Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIII: in praise of individuality, or, a few thoughts on character-revealing dialogue


Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

But that’s not why everyone is celebrating, is it? No, the country is ringing with joy from sea to shining sea for just one reason: the long, long Thanksgiving-to-MLK-Day Do You REALLY Want To Query NOW? annual downtime is now officially over.

Okay, so maybe not everyone is dancing in the streets because of that. Grant me some poetic license here.

So for all of you who have been holding your breath and avoiding the post office: you once again have my blessing to send rafts of queries and submissions to agents. True, they still need to get tax information out to their clients by the end of the month (the IRS keeps an eagle eye on royalty payments), but by now, the New Year’s Resolution rush of queries has died down to a trickle, a mere overlay atop the usual weekly avalanche.

Translation: Millicent the agency screener is a WHOLE lot less grumpy today than she was two weeks ago.

Of course, you don’t actually need to send out those requested materials this very instant. One might, for example, want to spend the next week or so checking in here on a daily basis, to absorb the discussion of the rest of the reasons that submissions often get rejected on page 1.

Or not. I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons related to dialogue.

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this problem is legitimate to discuss as dialogue.

While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing — and that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, maybe there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: these are a great many questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing when she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context. But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: (book that was released 5+ years ago) began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation: in the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall Ipause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none. Not one iota. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines, or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count.

Let it reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

I’ll tackle the rest of the dialogue-related reasons next time. Enjoy the rest of MLK Day and the inauguration, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIII: in praise of individuality, or, a few thoughts on character-revealing dialogue”

  1. From this recent series I get two propositions:

    A. Publishing is at a wretched low (stupid books pandering to the lowest common demoninator, and the industry is losing money and sinking)

    B. Agents have insanely stupid demands, supposedly because they are conforming to what the publishers are buying now (and not for “strictly great writing, just the stuff I subjectively love” like they say)


    A. Agents apparently can’t or won’t do anything about the state of the industry (some salesmen in some industries can; apparently literary agents choose not to or, more likely, see no actual problem … because if they did, we’d hear about it, right?)

    B. Publishers are not looking for quality. Whether or not they blame it on the public is immaterial, for WE are also part of the public.

    C. Good writers keep writing good stuff and don’t worry about agents editors or publishers. Maybe the future is the Internet. Book publishing is sure looking rotten and lame.

    Also P.S., the thing about MLK Jr is look at that photo above — black people don’t look like that today. Actually no one black or white looks like that anymore now and I think we are much worse off for it. (No hotels look that cool, either.) So maybe it’s time now to stop congratulating the achievements of past generations and start looking at what needs to be done NOW. Americans look and act like slobs, there are no nice hotels anywhere, people are crude and cheap and mean and there does not seem to be an end to it in sight.

    1. My, what a lot of superlatives. This is not my take on this particular series at all, although I do know many writers, agented and unagented alike, who would agree with you fairly vehemently about the state of publishing in general, if not about sartorial choices or hotel design. Writers have been making precisely these complaints for the last hundred years; much like the theatre, the dance, and every other art form, there has never been a shortage of those eager to diagnose the book’s imminent demise at the hands of the barbarian market.

      But that’s not at all what I’ve been saying here: I’m far, far more optimistic, and I haven’t been condemning the industry. My focus is on finding practical solutions for real-world problems that aspiring writers face.

      In other words, just because the bar for writers is high doesn’t mean that it’s a wall.

      One of the points that I’ve tried to make repeatedly throughout this series is that while there are definitely general trends in what does and doesn’t make it past Millicent, agencies, agents, and their screeners are NOT all identical in what they are looking for in a submission. Therefore, I would be reluctant to condemn the entire industry based upon the choices of individuals within it, or to assume that because an extraordinarily high percentage of submissions exhibit a few dozen predictable narrative and presentation mistakes, that good writing can’t make it past the gatekeepers at all — as I believe an hour or two in a well-stocked bookstore perusing new releases would bear out. The major publishers have been cautious of late, no doubt, but amid the many volumes by the established, I’ve also spotted some pretty exciting new prose hitting the shelves within the last year.

      So is it harder than in days of yore to get a submission past gatekeepers like Millicent, and is that in part due to the demands of publishers? Yes and yes. Is it out of the question for a beautifully-written book to make the cut? No. Has there ever been a time since the advent of the agency system that agents did NOT choose their clients primarily based on what they believed they could sell to publishers? No. And does the fact that Millicent has is justifiably wary about market trends and harbors pet peeves mean that she’s rejecting ALL of the good writing she sees, and therefore any truly gifted writer doesn’t stand a chance? Absolutely not.

      Thus this series — it is intended to help writers get past those gatekeepers by avoiding the most common Millicent-irritants, not to pass judgment on the publishing industry’s tastes, encourage anyone to give up on submitting, or pretend that there aren’t marvelous agents who just adore good writing currently accepting submissions. I don’t even need to open my address book to come up with the names of fifty agents who have in the last year fought tooth and nail for manuscripts that did not fit with current market fashions, but they believed in their hearts of hearts were important contributions to literature in English.

      But the vast submissions don’t profess to be that. Most submissions are intended by their authors simply for publication, and thus for the market, not for assignment in a literature class. That being the case, and since few agencies are run on a deliberately non-profit basis, I don’t think it’s insane or even particularly unreasonable for Millicent’s boss to instruct her to screen with an eye to the current market.

      Again, though, that’s not what this series has been about. My focus here has been not on how to navigate around larger market trends, but upon identifying and editing sentence- and paragraph-level problems with individual manuscripts that Millicent’s boss would almost certainly ask a writer to change if she signed him, because they’re likely to annoy an editorial assistant at a publishing house as much as Millicent.

      As I’ve mentioned many times, the knee-jerk reaction to most of these manuscript traits is the result of how OFTEN they see these particular writing tricks, not that Millicents all over New York are on a quixotic mission to reject every piece of high-quality writing that crosses their desks in favor of the banal and poorly written. Much of what gets rejected is genuinely poorly written, after all, crawling with formatting problems, misspellings, and just plain not very interesting sentences. Yes, some very good writing does get unjustly rejected, but frankly, if Maxwell Perkins himself were screening the types of submissions that we’ve been discussing here, he would probably reject most of what crosses Millicent’s desk, too.

      But to tell you the truth, I don’t think that most of my readers are submitting that type of manuscript; writers who do their homework tend to weed out the problems that lead to “Oh, my God — NO!” rejections. They are conversant with the basic rules of grammar, proofread for punctuation mistakes, and have taken the time to learn a bit about how publishing works. I’ve been aiming this series at good writers who simply were not aware of the more common pet peeves that might be triggering undeserved rejection — which would be pointless if no genuinely deserving manuscript actually stood a chance in the current literary market.

      Yes, it’s an uphill battle, but I would be sorry to see any truly talented writer give up because the road has gotten steeper.

      The agency system and the publishing industry definitely have their flaws, but I wouldn’t give up on either just yet. An awful lot of people who honestly love good literature still work within them, and if literary history has taught us anything, it’s that trends change all the time. If a book that sold five years ago might have trouble making it past Millicent today, it is equally true that the book rejected today may be just what the market is seeking five years from now. Hang in there, keep writing, and don’t give up.

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