The scourge of the passive interviewer, part III: as you know, robot, I have a nefarious plan…

Dr. Smith and the robot

Shh! The houseguests are sleeping, so I have tiptoed into my studio to have a few words with you. Perhaps it is inhospitable of me, but all weekend, I’ve been yearning to log in to warn you further of the horrifying perils of Hollywood narration.

That’s not the kind of yen that makes sense to non-writers, in case you’d been wondering. I believe the term most often being applied to it in my household over the last few days is pathological.

But then, most conscientious revisions would strike outside observers as pretty odd, I suspect. “What do you mean, you’re going to go over every syllable in the book several times?” they demand, wide-eyed. “Isn’t that, you know, the editor’s job, not the writer’s? Why don’t you just send off the manuscript and let the publisher take care of any typos — or whatever it is you think you’ll find on your seventeenth read-through?”

Hoo boy — it’s hard to know even where to start countering that pervasive set of misconceptions, isn’t it? Rather than engaging in a lengthy explanation that will only depress all and sundry, let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last time, I introduced you to Hollywood narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. Interestingly, writers who pride themselves on the pursuit of realistic dialogue are every bit as likely to incorporate Hollywood narration as those who do not.

It’s just so darned convenient. Particularly if a reviser is editing for length: a paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can, after all, replace pages and pages of backstory.

But page-slashing self-editors are not the only writers fond of Hollywood narration, unfortunately. Many a first-time novelist or memoirist has panicked at the notion that the reader will walk into a story without knowing basic facts about the participants. As a result, our old pal Millicent the agency screener is constantly confronted with opening pages that read something like this.

Hollywood narration

Did any of that seem a trifle unnecessary to you? It would to Millicent, or indeed to most readers. For this scene to work, we don’t actually have to know how old these people are, how long they’ve been married, or even how long little Tara has been sleeping through the night. We certainly don’t need to hear about all of that on page 1; these tidbits could pop up naturally as the story progressed.

Or, to put it in editing terms, most of those statements of fact slow down the story, rather than adding to it, at least at this juncture. To grab the reader, this opening scene needs to present Helga and Chaz as interesting people in an interesting situation — so why take up page space with matters that, while important in and of themselves, are not integral to the conflict at hand?

Heavy-handed application of backstory isn’t solely the province of dialogue, of course (as that whopper of a sentence in the second paragraph proves abundantly). Most first novel manuscripts (and quite a few first memoirs as well) produced within the last thirty years or so have leaned pretty heavily upon dialogue to introduce facts that both parties already know, for the exceedingly simple reason that we’ve all heard it done so much in movies and on TV.

Thus the term Hollywood narration: all too often, writers forget that having a character essentially narrate backstory or fundamental facts crops up in movies because film is limited in how it may convey the past. On the printed page, however, we have more — and more interesting — options than having a character start waxing poetic about the past to people who shared that past, don’t we?

Before we go any further, and to save confusion in critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should point out that the term Hollywood narration is mine; the agent of your dreams may well look at you blankly if you mention it. She will undoubtedly be familiar with the phenomenon, however: due to its continual widespread unpopularity amongst aspiring writers, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.

Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry and the screenwriters’ guild.

What’s so wrong with it on the manuscript page? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is effectively an interview scene with no interviewer but the author.

The reader is left to wonder: why the heck is that chattering character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it? Why, in fact, is this monologue (or dialogue; both Helga and Chaz engaged in Hollywood dialoguing above) appearing on the page at all?

As we discussed last time, the answer to all of those questions usually disarmingly straightforward: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a teensy problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show you, wouldn’t it? Especially since it isn’t always easy to catch in revision.

Oh, you may laugh, recalling the throw-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the example above, but sometimes, Hollywood narration can be very low-key. You’d actually have to be looking for it. As you should be, ideally, in the following:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it?

Or rather, I should say did you catch them, since the Hollywood narration cuts both ways here. Surely, both parties have been aware for quite some time — say, five years — of what Clark’s glasses look like. So why is Lois describing them? On the flip side, Clark is also telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for — wait for it — five years?

