Before I launch into our topic du jour, I’ve some delightful news to announce about a member of the Author! Author! community: Janiece Hopper’s CRACKED BAT has won first prize in both the best book from the Pacific West region and the Religion/Spirituality category in the 2008 Reader Views Literary Awards, (receiving an honorable mention) and BEST in the Pacific West Region. It also received an honorable mention in the General Fiction Category. While she was at it, CRACKED BAT also won the Author’s Marketing Experts Award for the Best Regional Book of the Year!
It just goes to show you: clearly, the Muses smile upon those authors generous enough to share their wisdom here with us at Author! Author!, at least at award-granting time.
For those of you who missed Janiece’s two guest posts (one on dealing with that perennial writers’ bugbear, repetitive strain injuries, the other on the ins and outs of self-publishing, here’s a brief synopsis of CRACKED BAT:
Linnea Perrault is the editor of The Edge, a successful community newspaper. Happily married to Dan, Spinning Wheel Bay’s premier coffee roaster and owner of The Mill, she is the mother of an adorable four-year-old daughter who insists upon lugging a fifteen-pound garden dwarf everywhere they go. When Linnea’s wealthy father returns to their hometown to make amends for abandoning her to a cruel stepfather twenty-eight years earlier, she painfully resurrects his old place in her heart. He buys the local baseball team. Before long, fairy tales, Islamic mystics, and a host of cross-cultural avatars come into play as the team is propelled to the top of the league. After a foul pass and an accident at the stadium, Linnea finds herself locked in the stone tower of pain as she realizes how much the man she married is like the father she never knew. Doctors can’t diagnose her debilitating condition, but kind, magical strangers give her a chance to save her soul. Cracked Bat is dedicated to the approximately five million people who have experienced the mystifying and frustrating ailments of myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.
Congratulations, Janiece, and may there be many more awards in your future!
Okay, let’s get back to the subject at hand. How are you enjoying our recent foray into craft issues and revision tips? Inspiring? Annoying? A little of both? A trifle too theoretical?
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, as far as Millicent is concerned.
One result of writerly over-reliance on and is the pervasiveness of that immensely popular sentence structure, X happened and Y happened. A perennial favorite 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. For instance:
I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.
See? It’s chatty, casual, echoing the way your local spouse-poisoner is likely to say it to her next-door neighbor. True, it doesn’t quite match the arid eloquence of Ambrose Bierce’s
Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.
But then, what does?
My point is, in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with X happened and Y happenedsentence structure. In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, it can be very helpful — and downright indispensable in constructing dialogue or a first-person narrative. Why? Because actual English-speaking people incorporate this structure into their speech with great regularity.
In many cases, with monotonous regularity.
Few real-world patterns are as consistently reproduced with fidelity. Sociological movements come and go unsung, slang enters and leaves the language literarily unnoted, but redundant or pause-riddled speech is frequently reproduced mercilessly down to the last spouted cliché. (How ’bout them Red Sox?) And don’t even get me started on the practically court-reporter levels of realism writers tend to lavish on characters who stutter or — how to put this gracefully? — do not cling tenaciously to the rules of grammar when they speak.
In some manuscripts, it seems that if there’s an ain’t uttered within a five-mile radius, the writer is going to risk life and limb to track it down, stun it, and affix it to the page within quotation marks.
There are some pretty good reasons that authors might feel so inclined, of course. 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. No cheating: reproduce ALL of it.
If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you have an unusually high threshold for boredom; perhaps you have a future as an agency screener. 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. As I pointed out a few days ago, 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.
Not of good literature, anyway. 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? 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 of its creator, 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. Screaming has been known to ensue after the sixteenth use within the same space.
If that seems like an over-reaction, consider this: most professional readers go into the job because they like to read. Adore it. Millicent screens manuscripts all day at work, pulls a battered paperback out of her bag on the subway home, and reads herself to sleep at night; her boss totes submissions back and forth on that same subway because he’s so devoted to his job that he does half of his new client consideration at home.
I know that I spend a lot of time on this blog explaining that these are individual people with personal preferences, but I can guarantee that they all share one characteristic: they love the language and the many ways in which it can be used. Consider, for instance, the exceptionally beautiful and oft-cited ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Even before I finished typing this, I could sense hands shooting up all over the ether. “Aha, Anne!” the more literal rule-followers out there point out triumphantly. “He began two sentences with and! And he used the very X happened and Y happened structure you’ve been complaining about for the last two days. So you must be wrong about them both, right?”
No, actually — I selected this passage precisely because he does incorporate them; he also uses the passive voice in one sentence. He does it sparingly, selectively. Look at the horror that might have resulted had he been less variable in his structural choices (I apologize in advance for this, Scott, but it must be done):
And I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, and I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, and that it was somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, and it was where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, and in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. And It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster and we will stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The moral: even when the writing is very good indeed, structural repetition can be distracting. Take that, writers who believe that they’re too talented for their work ever to require revision.
Where might one start to weed out the ands, you ask? Glance over your pages for sentences in which and appears more than once. Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:
In avoiding the police, Irene 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 spent 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 been sensing 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 may 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 precisely 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 garnering long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way.
Wow, this is a lengthy post, even for me, isn’t it? That does it: I’m taking the weekend off, so I can curl up with a good book. Keep up the good work!
3 Replies to “Yes, I KNOW that lots and lots of people use run-ons in everyday speech, but Millicent isn’t judging every word that falls out of the guy sitting next to you in the café’s mouth, is she? Anyway, what’s your hurry?”
After cycling through your posts on repetition and redundancy for the second or third time, I now find that I’m much more aware of it in my own writing. I not only pay more attention in my “serious” work, but also in in my everyday efforts. Even in e-mails, blog comments and postings, I tend to watch out for repeated words, phrases or sentence patterns. And when I go back and re-read portions of earlier work, I often find examples that I can tone down a little bit. I guess you have gotten me to think about it!
While I have your attention, it seems that some time ago you were going to mention something about manuscript format. To be exact, I think you were going to tell us how to format longer passages that a character is voicing or reading, those that in published form are often printed with wider margins, in italics, or even with a different font. As a more concrete example, I’m thinking of a letter the protagonist might receive that is presented to the reader in it’s entirety. To be direct, do you intend to post anything about that in the near future?
Shh, Dave. No one is supposed to know that I revisit material.
No, but seriously, I do make a fairly strenuous effort not to rerun a post without embellishing it considerably (or announcing that it’s a rerun), because I know that long-time readers like you will have read earlier iterations. In this post, for instance, I added about 2000 words of new material. It’s one of the reasons that my posts are often of epic length — that, and the fact that I often address points brought up in the comments last time around. For the same reason, I’m notorious for adding new posts to revisited series.
Which is what I was planning to do with the subject of your direct question, as it happens. I have a vague recollection of having mentioned something about letters-in-text some time ago, now that you mention it. It’s getting close to time to revisit (shh!) standard format again, so I imagine that I’ll devote a post to it at that point. I’m adding it to my ever-burgeoning to-blog list, but if you don’t see anything on the subject within the next month or two, do remind me.
I never would have guessed that you “revisit material.” Not that I mind. Each time you present it, and each time I read it, it sinks a little deeper into the gray-matter quagmire of my mind.