into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before?

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire, doesn’t it? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then the narrative choices of bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing.

You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a book’s narrative voice is: three days after a reader has finished it, will he remember how the story was told? Individual phrases, even? In a generic-voiced narrative, usually not.

Of course, after Millicent and her cronies take all of these factors into account, whether the professional reader happens to LIKE the narrative voice is still going to weigh heavily into her calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Because then one reader, at least, will be satisfied: you.

Keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, or, yet another post featuring a small, nagging bug

I begin today with some terrific news about one of our own, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) and fabulous writer Caleb Powell has just signed with agent Diane Nine of DC-based agency Nine Speakers, Inc.. Congratulations, Caleb!

Keep that good news rolling in, everybody — we all love hearing about it.

Despite being happy for Caleb, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed today, perhaps due to the fact that the great big crabapple tree in my backyard has suddenly burst into magnificent masses of pink blooms. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to those not from those parts: PLEASE don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a well-developed city on the south end of the quite rural Napa Valley. If you’re thinking of vineyards, you actually mean the latter. Thank you.)

Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves ranging from bright green to mellow gold to sunburned red, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring, this time of year, when the vines are dormant and the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers: acres and acres of neon brilliance.

The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies during a Napa Valley spring, you never will. Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies while I was living there. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen apparently especially virulent.


I bring this up, not merely because my head is stuffy, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic. Some weeks back, intrepid and curious reader Gordon wrote in to ask:

Anne – How do we tell if our voice is actually …our voice—? Is there an easy answer, or do we rely on our early reader to tell us? Or our editor?

Terrific question, Gordon, and one that is surprisingly rarely discussed at literary conferences or in writing classes. There’s a pretty good reason for this: while craft is general, voice is individual.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to this question was, “God, no — by definition, the best arbiter for a truly original voice is its author.” Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are some writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point): typically, it arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “Very pretty, Anne,” these mutterers say, “but we’re looking for practicality here, not philosophy. What precisely IS voice, and why should I worry about whether my work exhibits a unique one?”

For those of you who have heard it bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, and style that makes one author’s work differ from another’s, even if they are telling the same story.

It is, to put it as simply as possible, what makes YOUR work sound like YOU, and not like someone else.

In a book with a strong, well-developed voice, every paragraph — indeed, every sentence — will be in that voice, a phenomenon the pros call consistency. And that’s darned hard for a writer to pull off, particularly (as is often the case for those new to the craft) if the writer in question isn’t quite sure what his voice IS.

But think about it: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice — and haven’t you ever read a book where the tone, vocabulary, and/or style abruptly altered so much that it jarred you out of the storyline?

Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so industry pros tend to edit with an eye to removing it. The result: the authors we tend to love are those whose voices are so consistent that if we took a two-line excerpt from Chapter 2 and another from Chapter 8, we could tell that the same person wrote them.

“Golly,” say the former scoffers, “that sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote huge amounts of time to helping aspiring writers seek out and develop theirs?”

Beats me — unless it’s because by definition, teaching a group means catering to commonalities; to help a writer develop his voice, an instructor would have to read enough of his work to figure out what he does better than any other writer on the planet, the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), and the time to encourage the writer, draft after draft, to cater to his own strengths.

Kind of a tough brief for a one-time two-hour seminar with twenty students, no?

To be fair to conference organizers, most submissions do fall under the weight of formatting, grammar, and clarity problems, not an inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. And when a writer is still struggling to express herself clearly and in a way that will appeal to an established market, those are definitely the skills she should master first.

Or, to put it another way, if her manuscript is not in standard format, contains many grammatical errors, and is confusing to read, an agent or editor’s rending his garments and crying, “But the voice is not consistent!” is probably the least of her worries.

So, to reiterate Gordon’s question, how does a writer know when he’s found his voice? For starters, it’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes.

Why? Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as expressing ourselves as no one else does, doing so in writing is a rather difficult skill to master. Most writers begin by imitating the voices of authors they admire, so it’s not at all uncommon to see a manuscript scene that contains a patch that reads a bit of Annie Proulx, a terse dialogue reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, and a blistering line or two of Jay Mcinerney cynicism, all tied together by a few straightforward declarative sentences.

Tell me, out of all of those disparate elements, which part is the writer’s own voice?

Usually — and brace yourselves, because some of you may find this rather discouraging — a writer comes to recognize her own voice because over time, it becomes the most natural for her to use. Its consistency sits up and announces itself to be how she should be writing all the time.

Which means, Gordon, that I have quite an annoying answer to your excellent question: you may not know what your voice IS, but you will probably recognize it when you see it.

I know, I know; that sounds very woo-woo, but I swear that it’s true. For most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration, like all of those crabapple and mustard flowers bursting into bloom.

And the writer says, “Hey, I like that. I think I’m going to write like that all the time.”

To complicate matters, just as those early spring flowers make some people smile and others sneeze violently, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers, so not all published writing DOES exhibit an individual narrative voice. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant, generic voice may not.

And that, in case you were wondering, is one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike: they are urged to keep their individual voices out of the story, so as not to distract the reader.

The ambient mutters have been steadily growing to a near-roar. “Okay, now I’m REALLY confused,” I can hear some of you saying. “If I understand you correctly, it’s safer NOT to write in an individual voice, but if I want to be known for the beauty of my writing, I need not only to do just that, but to do it consistently throughout my manuscript.”

Nicely summarized, ghostly mutterers: it is a genuine paradox. It’s also a choice that every writer has to make for himself.

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess, is what separates a good voice from a bad voice. Or, to put it another way, how on earth can an agent, editor, or contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?”

Remember back in my Book Marketing 101 series, when I pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a writer shouldn’t want to sign with just ANY agent; she should aspire to signing with one who truly loves her work? This is precisely why — response to voice IS quite individual.

Is the common rejection line I just didn’t fall in love with it making a bit more sense now?

In order to represent you successfully, an agent needs not only to like your voice, but to be able to identify what is individual about it lucidly enough to be able to go to an editor and say truthfully, “Look, based on the books you have been buying lately, I think you are going to like this author’s voice, for these twelve reasons…”

Because a runny nose is apparently conducive to decoding cosmic mysteries, allow me to add: that’s why nonfiction is reputed to be easier to sell than fiction; fiction is inherently much more heavily reliant upon voice, right? Particularly literary fiction, where the freshness and strength of the voice is the book’s primary selling point.

And, let’s face it, no matter how strong a story is, few readers will finish a novel if they dislike the author’s voice. “I just couldn’t get into it,” they will say, setting it aside.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the interest of the subject matter, the slant of the approach, and — yes, I must say it — the credentials of the author. (Oh, stop your groaning — you didn’t honestly expect me to talk about selling NF {without} bringing up platform, did you?) While a strong voice may be an additional selling point, clarity is generally the main desiratum.

Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, where voice is nearly as important as in a novel.

Is your head spinning from all this? Not to worry; tomorrow, I shall discuss voice choices in greater detail.

For today’s purposes, it’s less important that you come away from this with a clear idea of the strategic uses of voice than to realize that you may well have more than one voice lurking inside you — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to want to give some thought to tailoring the one you choose to emphasize to the book project at hand.

“I’ve got just one more question,” the disgruntled mutterers who have been dogging me throughout this post are piping up to say. “Why did you decide to start talking about voice in what I sincerely hope is the middle, not the end, of a series on keeping our narratives moving?”

Because, my friends, there is more to revising a manuscript than deciding whether this sentence is necessary, that paragraph is clear, or a scene tells rather than shows. All of these are necessary, of course — but ideally, a revising writer should also be asking himself, “But does this part of the manuscript fit with the overall voice? Does it sound like ME?”

Just a small, noisy bug to stick in your ear while you’re reviewing your manuscript. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!

Sic transit gloria.

The reconstruction of my devastated back yard proceeds apace — there have been so many workmen with great big boots tramping through my erstwhile flowerbeds of late that I’m quite positive the resident mole believes a hostile army has invaded his territory.

The photo above represents the last hurrah of our hot tub before it went the way of all flesh. Since my agent is currently circulating my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, it seemed only appropriate that the little statue should be the last thing evacuated.

With great destruction comes the possibility of new growth, though, and I have to say, even as an editor experienced in making large-scale cuts to manuscripts, I have been impressed to see just how many new vista opportunities have been opening up each time a backhoe accidentally knocks over a small tree.

An ornamental cherry, just about to bloom. Talk about killing your darlings.

The process has been reminding me a great deal of the first two years after I sold my memoir to a publisher, actually: after working up courage to dig up a story that hadn’t seen the light of day for over twenty years, all hell broke loose for two solid years. Every time I started thinking, “Okay, I could learn to live with the new status quo around this book,” BANG! Down went another tree. Or a backhoe took a great big hole out a flowering pear, doubtless cutting the coming summer’s crop by a third.

Metaphorically, of course.

The upheaval on both the garden and memoir fronts remains substantial — and ongoing — but I’m sure the wee Buddha would approve of the hourly evidence my environs are giving that nothing is really permanent. And that building something lasting typically involves quite a bit of ground-clearing first.

Doesn’t that just make you want to take out the machete and leap back into revising your manuscript? No? Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But before we launch into the topic du jour, a drum roll, please, for an announcement of moment: this is my 500th blog on this site!

To those of you who didn’t follow me over from my old Resident Writer blog on the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s website, this total may seem a bit off, as there are about 800 posts archived here, including roughly 300 from my former gig. (Also, I haven’t been counting guest posts and interviews toward the final count.)

So these last half-thousand have all been written specifically for you, the Author! Author! community, under my own aegis. You’re welcome.

When the blog has reached similar milestones in the past, I have gone back and figured out how many pages I’d written, measured in standard manuscript format, but at this point, it’s just too daunting a task. Suffice it to say that it’s been thousands of pages of my ranting at you about the joys and imperatives of standard format, the ins and outs of pitching and querying, and my vast preference for writers reading their work — chant it with me; you surely know the words by now — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it to make its merry way through an agency or publishing house.

Clearly, I need to take a weekend off.

But let’s finish this mini-series (so to speak) first, shall we? For the last week, I’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home, a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears.

After a lifetime of reading and a decade of editing, I have to say, I don’t think that most writers appreciate just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a full meal come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

A good place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home is when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

This is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character who is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a gander at one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in manuscripts that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do all of these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Not quite a 500th post kind of day, perhaps, but close.

I can feel some of you getting restless out there. “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show MY view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit; it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened the front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Tanya, refused to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her day had been.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Mary. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Mary shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom,” she said, “she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Mary. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Now, this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book, diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Tanya’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

A pity, isn’t it? If only Tom had thought, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Tanya’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Had the narrative just gone ahead and SHOWN Tom and Mary being patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Happy 500th, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part VI: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of the scene! Tommy!

Yesterday, as I was blithely chattering about the various narrative disadvantages of the Short Road Home — for those of you joining us mid-series, that’s my pet name for when a book introduces a conflict, only to resolve it immediately, often before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious — I mentioned in passing that in both novels and memoirs, agents and editors often see the use of the historical future tense as part of a writerly plot to minimize the tension of what could be a very exciting scene.

How does a simple tense choice set off this level of alarm bells? Because of the alarming ubiquity of section-opening paragraphs that telling the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene even begins. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

But although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to come:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing and telling the story out of chronological order, right? The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, then, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. But this structure holds benefits on a tension level as well, because if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable.

Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be Millicent the agency screener, trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

So if you were looking for a good place to start cutting in order to get your manuscript under 100,000 words, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Of course, in a well-crafted manuscript, editing choices are not always that cut-and-dried, as clever and incisive memoirist/reader Susan commented yesterday. Talk about foreshadowing: I was planning to elaborate upon perils of foreshadowing today, and she asked yesterday:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

Susan’s question is excellent — so much so that I strongly suspect that if she asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question.

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our two examples above. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as Susan puts it, spill the beans.

The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, again, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the expectations for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Trust me on this one.

Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that DOESN’T use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five.

By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on But little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel.

After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it — or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears?

Most of the time, Millicent would vote for the latter. So would I.

It’s very easy to kill genuine suspense (i.e., the kind that arises organically from the interactions between the characters as the story chugs along) through foreshadowing. All too often, manuscripts tell the story backwards, informing the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order, even for a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Seriously, this can pose a tension-reduction problem. Take, for example:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Think about this scene-introducer from the reader’s perspective — even assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity as to why Jacques ran away from home, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the shock along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing, either. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold dramatically is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as, you know, a manifestation of the unexpected.

You may laugh, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch (I defy you to try to diagram this sentence so far), few manuscript submissions contain surprises that are actually surprising to a professional reader. Partially, as we discussed earlier in the week, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less surprising than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you inveterate foreshadowers protest, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should they be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on their own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader.

But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us 20 minutes hence.

To those of you who DO hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. That six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

Again: if you DO find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you might want to seek some professional help.

From the professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from somewhere up in the clouds. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped girl that she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that noisy vulture for distracting me.

Nice to be chatting about craft again, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part V: when you SHOULDN’T let your conscience be your guide

For the last few days, I’ve been talking about the Short Road Home, my pet term for a scene that introduces a potential conflict, only to resolve it so quickly that the reader barely has time to notice an increase in ambient tension. Short Roads Home have been the downfall of many a submitted novel, as such scenes almost invariably tell rather than show, minimize inter-character conflict, and let the tension of the story lag.

Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it. I want to be as clear as possible about this, so you may spot it as you revise your own work.

Why the urgency? Well, there is a reason that most professional readers will dismiss a manuscript that has more than one Short Road Home in the first couple of chapters: it is one of the single most frequently-seen mega-problems in fiction. So much so, in fact, that an experienced pro might not even have to read more than a couple of lines of a scene to identify it — and shove the submission into the rejection pile.

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb just appear above your heads? Did it occur to you as if archangels suddenly appeared and shouted the news into your awed ears that, as with nonstandard formats, an ultra-frequent mega-problem in a manuscript might actually be a WELCOME sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or further reading time?

If so, congratulations — you now have a much, much firmer grasp of how submissions work than a good 95% of the writers currently slapping stamps on SASEs. It’s one of the great agency paradoxes: yes, they are always on the lookout for that great undiscovered new talent, but the faster they can sift through the rest and reject them, the better they like it.

Or so I’m told. By literally everyone I’ve ever met who has ever worked in an agency.

How may NOT being aware of this paradox harm a submitting writer? Because it often — and I know that all of you are far, far too savvy to do this, dear readers — leads the aspiring to leap to the unwarranted conclusion that an agent or editor will be so delighted by a fresh new voice that s/he is automatically going to be willing to ignore other problems in the manuscript until after the contract is signed.

In practice, this doesn’t happen much, even for manuscripts with minor problems. Certainly not for those with pacing or storytelling problems.

Out comes the broken record again: you can’t safely assume that when you submit your work in any professional context, it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, this manuscript certainly needs work, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix it.”

And never, alas, does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along and maintaining tension, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist.”

As delightful as it would be if they DID habitually say express such sentiments — better still, if they routinely acted upon them — this just doesn’t happen for writers who don’t already have a solid platform (i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to a book). I suspect that, say, the first readers of Barbara Boxer’s recent novel or Ethan Hawke’s granted them quite a bit of latitude (not to say editorial help), because, in the industry’s eyes, what is being sold when a celebrity writes a book is the celebrity’s name, rather than the manuscript.

As a non-celebrity writer, you can generally assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons TO weed your work out. Millicent and her ilk don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars, I notice — don’t like to talk about that much. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control. As far as I’m concerned, mega-problems are very much within the writer’s control, as are other rejection triggers — but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission.

So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up this mega-problem.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home seems to appear most frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character (or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket) will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length.

A common example: when a protagonist apparently shows up to a scene purely in order to comment upon it as an outside observer, rather than participating actively in it.

“I did not press the panic button!” James insisted.

Barnaby pointed to the city skyline melting into a fluorescent puddle in the distance. “The warhead didn’t launch itself!”

Etienne listened to the argument swirling around him, knowing it wasn’t really about who bombed what when. Anybody could see that the rapidly-disintegrating city was just an excuse for James and Barnaby to snipe at each other, a transparent mask laid delicately over the face of their unadmitted mutual passion. He wished that they would just rent a motel room and get on with it, so he wouldn’t have to listen to their bickering — assuming, that is, that James’ little slip of the finger had left any motels standing.

Essentially, the protagonist is acting as the reader’s translator here: no need to draw one’s own conclusions while Etienne is on the job, eh? No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader turning pages.

Even when these helpful characters are not therapists by trade (although I’ve seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis: “I realize that you’re upset, Cheryl, but aren’t you displacing your underlying dissatisfaction at being laid off at the lumberyard onto your boyfriend? After all, it’s not his fault that pastry chefs remain in such high demand. If you were not envious of his job security, would you really have minded his torrid affair with those Siamese twins?

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

“But Anne,” I hear Jiminy Cricket protest, “I don’t understand. Don’t my explanations move the plot along? Don’t they provide necessary character development? And isn’t my spouting them a fabulous way of making sure that the reader doesn’t miss any critical nuances?”

Why, yes, Jiminy, your running commentary can indeed perform all of those functions — but by definition, your pointing them out to the reader is telling, not showing.

And I’m not just bringing that up to sound like your 10th grade composition teacher, either. While no one minds the occasional foray into summation, both characters and situations tend to be more intriguing if the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

It makes for a more involving narrative.

Also, when the instant-analysis device is overused, the reader can become jaded to it pretty quickly. After the third or fourth use — or after the first, if the reader happens to be a professional manuscript-scanner — the reader is apt to become convinced that that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist, because if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed.