And is that honestly sufficient reason to keep this sterling exchange in the text? As a reviser, you should constantly be asking yourself, “Is this really the most effective way to convey this information? Brilliant writer that I am, could I not find a more graceful way to let the reader in on the backstory — or is it possible that the backstory actually is not integral to this scene, and thus could be introduced later?”

Yes, that is quite a mouthful to keep muttering to yourself. It gets easier with practice.

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel or a backhoe. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Desmond pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Elaine shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day soon. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Betty came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Rose managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after Dr. Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Desmond said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Desmond didn’t ask Elaine for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue. Nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Even a reader not much given to questioning the printed word might have been brought up short by this passage, as the narrative itself gave a major clue that something’s wrong with this dialogue. But to Millicent and her ilk, the mere fact that Desmond said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for Millicent, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once.

This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately had been wondering, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information. “Don’t tell me everything at once,” they beg. “Let me be surprised.”

Good advice: the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s premise. Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that last statement? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “in your last post, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader? Telepathy?”

Good question, up-fronters. (Although you might want to watch the sarcasm when you’re asking me to explain something to you as a favor. Your mother cannot possibly know that you’re that flippant with your teachers.) How about opening the book by placing your characters in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a suggestion. It’s always worked for me.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel satisfyingly efficient — one way to describe cramming a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, I guess — it’s actually one of the weakest kind of opening. So much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he does not like to see a manuscript to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

“How do you know that?” those of you currently clutching your chests demand.

Experience, mostly — and not just editing experience. One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see open with Hollywood narration. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common.

The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first scene. I shan’t put this one in standard format; who would blame you if you gave up after the end of page 1?

”So, Ambrose, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Penelope asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man shook his head. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Vivienne, fell off the handlebars of Ambrose Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Facinelli, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Facinelli’s rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Penelope sunk her hands into the bread dough that always seemed to be sitting in a moist ball, ready to knead, on the kitchen table. “But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers and the annual migration of the canary finch — for our Christmas tree.”

Ambrose stroked his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Fatima, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Lulu, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

”Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

”What would I do without you, honey?” Ambrose put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

”Oh, Ambrose, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Ambrose did not respond; he was busy kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Joanna, all sixty-four years of her, invariably points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen narratives almost this bald. Make no mistake: Hollywood narration is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.

As in Millicent can spot it from a mile away. Or at least within the first line or two.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. Placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership spontaneously decide to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous amongst established authors. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline darned quick. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part II: do we really want the creator’s fine Italian hand to be quite this visible?

sistine-chapel-god-and-adam

No time for my usual weighty tome today, I’m afraid: the houseguests, they are a-coming. As in any minute.

So let’s cut right to the chase and continue yesterday’s discussion of, well, when it is and isn’t a good idea to cut to the chase in a dialogue scene. Specifically, in that ubiquitous species of dialogue where one character is trying to elicit information from another.

In my last post, I brought up how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED for her to happen onto precisely the clues she needed to solve the book’s central puzzle.

What a happy coincidence, eh? And just in time to wrap up the mystery by the end of the book, too.

This marvelous atmosphere for coincidence does not always occur at the end of a plot, either. Ineffectual interview scenes are often employed, as we saw yesterday, to slow down a plot, creating false suspense. If the protagonist is too lazy, too clueless, or just too dimwitted to ferret out the truth early in the book, it’s substantially easier to keep the reader in the dark about salient details of the variety that might cause a reasonably intelligent reader to figure out whodunit by the end of Chapter 2.

But that’s not the only pacing problem an ineffectual interview scene can cause. A protagonist who is bad at asking questions — and his creative Siamese twin, the antagonist or supporting character who is suspiciously eager to cough up information — are also frequently used as means to speed up a narrative by shoehorning necessary information into the plot.

It’s a classic tell, not show strategy, high on both backstory and ability to move the plot along, low on conflict, believability, and character development. See, for instance, how in the following sterling example, the lethal combination of a passive interviewer and a too-active interviewee compresses what could have been a relatively lengthy but conflict-filled interrogation scene into a few short exchanges:

interview bad

“Wait a second,” Millicent the agency screener mutters upon encountering a scene like this. “Who is interviewing whom here?”

