How are you enjoying our recent foray into craft issues and revision tips? Inspiring? Annoying? A little of both?
Never fear — here at Author! Author!, we never stray very far from marketing issues. As much as I love to talk about writing qua writing, my focus throughout this series is going to remain practical: how to revise your manuscript to minimize its chances of running afoul of screener Millicent’s hyper-critical eyes.
Last time, I began discussing that most overused of words in manuscripts, and. Leaning on this multi-purpose word can lead, I argued, to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting the bubonic plague.
Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty.
The other all-too-common and sentence structure, X happened and Y happened, turns up VERY frequently in both submissions and contest entries. It’s appealing because, like stringing together sentences beginning with conjunctions, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow:
I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.
See? Chatty, casual: the way your local poisoner is very likely to say it to her next-door neighbor, right?
Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives. “I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”
Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.
Why? Well, to take the reason most relevant to us today, because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.
If you doubt this, here’s a little experiment: sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim. Afterward, go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using ONLY the dialogue that you actually overheard.
If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you have an unusually high threshold for boredom. Or perhaps you have a great affection for the mundane.
In any case, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding REAL is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining.
Yes, Virginia, even if it happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Slice-of-life pieces can be quite effective IF they are short — but frankly, in my opinion, most of what goes on in the real world doesn’t rise to the standards of literature
Far, far better to apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something BETTER than reality, I say.
In that spirit, let’s look at that sentence structure beloved of the real-life speaker, X happened and Y happened and see if we can’t improve upon it, eh?
If this structure is used sparingly, it can work very well indeed — but its advocates seldom seem to be able to restrain themselves. Let’s take a peek at several sentences of this type in a row, to see why it might annoy your garden-variety Millicent at the end of a long, hard day of rejection:
Esmeralda blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.
See what I mean? Although each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English, it’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.
By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:
Esmeralda blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.
Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least flushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”
Most agents, editors, and contest judges would agree with the paragraph’s assessment, alas. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure.
Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of this kind of sentence within half a page.
While you are self-editing, then, it’s a dandy idea to rework ANY sentence in which and appears more than once. (Hey, where have I heard that trenchant advice before?) Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:
In avoiding the police, Zelda ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.
This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions.
Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ classic comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:
He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spend all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.
So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.
Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.)
I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:
(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),
(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and
(3) If the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.
Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. YOU may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.
Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading agency screener to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?
Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.
I’ve sensed disgruntled rumblings out there since point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”
Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format restrictions on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.
Clearly, then, these matters are not under my personal control, so kindly take me off your literary hit lists.
Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.
Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of — gasp! — a habitual runner-on.
Sometimes repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.
The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of either the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events.
This is not always a fair assessment, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”
“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”
My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader.
Since your revision eye is getting so sophisticated, let’s consider the opposite possibility: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?
Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?
C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry?
You thought you were the only one who did this, didn’t you?
Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.
It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.
When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim.
Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important.
Which — you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.
Which is not exactly the response you want your sentences to evoke from an agency screener, right?
When in doubt, revise to minimize the ands. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.
To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”
I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way.
Keep up the good work!
(PS: the lovely picture above appears courtesy of the fine folks at FreeFoto.com.)