Which, correct me if I am wrong, completely prevents the reader from enjoying one of the great joys of getting into a novel, trying to figure out what is going to happen next. Hyper-analytical protagonists seldom surprise.

As we saw yesterday (thank you, Elinor Glyn), instant analysis can relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on WHILE it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments?

In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling. Memoirists LOVE foreshadowing, because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented AS the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

A great structural rule of thumb for memoirs: show first, conclude later.

I’m going to stop for the nonce, but I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject next time. In the meantime, make sure those protagonists stay active, concentrate on giving the reader enough material so s/he may draw the correct conclusions about what’s going on, and keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part IV, and good news about yet another long-term reader!

It never rains good news but it pours here at Author! Author! Long-time reader Janiece Hopper‘s first novel, Cracked Bat, is being released today by Ten Pentacles Press. Congratulations, Janiece!

You know how every time I talk about book categories, I lecture you all long and hard about how the industry expects you to pick one of the already-established one and be done with it? Well, Janiece’s book honestly does cut across several. Since we’re approaching conference season again, let’s take a gander at the novel’s pitch:

Linnea Perrault is the editor of The Edge, a successful community newspaper. Happily married to Dan, Spinning Wheel Bay’s premier coffee roaster and owner of The Mill, she is the mother of an adorable four-year-old daughter who insists upon lugging a fifteen-pound garden dwarf everywhere they go. When Linnea’s wealthy father returns to their hometown to make amends for abandoning her to a cruel stepfather twenty-eight years earlier, she painfully resurrects his old place in her heart. He buys the local baseball team. Before long, fairy tales, Islamic mystics, and a host of cross-cultural avatars come into play as the team is propelled to the top of the league. After a foul pass and an accident at the stadium, Linnea finds herself locked in the stone tower of pain as she realizes how much the man she married is like the father she never knew. Doctors can’t diagnose her debilitating condition, but kind, magical strangers give her a chance to save her soul. Cracked Bat is dedicated to the approximately five million people who have experienced the mystifying and frustrating ailments of myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.

Did you catch the extremely clever marketing twist here? The author not only identified the target market for the book, but (like a reasonable person and prudent writer aware of how the business works), she did not leave estimating just how big that potential market was to an agent or editor’s imagination.

Trust me, left to their own devices, they virtually always guess low.

Since Janiece has been kind enough to let me run amok with her marketing materials, let’s take a peek at her author photo:

Nice, isn’t it? I’m guessing that wasn’t entirely accidental — or that this represents Janiece’s first sitting for her author photo.

All too often, aspiring writers leave the genuinely difficult task of coming up with an author photo they like until a week before they need to provide their publishers with one. Unless one happens to be a supermodel with a portfolio crammed with fabulous shots, this is a strategic mistake.

Why? Well, gone are the days when your garden-variety publisher paid some ritzy photographer to spend several hours coming up with something like this for a book jacket:

The jacket photo from the bestseller IT.

That’s the jacket photo for the first edition of Elinor Glyn‘s 1927 bestseller, IT, incidentally — and yes, Madame Glyn was in fact the person who coined the phrase “The It Girl.”

Clearly, this is a photo designed to maximize intensity — which, then as now, would have been a marketing decision. And with good reason: when IT was published, Madame Glyn had been THE name in potboiler romance for a decade. Her breakthrough novel, Three Weeks, was considered so scandalous when it came out that it inspired a popular song:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

Catchy, no? Even before World War I, most authors would have happily cut off a toe or two in exchange for that kind of free publicity.

These days, authors are almost universally expected to provide their publishers with jacket and promotional photos, rather than the other way around, so accepted a practice that I just go ahead and include mine on my author bio when I submit a manuscript.

But that’s not why you should start thinking about blandishing a photographer friend into snapping you now. Unless you are the aforementioned supermodel, chances are that it will take many, many shots to come up with one that you like enough to want it emblazoned upon your book forever and ever.

When would you rather be trying to capture that immortal look, before an agent picks up your book or in the 24-hour period between when your publisher first mentions needing your photo and when the marketing department expects to receive it?

Believe me, you’ll have other things to do at that point. Like providing the marketing department with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of every bookstore in every city where you know even a single soul.

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you?

Everyone, please join me in a round of applause for Janiece — and a thank-you for reminding me to bring up the author photo issue.

Since I’ve covered so many issues today already, I’m a trifle reluctant to launch into the promised practical examples of the Short Road Home, lest this post turn into a 15-page treatise. But since the editors and critics of 1927 were much less concerned with moving a plot along than their current equivalents, let me take a quick stroll through IT to see if one jumps out at me.

While I’m leafing, I should probably underscore that novels (or memoirs) published more than 20 years ago would not be the best role model choices for pacing a book a writer planned to submit today. Yes, even if the book in question is a recognized classic.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to blame agents for this, since over that particular period they have become the weeders-out of what editors at the major US publishing houses see? (In case you didn’t know, all of the big American publishers now have policies specifically forbidding considering unagented work. If an editor from one of them implies otherwise on a conference podium — not unheard-of — ask point-blank if he’s allowed to pick up a book by an unagented author before pitching. Most of the time, even if they love a book they find at a conference, they will merely refer its writer to an agency, anyway, so you’re usually better off using your pitch appointments with editors from smaller presses who do not have this policy.)

But the fact that pacing standards have sped to near-breakneck rates in recent years really isn’t the agents’ fault: it’s genuinely difficult for them to sell more moderately-paced books. Ditto with long ones.

Why? The price of paper has risen astronomically in recent years, as has the cost of binding. This, in case you are curious, is the primary reason that Millicent the screener tends to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to a first novel much over 100,000 words (estimated, which translates to 400 pages in standard format; if what I just said sounded like Urdu to you, please see the WORD COUNT category at right): at 120,000, the cost of binding shoots up.

Bad news for all of us who grew up wanting to emulate John Irving’s pacing, certainly. Or really, any meganovelist who wrote prior to the Second World War.

For reasons of history, then, as well as practicality, Millicent starts to tense up when a submission’s pace begins to slow. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in a writer’s interest to skim over interesting conflict too quickly with a Short Road Home.

Oh, goodie, I’ve just found a lulu of an example. IT’s impoverished society-girl heroine, Ava Cleveland, is desperate for money to maintain her lifestyle in the face of her brother’s bordering-on-criminal gambling debts. When our scene begins, she’s just told her friends that she is spending a season in the country to hide the fact that she is — gasp! — going to be asking her admirer John Gaunt for a job:

So she shut up the Park Avenue flat and dodged her creditors and disappeared to “Virginia” — which happened on the map to be her old nurse’s abode in an ancient house in the old-fashioned poorer quarter of Brooklyn. Close, if she had known it, to one of John Gaunt’s hospitals for children.

Something made her restless, even from the first day of her arrival — so at last she looked at John Gaunt’s card again — and rang Hanover 09410 — once more.

I’m going to pause here to ask you a trenchant question: you’re already a trifle bored, aren’t you? That’s probably because you’re so used to the current standards of writing that even this much summary strikes you as skirting the edge of show-don’t-tell comfort.

But actually, Millicent probably wouldn’t have made it beyond the first sentence of this excerpt — and for a reason that is VERY common in present-day submissions. Any idea why?

Hint: go back and take a gander at that first sentence. Quite a few ands in it, aren’t there? And technically, quotation marks should not be used to indicate so-called; italics would have been the preferred choice here.

But let’s remember it’s 1927, when submission standards were a bit more lax. Moving on:

Miss Shrimper answered and was as insulting as she could be, when she heard a refined female voice…No, Mr. Gaunt could not come to the phone — he never came to the phone! The idea!

Ava’s voice sharpened. “Be good enough to tell him that the lady he met at Mrs. Meriton’s is speaking.”

It is doubtful that even this would have succeeded, had not John Gaunt himself chanced to come out from his inner shrine and seem Miss Shrimper’s acid face — something told him instantly that it was Ava trying to get through to him.

John Gaunt turned to re-enter his private room. “Put her through,” was all he said.

And as she did so, Miss Shrimper’s eyes filled with apprehensive tears.

Okay, Anne again here. Did you see what just happened?

The narrative had gotten a legitimate conflict going between Ava and Miss Shrimper (albeit through having chosen to summarize the latter’s indignation rather than showing it through dialogue and tone) — when along comes stupid old John (called by both names each time he appears, please note, a rookie narrative mistake) to intuit what’s going on by some mysterious, doubtless magical means.

Presto! Conflict killed.

Not content with abruptly cutting off the hostility between the two women, Glyn goes on to minimize Ava’s difficulties in asking for what she wants — another version of the Short Road Home. To top it off, her characters take refuge in that most boring of dialogue forms, the ultra-polite. Lookee:

“Good morning, Miss Cleveland.” His voice was deep, and Ava, at the other end, quivered strangely. “What can I do for you?”

“I want to — work.”

“You had better come and see me tomorrow at eleven, then — I am altering some posts in my office. You may wish to give the name of Miss Clover, perhaps?” The tones were cold as steel and entirely businesslike.

Ava experienced a chill — but “Miss Clover!” That was an idea! “Very well, she answered, and put down the phone.

John Gaunt lay back in his chair and smiled.

“How surprised she will be,” he said to himself. Then he went out and had his rather long hair trimmed slightly so that its thick, deep waves lay close against his Napoleonic head. His nails, which Ava had thought too brilliantly polished, were given a still brighter luster too. Then he went to his Club and was sphinx-like and almost surly with one or two business friends he met.

I could have stopped earlier, but who was I to deny you that Napoleonic head? (Hard to imagine that less than a century ago, that description would have been considered inherently attractive, isn’t it?)

I could run through a laundry list of all the reasons Millicent might give for not making it all the way through this excerpt — the repeated two-part name, the telling rather than showing (how exactly may one be sphinx-like without either posing riddles or having a cat’s head?), the paragraph containing only a single sentence — but that’s not what I want you to focus upon here.

Instead, concentrate on just how effectively the use of the Short Road Home in this last bit smothered ALL of the following:

(a) the tension that the narrative summaries seem to be assuring the reader exists;

(b) the sense that Ava was having to overcome any scruples in going to work, since she just blurted out the request with no preamble or hesitation, beyond the moment indicated by the dash;

(c) any indication that Ava was going to have to beg for the job, since John Gaunt agrees instantly, and

(d) any anticipation the reader might have felt prior to this scene about difficulties Ava might encounter at her first job, since John Gaunt (ugh) has very kindly handed her a simple alternative to having to be honest about who she is — and in case we were in any doubt about this suggestion’s utility, Ava considerately just tells the reader that it’s a good idea.

A pretty efficient page’s work — and that’s not even counting the significant achievement of impressing the reader with Ava’s apparent inability to hold still for more than a paragraph without quivering for reasons she doesn’t understand. (Nor do we.)

By handling potentially conflict-ridden material in this manner, Madame Glyn effectively killed the tension of what should have been a harrowing scene. So much so that I sincerely doubt that today’s Millicent would have kept reading all the way through it.

The funny thing is, this super-quick resolution is not even representative of the rest of the book. Oh, Madame Glyn does favor the Short Road Home from time to time — but given the exchange above, would you be expecting Ava to try to sell herself to John in order to save her brother? Or John to use the solicitation of same as a complex ruse to propose marriage?

The moral: just because a storyline is full of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be a page-turner. How a writer chooses to present that conflict is crucial.

Frankly, Millicent would be a less cynical woman if more aspiring writers realized this.

More on the subject follows tomorrow, of course. Beware of unexplained quavering, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part III: wait, where did the category list go?

Weren’t expecting THAT plot twist, were you? Frankly, neither was I.

So before any of you start e-mailing me frantically to tell me about it: I’m aware that all 151 categories have vanished from the category list at right — and, believe me, no one could be more appalled at the prospect of losing them than I am. I shudder to think how long it would take to re-code all of those thousands of archived pages. Or to search them all for a relevant topic, for that matter.

Okay, let’s all take a few nice, deep breaths. Nothing to panic about here. It’s not as though the archives themselves have disappeared…

But if everyone reading this would please clap his or her hands (you know, the way you did as a kid to bring Tinkerbell back to life) and chant, “This is a simple problem to fix. This is a simple problem to fix,” until the category lists reappear, I would certainly appreciate it.

Let’s get back to the topic at hand, before I start picturing other parts of the blog vanishing as well.

Over the weekend, I brought up a manuscript mega-problem — i.e., a writing problem that is difficult to catch unless you sit down and read the work straight through, as a reader would, rather than on a computer screen, as most writers do — that I like to call the Short Road Home, a too-quick resolution of a major problem in the plot. For the sake of discussion, I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version, where it directly affects the plot in a notable way: “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor of Short Road Home, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well.

I see it in my freelance editing practice all the time, and literally every time I have been a judge in a literary contest, I have seen otherwise excellent manuscripts infected with it — and, inevitably, penalized for it.

(Not that the other judges would have called it that when they saw it. Just so you know, the names I tend to bestow upon manuscript mega-problems — and the terms mega-problem and micro-problem themselves — are of my own making. So if you use them with an agent or editor, be prepared to be rewarded with a blank look. You’ll get used to it.)

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel. First-time novelists tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while.

Those of you who have done time in critique groups and writing classes are familiar with the phenomenon, right? The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, these eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it, often for pages on end. If a nuance tries to escape unpinned-down, perhaps in order to grace a later scene, the narrative leaps upon it like a vicious wildcat, worrying it to bits.

Frequently, this analysis takes the form of what could be an interestingly subtle conversational conflict’s being presented as provocation + protagonist’s mulling over the provocation without responding overtly at all. Rhetorical questions are just dandy for this. It tends to run a little something like this:

“No more cake for me,” Moira said with a sigh. “I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, have some more, Moira,” Cheyenne wheedled. “You could use to pack on a few pounds.”

Moira’s hand froze in mid-air, crumb-bedusted dessert plate trembling aloft. What did Cheyenne mean by that? Was he just being polite — or was this a backhanded way of reminding her that she was supposed to be on a perpetual diet, with the Miss America pageant only three months away? Or was he afraid that if the guests didn’t consume every last morsel, he would revert to his habits from before, from those torrid days at the emergency reduction boot camp where they’d met, and snort up all of the remaining calories like a Hoover? She had to smile at the thought: he had been adorable chubby. But that’s not the kind of person who should be seen on a beauty queen’s arm.

She decided to change the subject, as well as her conversational partner. “So, Barbara, how are you enjoying wombat farming?”

See what the narrative has done here? The long internal monologue provides both backstory and character development, but it has also deprived the reader of what could have been a meaningful exchange between Moira and Cheyenne. Instead of allowing the reader to derive impressions of their attitudes toward each other through action and dialogue, the narrative simply summarizes the facts.

Why is this a problem? Well, when situations and motivations are over-explained, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

To depress the tension of the scene even further, once the logical possibilities for Cheyenne’s motivation have been disposed of in this silent, non-confrontational manner, the scene proceeds as if no conflict had ever reared its ugly head.

The subtle Short Road Home is, as we’ve just seen, far more conducive to telling than showing — and after Millicent has thought, “Show, don’t tell!” once, she’s probably not going to cut the submission any further slack.

Most aspiring writers tend to forget this, but professional readers do not, as a rule, devour an entire chapter, or even an entire page, before making up their minds about whether they think the submission is marketable. They read line by line, extrapolating patterns.

How might this affect a submission in practice? Let’s say Millicent has in her hot little hands the first 50 pages of a manuscript. She reads to the end of page 1 and stops, because a subtle Short Road Home has already appeared. Because this is her first contact with the writer’s work, she left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. Depending upon which way she decides, she may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe and keep reading — or, and this is by far the more popular choice, she may pass with thanks.

Generally, she will conclude that this is a recurring writing problem, and score the piece accordingly. She labels the writer as promising, but needing a more experience in moving the plot along.

Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle Slow Road Home is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how. In addition, I would provide them with three weeks of paid holiday every six months just for writing (child care provided gratis, of course), a pet monkey, a freezer full of ice cream, and a leather-bound set of the writings of Madame de Staël.

Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me, as anyone who has ever been in a writers’ group with me can tell you. I feel that they should be stopped in our lifetime, by federal statute, if necessary.

For me, seeing a subtle Short Road Home stop the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of my house, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again.

Little Georgie had disrupted their narrative, you see. Once an overly-enthusiastic in-text analysis has laid the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship completely bare, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum. When a text over-analyzes, the reader is left with nothing to do.

Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters — to keep turning page after page, to find out what happens to them.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. We’ve gotten accustomed to being told immediately why any given character has acted in a particular manner.

The various LAW & ORDER franchises excel at this, particularly L&O SVU: in practically every episode, one of the police officers will, in the interests of drama and character development, lose an apparently tenuous grasp on his or her emotions/underlying hostility/grasp of constitutional law and police procedure and let loose upon a suspect.

Or a witness. Or a coworker. The point is, they yell at somebody.

Then, practically the nanosecond after the heat of emotion has passed, another member of the squad will turn up to explain why the character blew up. Helpfully, they often direct this explanation TO the person who has just finished bellowing.

Whew — just when the audience member thought s/he might have to draw a conclusion based upon what s/he had seen occur.

Or — and this one’s my personal favorite — one of the police officers (or forensic pathologist, or administrator, or someone else entitled to a series of close-ups of an anguished face) does or says something well-intentioned at the beginning of the episode that triggers (however indirectly) someone else to do something stupid. An actual example: “If I hadn’t bought my nephew that computer, he would never have met that online predator!”

The character in question exhibits his remorse, naturally, by repeating this sentiment at crucial points throughout the episode, looking tortured. Then he bends some pesky police regulation/federal statute/commandment because (and in the interests of brevity, I’m going to cut to the essentials of the argument here) the ends of catching THAT CREEP justify the means.