Oh, you may laugh, but this kind of inverse interview, as well as plot giveaways every bit this broad, turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries all the time. These techniques may well be the quickest way to tell a story, but as you may see, they make it pretty easy to see the wheels turning in the authorial mind. Not to mention being almost laughably unrealistic.

Neither of these quite legitimate complaints would necessarily be Millicent’s primary objection to the scene above, however. Any guesses?

Hint: it’s one of her perennial pet peeves. Oh, wait, that doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

Give yourself a gold star and a pat on the back if you instantly cried, “This kind of implausible exchange pulls the reader out of the story!” Even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in more interesting ones.

Was that wind that just blew my cat from one side of my studio to the other the collective irritated sigh of those of you who have been laboring to revise Frankenstein manuscripts? “Oh, fabulous, Anne,” the bleary-eyed many whimper, wearily reaching for their trusty highlighter pens. “Now I not only have to scrub my manuscript until it gleams at the sentence level, but I also have to make sure all of my interview scenes are both plausible AND contain surprising plot twists? When do you expect me to be ready to submit this baby, 2018?”

Well, yes and no. No, I don’t expect you to spend years polishing your manuscript — unless, of course, it needs it — and yes, I do expect your work to abound in gleaming sentences, believable, conflict-ridden interview scenes, and twists I couldn’t see coming. So, incidentally, does Millicent.

That’s enough homework to keep you busy for quite a while, I think. So I’ll just sign off now…

Just kidding. There’s actually a magnificently helpful revision tip buried in the example above: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth.

At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am — discover me, already!”

What does that mean for your revision, you ask? Since almost every book-length plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, it’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow, excitement, and plausibility. In fact, I would recommend making those interview scenes your first stops for tightening (or, less commonly, slackening) the pace of your narrative.

(Yes, yes, I know: I’m being unusually generous with the boldface today. I want to make sure to hammer home these points before folks come banging on my door, expecting to be charmingly received.)

Do I sense that some of you are resisting the notion of taking on such a wide-ranging revision project? Okay, time for me to haul out the even bigger guns: besides presenting a pacing problem, clues that seem too anxious to fling themselves in a protagonist’s way, feigning casualness when they are discovered littering the path, can actually render said protagonist less likable to readers.

Why? I refer you back to our question-light reporter above. Just as it doesn’t make a character seem like a stellar interviewer if he just strolls into a room at the precise psychological moment that the taciturn miner who’s kept his peace for 57 years abruptly feels the need to unburden himself to the nearest total stranger, it doesn’t make a protagonist seem smart if he happens upon a necessary puzzle piece without working to find it.

And the protagonist is not the only one who runs the risk of coming across as a trifle dim-witted: a mystery or conflict that’s too easy to solve or resolve doesn’t offer the reader much food for conjecture. Readers like to feel smart, after all; piecing the puzzle together along with (or even a little ahead of) the protagonist is half the fun, isn’t it?

It’s considerably less amusing when the protagonist just stumbles onto necessary information, is slow to act, or isn’t on the ball enough to ask the right questions of the right people. While a poor interviewer is almost always an obstruction to the reader finding out crucial information, too-garrulous antagonists and the interview scenes that enable their yen to spout monologue tend to make the stakes seem lower.

Why, you gasp in horror? As convenient as a suddenly chatty secret-hider can be to moving the plot along, information discovered too easily runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

Think about it from a whole-plot level for a moment. If the reader gets to watch the protagonist run down a false lead or two, struggle to remove that rock from in front of the cave to rescue the Brownie troop, a brace of nuns, and three golden retriever puppies gasping for breath within, genuinely have to put two and two together in order to make four, etc., it’s not only usually more exciting, but your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined than if she just stands around while these things happen around her — she’ll also be more likable, someone a reader might be eager to follow throughout an entire book.

(And no, Virginia, that last bit’s not a foregone conclusion. If the reader, particularly a professional one, does not either like or love to hate a manuscript’s protagonist(s), he’s unlikely to keep reading for long. Just a fact of the life literary.)

Now let’s apply that plot-level logic to an interview scene, shall we? If the information the protagonist is seeking just drops into her lap, as it does in the example above, the reader has no reason to become invested in the search: after the first couple of times, tremendous, long-held secrets being blurted out will simply become expected.

