Last time, I wrote a heck of a long post (even by my lengthy standards) on the burning issue of increasing conflict on the first pages of submissions, a point at which many manuscripts are still revving their motors, so to speak, for action to come. As I mentioned yesterday, a whole lot of marvelous manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, don’t really find their groove until five or ten pages in.
And that’s problematic, is it not, given that most submissions get rejected before the bottom of page 1?
In this series, I’ve been going through a list of reasons that happens, with an eye to helping you spot rejection-inducing red flags in your own work. Yesterday’s disquisition on the virtues of conflict-generation arose from a larger discussion of a perennial submission problem: boring the reader in the opening paragraphs of a book.
By which, of course, I don’t mean boring a regular reader, as most sane booklovers will give a book more than just a few sentences before deciding whether to toss it aside or not. The reader I’m talking about is the professional reader — an agent, agency screener, editorial assistant, editor, contest judge, etc. — who is apt, due to the sheer volume of manuscripts piled upon his desk, to decide within a matter of seconds whether a manuscript is worth investing more of his time.
Yes, I know that it’s harsh. But as I believe I MAY have mentioned before, I don’t rule the universe; I merely try to interpret its peculiarities. If I did rule the universe, agencies would take advantage of the high unemployment rate to hire inveterate readers to read great big chunks of submissions before making up their minds about whether to pass them upstairs or reject them. I would also provide federal subsidies to establish non-profit publishing houses (intentionally non-profit, that is, not merely financially unsuccessful) that would take on great books that might not sell well, and every child on the face of the earth would have access to free schools, health care, and ice cream.
Yet more evidence that I don’t rule even a relatively small portion of the universe: all aspiring writers are not yet aware that boring a professional reader, even for a line or two, can mean instant rejection.
While you’re muddling over the rather disturbing implications of that one, let’s return to the remaining different stripes of boredom the Idol agents reported experiencing from first pages:
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring.
38. Repetition on pg. 1 (!)
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
57. The writing is dull.
That’s a lot of different species of boredom-inducement, isn’t it? Let’s take some time and break them down. #35 and #36, not exciting and boring, respectively, may seem fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to disparate types of text.
A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or the pace moves too slowly. Basically, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it would be compelling.
Wait — haven’t I heard something about raising the stakes somewhere before? In yesterday’s post, perhaps?
A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a line or two. Something might be happening on the page, but who cares?
Again, I doubt any of MY readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under a good first reader’s eyes to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.
The final three items on today’s menu represent various popular strategies for boring Millicent:
#38, repetition on page 1, is just what it says on the box: specific information, action, or even dialogue occurring more than once on the first page. A poor strategic choice, as redundancy is not smiled upon in the publishing industry, to put it mildly: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.
So agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts. And frankly, agented and published authors usually learn pretty quickly to excise repetition from their own work, so a lack of redundancy is often regarded as a sign of writerly experience.
No kidding — it’s one of the easiest ways to spot an experienced author in the wild. Just look for the writer who cringes instinctively like an animal anticipating a blow at the first evidence of redundancy, and it’s a good bet that you will find someone who has been well lambasted by a good editor.
Not to mention a writer who brings joy to her agent. Self-editing out redundancy is a fine means of making friends in the publishing world.
Lest the literal think redundancy means only doubling up on the use of specific words, most professional readers will reject a first page that contains conceptual repetition as well. Usually, writers commit this infraction for one of five reasons.
First, they don’t trust the reader to be able to figure out what is going on, so they describe the same thing several times or in a few different ways. In recent years, this has been the most common type of redundancy in fiction — and yes, fashions in repetition do change over time, just as fashions in style do.
Physical descriptions are particularly prone to this kind of redundancy, as are snippets of dialogue where one party is supposed to be surprised:
“Mom, come quick! Lassie say that Billie’s fallen into the well!”
“Billie? The well?”
“Let me just set down my stereotypical sewing next to my de rigeur rocker on my typical Americana front porch. How lucky we are to have a dog who can convey the difference between a well, a creek, and a mine shaft.”
“Mom, we must put on speed, or Billie shall drown!”
Now, if you’re like most aspiring writers, or even like most non-professional readers, you might not have particularly noticed the redundancies here had I not warned you that they were coming. In fact, most of this exchange may have struck you as fairly realistic: in real life, people often do repeat themselves for emphasis, and repetition of requests is a fairly standard means of conveying urgency, both in movie scripts and in the mouths of four-year-olds.
To Millicent’s trained and weary eye, however, this section of dialogue is hugely redundant — and her vehemence on the subject is not the result of a personal pet peeve. Professional readers almost always hate being told things twice, scrawling angry retorts in the margin along the lines of, “What, you thought I couldn’t remember what happened ten lines ago?”
Not only does the first speaker issue the same request three times (albeit in different words), but the last time, he even explains why speed is necessary, as though the first line’s assertion that a character had tumbled into a well didn’t at least imply the possibility of drowning. Similarly, Mom’s simply repeating what is said to her doesn’t actually add anything at all to the scene; it’s just repetition and, from Millicent’s point of view, a rather lazy way to convey astonishment.
(Oh, did I say that last bit out loud? So careless of me. It’s yet another widely-held critical belief amongst professional readers that aspiring writers tend not to hear about much.)