Cue recap of feeling guilty — often punctuated by a co-worker’s patient explanation that capturing the creep du jour didn’t REALLY change the underlying emotional situation, raise the dead, get the nephew un-molested, etc. — and leave those emotional threads hanging for next week’s episode. Wash, rise, repeat.

What identifies this kind of plot as a Short Road Home is not so much that the villain is pretty much always caught and convicted, but that complex human emotions that talented actors would surely be delighted to play are simply summarized in the plot.

Or, to put it as an editor might, the turmoil is told, rather than shown. But, to be fair, TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way.

A novelist, on the other hand, can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts herself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist sits around (often in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion?

Or sits around drinking coffee with her friends while THEY come up with analysis and solution?

Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up — sits around with her therapist, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through. Afterward, consider: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

Just a little food for thought. (“And just what does she mean by that?” Moira worried, gnawing her fingernails down to the elbow.)

Next time, I shall load you with practical examples of subtle Short Roads Home, and discuss how to work with them. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part II: a plot that’s better than good










Sigh. In April. RIP, daffodil.

Last time, I broached the monumental twin subjects of tension and conflict in novels and memoirs. While lack of either is a frequent rejection trigger, there are as many individual underlying causes for flabby tension and minimal conflict as there are manuscripts — or, indeed, as there are pages in individual manuscripts.

But that’s not going to stop me from talking about how to attack some of the more common culprits.

Yesterday, I introduced the Short Road Home, the all-too-common narrative practice of resolving a conflict practically as soon as it is introduced — or the first time the protagonist really puts his mind to it. Generally speaking, Short Roads Home tend to be a matter of the author’s not dealing with actions necessary to resolve a conflict and/or the action’s messy and page-consuming results.

They are, in a word, shortcuts — and in the vast majority of manuscripts, these shortcuts both minimize conflict and reduce tension.

The GOOD news is that the Short Road Home is exceptionally easy to spot in a manuscript, once a writer knows to be looking for it. While a bit time-consuming to fix — often, Short Roads Home are small shortcuts, rather than extensive plot detours, so it may require some pretty close reading to spot ‘em — the benefits in added character development tend to be substantial.

Okay, so good news is relative. I never promised you that revision would be a breeze, did I?

After my last post, I felt a certain amount of disgruntlement lingering in the air. “Well, YOU may not like it, Anne,” I heard some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, SOMEONE is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots (see yesterday’s post) are NOT first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways.

Are you sitting down? I have some bad news: established writers can get away with shortcuts with infinitely greater ease than someone trying to break into either the publishing or movie biz for the first time. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys.

There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly BETTER than what is already on the market.

To be blunt about it, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

I ran into an example of this a couple of years ago in my critique group: one of my colleagues, a genuinely fine writer of many published books, showed us a chapter where her protagonist escapes from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happens to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slinks off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Now, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. The first relates to plausibility: reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the chapter’s attacker automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker is able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marks this exchange as a Short Road Home rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book; one swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agree to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me.

Now, to be absolutely honest, because my colleague is an established writer, she would probably be able to get this Short Road Home past her agent and editor if I hadn’t flagged it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

I brought up this example so you would have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a Short Road Home is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the FIRST effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first THOUGHT about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step.

If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does each minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you?

It may surprise you to hear that editors (and presumably agents as well) see this kind of Short Road Home on an almost daily basis. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his own seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise ALL the time. A simply astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to people they’ve never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians (often disguised as shop keepers, grandparents, and other old folks) to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons (generally elderly-but-still-virile men) to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at precisely the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?” If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a Short Road Home on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

Have you ever seen an old-fashioned Chinese action movie, something, say, from the beginning of Jackie Chan’s career? In such films, the hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain in the first half of the film — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see the hero painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or, to use a example that may be more familiar, in the early HARRY POTTER books, when Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

You didn’t notice that the plots of the first three were more or less identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, most of the pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story, which is invariably some variation of Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book, right? We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

The point of the story is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as fast, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip.

And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. It’s more interesting for the reader than continual triumph or defeat.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — yes, this was the EASY one to fix. Get some good rest to build up strength for the revision to come.

Keep up the good work!

Beefing up that conflict: avoiding the Short Road Home

Looks like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? But no, I took this photo last night from my studio’s window. Snow. In Seattle. In April.

I don’t think Persephone’s going to be reunited with her mother anytime soon. She and that groundhog that was supposed to tell us how much longer winter would be are obviously holed up in an underground cave somewhere, shivering.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from pressing on, should it? Bundle up warmly, please; it’s going to be a long trek into the rough terrain of self-editing.

A few weeks back, in the early days of our recent series on getting good at hearing and incorporating feedback, intrepid readers Gordon and Harold wrote in asking about how to increase conflict and tension, respectively, in a manuscript.

As often happens with a request like this, my first instinct was to huff in the general direction of my monitor, “Oh, heavens, not THAT topic again! Didn’t I just cover that a couple of months ago?” Yet in going back through the archives to create these much-needed additions to the category list at right, I noticed — could it be possible? — that it had been over six months since I had addressed either issue in a really solid way.

My apologies. I guess my life must have been too full of conflict and tension for it to occur to me to write about it here. Since it HAS been such a long time, I’m going to go racing back to the basics, so we’re all on the same page.

Let’s define our terms, shall we? Colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

Conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force.

The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from problems with one often suffers from the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, not only because keeping both high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult, but also because writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer.

Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep our pal Millicent the agency screener turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read front to back.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on the screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting NOT to give your work a thorough read-through.

I can’t emphasize enough how great a mistake this can be. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

Let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you send it in, read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so you don’t forget the night before the deadline. (Also, a word to the wise: if you want to leave time to fix mega-problems, waiting until the night before a contest entry needs to be postmarked probably isn’t prudent.)

There are many, many reasons that manuscripts lack conflict and tension, far too many to list here. In the interests of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. For the next couple of days, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home is when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve.

In its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages — and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character conflict seems insurmountable — and then it turns out that all the character needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in India leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

Or, to view this phenomenon in the form that Millicent most often sees it: pages at a time pass without conflict — and when a long-anticipated conflict does arise, the protagonist swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Often before the reader has had a chance to recognize the conflict as important. Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. It drives Millicent nuts.

Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to this type of too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker EXCEPT a propensity toward good manners. On the page, good manners tend to be predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Hint: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent not being filled in the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows for six more chapters. It’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — HOW will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes.

“Wait a darned minute,” I can hear some of you say, “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it means that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the moviemaking industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the book’s tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase the book’s tension at a crucial point?

Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict AND tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. Remember in the classic TOM JONES, where the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true?

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff now. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something FRESH,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Next time, I’ll talk a bit about how to spot the Short Road Home on the manuscript page — and what to do about it. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The nuts and bolts of revision — and a long-time reader gets PUBLISHED!

Before we begin what I hope will be a rather lengthy and fruitful headlong dive into craft issues, may I have a drumroll, please? Long-time Author! Author! reader Arleen Williams’ memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, has just been published by Blue Feather Press!

Congratulations, Arleen! Here’s the book’s official blurb:

The Green River murders were headline news throughout the 1980s. By the time the perpetrator was sentenced in 2003, at least 48 young women had met an untimely death at his hands. What started as as string of local killings in Seattle became a national nightmare before it was over. In homes all across America, television news programs and newspapers large and small carried feature stories about the ever-growing list of victims.

Now imagine that during this time, someone you love — your baby sister, a beautiful young woman of 19 –suddenly goes missing. The police are at best unhelpful, and at worst, seemingly uninterested in what’s happened to her. And then comes word you hoped you’d never receive: your youngest sister’s remains have been found. She is yet another victim of the Green River killer. With amazing candor, Arleen Williams tells the story of her family’s journey, before and after the Green River killer murdered her sister Maureen and left her body in a stretch of wilderness off the west side of Highway 18.

As insightful as it is heart-wrenching, The Thirty-Ninth Victim gives you a window into the family dynamics that contributed to this life-altering tragedy. This is a memoir unlike any other. The author set out to tell Maureen’s story, but in doing so, she tells bits and pieces of every family’s story. You cannot read this profoundly personal and cataclysmic tale and come away unchanged, nor will you ever view your own family in quite the same way. You will applaud Ms. Williams’s courage in sharing this recounting of her family’s trauma through one of the most atrocious streaks of serial killings in American history. And like the family, you will never forget The Thirty-Ninth Victim.

I’m always thrilled when one of our community makes the leap into print, but in this case, I’m particularly tickled. I read an early draft of Arleen’s memoir a couple of years ago — and even as recently as last week, driving past the lovely forested hills east of Seattle, where poor Maureen’s remains were discovered, I still got chills, remembering some of the scenes in this book about the intense fragility of human life and collective memory.

What struck me most about this memoir is that, unlike so many books about particularly horrific crimes, the victim here comes alive on the page. Not as yet another in an almost unimaginably long list of murdered women (so long, in fact, that it sparked the nationwide Take Back the Night rallies) or as merely an object to be acted upon with violence, but as a vibrant light suddenly snuffed. And as part of a family so deeply attached to its own self-image as normal that even a daughter’s disappearance is allowed to disrupt it.

Chilling stuff. And powerful.

So please join me in giving Arleen a great big round of applause for pushing an unusually brave piece of writing to publication. THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM is now available on Amazon or at a slightly lower price on Blue Feather’s website.

That was invigorating, wasn’t it? Makes you just long to chat about editing your own manuscript, eh?

No? Okay, let’s warm up first by talking about a controversial subject amongst manuscript editors: editing for style.

As a freelance editor, I can tell you: much of what an editor does is fairly straightforward; the average manuscript abounds in non-standard usage, grammar, and spelling that would not, to put it kindly, make the soul of Noah Webster sip his lemonade happily in literary heaven.

Any editor would make these kinds of changes in almost exactly the same way; these matters are relatively non-negotiable.

I’m talking about good editors, of course — not the ones who neither like prose nor know how to fix its problems. (Don’t even get me started about the ones who aren’t well enough read to be editing in the first place. Because I am a very tactful individual — no, really — I shall eschew mention of the not-very-experienced editor who, in handling a certain memoir at an imprint that shall remain nameless — even though it went out of business last year when its parent company was bought out by a larger concern — spied the name Aristotle in the text and scrawled “Who?” in the margin.)

Contrary to popular opinion, though, editing for style, in either someone else’s manuscript or one’s own, is significantly slipperier than the good-writing-is-good-writing aphorism-pushers would have you believe.

Why? Well, every editor — just like every writer, every agent, and every reader in North America — was taught something slightly different about what makes a paragraph well-written.

And not only do we all THINK we are right about our particular favorites — we all actually ARE right about it. Style is very much a matter of taste. Obviously, certain tastes prevail at any given time in any given genre, but that does not mean that every reader in the genre will like the same stylistic choice.

Do I hear some grumbling out there? “Wait just a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you cry, the ones who have taken a whole lot of writing classes, attended more than your share of writers’ conferences, or wrote your way through an MFA. “I’ve always been taught that good writing is good writing, period. My teacher/mentor/that guy who ostensibly had a background that justified his yammering at me for an hour at a literary conference told me that there’s actually not a whole lot of variation amongst different styles of good writing, just what each particular market will embrace. Good writing, I have always been given to understand, is good writing, across venues.”

Ah, that old bugbear — yes, grumbling readers, you are quite correct to point out that experts thither and yon are indeed prone to saying things like this. The mere ubiquity of a saying, however, is not necessarily proof of its truth.

If you doubt this, I sentence you to a couple of hours contemplating all of the disparate things, people, and concepts tagged with “That’s hot!” over the last couple of years.

This is one of those translation issues, yet another instance where industry truisms are subject to misinterpretation if one listens to the actual words being said. What publishing professionals actually mean when they say that good writing is good writing is twofold: every format demands CLEAR writing, and standard format is standard format across venues.

In that respect, yes, good writing is good writing: standard manuscript format demands specific structures, norms for spelling and grammar, preferred typefaces; clear writing that says what the writer wants it to say AND is easily comprehended by others on a first read.

Go back and read that last paragraph again, because it’s awfully important: these, dearly beloved, are the minimum standards for professional writing.

If a manuscript does not adhere to this standard, it will invariably have problems making its way through an agency, publishing house, literary contest, or good English program. Thus, mastering these basics is the necessary first condition to producing a marketable manuscript.

Period, unless you are a celebrity on some other basis. And even then, chances are good that your publishing house will assign you a ghost who is VERY proficient in the basics.

Why am I bringing up this distinction at the beginning of a series on self-editing your work, you ask? Because unless a manuscript is clearly-written, perfectly formatted, and free of technical problems, revising for style is not going to render it publishable.

Want some time to go back and read that last sentence again? Go ahead; I’ll wait.

As a professional book doctor, I would STRONGLY recommend that any aspiring writer contemplating large-scale revisions perform a basic-level clarity-and-grammar editorial sweep through the manuscript FIRST.

Yes, I’m fully aware that this level of revision will be no fun whatsoever. Do it anyway, not only because it needs to be done if you ever intend to sell the book in question, but also because cleaning up the non-negotiable points will clear the decks for higher level revisions.

THEN you can begin to think about style.

And promptly fall into a quagmire, at least if you happen to be a person who likes to follow the current trends of writing advice.

What constitutes good style is quite subjective. This is why, in case you were curious, you can walk virtually into any good writing program and hear at least a couple of people arguing over whether good writing can be taught.

Writers quibble a lot amongst themselves over this. I have always thought that this question was formulated incorrectly: it really should be whether style can be taught, or whether talent can be learned.

Certainly, the mechanics and forms of the base level of good writing can be taught, or at any rate learned: it is hard to imagine someone absolutely new to the craft spontaneously electing to set up a manuscript in accordance with standard format. Its strictures are rather counter-intuitive, aren’t they, to those of us who read published books from time to time? And any good listener willing to take critique can learn to be, if not a clear writer, at least a clearer writer.

Which brings us right back to the good old basics.

While the basic level of good writing may not seem particularly ambitious — not worth, say, the years of alternated stomach-churning submission stress and nail-biting waiting to bring to publication — it is a truism of the industry that the VAST majority of submissions agencies and publishing houses receive do not rise even to this level.

Again, you might want to take a second gander at that last sentence.

I cannot stress this enough: no amount of personal flair or innovative insight will permit a technically problematic manuscript to clear the minimum standards hurdle. Agency screening guidelines, contest judging rules, and editorial expectations are almost invariably set up to prevent it.

That massive moan you just heard, new readers, the sound so like all of the banshees of the world complaining about their respective stomach aches, was my long-time readership anticipating my dragging them yet again through the logic behind standard manuscript format.

Actually, I’m going to spare you that march through grimness for the time being (but if you have even the smallest doubt on the subject, please run, don’t walk, to the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category in the list at right). For now, suffice it to say that I tend to harp on the basics because, frankly, the basics, not matters of style, are where most manuscripts meet their Waterloos.

This was not always true. In the not-so-distant past, when agents were not required equipment for fiction and editors were able to spend more of their time on editing and less on acquisition, it was not uncommon for the Writer With Promise’s first work to be taken on, with the intention that over time, the editor would work with the author to help that promise ripen into something beautiful.

These days, however, agents and editors both see enough technically perfect manuscripts in their submission piles that the decision to reject the technically imperfect ones is considered a no-brainer. Today’s Writer With Promise, then, needs to be producing impeccable basics before s/he can get a serious read for style.

Hmm, where have I heard that before?

I wish this were more widely known, or at any rate that if agents and editors MUST use form letters, they would have a version that reads, “Your style is promising, but unfortunately, this manuscript has too many technical errors for us to be able to consider it as is. Please consider getting a whole lot of good feedback or taking a professional formatting class, revising it, and sending it to us again.”

But that’s not writers are told, is it? No, we hear “this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time,” or “I just didn’t fall in love with it enough to take it on.”

Leaving many an aspiring writer to wonder: what do these generic phrases mean with respect to MY manuscript? Was it rejected because it had typos, due to running afoul of a common agency screeners’ pet peeve, or because Millicent the screener did not like the style?

Left with this kind of ambiguity, the average writer will almost invariably conclude that the problem was stylistic. Yet until she has done a basic clarity/format/grammar edit, how can she be sure?

More to the point, how can she possibly even begin to guess what she should change in order to make her work more marketable?

In practice, she typically can’t: most writers will just send out the same manuscript every time an agent or editor requests it. Or, if it gets rejected several times, they might tweak their submissions stylistically and send it out again, without correcting the technical problems that got them rejected in the first place.

Anyone but me sensing a vicious cycle here?

Here is my hope for all writers: if we are going to be rejected, let it be because an agent, editor, or browser in a bookshop legitimately doesn’t like our style. Not because the margins are the wrong size, or we’ve used a bizarre typeface, or we really didn’t understand how a NF book proposal should be put together, but because each of our voices is so strong that it comes down to whether the individual reader LIKES it or not.

Because at that point, my friends, we will all be marketing our work like professionals, building our individual stylistic choices upon a firm foundation of clarity, literacy, and a thorough understanding of how the industry works.

Don’t make me take that metaphor any further. I’m fully capable of constructing that metaphorical house right up to the rafters.

All of which was a lengthy preamble for this: starting tomorrow, I’m going to start talking about how to diagnose and make stylistic changes to your manuscript. Throughout, I shall be focusing mostly upon novels, but much of the techniques will be applicable to creative nonfiction and memoir as well.

But fair warning: I shall be operating on the assumption that the manuscript you are looking to revise is already crystal-clear, perfectly formatted, and free of technical errors — because if you want to make a living as a writer, you need to begin thinking of that level of polish as the BEGINNING of the revision process, not its end.