But what if our scheming reporter above had been forced to try really, really hard to pry Mrs. Quinine’s whereabouts out of Ernest Borgnine? What if he was not only recalcitrant, but had an agenda of his own? What if he told her half-truths that would require still more backstory to render useful? Wouldn’t the information she elicited — even if it consisted of precisely the same set of facts Ernest blurted out spontaneously in the version above — seem more valuable? Or at least more fun for the reader to watch her ferret out?

The answer to both of those last two questions was yes, by the way.

Contrary to popular belief amongst that apparently sizable portion of the aspiring writing community that wants to kill conflict on the page practically the moment it draws its first breath, readers like to see protagonists struggle to achieve their goals. It’s interesting, as well as character-revealing.

Yes, yes, I know, Virginia — you’re worried about your manuscript’s getting too long, or the pace dragging, should you include a few digressions in your hero’s pursuit of whatever MacGuffin he’s desperately seeking throughout the story. (Although, frankly, I would prefer that you didn’t just keep spontaneously shouting out these questions.)

While it is quite reasonable to draw a line on the length of a manuscript you’re planning to submit to an agent, whether a particular scene seems overly lengthy to a reader is largely a matter of presentation, not actual number of lines on a page. There are plenty of short books, and even short scenes, that, to borrow a phrase from industry parlance, read long. (And speaking of eliciting, if you’re not aware of how thick a sheaf of papers tends to elicit a knee-jerk rejection from Millicent, please see the BOOK LENGTH category on the archive list located on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

How might a savvy self-editor put this advice into practice? Glad you asked. Try divesting your interview scenes of any and all plot shortcuts or too-easy revelations, up to and including:

(a) any line where anyone’s pointing out something obvious (“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s been walking around town, asking all of those pesky questions?”), or

(b) any line that consists entirely of one character agreeing with or simply prompting another to speak (while “Yes, dear,” may be charming to hear in real life, it seldom adds much to a scene), or

(c) simple yes or no answers to simple yes or no questions (almost never the most interesting way to frame a question or response), or,

(d) any new development that’s not actually surprising (“Wait — you mean that your long-lost brother first described as a miner on pg. 4 might possess a map to the very mine we need to explore? Astonishing!”), or

(e) any scene where the interviewer doesn’t have to work to elicit information from the interviewee.

These may not seem like big cuts, but believe me, they can add up. In many manuscripts, making those omissions alone would free up pages and pages of space for new plot twists, if not actual chapters of ‘em.

And yes, I did jump from the line level to the scene level in that last one; thanks for noticing, Virginia. It’s worth your while to consider whether a low-conflict interview scene is even necessary to the storyline; could your protagonist glean this information in another, more conflict-producing manner?

That question is not a bad one to write on a Post-It note and stick to your computer monitor, incidentally. If a scene — or even a page — does not contain recognizable conflict, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.

A grand chapter to start excising the unsurprising: the first, since that is the part of any submission that any Millicent, agent, editor, or contest judge is most likely to read. Especially the first 5 pages or so — if you’re going to have your plot surprise or your protagonist impress the reader with her interview acumen anyplace in the book, make sure that she does it here.

Chant it together now, long-term readers: unless the opening pages grab Millicent, she’s not going to keep reading. (No, not even if her boss asked you personally to send the entire manuscript.)

That’s just common sense, really. An agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end. Therefore, it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene? I’m sympathetic to your frustration, but next time, could you aim away from my cat?

How did I know half of you would be frustrated right about now? Easy: an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a telephone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details.

And he says, and I quote, “Uh-huh,” four times.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

“Uh-huh,” she says. “Go on, Mrs. Smith.”

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

“Uh-huh, that’s the problem,” one of them says ruefully. “But what are we going to do about it?”

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of bad trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins. Probably with a lot of agreement in it.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least the last decade and a half, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with overt conflict, to let the reader jump right into the action, without a lot of explanatory preamble. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information or character development very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a good long time are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know, apparently for no other reason than to provide the audience with background information as easily and non-conflictually as humanly possible.

