Purging the plague of passivity, part VIII: you’re not going out wearing that, are you?

I’m not normally given to talking about current events much here at Author! Author! — that’s for my scant leisure time — but something about a news story a friend forwarded me today so reminded me of a concept we have discussed many a time here that I cannot resist bringing it up. See if you can guess why.

To avoid embarrassing any of the students involved, and in our week-long tradition of transforming anecdotes into plot examples, I shall present the story as if it were a work of fiction. (You may join me in wishing it were, by its end.) Keep your eye out for protagonist passivity here.

As is the custom all over the United States this time of year, the junior and seniors at Oxford High were eagerly preparing for their prom: renting tuxedoes, dress-shopping, reserving corsages. Gowns are expensive, so Deanna and her younger sister were thrilled to find a reasonable-but-pretty dress they liked on a prom-oriented website: Deanna chose green, Margaret blue. Mom only turned a trifle pale at the price.

Deanna was dancing with her date, white carnation corsage lightly scraping his right earlobe, when the principal tapped her on the back so formally that a girl of her grandmother’s generation would have thought he was cutting in. His face was stern.

Brusquely, he looked her up and down. “Your dress is inappropriate. Come to my office on Monday.”

Deanna and her date were startled. Who died and made him the fashion police? They giggled uncomfortably onto each other’s shoulders as Mr. St. George circled the room, pouncing on scantily-clad teenage girls.

Twenty-five of them squeezed themselves into his office two days later, now normally clothed. You can’t wear a ball gown every day, more’s the pity.

Mr. St. George seared them all with a how-did-I-end-up-teaching-Jezebels? glance. “You’ve violated the school’s dress code,” he informed them tersely. “I’ll give each of you a choice: corporeal punishment or a three-days’ suspension.”

The girls glanced at one another: was this some kind of sick joke? The daytime dress code applied to the prom? With midterms coming up, who could afford to be out of class for three days straight? One by one, the girls started lining up to be whacked with Mr. St. George’s riding crop.

I told you might prefer the story to be fictional. For the moment, though, let’s set aside the fact that these girls are about to be punished for wearing clothing that their parents presumably approved in violation of a dress code they didn’t know extended to off-campus school events, and concentrate on the kind of protagonist Deanna has been so far. There’s been a fair amount going on, but has she been active or passive?

Hint: when in doubt, look over the protagonist’s role in each paragraph and ask yourself, “Does anything she does or says here change what’s going on?”

In the story so far, the overall answer is no. Other than finding the banned dress in the first place (the same one, lest we forget, that her younger sister wore in a different color; Mr. St. George didn’t tap her back), Deanna has been primarily reactive. That sterling administrator, Mr. St. George, has been the primary actor here.

Boo! Hiss! Go tie somebody your own size to a train track!

We’re all familiar with the pattern, right? This kind of scene, appalling as it is, is actually not all that uncommon in novels about school life — and it’s downright usual in memoirs covering the narrator’s educational experiences. Ditto with novels and books covering military training. The authority figure applies rules unfairly; the protagonist (and, in this case, 24 other girls) is the hapless victim of a system designed to keep them from resisting effectively.

Which happens all the time in real life, as anyone who has ever been a child can attest — or an aspiring writer querying or pitching for the first time, for that matter. If you don’t know the rules, it’s pretty difficult to follow them. But as we were discussing earlier in this series, even when faced with an unbeatable unfairness, most the reader will hope that the protagonist will at least try to fight back against it. “Conflict!” they cry, licking their lips in anticipation.

And it definitely doesn’t mean that Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge is going to react to it favorably. “Oh, no — another passive protagonist!” they murmur, their fingers itching to reach toward the pile of form-letter rejections ever at their elbows. “Not to mention a cliché. I’m positive that this was quite horrible to live through in real life, but how often aspiring writers forget that one of the major goals of a novel or memoir is to entertain!”

Okay, so maybe their thoughts don’t go into that much detail; those rejection-itchy fingers aren’t all that prone to resisting temptation. Given the danger of this protagonist seeming passive or even trite to M & M, what’s a writer to do about it?

Make the protagonist active, of course, and pronto. Ideally, in a manner that will defy a professional reader’s expectations.

Bless her feisty heart, that’s precisely what the real-life protagonist did here. Here, let me fictionalize the twist for you:

Deanna couldn’t believe how sheep-like her classmates were being, but how could she get out of this without ratting out Margaret? She raised her hand. “Does my suspension start today, or tomorrow?”

For just a second, Mr. St. George’s face was a mask of disappointment, as if he’d been looking forward to hitting her. Quickly, he reverted to his usual condescending sneer. “You haven’t thought this through, Deanna. Shall we call your mother and get her opinion on the subject?”

The rest of the girls looked away. Deanna didn’t drop her eyes.

“I’m sure my mother would agree that this isn’t appropriate.” Although she’d thought the dress was appropriate. “Can I go get my assignments from my teachers?”