Yeah, I know: I have high standards for your work. Aren’t your ideas worth it? Believe me, on this point, I am cruel only to be kind; I would much, much rather be announcing the publication of your first book than consoling you after a rejection.

I’m funny that way.

Congratulations again, Arleen, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Getting good at incorporating feedback, one last time: my eyes! My eyes!

This may be a short post today, I’m afraid: my blogging program just upgraded to new software, and every single page of the administrative side of this site is now blindingly, glaringly, is-that-my-composition-page-or-have-I-died-and-am-approaching-heaven white, with rather pale blue type. A pale yellow background in parts varies the page where one reviews comments, but overall, the effect is like trying to write at high noon in the middle of Death Valley without a hat.

Oh, the new software has benefits, too. But seriously, I may have to don sunglasses to use it.

So let’s proceed quickly to today’s lesson, before I give in to the urge to run straight toward that bright light to embrace my long-gone loved ones and run smack into my monitor.

Back when I was teaching at a big university (I would give you the hint that it was a big football school whose mascot was a vicious carnivore, but that would hardly narrow it down, would it?), I had a policy that my students could always rewrite their term papers with an eye to improving their grades, even if the class was not a writing class per se.

Why did I allow and even encourage this? Three reasons: first, few students who were not taking writing classes had much opportunity to revise their work — and thus kept making the same kinds of argumentative mistakes without learning how to correct them. Since I required that they submit the revision within a couple of weeks, in theory they would be better equipped to argue by the time the next term paper was due.

Second, as anyone whose pages have passed under my editorial pen can tell you (sometimes shaking with shock), I’m an inveterate asker of follow-up questions. By revising the paper, the student could address these questions and end up with a better understanding of the essay topic.

(Or a related one. Because I had occasionally been known to throw an argumentative curveball — thank goodness I grew out of THAT — I would routinely ask my students to turn in the original, commented-upon paper along with the revision, so I wouldn’t scrawl in the margins of the new, “Why on earth have you gone of on THIS tangent?”)

Third — are you sitting down? — many of my students were turning up at college apparently without having ever been taught some of the basic rules of grammar.

If my marginalia on his papers was the first time a college sophomore had had the rule governing there, their, and they’re explained to him — a real-life example, by the way — well, I felt the least I could do was give the guy the opportunity to put that new-found knowledge into practical application toute suite.

Did I hear some of my readers who graduated from high school before 1969 choke a little during those last couple of paragraphs? “What do you mean?” some of you demand, clutching your chests. “Why didn’t he learn the rules in high school?”

Oh, you’ve stumbled into a contentious subject: when I was teaching in the 1990s, my colleagues at the university asked that particular question all the time. As did I. But when I asked high school teachers about it, they said that in our state, at least, high school composition lesson plans were predicated on the assumption that the students would learn the specific rules in college. And when I asked junior high teachers, they said the students would be taught that material in high school.

Thus the sophomore in my class who had spent years just guessing which one was right.

Is this still the case? I honestly don’t know; I hope not. But at the time, I certainly was not the only teacher who routinely passed out lists of grammatical rules when the lecture was on, say, Confucius.

One term, I had a student who was struggling with the material — let’s call him Lance Corporal, because he was in ROTC. Lance was a bright enough kid, if not particularly motivated. Not all that unusual in that particular class, admittedly, as it was a common distribution requirement, but still, most of the students seemed to manage to do enough of the reading to get by, or at any rate to fake it during discussion sections.

Not so Lance: he invariably sat silent throughout every class. Again, not a terrific surprise: ROTC students, in addition to promising to serve in the military after graduation, typically carry a pretty heavy course load over and above their army-navy-air force classes, so I didn’t begrudge ‘em the odd snooze in class, as long as they kept up with the work.

On the day before the final, Lance appeared in my office, bearing revisions of both of the papers assigned so far in the class — and this time, he did surprise me. Tears in his eyes, he confessed that if he did not raise his grades, he was going to be thrown out of ROTC.

Since I had barely heard his voice in the past nine weeks and the first versions of his term papers revealed that he hadn’t done much of the reading, I suppose I should have been a bit sterner with him — technically, the deadline for submitting either revision was long past. But heck, I didn’t want the kid to lose his scholarship just because he couldn’t read a calendar very well.

Even then, I thought of deadlines more like a writer than a professor, obviously.

So I pocketed his revisions for later grading, giving them back to him at the next day’s final. “Are you sure you want me to grade these, Lance?” I asked him after he’d turned in his bluebook. “It looks as though all you did was make the grammatical and spelling corrections I hand-wrote on your original paper.”

He stared at me blankly. “Yeah? Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?”

“Well, not only that. I had expected you to answer at least some of the questions I wrote in the margins.” In the face of his incredulity, I figured trying to get him to understand that he should have answered ALL of them was a lost cause.

Confusion was the most socially-acceptable expression of the many on his face. “I thought you just wanted me to think about those questions before the final.” And then he started explaining to me all over again — unnecessarily, I felt — that he was dangerously close to being thrown out of ROTC because of his grades.

Evidently, Lance felt that I had filled the margins and in some cases the back of his pages with commentary because I was just feeling chatty.

Why am I telling you this story at the end of a series on how writers can learn to take feedback well, you ask? Well, Lance made a couple of errors of judgment common amongst writers dealing with agents and editors for the first time.

First — and I’m sure that you’ve figured this one out already — he was too literal in incorporating feedback. Surprisingly, writers will often make the editorial changes scrawled on the manuscript without a murmur, yet neglect to address the larger issues the agent or editor may have suggested in, say, the cover letter that accompanied the marked-up pages.

Remember couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned that hell hath no fury like a critiquer who feels she has expended her feedback-giving time in vain? Well, the overly-literal reviser tends to elicit a similar reaction.

Why? Professional feedback is usually more concerned with identifying manuscript problems than with micro-managing how the writer should solve them.

Or, to quote my excellent agent: “You’re the writer; you figure out how to fix the manuscript.”

Actually, I have always found this rather empowering — it certainly raises the reviser’s ability to negotiate compromises over contested revision points if the critiquer is not married to the details of a suggested change. But when a revising writer is thinking super-literally, he’s implicitly expecting, like Lance, to be told precisely how to change the manuscript in every particular.

I can certainly understand why someone new to the biz would want guidance — but frankly, the mere idea of a writer’s abdicating control of a manuscript to the extent that he would even consider making ALL requested changes blindly simply because he was told to do so…well, I can’t imagine doing that myself.

I was going to say that it made me feel slightly faint, but I believe the ambient glare is responsible for that. Perhaps it is just a heat-induced illusion, but my cat just staggered across my desk, meowing, “Water…water!” like a refugee from a remake of BEAU GESTE.

But I digress. Let me lead the cat to the nearest oasis, then I’ll get back to the topic at hand.

Being reasonable about incorporating feedback does not mean rolling over and playing dead. It means being a good listener, a thoughtful considerer, and a grateful acceptor of critique, no matter who gives it. But ultimately, you are responsible for what you submit.

Lance’s second tactical error was also one aspiring writers frequently stumble upon: he gave his feedback-giver reason to regret having tried to help him in the first place. Not only did he wait until the last possible second to ask me to regrade his papers, but he was astonished that merely incorporating what was after all my revision work into his text wasn’t sufficient to raise his grade. By not thinking through his request for help thoroughly before he made it, he made the issue whether I liked him enough to bend the rules for him.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant the rule along with me now: if you want people in the industry to help you, it’s your job to make yourself as easy to help as humanly possible. And if someone does take the time to give you a hand, you should never leave him or her in any doubt of your abiding gratitude.

So did I allow Lance to rework his papers again during finals week? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve been worrying about him since the war began. But the last time I saw him, his officer’s uniform looked very nice on him.

But if I’d been an agent or editor who had asked writer Lance for changes in a manuscript, would I have been that kind? Maybe, maybe not. But is it really in a writer’s interest to take that gamble?

Basta. Next time, we shall move on to the wonderful world of manuscript problems — beginning with increasing conflict on the page, since you asked so nicely, Gordon — or that’s not Rudolph Valentino riding toward me across the shifting sands.

Keep up the good work!

Just when I thought the getting good at incorporating feedback series had wound to a close, Dave brings up another good issue


There I was, my friends, happily contemplating the spring rain cascading over the new blooms on my pear tree and what few tulips the destructive-but-invaluable construction crew left in my back yard, when it popped up on my screen: a comment left by incisive longtime Author! Author! reader Dave:

I’m of the opinion that incorporating feedback at any level is easier if a writer realizes two things. One, that no matter how good one’s writing is, it can be better. Two, whether pending changes are the result of self-review, first reader suggestions, or publishing industry directives, they are all meant to improve the work.

Gnash went my teeth — because, dear readers, not only is Dave right on both of these salient points, but the first is particularly applicable to the series in question. In a flash, I realized that even as I had been patting myself on the back about how thoroughly we’d gone over the plight of the feedback-recipient, I had merrily skipped over a couple of rather important details.

It’s already time to revise the series, in short. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood — and by golly, I’m going to backtrack and try to travel both.

The first point that seems to have slipped under my radar may be lifted more or less verbatim from Dave’s observation:

No matter how good one’s writing is, it can be better.

Or, to stand it on its head and paint its toenails before we shove it onstage to tap-dance:

Receiving revision requests on a manuscript does NOT necessarily mean that it isn’t well-written — or that its author doesn’t have scads of talent.

Hoo boy, is that ever a hard concept for most writers new to the biz to swallow!

Why? Well, professional opinions vary, but here’s my theory: because a manuscript represents SO much of its writer’s time, energy, love/soul/whatever you want to call it, it’s extremely difficult for the writer to think of it as a product-in-development, rather than a finished piece of art.

Do I hear some harrumphing from veterans of earlier posts in this series? “Yeah, yeah,” these battle-hardened toughs say, “we already know: if a writer is querying with or submitting a book to agents and editors, it’s a product that s/he is trying to sell. A manuscript is not merely an extension of its author’s personality, and we writers should not respond to feedback as though we were being criticized on our own characters. I thought you said that you were going to share something NEW.”

Ooh, tough crowd. Okay, here goes: the new part has to do with how we writers think of our talent as we take it to market.

When an aspiring writer prepares a manuscript for submission — but wait, I’m assuming that the writer we’re discussing is industry-savvy enough to differentiate between preparing a work for submission to agents and editors and simply writing the book in the first place.

The latter is about the creative process, expressing oneself, and all of the rest of the time-consuming delights of the first draft; the former is concerned with polishing up those ideas so they’re ready for an agency screener’s notoriously merciless peepers.

Or, to put it a bit more crudely, when writing the first draft of a manuscript, the writer is generally composing to please herself, primarily; in prepping the manuscript for submission (or revising based on solid feedback), the writer is seeking to please a potential reader.

I’m just full of aphorisms today, amn’t I?

Most aspiring writers do not make the distinction between these two states of manuscript preparation, alas, and it shows in what they submit to agents, editors, and literary contests: pages rife with grammatical problems, misspelled words, under-thought plot twists, etc.

Within the first couple of pages, even.

I mention this last point partially as a lead-in for the discussion I had planned to begin today, on common manuscript problems that often lead to rejection. (In preparation for which I have, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, already added a new category to the list at right, AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY.)

As I MAY have mentioned, oh, eighty or ninety times before, and at least a dozen times within this particular series, professional readers do not read like other people. Especially within the first few pages of a submission, they tend to read from line to line, or at most from sentence to sentence: if the first one in a paragraph contains a problem, they simply do not move on to the next.

Sentence, that is, not paragraph. Speaking of tough audiences.

Which is to say, they most assuredly do not read like writers, and especially not like writers reading their own work with a kindly eye. They will not, for instance, gloss over a typo in the name of a place with merely a muttered, “Oh, I’ll need to go back and fix that,” think that {and} repeated four times within a single sentence gives a marvelously evocative feeling to the narrative, or assume that an opening similar to THE LOVELY BONES is an invariable sign that the rest of the manuscript will be as good.

They are disappointingly likely, in fact, to leap to the prosaic and unflattering conclusions that the submitting writer just didn’t know how to spell Berkeley in the first place, adores run-on sentences, and that THE LOVELY BONES was her favorite book, respectively.

Echoing my phantom critics at the top of this post, the professional reader sees such opening and cries: show me something NEW, something I haven’t seen before. And show it to me in a clean manuscript.”

A clean manuscript, in case you were wondering, is the term for a submission that is absolutely free of spelling snafus, grammatical errors, and the kind of typo I mentioned above as likely to be noticed as only a minor annoyance by the writer I mentioned above. The ability to proofread adequately technically shouldn’t have anything to do with talent, yet the two run hand-in-hand enough that they might as well be related, in the eyes of the publishing industry.

Why? Well, no one’s really sure who first made that particular correlation, but if I had to guess at the underlying logic, it would run something like this: an aspiring writer who understands the distinction between writing a book and prepping it for submission is both (a) more likely to proofread than one who doesn’t and (b) more likely to have some conception of how the industry works — and is thus (c) more likely to be good at taking feedback well, meeting deadlines, and generally living up to the other rather high standards of good behavior to which they expect successful writers to conform.

If I had to guess.

From the publishing industry’s point of view, a well-written submission by a good writer is like a talented actor auditioning for a play. Many gifted performers may audition, but only one can ultimately play the part. The one cast as Hamlet may not actually be more talented than the others, but he does have particular qualities and skills that the director wants.

Now, if the auditioning actor (let’s call him Bertie, to personalize him a little) walks into the audition believing that raw, natural talent is the only thing the director is assessing during the audition, not getting the part is going to seem like a judgment on whether he should be acting at all, right?

Sound a bit familiar? It should — it’s roughly equivalent to what many, if not most, writers feel the first time they have a manuscript rejected. Or even when they encounter substantive feedback.

And if they have, as is so often the case, not made the distinction between writing a book at all and polishing it up for submission, that conclusion isn’t all that surprising. Constructive feedback is, after all, predicated upon the assumption that the writer INTENDS to take that second step of prepping the manuscript for eyes other than her own.

If that is NOT the writer’s intention — if, in other words, she believes that she is so talented that her work should be published as is and regardless of any technical problems it may have — this assumption is incorrect, badly so. Pretty much by definition, to a writer whose primary goal is to please herself, any outside criticism is going to seem at least a little bit outrageous.

And personal.

Because, you see, to a writer who has set herself up as her own best reader — and thus only legitimate judge — a critique of her manuscript is not only a dig at the quality of her writing, but also a slam at her skills as a {reader}. From there, it’s not such an implausible step to its being an attack on her intellect, her taste…in short, upon her as a person.

Again, if I had to guess.

Of course, few aspiring writers who respond to feedback as if they were being criticized personally would reproduce their logic this way. We’re talking about something pretty instinctive here, as I mentioned earlier in the series, about whether the brain perceives critique as a threat deserving a fight-or-flight response.

My point here — indeed, a large part of my point in inaugurating this series in the first place — is that it’s possible for a writer to prepare herself for hardcore critique well enough that the fight-or-flight response need not be triggered at all.

Let me tell you from experience, the less adrenaline is rushing through a writer’s system while she’s trying to incorporate feedback, particularly take-no-prisoners professional feedback, the easier the experience will be for her. And on her.

Two of the best ways to minimize that initial rush of adrenaline: first, acknowledging the distinction between writing a book and preparing it for market; second, being aware BEFORE receiving the feedback — or even before asking for it — that good feedback is aimed at the latter, and thus not at the writer personally.

While that bitter pill is sliding down the gullet, let’s return to our actor friend, Bertie.

Through repeated auditions, Bertie has now developed a slightly tougher skin, you’ll be delighted to hear: he no longer feels each time he loses a part that he shouldn’t be acting. Yet without hearing specific feedback on why Actor X got cast in this part instead of him, it’s easy for Bertie to start to make up his own (possibly erroneous) explanations: oh, the director wanted a blond all along, Bertie thinks, rubbing his dark locks; he was looking for someone taller than I am; no one is casting serious character actors right now.

Again, does this sound familiar? It should, especially to those of you who have spent much time at writers’ conferences or on online writers’ forums: it’s essentially what many a writer who has been querying or submitting for a while can begin thinking. The rejections must all have been for superficial reasons.

And maybe they were. But maybe, just maybe, the query letter was just a touch unprofessional, or there’s a common agency screeners’ pet peeve on page 1.

The maybes can stretch into infinity, eating up months and years of speculative energy — or the writer could conceivably try to diagnose the problem by getting some good feedback.

To show that in Bertie’s terms, this would be the equivalent of his finding a really good acting teacher, someone who can help him even out that occasional sibilance he didn’t realize he exhibited, to learn how to walk differently for each character, and bring additional depth to his line readings. Think he’s going to have a better chance the next time he’s up for a part against another actor with superficially the same characteristics?

Even better, isn’t a director more likely to take a chance and cast someone OTHER than the person he’d originally pictured in the role if Bertie DOESN’T exhibit the odd whistling s?

Just a few more bees to stick under your bonnet, of course, to see if they can’t come up with some honey for you. Thanks, Dave, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Guest blogger Anne Cushman: but what if they think it’s ME on the page?


I have another Sunday treat for you campers: Anne Cushman has given in to my blandishments to share her insights on the writing life with us here at Author! Author!

I’m very excited about Anne’s guest blog — and not just because she has a fabulous novel coming out this week. Enlightenment for Idiots is due to be released on April 15by Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Random House.

You may perhaps have heard of them.

