The Frankenstein manuscript, part I, or, Puritans in the present?


Yes, yes, I know: you were expecting a nice, scenic photograph of France, perhaps something in a medieval castle or a vineyard. But I’m on a writing retreat, people: I’m indoors, tapping away at my keyboard, not traipsing around the countryside with my camera.

Which is as it should be, of course. My work on my novel is going far more quickly than I had expected — hooray! — so much so that I’ve decided to extend my retreat by another couple of weeks.

All the more reason, then, to keep sitting here instead of wandering around outside.

And yet it’s a pity, because the weather is very nice, as nearly as I can tell from this side of my French (in every sense) windows. I’m getting quite a lot of revision done, the point of my being here, but every so often, that cartoon devil sitting on my shoulder does whisper that I could actually work on the novel anywhere, but how often am I in France?

By that same token, I do plenty of blogging back home, so I’m going to be posting some short ones this week, revising some craft issues rather than launching the promised new series on retreating. Because, really, how often am I in France?

Spending hours and hours revising my work, tinkering with voice and story, reminded me of a semi-magical moment a few years back, when an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she did not perceive to be experimentation, incidentally, but finished draft — she suddenly stumbled upon precisely the tone and perspective that worked for the book, an engaging voice she could maintain consistently throughout the entire story. As happens sometimes, what had been a mess of words just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

Remember what I was saying last week about how the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in submissions, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, or tone? People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness. As a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

(The view from the aforementioned French windows is really pretty spectacular. A river is involved.)

We writers don’t talk about voice nearly enough, I think, especially the fact that very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Voice is more than self-expression: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

Yet all too often, we talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to a topic that reared its ugly head last week: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it – because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as was the case for my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK – which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that: there is no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Sometimes, the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple points of view, for instance, or changes in voice, or structural alterations in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of Frankenstein array of incompletely-realized narrative ideas.

Many years ago, I met Stan, a promising writer, at a writers’ conference. Stan described his novel beautifully: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, Stan told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I wasn’t all that enthused; it didn’t seem like a particularly fresh book concept. But being well aware that I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys, I gave him a patient hearing. Why am I not ideally suited for such stories, you ask? As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town bad girl, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just a fluke of my upbringing.

From a marketing perspective, I think that at this point in literary history, such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this: Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOU tells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers — particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes — you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.

So as I say, I was leery, but we exchanged manuscripts, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Imagine my surprise.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise — even to yours truly, who knew the premise of the book going in. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact.

However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked Stan and thought he was a pretty good writer on the sentence level, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself, as a cinematic footnote from my childhood.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

To put it mildly, Stan did not cotton to this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. (Again, imagine my surprise.) We all obviously, he said huffily, just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh.

We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud. Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, for the exceedingly simple reason that any professional reader sees so very, very many in any given year. So from that perspective, Stan’s trouble was not that he was trying to do something original; it was that his manuscript had an extremely common consistency problem.

But Stan was absolutely convinced that what was being critiqued was his artistic vision, rather than his presentation of it, so while he was perpetually revising to sharpen the differences between the segments, he never seemed to get around to sitting down with the entire manuscript to see if his critics might have had a point about the overall manuscript. Predictably, he continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story.

In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary.

It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book. And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose.

It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s difficult to sell a piece that meanders stylistically. (Just ask Stan.)

Another extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery is the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past. In fiction, the explanation for this is generally pretty simple: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one handle events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.


And what does the end result look like to a professional reader like Millicent, everybody? That’s right: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Sometimes, though — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can quickly become darned confusing for the reader. To take a recent random (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example from Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were probably following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage: since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

The New York Post’s reviewer’s response was less charitable — and more, I suspect, like Millicent’s would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the review comments dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript. Which is sad, because I really, really wanted to love this book. (I don’t take just any author’s work with me to read on retreat, you know.)

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked. As a reader, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

Now, I suspect that some of you out there may share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past. Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. I think that a reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts.

However, tense choices are entirely up to the author –but if you’re going to write in the present tense, please do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best. Unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — he’s likely to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake.

So you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer; first, cut your teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting. Or, to put it another way: José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods; that doesn’t mean that a first-time writer could get away with it.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less stringent standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I honestly don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS to those of you who intended to enter the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, but don’t think you can get your entry in by midnight (your time) tonight: go ahead, take another couple of weeks.

After all, I am.

Yes, you read that correctly: if you can get your entry e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1, it will still be eligible to win fabulous prizes. (Hey, I happen to have it on good authority that the primary judge is on a writing retreat.)

4 Replies to “The Frankenstein manuscript, part I, or, Puritans in the present?”

  1. I’m jealous and happy for your time and productivity during your retreat. What music are you listening to?

    1. Lots and lots of 80s music, since that’s when my novel is set. I begin each writing session with Berlin’s FOR ALL TOMORROW’S LIES.

      1. What a striking combination — 80′s music and medieval castles. The combination must be inspiring. You’re extending your stay and I just had a great idea to explore for my own tunes (entirely unrelated). Thanks!

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