This response is more dramatically satisfying than passive victimhood, isn’t it? Admittedly, Deanna’s choice may have had some disastrous effects upon her midterms (the newspaper account of the real incident didn’t mention midterms, I must admit; that was me raising the stakes for the protagonist), but on the page, that would mean only more juicy conflict, wouldn’t it?

Not entirely coincidentally, I want to devote today’s post not exclusively to protagonist passivity, but another, often related issue that traditionally causes editorial eyes to roll and Millicent to mutter, “Oh, God, not another one.”

The time has come, my friends, to speak about the kind of plot — and plot twist! — that the publishing industry likes to call fresh.

Although aspiring writers often mistakenly assume that freshness is a synonym for originality, they can mean quite different things to Millicent and her ilk. Originality is not alway a positive trait in a manuscript submission — many a completely unworkable premise featuring off-the-wall characters is original, after all.

Freshness, on the other hand, is the industry term for projects that are exciting because no one has written something like it before — or hasn’t made a success with something like it recently — yet isn’t so out there that those whose ideas of normalcy are predicated upon the current literary market will reject it as weird.

Confused yet? Most aspiring writers are, and with good reason: freshness is one of those concepts that agents and editors throw around a lot at writers’ conferences without ever defining with any precision.

A fresh manuscript is one that makes Millicent’s weary eyes light up. “Hey, I haven’t seen this before!” she cries, scurrying off to inform her boss that a submission miracle has occurred.

Yes, genuine freshness is that rare. Thanks for asking.

Yet the term is not synonymous with cutting-edge — although cutting-edge concepts are indeed often marketed as fresh. And it doesn’t, contrary to popular opinion amongst late middle-aged writers complaining to one another at conferences, just mean a book concept aimed at the youth market. In fact, right now, some of the least fresh ideas out there are those being pitched toward the hipper end of the YA market.

Don’t believe me? Do you have any idea how many YA paranormals about vampires Millicent sees queried in an average week? Or YAs featuring teenage protagonists undergoing internal turmoil as they submit with outward passivity to the unjust (and possibly personal fantasy-fulfilling) whims of their high school principals, for that matter?

“Wait just a vampire-staking second,” perplexed writers everywhere cry out, rending their (possibly scanty) garments. “So freshness does refer to originality?”

Not precisely. Originality, in the eyes of the industry, often translates into the kind of strange topics that don’t make sense within either a Manhattan or LA context: cow tipping, for instance, or rural tractor-racing. Although, of course, in some cases, all of these things are true of fresh manuscripts.

Okay, are you confused now? You’re not alone. But that’s not much of a consolation, is it?

As a basic rule of thumb, a fresh story is either one that has never been told before, never been told from that particular point of view before, or contains elements that make the reader say, “Wow — I didn’t expect THAT.”

Assuming, of course, that the reader in question scans as many manuscripts in a given week as Millicent. Think of it as a jaded reader.

Yet, as I pointed out above, original stories are not automatically fresh ones. In the eyes of the industry, a fresh story that makes it is generally not an absolutely unique one, but a new twist on an old theme.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, for instance, was certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either cowboys or two men. It was the combination of all of these elements — and, I suspect, the fact that it was written by a woman, not a man, which rendered it a bit less socially threatening at the time it came out — that made for a fresh story. Had it been more explicitly sexual, or overtly political, or had a happy ending, or even been written by an author less well-established than Annie Proulx, I suspect that publishing types would have dismissed it as either weird or appealing to only a niche market.

But since she’d already won a Pulitzer, they cheered, having faith that the story would appeal to a wider audience than, say, sheep-herding cowboys with commitment problems. As I perhaps have mentioned before, what an established author can get away with in a manuscript is often substantially different from what an aspiring writer can hope to get Millicent to accept in a first book.

Weird, incidentally, is defined even more nebulously than fresh in the industry lexicon: it is anything too original, off-the-wall, or seldom written-about to appeal to the agent or editor’s conception of who buys books in the already-established publishing categories. Genre-crossing manuscripts, or even genre-expanding ones, are frequently dismissed as weird.

Graphic novels, for instance, were considered until about 15 years ago not to have broad enough market appeal to be comfortably sold in mainstream bookstores, and thus were weird. Practically overnight, though, a few successful graphic novels (Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning MAUS or THE DARK KNIGHT, anyone?) sold really well, and BOOM! Editors started searching eagerly for fresh concepts in the graphic format.

THE DARK KNIGHT is a useful example, I think, of how a creative author can turn a well-worn story into a fresh concept, and since we’re about to be inundated with so much promotion for the movie version that soon it will no longer seem fresh, I should probably talk about it now. For those of you not familiar with it, THE DARK KNIGHT was a retelling of the story of Batman — who, before the graphic novel was published, had a sort of friendly, light-hearted reputation from both decades of comic books and a tongue-in-cheek TV show. Batty was, by the 1980s, considered pretty old hat (or old mask-with-pointed-ears, if you prefer.)

But in THE DARK KNIGHT, the focus switched from Batty’s do-gooding to his many, many deep-seated psychological problems — after all, the guy gets his jollies by hanging out in a damp cave encased in latex, right? That can’t be healthy. He is not saving Gotham time and time again because he happens to like prancing around in tights; it serves to ease his pain, and he very frequently resents it.