The book’s already for sale on the publisher’s website (at a slight discount over bookstores). It’s also available on Amazon, of course, as are the many books in which her excellent nonfiction has been anthologized:

83_7.JPG 418agrvzqql_sl500_aa240_.jpg a-womans-path.jpgimagedbcgi.jpeg

The lady has some serious writing chops, in short, and the advance press for the novel shows that she’s been using her writing time wisely. Take a gander:

“A hilarious take on the quest for truth that manages to respect the journey while skewering many of the travelers… Cushman brings devastating wit and a thorough knowledge of her subject to her first novel, evoking an India that fills the senses and stirs the spirit even as it occasionally turns the stomach.”
~Publishers Weekly

“Cushman brilliantly interweaves snippets of Buddhist teachings with the mishaps and successes of their journey, infusing the book with wisdom and humor.”
~Booklist, starred review

“Cushman’s send-up of the New Age American dream is both thoughtful and wise.”
~The Shambhala Sun

The amazing thing about this first novel is that you feel as though you are reading about your own life. The details are so honest; the writing so clear and sure-footed, sprinkled with great humor. Kudos to Cushman–this is a wonderful debut.”
~Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

Whetted your interest, haven’t they? Here’s a brief synopsis:

Nearing age thirty, Amanda thought she’d be someone by now. Instead, she’s just herself: an ex-nanny, wannabe yogini who cranks out “For Idiots” travel guides just to scrape by. Yes, she has her sexy photographer boyfriend, but he’s usually gone—shooting a dogsled race in Alaska or a vision quest in Peru—or just hooking up with other girls. However, she’s sure her new assignment, “Enlightenment for Idiots,” will change everything; now she will become the serene, centered woman she was meant to be. After some breakup sex, she’s off to India to find a new, more spiritual life.

What she finds, though, is an ashram run by investment bankers, a yoga master who trashes her knee, and a guru with a weakness for fashion models. She escapes a tantra party at the Taj Hotel, has a nasty argument outside the cave where the Buddha used to meditate, then agonizes through the ten-day meditation retreat that’s supposed to make her feel better.

No, India is not what she’d pictured. But she finds a friend in Devi Das, a red-headed sadhu who refers to himself as “we.” And when a holy lunatic on the street offers her an enigmatic blessing, Amanda realizes a new life might be in store for her—just not the one she was expecting.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? As if all that were not enough, Anne’s also running an essay contest to celebrate the book’s release. So if any of you out there have a great yoga romance story to share, scuttle on over to her website with all possible dispatch.

Please join me, everybody, in welcoming guest blogger Anne Cushman. Take it away, Anne!


A few weeks ago — right around the time it really began to sink in that my novel, Enlightenment for Idiots, was going to hit the stores soon, and that people might actually be going to read it, including such people as my ex-husband, my fellow Buddhist meditation teachers, and my 86-year-old Catholic retired-Army-general father — I had a vivid anxiety dream.

In the dream, I was skating around a roller rink on white fur-trimmed roller blades, dressed only in a black velvet bikini. I caught a glimpse of myself in a floor-length mirror, and — at 44 years old — I looked totally hot.

But two thoughts flashed through my mind — is this get-up really suitable for this stage of my life? And what are my colleagues at Spirit Rock Meditation Center going to think of it?

As I scribbled the dream in my notebook the next morning, I clearly saw the fear it reflected. As a longtime practitioner and teacher of Buddhist meditation and yoga, was it really appropriate for me to be publishing a sexy, irreverent romp about a screwed-up young wannabe yoga teacher looking for enlightenment in India while stumbling through an increasingly disastrous love life?

It was bad enough that the novel poked fun at many of the sacred cows of the spiritual world, including some of its most august teachers. It was even worse that just about every one of my ex-boyfriends would imagine that he recognized pieces of himself in Matt, the main character’s charming, creative, and noncommittal lover.

But what if people actually thought that the protagonist, Amanda — a funny but painfully insecure young woman who is desperately seeking a spiritual band-aid for her chronic sense of emptiness — was based on me?

But the dream also points to one of the basic principles of good writing. If you’re going to touch people in any way — and particularly if you’re going to make them laugh — you have to risk revealing yourself. You have to forget about what’s appropriate, and what other people might think, and be willing to be ridiculous in your honesty and vulnerability.

If you stay in the safety zone, your words will never reach below the surface, and the most you can hope for is a superficial chuckle.

When I’m writing, the voice I aspire to is the voice I use when I’m hanging out with my very best friends — the ones to whom I can say absolutely anything and know that it will be heard, if not agreed with. It’s that intimate, self-revealing voice that speaks the truth — even when it’s totally making things up.

Because even fiction — especially fiction — works best when it rings true.

While the plot and characters of “Enlightenment for Idiots” are invented, the novel was, paradoxically, an opportunity for me to speak more honestly about the absurdities of the spiritual journey than I’d ever been able to in my nonfiction work.

So as a writer, how do you find that intimate, honest voice? For me, one shortcut is to write to my best friends — literally.

When I first began writing personal essays (after years as a journalist), each draft began as an email to someone I loved and trusted — most often, to my older sister Kathleen, who’s also a writer. “I’m not sure how to tell this story,” I’d begin. “But I’d really like to write about the time that I…”

And off I’d go, telling my story to someone who loved me, and who would continue to love me even when I shared with her my most embarrassing moments, my most inappropriate desires, my wackiest observations.

After a few emails on that subject, I’d cobble the pieces together, cut off the fat, and — presto — an essay that made people feel like they were hanging out on their bed with their best buddy, laughing, bitching, and crying about their all-too-human lives.

Of course, I’d have to do some filtering at that stage — and for that, it’s good to have someone who will act as a reality check before you send your finished piece off to your editor.

For instance, maybe I really don’t want to tell you — a bunch of total strangers — about the time in my 20s I sat in my car before knocking on my date’s door (a last-minute dinner invitation that I hadn’t had time to dress for) and decided that I should probably take off my ratty old bra now, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it if he undressed me later. So I removed my bra and dropped it behind my car seat, and then went in for my date; but unbeknownst to me, the bra hook snagged on my sweater, so I walked into his living room trailing my bra behind me like a grubby tail.

Maybe that story’s just too embarrassing, and should be cut. On the other hand, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a story I can give to a fictional character. Or maybe I won’t give the story itself, but just the feeling behind the story — and then invent the details that go along with that story.

In fact, maybe that’s what I already did. As a reader, you’ll never know.

But one thing I know for certain: as a writer, you’ll never get anywhere if you censor yourself before you write something down.

And then, if what you say is too revealing — if it crosses the line where the readers sense of sympathy with you or your character turns into pity and revulsion — your trusted best-friend reader, the one you’re emailing your drafts to, will let you know.

But don’t worry about that now.

For now, put on that black bikini. Try on those roller skates. Know that we all have cellulite, just like you — like you, we all worry that our thighs are too fat, our breasts too small, our butts too droopy. And when we see you out there, skating around in that rink in all your human imperfection, it gives us incredible joy.

Thanks for those lovely and inspirational words, Anne!

Remember, everybody, Anne Cushman’s Enlightenment for Idiots (Shaye Areheart Books, 2008) will be coming out this week. You can read more about it at www.enlightenmentforidiots.com, or race on over to Amazon to buy it.


ac-photo.jpg As a writer and teacher of yoga and meditation, Anne Cushman explores the poignant intersection between the lofty ideals of spiritual practice and the gritty, comical, and heartbreaking details of ordinary life. She is a contributing editor to both Yoga Journal and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the coauthor of From Here to Nirvana, a seeker’s guide to spiritual India.

Her essays have appeared in the the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Salon.com, and have been anthologized in Best Buddhist Writing 2004 and 2006, A Woman’s Path: Best Women’s Spiritual Travel Writing, Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Tales, and other books. She co-directs the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California; and lives in nearby Fairfax with her seven-year-old son, Skye.

83_7.JPG 418agrvzqql_sl500_aa240_.jpg a-womans-path.jpgimagedbcgi.jpeg

Getting good at incorporating feedback: oh, dear


Today, thank goodness, is the last installment of my series on how to deal with revision requests — and buckle your seatbelts, everybody; it’s going to be a bumpy night.

I have been dealing with this topic at length, because for all of the complaints one hears amongst writers about unreasonable editorial demands, writers actually do not tend to talk much amongst themselves about practical means of accommodating or rejecting requested changes.

Yet another area, I suspect, where fear of appearing less accomplished than other writers (“Of course, I can make those changes! In my sleep! Hanging upside-down from my toes like a bat!”) keeps us from sharing common experiences.

Also, most published writers are too nice (or too reputation-savvy) to discuss the problems their books have encountered on the way to publication, even in the relative safety of a writing class or literary contest. So their published comments on the subject tend to sound as though they’ve just joined a major sports franchise: “Everyone here has been wonderfully supportive. I’m just trying to do my best for the team.”

Understandable, of course, but not as helpful to constructing aspiring writers’ expectations of the publishing process as it might be.

Especially for a first book. If you are new to the writing game, you are, unfortunately, far more susceptible to micro-editing than a better-established author; from the editor’s prospective, you have fewer bargaining chips, and from yours, you do not yet have the market experience to be able to put your foot down with credibility.

To put it bluntly, you do not yet have a comeback to that all-too-common editorial comment, “Look, I know what sells, and you don’t.”

While it definitely behooves a new author to recognize that this statement is usually true, today, we’re going to tackle the worst-case scenario for when it isn’t: what do you do if your agent or, still worse, your editor has asked you to make a major textual change that you genuinely feel would be harmful to the book AND every polite, professional means of demurring has failed?

Before I move on to the final steps of the process, I want to repeat my earlier disclaimer: please do NOT take the steps advised below before taking the ones described in my last post — or, indeed, the ones from throughout this entire series. Starting the delicate negotiation process in the middle will not speed your efforts; it will, however, greatly increase the probability of insulting your editor and/or agent, upon whose good opinion your work is largely dependent.

Take it slowly, and remember to be polite at all times.

If you have taken the steps in order, by the time you are ready to proceed to the more serious argumentative steps below, you will have learned enough about your critiquer to be able to avoid his pet peeves in argument. You also will already have taken the minor points off the table, in order to concentrate on the primary issues; Steps 1 — 10 (explained in my last posts) will achieve that.

Even if you cannot resolve all of your contested points, you will at least have learned a great deal about WHY the editor wants the changes — and how flexible he is. If he’s a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, or if he is terrified of symbolism, or if he’s a point-of-view Nazi, you’re MUCH better off knowing that early in the editing process.

This may not, in short, be someone accustomed to compromise.

From here on out, I am going to assume that you have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver. Let’s move on to what you do when your editor or agent has refused to fall in with your first genteel indications of displeasure.

(11) Make the changes you have already agreed to make — then reassess.

It’s a good idea to wait a few days, deadlines permitting, before implementing ANY changes you conceded in your earlier discussions. It’s been my experience that my clients tend to feel rather let down if they make the changes right away, as though they had lost the fight entirely. Taking some time to let the intense feelings subside permits you to reassess the text calmly.

Then take a look at the remaining contested points: is there any way at all that you could make those changes, now that you have won some of the concessions that you wanted? In other words, are you sure that you want to push this fight to the next level?

(12) Make your case — but do not, under any circumstances, resort to ultimatum.

I know, I know: so far, this has been a list of dos, rather than don’ts. I mention this because it’s almost always the first thing a writer wants to do at this juncture.

Heck, for many writers, it’s the first thing they want to do when any conflict arises with their agents or editors; I’ve known writers who have threatened to dump agents who went three days without answering an e-mail.

I can’t imagine how writers gained a reputation for being a hypersensitive bunch.

I’m not bringing up our collective reputation flippantly — it does affect how folks in the industry respond to our e-mails when we’re angry. It’s not all that uncommon for an agent to hold off on answering a writer’s anguished outcry for a few days or even a week, waiting for this author to calm down.

Unfortunately, many writers interpret silence as rejection. (Can’t imagine why they would leap to that conclusion, can you, when some agencies now no longer bother to inform submitters that their manuscripts have been rejected?) After a few such missives, upping the ante to an ultimatum may well appear to be the only means to get an agent or editor’s attention.

Don’t do it.

Even if you are 100% right, engaging in a pitched battle with your editor after the book is often like a Mini Cooper’s contesting the right of way with a Mac truck: legally, the truck may have to yield to the Mini, but if it does not, the Mini is going to be far more damaged than the truck, right?

As I MAY have mentioned before, the steps to come are to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried several rounds of tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST. If you escalate the conflict too early in the discussion process — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary steps, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism.

At worst, your passion in defense of your book may come across to your editor as an ultimatum: take my book as is or not at all. Or, in the case of a revision request impasse with an agent, as an implied threat: stop asking me to change my manuscript and start sending it out to editors, or I’ll take it to another agency.

Bad, bad, BAD idea. This is not an industry that takes well to ultimata. They’re far too likely to say, in the words of the immortal Noël Coward, “Pack up your talent; there’s always plenty more.”

Yes, even with the author of a book they love. Most standard publishing and agency contracts are specifically written to make it far from difficult for an editor to dump an uncooperative writer.

So do try your utmost not to allow the situation to degenerate into ultimatum-flinging. You may be hopping mad, and thus have to do violence to your emotions in order to take the early non-confrontational steps I advised earlier, but trust me, it’s honestly in your best interest to be as sweet as pie socially while you are raising hell textually.

(13) Separate the fact-based issues from the opinion-based issues, and demonstrate that you are correct about the facts.

This may seem as though you should have done it at the beginning of the process, but providing someone who regards himself as an authority on a book with evidence that he is flat-out wrong is actually a fairly confrontational move. Few of us like admitting that we are wrong, and occasionally, one does meet an editor or agent who is on, as we say on this coast, his own little power trip. Even if you absolutely have to prove your contentions, it’s best not to humiliate your opponent.

Be very clear about whether it is the fact in your book your critiquer is contesting or your interpretation of them — an issue very likely to be muddied in a memoir or other nonfiction book. If you have done your homework and can back up your claims, the should be non-negotiable; if it is the facts, quietly provide photocopies of reputable print sources for your contentions. (Print sources are better than electronic ones in this instance, as the printed word has greater power in the publishing industry than does electronica.)

On questions of grammar, for instance, simply photocopy the page in one of the standard editing guides — you own a copy of Strunk & White, right? — and mail it to your critiquer. Write a nice cover letter, of course, saying, “Hey, after our discussion about this, I thought I should double-check my facts, and…”

Don’t gloat, and don’t negotiate: you are sending this corroboration as a courtesy, not as persuasion. This evidence is merely your way of explaining why you will NOT be making the requested factual or grammatical changes. Do it politely, and finish your cover letter with an assurance that you’re already busily working on the OTHER changes he’s requested.

At the end of this step, you should have a list of all of the remaining contested issues that are purely matters of opinion. Again, reassess: are the remaining points worth a fight?

(14) Bring in outside help, if appropriate.

If you have an agent, this is a great time to turn the matter over to her — the situation has gone beyond your ability to negotiate. Your agent may well know more about this editor than you do, or about editorial imperatives within the publishing house. There may be more going on here than you realize — such as, for instance, the hiring of a new senior editor who has just declared strong opposition to the kind of argument you are making in your book.

If you do turn the issue over to your agent, you must recognize that you are no longer one of the negotiators. As such, you must accept the outcome.

Think of it like the electoral college: technically, you are not voting for a presidential candidate, but for an elector who has PLEDGED to vote for that candidate. Like delegates taking the primary and/or caucus results from their states to the national elections (who are bound to vote for particular candidates only on the first ballot, FYI; the media seem a little fuzzy about how that fact might conceivably affect the Democratic nomination this year), electors can in fact change their votes in a pinch.

In other words, your agent may come back with a compromise that does not please you.

If the agent is the one making the suggestions, however, or if you do not have an agent and are in dispute with an editor at a small press, you may need to explore other options for outside help.

Running the remaining suggestions past your first readers, for instance. Your bargaining position will be marginally stronger if you can legitimately go back to your critiquer and say,

Hey, I know that you are pretty firmly committed to my removing the Ellen character, but none of my 15 first readers drew the same conclusion you did about her. Your concern was about male readers, and half of mine were men. Would you be open to reading a revised manuscript that did retain Ellen, to see if any of the compensatory changes I made alters your dislike of her?

If you are writing nonfiction, consider calling in an expert in the field to back you up. Having spent many years teaching in a university, I can tell you that most academics will very happily devote half an hour to talking to any writer who is interested in their life’s work.

You may have trouble tracking down a famous professor to corroborate your points, but it is often surprisingly easy to get to one of the top people in the field. Offer to add a footnote or a line in your acknowledgments in exchange.

If the expert supports your view, resist the urge to gloat. Call your agent or editor and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about point X, and you raised an excellent point.” (Even if he didn’t.) “I thought I should double-check, so I contacted…” (Refer to your expert by every title she has ever held.) “And SHE says…”

Few editors or agents would continue to argue with you at this point. You will have given them a piece of proof that they can use if higher-ups at the publishing house raise the concern.

(15) For the opinion-based suggestions, recognize that you are dealing with someone else’s OPINION, not fact, and you may not be able to change his mind.

If the editor/agent categorically refused to negotiate certain points (or all of them), you may have found yourself reduced to steps #13 and #14 rather quickly. Once you have winnowed out all of the fact-based objections and tried to prove that you are not alone in believing as you do, you just have to face that your critiquer may not actually have any rational reasons for certain of his objections. Something in your book may have rubbed him the wrong way, and he wants it out.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain wrote, “our adversaries are insane.”

It is seldom worth the energy to debate the merits of a personal dislike, but if you try, keep your tone respectful. Frequent use of such phrases as, “I respect your opinion, but…” and “I can see what you mean, but I think…” will go a long way toward keeping the conversation civil.

