“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”
— Mark Twain
I seldom post calls for submissions to publications, particularly online ones — there are so very many of them, after all, and as one of the primary joys of agent in life is that somebody else markets one’s writing, I don’t have much personal incentive to do the requisite background research — but I have to say, the relatively new Ink-Filled Page’s call for submissions from 6 – 12th graders completely won my heart with the meticulous specificity of one of its guidelines:
We are specifically looking for fresh, untold stories and unique voices that draw us into the world of the story. While we know and love many Jo(h)ns, we are inundated by character Jo(h)ns. We ask that you only submit characters by that name if it is necessary for the story.
Stumbling across this filled me with rapture; this is one of the best expressions of a professional reader’s pet peeve that I’ve seen for a long time. Not only it tell you clearly what particular super-common manuscript condition will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance, but it explains why seeing just one more Jon or John will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance. Yet mindful of the remote-but-not-inconceivable possibility that stories exist where the inclusion of a John is absolutely unavoidable — the mind positively reels, doesn’t it, with images of battalions of Jons and Johns battering mercilessly upon writerly doors worldwide, demanding entrance to the printed page? — the guideline begrudgingly informs the prospective submitter that Johnning it up is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense.
Don’t you wish that everyone who solicits submissions were that up front about what irritates them — and what fate is likely to meet the hapless writer to commits those faux pas? And yet as a longtime professional reader and frequent contest judge, I can tell you right now that despite the pellucid clarity of this restriction, the callers-for-submissions in this instance will STILL be up to their navels in characters named Jon or John.
Or possibly even Jo(h)n, just for the comic relief. My point is, it’s extraordinarily likely that most submitters will either not notice or choose to ignore this request.
Do I hear the abundant Johns out there rising to second that? “Darned right, Anne!” they and their h-less brethren shout as one. “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases? And who are agents, editors, contest judges, and professional readers to tell us what to do, anyway?”
Well, to be literal for a moment, they’re the people who can make sure that your manuscript is seen by the right eyes, are empowered to make the decision to publish it, have the capacity to award it a great big blue ribbon and abiding fame, and see what everyone else is submitting these days. Theirs may not be opinions an artist wants to take into account while making creative choices, and it’s certainly every writer’s prerogative not to, but by and large, they tend to be pretty well-informed pronouncement-makers.
As glorious as it would be if every rule-breaker did it consciously, as a magnificent gesture toward artistic liberty, that’s apparently not the usual reason that submitters dismiss this kind of admonition. Most of the time, adhering to such formal requests would make little or no artistic difference to a submission, at least from a reader’s perspective; even more of the time, failure to honor expressed preferences is not the only problem the submission has, especially if it is an entry to contests with unusual formatting restrictions.
Which is why most professional readers, particularly experienced contest judges, would tell you that most submitters don’t read submission requirements very carefully, even when, as is the case with most literary contests, the sponsor’s printed literature and website make it quite, quite clear that deviation from the rules is a disqualification-level offense. Apparently, there are a whole lot of would-be entrants and submitters out there who just assume that whatever format and content they have happened to have selected for their own pieces will automatically be acceptable to the professional readers to whom they decide to submit it.
And when these well-meaning-but-myopic folks hear otherwise, they often feel betrayed, as did the Johns above, demanding, “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to write anything he darned well pleases?”
Well, off the top of my head, I can come up with three reasons. First, as I’ve discussed extensively in earlier posts, the sheer volume of submissions leads screeners and contest judges to use formal criteria (like adherence to posted preferences, standard format restrictions, and the kind of unpromulgated pet peeves this series has been examining) to narrow the field to those submissions that are, in their opinions, closer to being ready to publication-ready. Liberty-loving writers may have a problem with that, but the second reason, the fact that in order to work successfully with an agent or editor, a writer needs to be able to follow directions fairly well, is difficult to dispute.
Which renders the third reason a trifle less easy to swallow: informally, one does hear quite a few professional readers cite the high percentage of manuscripts that don’t honor posted guidelines as a primary reason that so few agencies and publishing houses actually provide such formal guidelines anymore. “Why bother?” such off-the-record informants will inquire rhetorically. “The writers will ignore them, anyway.”
Before any of you rend your garments, exclaiming, “How on earth can I conform to your standards if you won’t tell me what they are?” let me hasten to add: yes, this logic is indeed circular. If not promulgating pet peeves meant that submissions didn’t get rejected for exhibiting them, that would make more sense, from a writerly point of view.
All of which is to say: if you’re planning to enter a contest or submit to an agency or small publishing house that does go the extra mile to render its screening criteria public, read its rules carefully. Several times. Then follow them to the letter, because the rule-mongers have actually done you a great big favor by telling you up front what they do and do not want to see.
If you’re not willing to do that — because you’re too busy, too committed to presenting your work precisely as you would like to see it in print, or just haven’t fallen into the laudable habit of checking whether those to whom you’ve decided to commit have such guidelines posted on their websites — I would suggest considering not submitting to those who do post their preferences. Save the contest entry fee.
I can tell you from experience, hell hath no fury like a screener who knows for fact that the often-repeated manuscript problem in front of her is specifically barred by her agency, contest, or publishing house’s published submission standards.
But enough about the guidelines that are easily accessible to aspiring writers. Let’s get back to the ones that we’re expected to guess.
Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:
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.”)
I dealt with the first three on this list last time, of course, but It’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary.
Because, as we may see, agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.
Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you who don’t know, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.
(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”
While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly industry-wide objection. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.
I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.
To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a fairly average chunk of dialogue:
“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”
Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”
“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”
“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”
“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”
“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”
“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”
Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception, that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.
However, to most folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive – or, to put it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.
So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:
“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”
Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”
“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”
“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”
“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”
“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”
“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”
A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?)
Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?
Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”
Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.
And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation.
More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?
There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session from which I derived the list of pet peeves we’ve been discussing. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case.
Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.
The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:
*The characters are telling one another things they already know.
*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.
*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)
*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)
*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”
Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.
Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue – which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?
So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?
If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.
Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.
99.9% of the time, it won’t.
Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.
And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party.
It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.
I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Move it along. In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.
Besides, it’s just a fact that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!” or even “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases?”
More common first-page rejection reasons follow anon. Keep up the good work!