And that, my friends, was a fresh take on a well-traveled old bat.

It is endlessly fascinating to me that when people in the industry talk about literary freshness, they almost invariably resort to other art forms for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÈME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book, Henri Murger’s Scènes del la Vie de Bohème; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (Or maybe not so fresh.) And can we even count how many Horatio Alger-type stories are made into movies — like, say, ERIN BROCKOVICH?

Hey, just because a story is true doesn’t mean its contours do not conform to standing rules of drama. Memoir manuscripts sport clichés more often than you’d think, not to mention passive protagonists.

Like it or not, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain the industry now-embarrassing enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY (well, okay, the sales might have had something to do with it), which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. (Trust me, Darcy has never been all that common a first name for Englishmen.)

Speaking of a fresh twist on an enduring classic, how about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES? Before the current wave of popularity of undead stories, how do you think Millicent would have reacted to a story that took the Austen classic (often verbatim), added zombies, and stirred?

Which points us to an important feature of freshness: it changes over time. Perversely, it’s tied to market trends. (Hey, I warned you that it didn’t necessarily have much to do with originality.)

In the mid-1980s, for instance, modern takes on time-worn fairy tales were often considered quite fresh. Heck, publishing professionals regularly described THE COLOR PURPLE as “THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues” — a description dismissive of the great artistry of the writing, I have always thought, and the fact that THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original Hans Christian Anderson form is absolutely about race.

That sad little signet was on the receiving end of a whole lot of nasty ethnic stereotyping, you must admit.

Do I hear the unmistakable sounds of disgruntlement out there? “Gee, Anne,” some of you seem to be muttering, “this would be very helpful indeed if I were starting a book from scratch. But at the moment, I am packaging an already-existing manuscript for submission to an agent or editor — in fact, I’m gearing up to send out a query/pitch it at a conference imminently. How does the freshness issue affect ME?”

Actually, it is almost more important to consider your story’s freshness at the point that you are about to send it out the door than when you first start the process. Why? Once the manuscript is complete, it is far easier to see where the storyline (or argument; the freshness test applies to memoir, recall) falls into too-familiar grooves.

Because absolutely the last thing you want an agent to think when reading your submission is, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” right?

Since a big selling point of a fresh manuscript is its surprise, you will want to play up — both in your marketing materials and your editing — how your manuscript is unique. And quickly, as in within the first few pages of the book.

Think about it: if you begin it like just another Batman story, the reader is going to have a hard time catching on where your work is fresh and different from what is already on the market.

So in response to that fearful question that you’re too horrified to verbalize: yes, you DO need to make the freshness apparent from page 1. Remember, Millicents tend to have knee-jerk reactions, deciding whether they like a writer’s voice or story within a very few pages. It’s not a good idea, generally speaking, to make them wait 50 pages, or even 5, to find out why your submission is special — and so very, very marketable.

Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve made the average agency screener sound a bit shallow, a trifle ill-tempered, a smidge impatient. Oh, I would hate it if you got that impression.

How might a writer start the process of revising for freshness? Read over the manuscript, and ask yourself a few questions — or, better yet, have a reader you trust peruse it, and then start grilling:

How is this book unlike anything else currently in print within its book category?

Is that difference readily apparent within the first chapter? Within the first couple of pages? In the first paragraph?

Are the unusual elements carried consistently throughout the book, or does it relapse into conventional devices for this kind of story?

Would, in short, a well-read reader be tempted to say, “Oh, I’ve seen this a dozen times this month,” or “Wow, I’ve never seen this before!” upon glancing over your submission?

If the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice?

If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, you should be able to answer this last question in the affirmative, even if your book takes place on Planet Targ.)

It’s better to ask these questions before you send out your work, of course, rather than after. As that tired old aphorism goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Make sure those early pages cry out, “I’m so fresh you could eat me!”

Yes, I know: I sound like your mother before you went on your first date — or the roaming principal at the prom. You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?

I also know that getting hooked up with an agent with whom you plan to have a lifetime relationship via a level of scrutiny that seems suspiciously like speed-dating (oh, come on: that analogy has never occurred to you when you were pitching at a conference?) may strike you as a bad idea…well, I have to say I agree. All of our work deserves more careful reading than the average agency gives it. We are all, after all, human beings, timorous souls who are putting the fruits of our stolen hours on the line for scrutiny. Our work should be treated with respect.

And oh, how I wish I could assure you that it always will be. But don’t you think it is prudent to prepare it for the dates where it won’t be? Button up that top button, axe the nail polish, and for heaven’s sake, wear a skirt that’s at least within waving distance of your knees.

You never know when the principal is going to whip out that ruler and start checking skirt lengths, after all. There may be less subjective standards in the world, but in matters of dressmaking and manuscript construction alike, beauty is in the eye of the beholder with the power.

Kudos to the girl who said no to unreasonable power in real life, though — she’s an fresh inspiration to passive protagonists everywhere. Keep up the good work!

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