In an extremity, you can always go the Gaslight route — implying gently that the fault is not in the text, but in the beholder — but I warn you, it can provoke anger. Tread carefully as you say: “I’ve been over all of Ellen’s dialogue several times now, and I’m afraid I still don’t see where it is overtly political. If you can identify it, I’d be happy to take out any particular phrase that strikes you as untoward.”

You can fight the good fight for only so long, though, so do not allow this kind discussion to go for many rounds. Try to keep the squabbles brief, so that they do not come to dominate your relationship with your editor or agent.

(16) Know when to stop arguing. Either walk away or give in — but either way, keep a copy of your original version.

Ultimately, you cannot move forward in the publication process unless your agent and editor approve of your work. Period. If you have done everything possible to make sure that you understand how and why your agent or editor thinks they are necessary, and you still genuinely feel that incorporating the last of the requested revisions will ruin the book, take your book and go home.

Or — and once most authors ponder it a little, they tend to prefer this route — go ahead and make the changes. If your agent is indeed right about the book’s being more marketable that way, it may well be worth trying. (You can always discuss the possibility of changing it back with the acquiring editor after she picks it up, after all.)

What you should NOT do is allow the conflict to drag on for months or even weeks after both sides have made their positions clear. It’s not in your interest, and it’s almost impossible not to sound whiny at that juncture.

Nor should you try the surprisingly common reviser’s trick of just skipping certain parts of the requested revisions. Once you have discussed it and lost your appeal, you do need to keep up your end of the deal. Trust me, although you can sometime get away with not making minor changes that were not the bones of contention, I can assure you that your critiquer WILL notice if you do not make the major ones.

If, after you make your case as persuasively as you can while still remaining polite, and you have exhausted your other options for proving your point, prove that the book, and not the passage, is most important to you. Make the changes.

Yes, I know it’s awful, but your only other viable option remaining would be to produce precisely the ultimatum I advised you above to avoid at all costs: take my book as is or forget it. Strategically, it’s always a poor idea to offer a this-or-that choice unless you are comfortable with BOTH of the options you are presenting.

With an agent, this may well be a choice you are willing to offer — although it is not one that you should consider lightly, in light of how hard it is to land an agent these days. If you have another book in the drawer that your agent might interested in representing, this might be a good time to pull it out.

With an editor who has already bought your book, however, you have considerably less leeway. Given how VERY likely it is that an affronted editor will drop the book, and how very much harder it will be for your agent to re-sell it, now that it has a history of conflict, do make very sure that you’re willing for the answer to be, “Fine — go ahead and take the book away.”

Many unpublished writers have romantic conceptions about the purity of their visions, but honestly, I have seen very few books where the entire point of the book was lost due to a stupid editorial decision. Consider this: you need to get your book published before you can make a name for yourself as an author.

If the disagreement between you becomes a pitched battle, you are inevitably the loser in the end. Do not allow the argument to go on long enough or become vicious enough that the editor considers dropping the book — or your agent considers dropping you.

Just get on with it — and move as swiftly as possible from revision to working on your next book.

(17) Be proud that you handled it professionally, regardless of the outcome — and move on with your life.

After you decide to play ball, get the manuscript off your desk as soon as humanly possible; don’t give yourself time to continue to agonize. No need to send a cover letter admitting that you’ve thrown in the towel — a polite note accompanying the manuscript, saying that you have revised it, along with a numbered list of major changes, will suffice.

I know this all sounds like a nightmare for your reputation, but often, poor editorial choices harm the author less than you’d think within the industry. Forced editorial changes that are bad ideas are a well-recognized phenomenon, after all: most reasonable folks in the publishing industry will merely shrug sympathetically and believe you when you mention in later years that your did not want to make the changes in question.

If you make sure to keep a copy of the original version of the book, the one before any of the hateful changes, you can always reinstate your vision in future editions — or, and this actually isn’t terribly far-fetched, if the editor is replaced anytime in the near future. Editors move around a great deal these days, you know.

In the shorter term, notice what has happened here: although it may not feel like it at the time, you are actually better off than you were at the beginning of the revision process. By being polite and professional, you will have established yourself as being reliably pleasant under pressure, a trait publishing house like to know that their authors have before sending them on publicity tours. By going through the steps methodically, you probably will have gained at least a few concessions, so you will be better off than you would have been if you had just kept quiet and made them all.

You will definitely be better off than the many, many writers who, upon being faced with nasty editorial demands, just throw up their hands and hide for months on end, procrastinating about dealing with the book at all. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have heard agents and editors complain bitterly about writers who do that.

Instead, you kept your dignity and worked through the problem like a professional. Bravo! (Or brava, as the case may be.)

I hope that you will never be in a position to need this advice, of course — but now you are prepared if you ever should. Starting next week, I shall be moving on from this ultra-depressing topic to lighter, more congenial matters, such as increasing conflict in a storyline and how to kill off your characters with aplomb. A relief for everyone, I expect, including your humble correspondent.

And since you have all been such brave little troopers throughout this disturbing series, I have a treat in store for you tomorrow. So make sure to tune in — and keep up the good work!

Getting good at incorporating feedback: tiptoeing through the tulips…and land mines


For those of you joining us mid-series, I have been writing for the last couple of days about the unfortunately not unheard-of dilemma of a writer’s being asked by an agent or editor to make changes that the writer not only does not want to make, but believes might do serious harm to the book. Again, I sincerely hope that none of you find yourselves in this situation, but it happens to enough writers — especially first-time ones — that anyone currently on an agent hunt or with a book in editorial circulation should be aware of the possibility.

Why? Well, are you familiar with the old truism about a camel’s being a horse put together by a committee?

As I pointed out earlier in this series, a LOT of people are going to have an opportunity to comment upon a book between the time a publishing house acquires it and when it actually comes out. The editor who acquires it, for instance. Her assistants, who will probably read it before the editor does. Other editors on the committee that approves the acquisition. Their bosses. The marketing department. Advance reviewers.

And, increasingly, agents. Now that agents are expected to have books and book proposals all but print-ready by the time editors see them, they are starting to get the reputation for being rather nit-picky readers, too.

With all of these individuals with widely divergent personal tastes making suggestions on how to make a book more marketable, no wonder authors often become confused — and begin to feel downright embattled.

If this happens to you, take a great deep breath. This is not a situation with which you should be dealing in the heat of anger, which will only render misunderstandings more likely.

And there’s a LOT of room for misunderstanding in any feedback situation — as clever and insightful reader Faustus, MD pointed out yesterday, when first confronted with a list of requested changes, the writer may not necessarily know just how or why the agent or editor is asking for any given revision point.

One reason to go through ALL of the steps we’ve been discussing over the last couple of days is to maximize the probability of any honest-to-goodness misunderstandings coming to light — which I can virtually guarantee you that they will not if the writer storms into a meeting with an agent or editor in a rage.

Hey, let’s take another look at those steps, shall we?

(1) Go through the requested changes one more time, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

(1a) Print up the editorial memo or letter from your agent and go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those that seem reasonable enough to make without further discussion.

(1b) Go back through the revision request document again and highlight the requests about which your considered reaction is merely tepid, rather than raising your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

(2) Go through the manuscript and make every change you highlighted. Right away.

(3) Go through the suggestions you have not yet highlighted and ranked them in order of distastefulness.

(3a) Write down a few specific arguments for and against doing each of the suggestions on the I Don’t Wanna list — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate the suggestion in question. Be as specific as you can.

(3b) Go through the I Don’t Wanna list, concentrating particularly on the suggestions that you ranked low in noxiousness and the ones that you have determined would not require major manuscript overhauls. Could you see your way clear to making those changes now?

(3c) Make as many of the changes on the list as you can bear, reserving a couple of particular bugbears for further discussion, if you must.

(4) CALMLY and PROFESSIONALLY, ask your editor or agent for clarification of the contested points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.

(5) After politely soliciting this further feedback, reassess.

(6) If suggestions remain that you feel you cannot in good faith implement, THEN prepare to negotiate by selecting the 1-3 points you feel are most important.

A necessary disclaimer before I launch into point 7: Before taking ANY of the further steps I am about to discuss, I would STRONGLY suggest going back and read my last two postings in their entirety, because today’s advice is to be reserved for ONLY those situations where you have tried tactful, non-confrontational approaches to ironing out your differences with your editor or agent FIRST.

If you leap to these later steps — as, alas, too many writers do — before you have tried the preliminary ones, you run the risk of being dismissed as unable to take criticism. Trust me, you don’t want that.

If your objections to the advice you’ve been given are justified (and you will have to judge for yourself whether they are), the book will be best served by your clearing the discussion of all extraneous elements; Steps 1 — 5 (explained in my last two posts) will achieve that for you. From here on out, I am going to assume that you have already done that, and have been a model of restraint and courtesy throughout your dealings with the poor advice-giver.

Okay, so now you have been so reasonable that you feel as though your head is going to burst if you have to be polite for a single additional second. What do you do if all of this has not been enough to get your powerful critiquer to drop his most ill-conceived demands?

(7) Present your case for a couple of points — calmly, politely, and in a tone that implies that you are consulting a trusted authority figure for much-appreciated advice.

Please note that I have NOT advised your arguing the point until this step. Up until now, you have been as cooperative as humanly possible, right? All you did before was ask for clarification, thus leaving your critiquer a face-saving way to back down from the advice you consider silly. Since that did not work to your satisfaction, you are well within your rights to make a sane, well-organized argument in favor of your position.

PROVIDED that you pick only a couple of points to argue. I’m quite serious about this — more, and you’re going to sound as though you’re rejecting the whole shebang out of hand.

Be polite in your discussion, and reiterate up front (and without whining) that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes. Identify each change that you have already made in the text (aren’t you glad now that you took my advice and generated a revision list?), then explain precisely what it is you think you have been asked to alter, and give your reason for believing each will not help the book.

Even if you think the effort is going to kill you, it’s IMPERATIVE that you state our case without making your critiquer seem stupid for having suggesting such a ludicrous thing. Try, for instance, to avoid using words like disembowel, destroy, or decimate; they inflame tempers on both sides of the discussion.

Instead, state your fears about what such a change will do to the integrity of the book.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to remove a strong secondary character, Ellen, because twice in the course of the plot, she makes feminist statements (yes, it happens). When you asked your editor to explain why in Step 4, he said that the character was too political, and that male readers would not like her. He advised, instead, that your 40-year-old protagonist, Natasha, should have an extremely non-threatening teenage sister who resembles Natalie Portman in many significant physical respects, in order to make your novel more filmic.

Your original instinct, I’m guessing, might have been to frame your answer rather like this:

You sexist idiot, you have missed the entire point of my novel! What are you going to suggest next, that the courtroom scene take place in the middle of a Girls Gone Wild video taping?

While undeniably emotionally satisfying in the moment, such a response is unlikely to elicit the kind of let’s-work-together vibe conducive to long-term problem-solving.

It would serve both you and the book better if your answer went something like this:

I’ve finished almost all of the revision that you asked me to do, but I am still having difficulty conceiving how I can remove Ellen from the plot entirely. She is the voice of ethics in the plot, and as a neurosurgeon, she is able to speak with authority about their mother’s dementia. If Ellen were a high school senior, I fear that her statements about brain chemistry might lack credibility. I would welcome any bright ideas you may have for getting around this problem.

BE BRIEF, refrain from invective, and ALWAYS end with a request for advice.

Why that last bit? Asking shows respect, and even if you don’t understand how your editor could possibly have graduated from a decent elementary school, given his language skills, you need to maintain professional respect.

Unless you already have a well-established working relationship with the agent or editor requesting the changes, it is almost always easier to make these points in writing, rather than on the phone or in person. Most of the writers I know prefer expressing themselves in writing, anyway, and it permits you to state your case in its entirety before your agent or editor has a chance to interrupt you.

(8) Suggest alternatives.

For each requested change, offer to make a DIFFERENT change that you think will better achieve the goal. If you are presenting your arguments in writing, it would make tremendous sense to incorporate this step with the previous one.

Be practical, and offer your editor a smorgasbord of appetizing choices, so he can feel good about changing his mind. Could a scene that was not cut go instead of the cut one, for instance? Could your book’s argument be made stronger if you simply added another example, instead of deleting a point?

Do be up front about any plot or argumentative problems these changes will cause — and never, ever, EVER suggest any change that you are not willing to make. (Yes, Virginia, writers occasionally do.)

In the case of the novel about Ellen’s sister, you could simply add a paragraph to the previous one:

I have been considering giving Ellen a husband and a couple of children, to make her more sympathetic to the male readers you mentioned. This would require substantial revision of the timeline of the flashback sequence, where Natasha and Ellen are children together, which I am not sure I can complete by our two-week deadline. (Were you anticipating the flashback being cut entirely if I incorporated a teenage sister? If Ellen is 25 years younger than Natasha, they could not have been children together.)

Alternatively, if the deadline is indeed firm, I could give Ellen a wacky hobby, such as beekeeping in her attic, to make her bon mots come across more as a general sense of humor, rather than political commentary. Do you think this is a good idea? I am not convinced that the head of neurosurgery at Manhattan General would have the time (or the attic space) for such a hobby, but that could be part of the humor.

If you cannot come up with alternatives that please you, offer trade-offs from the lower rungs of your I Don’t Wanna list. If you make a less detestable change, can you retain a plot element that your heart is set on keeping? If length is the issue, is there something else you could cut that would allow you to keep your favorite scene?

What you’re trying to do here, of course, is to see the book from the editor’s perspective: is the change he is suggesting at all likely to make it impossible to keep a part he particularly liked? Is there a compromise you can suggest that would allow both of you to be partially pleased with the outcome?

Here’s a strategic solution to the Ellen problem that would make everybody happy:

Since Ellen’s medical expertise saves much exposition in the book, I am reluctant to remove her entirely. If I don’t have a fairly significant character working at the hospital, I don’t know how I can justify keeping that scene in the nurses’ locker room; as we both agreed, it is a highlight of the book, but for the joke to work, a female doctor has to walk into the room. However, I have had a bright idea that would allow keeping that scene and give the book a teenage girl character without eliminating Ellen: what if I gave Ellen a Portman-esque teenage daughter who is a candy striper?

(9) Be receptive to — and grateful for — suggestions for resolving the contested issues.

Listen carefully to your editor or agent’s response. If you are contesting a major point in the critique, you probably will not gain a total victory, but you will probably pick up some minor concessions along the way. Don’t turn your nose up at these; they add up.

Make absolutely sure to express gratitude for any concessions you do win. This may not seem necessary in the moment, but trust me, your agent or editor will remember it the next time s/he’s warming up to giving you feedback again.

(10) Document your agreement.

If the previous steps involved verbal discussion, it’s a good idea to send an e-mail the next day, recapping what you believe the mutual decisions to have been. It’s not a bad idea to do this even if the back-and-forth was in writing.

That way, you minimize the possibility of — chant it with me now, everybody — misunderstandings about what you have been asked to do.

Keep it brief — you really do not need to present more than a numbered list, accompanied by a preamble about wanting to double-check that you have understood correctly — and again, be as polite as humanly possible. Thank your agent or editor profusely for taking the time to discuss these points.

In the vast majority of cases, following these will get an author to a point where she can live with the suggested revisions, without engaging in bloody battles for dominance. In my next post, I shall discuss the hair-raising possibility of dealing with an editor or agent who — sacre bleu! — refuses to negotiate.

So may sleep tonight: rest assured, those cases are exceedingly rare; everyone concerned is ostensibly on the same side here, right?

Keep up the good work!

Getting good at incorporating feedback: getting your revision moving in the right direction


Last time, I raised everyone’s blood pressure a little by talking about an issue that we writers seldom discuss openly except amongst our closest friends: receiving a forceful recommendation from an editor or agent to make manuscript revisions that the author feels are a bad idea. Heaven forefend that this should happen to you, of course, but it is a common enough occurrence that I did not feel right about concluding this series on incorporating feedback without discussing how to deal with it.

Before I do, however, let me share the saga of Mr. Fennel.

Mr. Fennel was my sixth-grade reading teacher — thankfully, in my middle school, different teachers taught reading and writing. Why thankfully, you ask? Because even to an eleven-year-old, it was pretty apparent that Mr. F should not be giving feedback to impressionable young writers.

And not merely because his sole comment on my book report on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO was, “Did you read it all?”

He was…well, distracted much of the time, to the extent that much of our classwork bordered on the surreal. Some days, he would simply stare into space whilst a child stumblingly read aloud, ignoring the mispronounced words, attempts to sound things out, and sometimes even questions from my little classmates. On others, he would bring stacks of mimeographed sheets containing lyrics to pop songs with strategic words left out, à la Mad Libs, then play records at us for an hour on end so we could fill in the missing lyrics.

Ostensibly, this exercise was supposed to develop our listening skills, but the songs all seemed to contain eerily similar lyrics: your eyes have a mist from the smoke of a different fire; the angel in your arms this morning is gonna be the devil in someone else’s arms tonight; your cheatin’ heart is gonna make you weep; you can go your own way; you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good.

Mr. Fennel had some problems at home, I’m guessing.

It wasn’t until years later, once I started teaching at the university level, that it occurred to me that perhaps he had imported this absurd busywork so that he would have fewer papers to grade. If you ship the class’ fastest readers off to the library for six weeks to design a floor plan for Toad Hall of a level of specificity that would make most architects weep with envy, you’re going to end up with fewer book reports to grade, after all. If you assign the class three straight weeks of poetry readings, followed by two weeks of filmstrips on such literary luminaries as Johnny Tremaine and Paul Revere, the paperwork would drop even more precipitously. And if you devote periods and periods of class time to the silent memorization of nonsense limericks…well, you get the picture.