And let’s not even go into the plausibility red flags raised by Mom’s describing her physical environment to someone who is standing right in front of her who can presumably see it. Where does she think she is, acting in a radio play?
The second kind of redundancy is the urge to recap what the reader already knows — and yes, Virginia, I have seen manuscripts that fall prey to this compulsion as early as page 1.
Why? Well, many protagonists have an unfortunate habit of telling other characters what has just happened them, the substance of conversations the reader has just seen them have on the phone, sitting down with best friends over coffee or a beer to talk the whole thing over, etc. They also have a propensity to walk away from a conflict (or a flashback to one), set down the phone, or head over to the coffee house and THINK about what has just passed — effectively running the reader through the events a second time.
Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. Since I don’t want to send you all to sleep just yet, and as I’m quite positive that anyone who has ever been in a writing group with novelists has seen one or the other of these phenomena in action, I shall not reproduce an example here.
Even if the narrative adds new details the second time around, Millicent tends to become impatient with this type of repetition quite quickly within the first few pages of a submission. Try to streamline the presentation of facts so that the reader receives the bulk of them the first time.
Third, writers will often repeat themselves to emphasize a point, beating the poor proverbial deceased equine to a pulp:
Jeremy mopped his moist brow, his heart pounding with the fear that had nearly bowled him over seconds before. What had Angela meant, driving her minivan so close to his toes? She knew that he’d only just been released from the hospital for treatment of bunions. Was she still angry at him for slamming the front door on her elbow, or was this her perverse way of indicating that she was still in love with him?
Looking around for witnesses, he realized that every pore in his body was still emitting sweat, adrenaline coursing through his veins, as he tried to catch his breath. Scared practically to the point of imbecility, he backed toward the hospital’s welcoming front doors.
“All right, already,” Millicent mutters. “I get it: he’s frightened. Did you really need to spend TWO PARAGRAPHS telling me that? Move on!”
If you’re in doubt about whether your opening makes the impression you want or tends toward overkill, run it by some first readers you trust before letting Millicent have at it.
The fourth impetus for redundancy is a largely a product of the computer age: aspiring writers will not infrequently move sentences and paragraphs around during revision, forgetting to delete earlier or later uses of the same material. This is a notoriously common oversight in contest submissions, where pretty much everyone who enters is in a tearing hurry just before the submission deadline.
This is a proofreading problem, easily solved by reading EVERY PAGE you submit IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before popping it into the mail.
Yes, I do give that last piece of advice early and often, now that you mention it; good job spotting the repetition. Like so many writers who repeat themselves habitually, I live in fear that some reader out there will miss my favorite point.
I hesitate to mention redundancy cause #5, as it’s often not done deliberately, but many manuscripts will reuse the same few words so often that it becomes difficult for the reader’s eye not to skip around the page. Proper names, and, and the verbs go, have, walk, and say are frequent objects of repetition.
And yes, it is indeed possible to do it so much that it becomes annoying to Millicent and her ilk within a paragraph or two. Don’t believe me? Take a peek at this little gem:
Delilah walked over to the bureau in the corner, picked up her cigarette case and lighter that she had had since she was fifteen, and walked back to Charles. She didn’t particularly want a cigarette, but having gone to the effort of getting him here, she was not about to let him walk out on her again. “Cigarette?” she asked, holding out the case to him.
“I had a cigarette ten minutes ago,” Charles said, walking toward the window. “What did you ask me here for, Delilah? What are you going to get me to do for you this time?”
She tapped the cigarette she had taken out of the case against it impatiently. She was getting nervous. Had she overestimated her hold on him? “Right off the bat,” she said, “you can light my cigarette for me.”
Notice how tempting it is for your eye to skip ahead? (If not, stand up, take a large step away from your computer, and look at it again.) Word repetition, like sentence structure repetition, makes for tiring reading, since it requires concentration to keep one’s eyes on the line they’re supposed to be scanning.
Also, to a professional reader over-use of particular words tends to set off warning bells about vocabulary. Typically, the broader the vocabulary, the better-educated the target audience is assumed to be: if you happen to be writing YA for 13-year-olds, for instance, it’s going to jar Millicent if you use vocabulary that assumes the reader has spent at least a semester or two in college or is intimately familiar with the writings of Derrida.
By the same token, if you’re writing for adults, Millicent will expect your work to reflect an adult vocabulary. I’m not talking about profanity (although on general principle, I would advise keeping that to a minimum in YA) so much as breadth of usage. Vocabulary use varies from book category to book category, of course, as well as genre to genre, but generally speaking, most adult fiction aims at roughly a 10th-grade vocabulary level.
Which is to say: a fairly large vocabulary.
English is a very word-rich language; unless you’re writing for beginning readers, try not to over-use just a handful of favorite words. If the same ones pop up too frequently, they can have the same effect on readers as counting sheep.
And the last thing you want your submission to do is hypnotize Millicent into getting very, very sleepy, right?
Next time, I shall wrap up the many, many means of Millicent-boring — who’d have thought there would be such a broad array, eh? — so we may move on to the rest of the rejection reason list with all possible dispatch. Keep those opening pages snappy, everyone, and keep up the good work!