You look strangely familiar…have we met somewhere before?

Last time, I suggested that if your novel is thick with named characters, it might be a good idea to make a list of who appears when, so you can see where to cull and who may be combined with whom. And cries of “Madness! Madness!” filled the land.

Now, now — it’s actually a very practical suggestion. Think of it as trying to cast a production of Spartacus with a very small troupe of actors: you probably won’t be able to foist many more duties upon the leads, but the bit players could certainly play multiple roles, right?

Knowing who the players are and in what scenes they appear can also alert you to patterns in where characters tend to pile up in your work in general. If you’re the kind of writer who, for instance, leans toward naming everyone at any given party, you will want to be aware of that predilection before you write your next party scene, won’t you?

Won’t you? Lie to me, if not.

If, on the other hand, you tend to emphasize your protagonist’s loneliness by having other characters engage in banter around him, seeing that pattern manifest on a list may lead you to question whether it needs to happen quite so often in the book to make your point — or with quite so many different people.

It can, in short, alert you to point overkill.

If hell is other people, as Sartre suggests, then wedding and funeral scenes in novels almost invariably reek of brimstone. These events are NOTORIOUS amongst professional readers for introducing entire churchfuls of extraneous characters.

Even when all of the masses are not named individually (although you’d be astonished how often 10 or 20 are), it doesn’t take many lines of physical description or multi-party banter to convey the impression that a small, intimate wedding has a guest list to rival that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s nuptials.

Allow me to suggest: if behinds are in pews, it might be a good place to start trimming.

Ditto with coffee shops, bars, class reunions, Ellis Island, airplanes/-ports, and party scenes in general. All of these venues seem to attract single-appearance characters as surely as a red carpet attracts celebrity gawkers.

Was that massive sucking noise I just heard a collective gasp of indignation? “But Anne,” the cast of thousands-mongers cry, “you’re asking me to disembowel the collective identity of modern urban life! How can I describe the complexity of the human environment without enumerating the individuals who are part of it?”

Describe away — and if you’re into enumerating, I’m not going to stop you, although your agent and/or editor may well. All I’m suggesting here is that you not insist on introducing each of the bystanders to the hapless reader as if she were the mother of the bride in a receiving line.

Not only does it tend to get a mite tedious and slow the pace of the narrative to the proverbial crawl, to a professional reader, a group scene where everyone is named down to the last poodle and great-grandfather reads as though it were simply an account of something that actually happened to the author. When the guest lists are long and specific, the jaded reader will think, “Great — when do we get back to the fiction?”

Or the memoir, or the historical account, as the case may be.

Of course, this is not always a fair conclusion, but there is some basis for it: as I mentioned yesterday, when writers lift scenes from real life into their novels, they do tend to include direct one-to-one correlations between the actual people and the fictional ones.

The names may change, but if Aunt Bessie, Aunt Cassie, and odd Cousin George appear in the text so fleetingly that they don’t make an impression upon the reader, it’s a pretty good tip-off to someone who reads a lot of manuscripts that the author is blessed with two aunts and a cousin who might reasonably be expected to buy the book when it is published.

And that is a problem to professional and casual readers alike. Such references, in code or not, can be very amusing for readers familiar with the fine folks mentioned in the book, as well as their kith and kin, but generally speaking, unless a minor character plays an actual role in the plot — as in contributing some action or information that moves the story along — he will not be memorable to readers who do not already know the correlates in question.

You indignant gaspers are getting restive again, aren’t you? “Yes, yes,” you mutter impatiently, and who could blame you? “It’s not the most efficient means of storytelling; I already know that. But I fully intend to rectify that by making Aunt Bessie the gas station attendant in Chapter 47, Aunt Cassie the librarian in Chapter 12, and Cousin George the second corpse who rises from the dead on the honeymoon. Happy now?”

Not necessarily, no. Even if the characters in a crowd scene do appear elsewhere in the book, it can still be pretty tedious for the reader if the narrative engages in a full roll-call. Or even a partial one.

At least when the characters in question are not integral to the action of the crowd scene. Bystanders are not, by and large, memorable to the average reader, but all too frequently, it’s not clear which of the cast of thousands in a scene is the one (or dozen) that the reader is supposed to remember.

If, indeed, it’s important to the plot to remember any individuals among them at all. Even in a memoir, it often isn’t, from a pure storytelling perspective.

And writers, as any editor can tell you, tend to forget that. Every editor in the biz has at one time or another been confronted by an author angrily waving a manuscript in her face and shouting, “What do you mean, where did this character come from? Alice was a guest at Ben’s wedding in Chapter Two, for heaven’s sake!”

Invariably, the irate author is right: the character will indeed have been mentioned by name in passing, as in,

The bridesmaids, Greta, Elaine, and Alice, were dressed in an eye-searing chartreuse that left Ben wondering just what these old friends had done to his bride back in junior high school.

200 pages later, out of those three never-again-mentioned bridesmaids, the author expects the reader to remember Alice.

At the risk of seeming impertinent, why?

“Wait just a minute,” I hear some of you say. “If Millicent finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis FIRST in the packet?”

In a word, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers that order. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see. No more, no less.

Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51.

To which I will add a corollary: any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT AGENCY ALONE, rather than to every association of authors’ representatives currently walking the earth.

At least until you’ve done some research on what other agencies are asking to see. Sometimes, an individual preference is just an individual preference.

Aspiring writers often forget that. (And, as always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, please see the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.)

If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.


You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, typically, not every employee at an agency will take the time to read the synopsis they asked a writer to send prior to sitting down with those first few pages to see whether s/he can write.

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend.

There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage; presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it; the only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens AFTER the last submission page.

And anyway, if Alice’s appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that she won’t have made an appearance in the synopsis the first time around, anyway.

So unless a character is central enough to what’s going on in a scene to warrant development, you might want to consider whisking her out of Millicent’s sight, at least for the time being.

“For the time being?” I hear some ambitious character-generators out there piping hopefully. “Does that mean I can bring Aunt Cassie back elsewhere?”

Sure — just because you take a few (or a few hundred) characters out of your submission draft of a novel doesn’t mean that you can’t reinsert them later in the publication process. There is no law that says that an author can’t offer a stripped-down, swiftly-moving version of her novel to agents and editors — and then, after the ink is dry on the relevant contracts, say to your editor, “You know, I’ve always thought that there should be more bridesmaids in Chapter 2. Like, say, 47. How would you feel about Alice’s being one of them?”

Remember, no manuscript is set in stone until it’s actually in print between covers. (And sometimes not even then.) Keep your options open, keep copies of EVERY major revision of your manuscript, so you can revisit the Alice issue again down the road.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: hey, I realized I hadn’t nagged you all about this in a while, but today would be a dandy time to make back-ups of your writing files, wouldn’t it? Especially if you haven’t made another electronic copy since, well, ever?

I hope you never experience the trauma that is a computer meltdown, but I would urge you to make back-ups frequently, just in case. Computer repair facilities see countless writers rending their garments and exclaiming, “But I NEED you to get into my fried hard drive! What do you expect me to do, retype my novel from scratch – and from memory?”

Trust me, you do not want to be one of these people. Make back-ups.

If you’re a PC user unfamiliar with your backup options, intelligent and insightful long-time reader Chris Park has generously wrote an EXCELLENT post on his blog on data loss, back-up solutions, and other nifty save-my-manuscript-from-oblivion ideas — all written in blessedly clear, direct layman’s terms. I would highly recommend its perusal.

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