I didn’t make up any of these examples, by the way. I can still reel off several of those silly limericks at the drop of the proverbial hat. I might have preferred to use my brain space for something ELSE, Mr. Fennel.

I’m not bringing this up to rag on someone who must now be collecting a well-earned teachers’ pension or ignoring schoolchildren in that great public middle school in the sky — okay, not ENTIRELY to rag on him — but because, in a way, Mr. Fennel made a wise strategic decision: when he was in no fit emotional state to be scrawling commentary in the margins of papers, he stopped doing it.

Unfortunately, most professional readers do not have that luxury. Come sleet, hail, dark of night, or break-up of marriage, they still need to plow through all of those manuscripts. Is it so surprising, then, that they might occasionally scrawl a comment or two that is a bit off the wall?

I mention this because writers very seldom stop to consider the possible mindset of the feedback-giver when contemplating requested revisions. We tend to treat every word — nay, every syllable! — an agent or editor says about our work as though it were as carefully thought-through as a doctoral dissertation, a perfect representation of what the commenter would think about the manuscript in question today, tomorrow, or fifty years hence.

Sometimes it is, of course — but agents and editors, like everyone else, are only human. Consider the possibility that a particularly outlandish suggestion may have been the result of a momentary abstraction. Or even (perish the thought) a non-writer’s vague idea about how to improve a manuscript.

Is the editorial mind-changing I mentioned a few days back starting to make more sense now?

But I digress; when I left off yesterday, I was going through a series of steps for dealing reasonably with a set of requested revisions that seems less than reasonable. Following these steps can help minimize the probability of hard feelings, botched revisions (oh, it happens), AND getting into a screaming fight over something a feedback-giver may have mentioned at a Mr. Fennel moment.

Let’s take another look at those first couple of steps:

(1) Go through the requested changes one more time, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

(1a) Print up the editorial memo or letter from your agent and go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those that seem reasonable enough to make without further discussion.

(1b) Go back through the revision request document again and highlight the requests about which your considered reaction is merely tepid, rather than raising your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

(2) Go through the manuscript and make every change you highlighted. Right away.

Everyone happy with those? Well, perhaps not happy per se, but at least clear on why they might be more productive than shooting off a vicious e-mail to the critiquer? Good. Let’s move on.

(3) Go through the suggestions you have not yet highlighted and make them into a I Don’t Wanna list, ranked in descending order of distastefulness.

This step is really for you. Ranking them will force you to reexamine just how much you actually object to each — and to consider each individually, rather than as part of an egregious whole. Are there some changes that you would be willing to make if you did not have to make others?

Yes, I am gearing up to say what you think I’m gearing up to say: often, a writer is able to negotiate on one or two specific points — but seldom the whole shebang. Basically, Step #3 is an exercise in figuring out which battles to pick.

(3a) Write down a few specific arguments for and against doing each of the suggestions on the I Don’t Wanna list — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate the suggestion in question. Be as specific as you can.

Make realistic estimates about how long each would take, for instance, and what else in the book would have to change in order to accommodate each one. Remember, agents and editors are usually not writers themselves — what may appear to a reader to be a perfectly straightforward change may look to a writer as if it would require changing the running order of the entire book.

(3b) Go through the I Don’t Wanna list, concentrating particularly on the suggestions that you ranked low in noxiousness and the ones that you have determined would not require major manuscript overhauls. Could you see your way clear to making those changes now?

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? At most, you’re going to be able to debate 2-3 points productively — so the more of the other suggestions you can clear off the bargaining table, so to speak, the better.

If all appear equally distasteful to you, or if you find yourself getting resentful even considering them, STOP. Take a break; get some outside perspective. This is not an assessment a writer can make productively without a cool head.

(3c) Make as many of the changes on the list as you can bear, reserving a couple of particular bugbears for further discussion, if you must.

Yes, you really should make the changes you can live with before you discuss the rest. Believe me, your arguments will carry more weight if you can demonstrate you tried to comply before attempting to negotiate.

Also — and this is no small consideration — your manuscript will undoubtedly be different after these changes; it will no longer be precisely the same book it was when your agent or editor critiqued it. By muddling through the partial revision, you will make yourself intimately familiar with the new and improved version.

Who better, then, to discuss it?

(4) CALMLY and PROFESSIONALLY, ask your editor or agent for clarification of the 2-3 most distasteful points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.

Now that you have singled out a few specific points out of the array of suggested changes, it is time to double-check that you haven’t just misunderstood what you are being asked to do — and to give your feedback-giver the opportunity to clarify vague suggestions.

Make it non-confrontational, and do try, if at all possible, to single out one of the suggestions you already implemented for praise, as in, “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought that changing my protagonist’s lesbian sister to a straight brother would have worked so well.”

Note that I did NOT say to construct a long, impassioned e-mail, giving all of your reasons against implementing the last few suggestions. This is merely a request to for more information: simply say (POLITELY) that you do not understand the purpose of some of the suggested changes, and ask for clarification on these two or three specific points.

Then stop typing. Or talking.

Why stop? Because if you keep going, the urge to start making your case is going to become overwhelming — and that is not the purpose of this step. Right now, all you are doing is making sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

Before you pooh-pooh the importance of this step, remember Mr. Fennel: it’s possible that the suggestion you hated most was not exactly what the critiquer meant to say. (You’d be surprised how often an editor miswrote a suggestion in the margins, asking for change A when he really wanted change H.)

One last thing: I ALWAYS advise making this request via e-mail, so you have a written record of the afterward. But if you are making this request of an editor, consider discussing the situation with your agent first, if you have one. Your agent may well want to handle this situation for you.

(5) After politely soliciting this further feedback, reassess.

Carefully note any changes in what you are being asked to do, and make any subsequent revisions that seem reasonable RIGHT AWAY. That way, you have demonstrated yet again that you are a reasonable author, willing to work with your editor or agent — which will place you in a stronger position in future negotiations on the remaining points.

Take another look at your list of unacceptable changes. Does anything on it still need to be addressed, or can you now finish revising your manuscript in peace? Have you won enough concessions that you could live with the rest of the changes?

Take a few days to linger on this step, deadlines permitting, because it is an extremely important one.

Why? Well, you are deciding whether your remaining objections are worth a fight with your agent or editor, two people whom you really do want to be fond of you and your work. If you have any suspicion that your objections to the remaining points are based in your pride being hurt, rather than fear that your BOOK will be hurt, make sure you understand your own motivations.

Incidentally, if pride is the issue, I think it is perfectly acceptable for you to go back to your agent and editor and say, “You know, I really appreciated your feedback on the book, but I noticed that I had a hard time with the way it was presented. It may just be my personal pet peeve, but I hear constructive criticism much better if it’s put as X, rather than as Y.”

This is not being whiny; it’s clarifying the conditions under which you work best. The more information you can give your agent and editor about how best to communicate with you, the less of everyone’s time and energy will be wasted on missed signals.

(6) If suggestions remain on the I Don’t Wanna list that you feel you absolutely cannot implement in good faith, THEN try to negotiate.

If you decide that the remaining point(s) are so detrimental to the book that they are worth a battle royale, now is the time to start the negotiation process. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll give some practical tips on that step.

Most of the time, however, it doesn’t need to come to that.

I have walked a lot of clients through this process, and I can tell you from experience that no matter whether you decide to push forward with your objections or not, if you have gone through the first five steps in a spirit of honesty, dedicated to the integrity of your manuscript, you will earn a reputation for being a level-headed, reasonable writer eager to revise.

That’s no mean feat, considering that you began the process in fundamental disagreement with your agent or editor. It’s a laudable goal, though, because a smart writer wants to remain on good terms with agent, editor, and everyone involved in the publication process.

As always, it’s in your best interest, ultimately, to right the urge to turn the feedback-giver into the enemy. Remember: no matter how misguided you feel the suggested revisions may be, the critiquer is on YOUR side — and your book’s. Or should be.

Keep up the good work!

Getting good at incorporating feedback: there’s reasonable, and then there’s REASONABLE


Congratulations, everybody: we have now made it through protracted and sometimes painfully self-revealing discussions of something writers seldom discuss amongst themselves, learning how to become better hearers, readers, and incorporators of feedback on our manuscripts. A round of applause to all of you for being brave enough to hang in there all the way through it.

From this point through the rest of the series, we’re going to be upping the ante a little, to talk about a common feedback situation that almost invariably stresses out even the best-prepared writer new to the biz. Today, I would like to talk about how to handle authoritative revision requests, the ones that are — or at least appear — non-negotiable because they come from your agent (or prospective agent) or editor.

Before we begin, however, a word or two of caution.

I know that I’ve been harping on this for the entire series, but I would like to reiterate yet again: it is VITALLY important that you do not blow up when first asked to change your work. At least, that you do not blow up in front of the person asking for the changes — and the farther you and your manuscript move along the bumpy road to publication, the more vital this is.

While it would be merely impolite to snipe at a well-meaning critiquer of your work within the context of a writers’ group, it might well harm your reputation if you snarl back at an agent (even after you have signed with her) or an editor, NO MATTER HOW WELL JUSTIFIED YOUR RESPONSE MAY BE.

I’m quite, quite serious about this: just don’t do it. Even when confronted with the world’s biggest buffoon screaming in the world’s loudest voice, if you reply in kind, it is YOUR reputation that will be hurt, not the critiquer’s.

You need to maintain the reputation of being an easy-to-work-with writer, because it is a selling point for any future book you write. In the shorter term, being calm in the face of criticism will also bring rewards. You want your agent to send your work out eagerly and to speak of it positively, don’t you? You would like your editor to look upon your next draft with favor, don’t you?

However friendly your agent and/or editor may be, until you are a relatively well-established writer, they honestly do have power over you. So please, don’t insult them if you can possibly avoid it.

Among other plusses, if you remain pleasant when criticized, you will have the element of surprise on your side. As I hinted the other day, as a group, agents and editors tend think of us as people who will instantly begin howling with outrage if they suggest that we change so much as a semicolon of our precious work.

(This is one of the reasons, by the way, that it is easier for writers with even the most minor journalistic experience to find agents and sell their work. Journalists, the publishing world believes, have learned through hard experience how to take critique without quibbling. See why I keep urging you to try to place pieces in your local community paper as eye-catching query letter candy?)

Writers have a simply TERRIBLE reputation amongst agents and editors as crybabies, whiners, and folks who just don’t seem to understand that publishing is a BUSINESS, people. They believe, in short, that most of us so fall in love with our own words that we bleed when they are cut.

We have all met a few writers like that, of course; they pop out of the woodwork regularly at writers’ conferences. You’ve met them, haven’t you? They are the ones who tell horror stories about how an agent — get this! — had the nerve to ask for the book to be revised! Clearly, the agent was an idiot who did not understand the brilliance of the book.

They are the ones who sent out a query letter once, got rejected, and never sent another because they were too furious. Clearly, there is a conspiracy to keep great work off the shelves.

They are the ones who unstrategically begin their pitches with, “Well, I know you’re going to say that this is too radical/too conservative/too original ever to sell, but…”

They are, in a word, inflexible.

I can feel some of you squirming in your desk chairs. “All right, already, Anne,” I hear some of you muttering. “I GET it: I need to present myself as a super-reasonable person to my agent and editor, even when I’m secretly seething. I’m sure I’ll be able to control myself when the time comes.”

Not that my faith in my readers isn’t close to infinite, but…are you positive about that?

We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, but here’s a hypothetical that should make your toes curl: what if you, after struggling for months or years to make your work market-ready, receive an e-mail from your agent or an editorial memo suggesting something that you firmly believe, after you have thought about it long and dispassionately, that you feel will ruin the book if you complied with it?

I would love to be able to tell you that this never happens, but sometimes it does. Just as not every agent will be the best advocate of your work, not every editor will have the judgment to maximize its potential. Yours might be that editor’s first book, or the first book of its type, or the editor’s heart might not be in it.

That’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. I have — and I tremble to say this, but its true — actually seen friends’ and clients’ work CHANGED by an untalented editor from being grammatically correct to being grammatically incorrect.

No, that wasn’t a misprint. Not so long ago, I had had a rather pointed argument with an otherwise reasonable editor at a major NYC publishing house who insisted that “everyone and his Uncle George” was wrong. He thought it should be “Everyone and their Uncle George.” I referred him to Strunk and White, of course, and privately cursed his high school English teachers, but my point here is that it is not very uncommon for the writer to have a better grasp of the rules of grammar than junior editors.

I know. It’s awful, and the universe really should not work that way. Shame on it.

While you can always part company with an agent who seems to misunderstand your work, after a press buys it, you will have considerably more difficulty walking away from an editor with whom you do not click. You do not want to earn the reputation of being a contract-breaker, any more than you want to be known as someone who blows up over every suggested change.

So how can you handle this ticklish situation?

Let’s assume that you have already exercised the patience of a saint, and not immediately said, “Wow, that’s the worst idea I have every heard — did you even read the book?” when the authority figure first vouchsafed the suggested changes. Let’s further assume that you gave yourself a few days to calm down before re-reading the contested passages, and generally adhered to the guidelines we’ve been discussing for incorporating any set of feedback.

What should you do next?

Here are some practical steps to take — and do make them in order:

(1) Go through the requested changes one more time, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

Yes, even if you have already gone through each and every step in the strategies we’ve discussed so far. The ante is high enough here that it’s truly in your best interests to make absolutely certain that there’s NO chance that you’re misinterpreting the purport of the requested changes.

As we saw earlier in this series, it is awfully easy for the writer to overreact to manuscript critique, or at the very least, allow a few criticisms to burgeon mentally into a damnation of the entire work. Receiving a hostile editorial memo or other set of negative feedback from an agent or editor renders this stripe of self-destructive reaction even more likely.

Take a nice, deep breath. Chances are, that’s not what your editor or agent meant to convey. Give yourself a little time to cool down — then proceed to step 1a:

(1a) Print up the editorial memo or letter from your agent and go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those that seem reasonable enough to make without further discussion.

I’m not using highlighting in its metaphorical sense here — dig up an actual pen and physically mark the pages.

Why? Because until you separate the changes you don’t mind making from the ones that engender insensate rage, you can’t even begin to gain a true sense of how reasonable this set of feedback actually is; being blindsided by even a single request for major changes usually seriously jaundices the writer’s eye to even the most sensible small suggestions that flank it.

Make a separate list of everything you highlighted. These are the textual changes you’re going to make without a murmur.

I know, I know: you’re going to want to fight about it all, but trust me, there’s a good strategic reason to pick your battles here. (More on that later in this series.)

(1b) Go back through the revision request document again and highlight (either in a different color or not, as you choose) the requests about which your considered reaction (rather than your first one) is merely tepid, rather than raising your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

This is a particularly wise course of action if the feedback came in the form of notes in the margins of your manuscript. A LOT of editors have particular words that they like or dislike intensely; don’t take it personally if your critiquer crossed out a bunch of your words and replaced them with synonyms.

Most of the time, accepting such alterations will make little difference to the quality of the manuscript overall. If you don’t care much one way or another, this is an easy concession to make.

Making two passes over the manuscript will help clarify in your mind whether the requested changes that so outraged you at first are worth a fight. If you are going to get into an argument with someone who has power over you and your work, it’s a good idea to narrow your focus down to what is truly objectionable, rather than the critique in its entirety.

If you’ve received feedback in memo form, the same principle applies: if you’re going to have to wrangle over some of the suggested changes, it’s vital that you have a list in hand of what you’re willing to concede.

Yes, even if you’re not happy about it.

(2) Go through the manuscript and make every change you highlighted. Right away.

This is the single best thing you can do to preserve your reputation as a hard-working, reasonable writer. That way, you establish firmly that you are willing to revise the text; it is the CONTENT of certain changes that disturbs you, not the fact of being criticized.

Granted, it may take a little time to plow through them all, but if there was ever a moment in your career not to procrastinate, this is it.

It’s tempting to set the work aside, hoping that your critiquer will change his mind. It’s tempting to think that if you sit on the manuscript for a while, a magic solution that requires no effort will occur to you. Unfortunately, many, many writers before you have faced this temptation, too, and fallen before it.

Agents and editors complain constantly about writers who suddenly disappear for half a year at a time, ostensibly revising. However good the writer’s reasons may be, in the publishing industry, such a delay is considered passive-aggressive and annoying.

Go ahead, allow that irony to sink in for a moment. In an industry where it routinely takes a month to respond to a query, several months to consider a manuscript for representation, and months on end to read a manuscript with a eye to purchasing it, the writer who goes mute upon being asked to revise work is singled out as passive-aggressive.

Go figure.

There are more steps to come, naturally, but since I’m recommending a pretty emotionally-difficult course of action here, I’m going to stop for today, to let you catch your breath. Get a good night’s sleep, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: getting right down to the wire


At long last, a light at the end of the tunnel: this will be the last set of generalized advice on incorporating written feedback, at least for the nonce; since I’ve gotten you all thinking about revision, I’m eager to get back to some hands-on self-editing tips.

Has this series seemed kind of, well, dark? Having plowed through it, I certainly have a better understanding of why so few writing gurus seem to tackle it — since everyone’s level of sensitivity is different, it’s genuinely hard to give advice that’s going to be helpful to most, let alone everyone.

And yet, interestingly, writers tend to speak the same way about suggested revisions, regardless of the actual level or intensity of the feedback: at first, it’s all pretty outrageous and unreasonable, right? Just as the querier frustrated after sending out five queries vents in more or less the same terms as the querier frustrated after a hundred, rendering it difficult for the listener to understand the situation without follow-up questioning, writers faced with all kinds of change requests often express their feelings about them in the same terms.

Why is that potentially problematic? Well, it complicates the professional lives of those of us who help writers incorporate such changes, for one thing, and for another, it renders critique groups less able to support their members through revisions. It even makes it hard for writer friends to sympathize with one another.

If you doubt that last part, at your next literary conference, try eavesdropping on conversations amongst the agented. I can virtually guarantee you that in any group of five agented writers actively marketing their work, at least two of them will be quite happy to complain to their buddies about the ASTONISHING things their agents or editors have recently asked them to do to their manuscripts — a quandary that, let’s face it, most agent-seeking writers would gladly giver their toes to have.

Of course, the primary negative effect of this phenomenon is that old bugbear we’ve kept seeing crop up throughout this entire series: over the years, it has given the fine folks in the publishing industry the impression that writers as a group are simply unwilling to alter the ways they arrange words at all.

Which can make even the most reasonable author-initiated discussion about suggested changes sound at best like negotiation and at worst like whining.

Sorry about that. I just report the news; I don’t create it. Unfortunately, most writers new to the biz are entirely unaware of this stigma.

I believe it’s only fair to tell writers up front about our collective reputation for being, um, resistant to feedback, if only so they will learn to become strategic in venting. For a writer become known as an exception, s/he has to be ostentatiously reasonable and cheerful about revision requests.

In that spirit, let’s take a fond last gander at the strategies we’ve been learning to incorporate feedback in a way that defies expectations:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your work. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

7. Don’t try to do it all at once.

8. Make a battle plan, setting out reasonable deadlines for each step.

9. Allow some room in your battle plan –and time in your schedule — to respond to inspiration, as well as to experiment.

10. Make sure that you’re not over-estimating the critiquer is requesting.

11. When in doubt about what a critiquer expects you to do, ASK.

12. Avoid making the same mistake twice — at least for the same feedback-giver.

13. Keep excellent records about what you have done to the manuscript — and keep both hard and soft copies of EVERY major version of the book.

I fully realize that collectively, or even individually, this is a tough group of guidelines to follow with a smile, particularly on a tight deadline — or, as so often happens these days to newly-agented writers, when the agent keeps demanding changes to that manuscript that s/he praised as remarkable when s/he first read it. Ten years ago, it was relatively rare for an agent to get heavily involved in pre-circulation editing, but now that the market is so very tight in most fiction categories, the practice has exploded.

Much to the chagrin of the writers concerned, naturally…which leads me to my next strategy:

14. Vent to other sources early and often — preferably including at least a handful who have been in your situation.

Does this seem like a contradiction of Strategy #1? Actually, these tips work remarkably well together — and the farther a manuscript is along the road to publication, the more these two practices bolster each other.

Naturally, receiving critique — particularly of the notoriously blunt kind favored by the time-pressed industry — is going to generate some pretty intense feelings, but as I’ve been pointing out throughout this series, the feedback-giver is the LAST person at whom the writer should be venting.

If the writer plans on continuing to have a working relationship with the critiquer, at any rate.

Yet as we have seen with some of our exemplars, bottling up those feelings doesn’t necessarily assist either the writer or the revision process. So to whom should a writer vent?

Remember my GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK series (easily accessible in the category list at right, in case you’re interested), where I suggested that your nearest and dearest — personal friends, coworkers, family members, and anyone who has ever shared your bed, however briefly — do not make the best first readers for a manuscript? Well, it turns out that they are perfectly delightful at acting as sounding boards for writerly angst.

Before you begin breathing fire, however, I would suggest that you lay down one ground rule — and the closer you are emotionally to your sounding board, the more important it is that you establish it. Preface your venting with something along the lines of, “Honey, I value your opinion, and I really appreciate that you’re willing to let me unload about this. However, to make this easier on both of us, I want to make it clear that I am not asking for advice on how to handle this situation — I just need to talk about it.”

Why take this reasonable precaution? Because the world of writing and publishing is downright opaque to those not involved with it, my friends. The more a non-writer hears about how a critique group operates (“What do you mean, you sit around and tear one another’s writing to pieces?”), how the writer and the agent seldom share an opinion on when a manuscript is ready to market (“Wait — doesn’t your agent work for YOU? Why would the timing on submitting your book to editors be his call?”), how much control the editor and publishing house have over the final book (“It’s your book — why don’t you just say no?”), and how much of the burden of promotion now falls on the author (“I always thought that authors were paid to go on book tours.”), the more incredible it seems.

In my experience, mid-revision is not the best time to hear, “Why are you doing this to yourself?”

So to whom do you turn for advice? Ideally, writers who have trodden this path before you — or at any rate writers, who will at least understand the power relationships between authors and the various parts of the industry.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: writing is an isolating avocation, and simply not knowing whether one’s own situation is normal can generate a fair amount of stress. In a requested revision situation, this is especially true.

So believe me when I tell you: while you are struggling to incorporate a whole raft of suggested changes is NOT the time to bury yourself in your burrow.

Work time into your revision schedule to talk to other writers, either in person or online, on a regular basis. Think of it as mental health insurance. Vent your frustrations; get some sense of being a part of a community of people under similar pressures.

A fringe benefit to reaching out at the point when most writers withdraw: the writer friends willing to hold your hand through a revision are almost always the ones who end up making the best promoters for your book after it is published. These are the folks who don’t mind calling up bookstores and asking if they carry your novel, or turning your book face-out on the shelf, so it’s more likely to be picked up by a browser, or even carrying your memoir around Barnes & Noble for a while, then placing it conspicuously on one of the bestseller tables.

Bless ‘em.

15. Don’t confuse resentment over being asked to revise the manuscript at all with disliking the content of the revision request.

We dealt with various stripes of this one in the first part of this series, on taking verbal feedback well, but it bears repeating here: a writer’s emotions tend to run high in the wake of any text-based feedback other than, “Wow, this is the best novel about lust since TOM JONES.”

Normal and natural, of course. And of course, it’s normal and natural to want to ask the critiquer who has the gall to tell you differently, in ways as subtle as pointing out misused semicolons or as broad as advising you to rearrange the running order of the plot, who the heck s/he thinks s/he is.

I’ve already expended quite a lot of blog space on why precisely voicing that natural impulse would not be good for your writing career. Right now, though, I want to turn the question on its head and ask those of you in the throes of critique shock a fundamental question:

If you’re really, really honest with yourself, how much of your reaction to the feedback is actually a response to your feelings being hurt?

As unpleasant as such self-scrutiny may be to face, this is a crucial question to keep asking constantly throughout the revision process, especially if some of the feedback strikes you as completely off the mark. On days when the answer is above 50%, consider leaving the manuscript alone that day.

I’m not just suggesting this as a means of giving those emotions time to cool, either — resolving to keep a weather eye on how you’re feeling toward the revision is a means of granting yourself permission for those feelings to fluctuate.

And trust me, they will.

16. Remember, no-holds-barred critique is the industry’s unique way of complimenting talent.

Strange but true.

These days, if an agent or editor doesn’t think a manuscript has publication potential, she will generally get it off her desk so fast it doesn’t even leave a dent on the piles of papers already on her desk. But if a pro likes those pages enough to want to see them make it into print, she’s not going to waste a gifted writer’s time by sugar-coating her opinions on what could be improved.

As much as the writer might prefer that she would.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that this practice would apply exclusively to professional feedback? I’m here to tell you, though, that many of us who have been mucking about in the trenches for a good long time tend to absorb this attitude, apparently by osmosis.

In fact, I would go so far as to posit this as an axiom: the longer someone’s been in the biz, the less likely s/he is to waste valuable critique time on a manuscript that doesn’t reveal genuine talent and carry a strong probability of publication success.

Remember, TIME is one of the most valuable commodities in the publishing industry — an easy thing to forget from our end of the biz, as writers are routinely expected to invest vast quantities of time and effort gratis toward the creation and promotion of a book.

But when someone who is in the habit of reading half a page of a submission before rejecting it — and does so 700 times per week — takes the time to read your work closely enough to come up with specific ways to improve it, that’s a compliment. As is thinking of the writer who produced the manuscript as enough of a pro to understand the value of such a donation of time.

I like to think of this kind of scrutiny in terms of stage lighting. The literary market is a three-ring circus, with masses going on at any given moment. While much of the action is potentially interesting, the professional reader — or one who’s been kicking around the industry long enough to be — has only one spotlight at his command with which to follow the action.

(Stop chortling; you’re going to scare the elephants. This analogy is going to make sense in a second.)

He can focus that spotlight on only one small part of the big top at a time, right? So he swirls it around the rings, trying to get a sense of what’s there. Out of the cast of thousands, he finds a solitary performer who interests him deeply: he captures a tightrope walker in his light for a full minute before moving on.

In the glare of his scrutiny, of course, quite a bit of the glamour of tightrope walking evaporates. The super-bright light reveals where sequins have fallen off the costume, where dust has gathered on tights, arm gestures that could be better executed, and so forth.

For the tightrope walker, that minute is going to be darned uncomfortable, unavoidably — the bright intensity of a spotlight can be pretty blinding. Her costume might seem a bit shabbier under that glare than it did under shadier conditions.

She could, of course, just live in fear of that spotlight’s ever falling upon her again. Or, if she sewed on the extra sequins that the light revealed were necessary, practiced her arm swoops until they were perfect, and dusted from her knees the residua from previous falls, she might become a star.

Which would mean, essentially, doing her act CONSTANTLY under a spotlight.

And that, my friends, is why the pros are often a bit mystified by the intensity of writers’ reactions to straight-to-the-point feedback; they’re assuming that a talented tightrope walker WANTS to perform under a constant spotlight.

Anyway, at what point would a reasonable person prefer to be told that she needs to tack on a few more sequins, when there’s still time to make improvements — or when the reviewers show up?

Bears a bit of thought, I think. Keep up the good work!

Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: you say tomato, I say, “Please don’t throw it.”


You’ll be delighted to hear, I expect, that today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on ways to ease the difficulties of incorporating written feedback. Later in the week, I shall be tackling the specific problems associated with dealing with a critiquer who has the power to enforce a change request — your agent, for instance, by not sending your manuscript out to editors until he’s certain the latest version will fly, for instance, or the editor who acquires it. This can be tricky, especially if one does not happen to agree with the feedback in question.

Hey, I warned you at the beginning of the series that we would be building up our feedback-incorporation muscles. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself, and repeating myself…), it is not merely for the sake of maintaining peace in a writing group or friendships between more casual first readers that it behooves writers to add good listening and critique-accepting skills to their tool belts: these skills come into play at every stage of a writing career.

Seriously, your future agent, editor, publicist, and probably anyone who happens to be frequenting your domicile when your first book’s reviews start rolling in are going to bless the time you put in now developing a measured response to literary criticism. So will you.

Your very pets will be happier for it, because you will be less stressed when you need to incorporate editorial feedback on your tenth book. Not UNstressed, mind you — I’ve been doing this for years, and even my backyard raccoons get a mite testy when I’m on a short revision deadline — but certainly able to manage even the most extensive revision request in your stride.

You can do this, I promise.

For now, though, let’s keep swimming in the relatively less shark-infested waters of dealing with written feedback in general. To review the tips so far:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your work. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

7. Don’t try to do it all at once.

8. Make a battle plan, setting out reasonable deadlines for each step.

9. Allow some room in your battle plan –and time in your schedule — to respond to inspiration, as well as to experiment.

10. Make sure that you’re not over-estimating the critiquer is requesting.

11. When in doubt about what a critiquer expects you to do, ASK.

12. Avoid making the same mistake twice — at least for the same feedback-giver.

Phew — that’s a heavy list, isn’t it? Let no one say that being a tolerant and wise recipient of feedback is the proverbial walk in the park. Moving on…

13. Keep excellent records about the changes you have made to the manuscript — and keep both hard and soft copies of EVERY major version of the book.

Having grown up in a family of writers — ones who were fighting the good fight back in the golden days of typewriters, no less — I was STUNNED to learn that most revisers do not keep copies of each draft. Seriously, the first time I met a writer who didn’t, I thought he was joking.

Why is it such a jaw-dropper, from a professional point of view? Quite simply, either the writer or the editor might conceivably change his or her mind.

Remember last week, when I mentioned that writers tend to be the only ones involved in the publishing process to cherish the illusion that a book is DONE until it’s actually been printed and is for sale at Borders? Well, that mindset of continual modification is not, some of you may be alarmed to hear, necessarily a one-way process.

That’s right: critiquers’ opinions have been known to vacillate from time to time. They also — please don’t throw anything heavy at my head; I’m just the messenger here — been known to forget that the aspect of Draft #2 they liked least was in fact something they asked the writer to do after reading Draft #1.

Or — and I’m already ducking under my desk — be displeased with a writer’s specific solution to a vaguely-phrased concern.

Did you feel that lurch your stomach just took? The goal of Strategy #13 is to avoid that feeling’s ever being associated with your manuscript, by providing concrete records through which you can retrace your revising steps.

While the maid is mopping up all of the soggy tomatoes my readers just lobbed in my general direction, let’s concentrate on the first problem on the list: just because a critiquer suggested last month that you kill off your protagonist’s sidekick does not necessarily mean that she will prefer the revised, sidekick-free storyline.

Because I love you people, I’m not going to go into detail about how much farther a writer’s stomach can displace itself when the stakes are higher — when, say one’s agent or editor changes her mind. I suppose I could describe what the moment of hearing one’s agent say, “Sandy, I’ve been thinking about it, and your first running order was better,” means to a Sandy who has been simply saving each new change in the same Word file, but frankly, gut-wrenching, sustained groaning is hard to convey in words.

And even if Sandy’s agent/editor/first reader DIDN’T later backtrack, how is Sandy supposed to figure out three months after a revision whether Scene Q worked better in draft #1 or #2?

Especially if — as is, I’m still stunned to report, very frequently the case — Sandy hasn’t kept a meticulous list of what has changed between those drafts?

A wise reviser ALWAYS maintains the ability to check both versions side by side — and a clever one records the major changes separately, keeping it handy for future reference.

Why, you ask? Well, several reasons, potentially. Many, many books go through many, many drafts, for starters; do you really want to be rending your garments two years from now because you can’t remember whether Draft #3 or Draft #4 included Cousin Max’s funeral? Or at what point you realized that Dennis and Denise’s names scanned too similarly, and readers might get confused if you didn’t rechristen one of them?

Also — and this may come as something of a surprise, after my recent diatribe about how critiquers tend to notice when writers haven’t taken their advice on previous drafts — especially if the same feedback-giver has followed the book through several versions, he might not always remember what precisely he asked the writer to do.

Is that gagging I hear out there? “But Anne,” some of you sputter, “aren’t we talking about dealing with WRITTEN feedback here? Surely, there’s no question about what has been said after, say, an editor requests a textual change in an editorial memo.”

How shall I put this delicately…

Professional readers go through a LOT of manuscripts in any given month; it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the details began to blur a bit would it?

And honey, if your nerves will stand calling up the editor who’s just acquired your book and saying, “Hey, I’m calling foul — your last two memos contradicted each other,” well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I can also tell you right now that ol’ Gunga Din’s agent is going to throw what used to be called a conniption fit immediately after that act of bravery — because from the editorial end of that phone line, that statement might very well have sounded like a declaration of war.

Hey, I’m not the only message-bearer who fears the wrath of the angry tomato-thrower.

Instead, think about how much more smoothly the exchange might have gone has our pal Gunga instead been able to whip out both the list of suggested changes (prepared, perhaps, in response to Strategy #8) and the roster of what he had changed between drafts in preparation for such a discussion.

Armed with such tools, perhaps Gunga could have blunted the potential for confrontation even further by prefacing his remarks with, “I think I’m confused. From what you said in the memo, it sounds as though I may have misunderstood what you were asking for last time. Or are you asking for something completely different now?”

In short: keep good records of changes, and make it as easy as possible for yourself to revert to an older version, if necessary and appropriate.

Whew, I think we could all use a nice, long nap after that little exercise in hypothetical horror, couldn’t we? The rest of the strategy list will be much less stomach-wrenching, I promise.

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: giving good feedback


My decimated garden calls me today, dear friends, begging me to put its squashed hellebores and bifurcated tulips to rights. Rather than waste a posting day — or, to put it more cynically, a day of web-surfing whilst avoiding filling out those tax forms — I’m going to ask you to add beauty and grace to this feedback-incorporation series by sharing YOUR thoughts on what kind of feedback makes the most sense to you.

The question du jour: what makes feedback good? How can feedback-givers present it in such a way that it is most useful to you? What practices should be avoided like the proverbial plague, in your opinion?

I can already hear some of you chortling, eager to launch into this one, so I’m going to let you get right to it without further preamble. Readers have been posting some great observations on what makes for great feedback throughout the series, but I’m curious to hear more. (Also, not blog-browser habitually goes back and reads comments on past posts. If you don’t: this would be a great time to make an exception, because this series has engendered some fantastic commentary.)

Usual cautions, of course: please avoid profanity, so underage writers can continue to visit this site from their school library computers; avoid naming names, no matter how tempting it may be to out a terrible feedback-giver, and remember, things posted online tend to turn up in web searches years later.

I will get the ball rolling: one of the most useful ground rules I’ve ever encountered in a critique group is a ban on ever simply saying, “I liked X,” or “I don’t like Y,” without further explanation. Unless a writer knows the particulars of why a first reader responded to a particular part of the book, s/he can’t really implement the information in a useful manner.

I would also vote for banishing one-word responses from feedback altogether, for the same reason. Perhaps I’m a suspicious soul, but whenever a first reader says, “Great!” or “Brava!” or even “I loved it!” without further comment, I immediately start to wonder if the commenter just can’t think of anything useful to say. (Or didn’t finish the manuscript.)

Okay, it’s your turn: knock my proverbial socks off. I promise that I’ll respond with something more than, “Ooh, I liked that.”