As it happens, you were right, oh gigglers. Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for being jam-packed with Hollywood narration. As in:

“So, Selene, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Theodore, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“Well, Selene, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Jason — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

“Yes, I know, Theodore. How right you were to follow Jason’s advice, given that in his former, pre-atoll life, he was a famous psychologist, renowned for testifying in the infamous Pulaski case, where forty-seven armed robbers overran a culinary snail farm…

Well, you get the picture. That’s not just information being handed to the protagonist without any sort of struggle whatsoever; it’s backstory being spoon-fed to the reader in massive chunks too large to digest in a single sitting.

Since I have lectured so often on this extremely common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. (And if it doesn’t, I refer you to the many, many posts under the HOLLYWOOD NARRATION category on the list at right.) Suffice it to say that about the nicest comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is a well-justified shout of, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the habitual cry of the Millicent, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Selene for over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature. As character development goes, this is the equivalent of knocking Gilligan on the head with a coconut to induce amnesia when the Skipper needs him to remember something crucial: a pretty obvious shortcut.

Besides, as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did. Besides, revealing a character’s favorite book is not a very telling detail.

I hear writerly hackles rising out there all over the reading world, but hear me out on this one. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

Out come the Author! Author! hymnals again: it’s never a good idea to assume that any conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes, literary or otherwise. Or worldview.

But let’s get back to analyzing that Hollywood narration opening. Give yourself an A+ for the day if you immediately said, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Selene know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call. This is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Jefferson glanced over at his girlfriend. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Mimette snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Jeff reached over to pat her on the head. “Having been your hairdresser for the past three years, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

She jerked away. “Get your broad-wedding-ring-bearing fingers away from my delicate brow. What would your tall, blonde wife think if you came home with a long, red hair hanging from that charm bracelet you always wear on your left wrist, the one that sports dangling trinkets from all of the various religious pilgrimage sights you have visited with your three short brunette daughters, Faith, Hope, and Gertrude?”

Granted, few submissions are quite as clumsy as this purple-prosed exemplar, but you’d be surprised at how obvious aspiring writers can be about it. Remember: just because television and movie scripts can utilize only the senses of sight and sound to tell a story doesn’t mean that a novelist or memoirist must resort to Hollywood narration to provide either backstory or physical details. We writers of books enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to use narrative text to show, not tell, what we want our readers to know.

Pop quiz, campers: why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Jeff and Mimette are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would not know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length. Thus, the only reason this information could possibly appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party.

Like, for instance, the reader. Who might conceivably prefer to be shown such details, rather than hear them in implausible dialogue.

Once again, though, poor text has given us the gift of a revision tool. A pretty good test for Hollywood narration: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go — to free up page space for more intriguing material and good writing.

If you also said that Jeff and Mimette are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary. My SO has just walked into the room to tell me that our guest have arrived, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, I don’t mean to startle you, but your eyes are green!”

His eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want you to know it. But honestly, was just blurting it out — and to him, no less — the most interesting way to introduce this information?

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out that being possessed of a mirror — nay, several — he already knew.

Who could have seen that plot twist coming, eh? And aren’t we all stunned by the depth of that character and relationship development in the last few paragraphs?

Oh, here come my guests: blue eyes, brown hair; brown eyes, red hair. I must go and remind them of the exact circumstances of how we all met. You know, just in case the neighbors happen to be listening.

Hey, that’s not the kind of information we’d want bystanders to pick up on the street, is it? Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, or, maybe if I hold my bill open, a worm will just drop into my mouth…

bizarre crow

Sorry that I missed our daily confab yesterday, campers. I got a new pair of eyeglasses the other day, with spiffy cutting-edge lenses that optometrist and optician alike assure me will be the optical standard ten years hence, and my eyes have been rather baffled by them. Headaches, blurriness, the works. I’m told that these minor side effects (such as NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE WELL) will pass off in a few days, as my eyes become used to the space-age materials currently before them, but on the whole, I thought it would be better if I did not share my thoughts with you fine people while I could not confirm that what I thought I was typing was actually what was appearing on the screen.

Hey, no one is that good a touch-typist.

Speaking of one’s eyes playing tricks on one, no, yours are not: the photo above does indeed depict a crow bending over backwards, for reasons best known to itself. When I first spotted him outside my studio window, I feared he had a broken neck. Ten minutes later, however, he startled me horribly by switching to this dignified pose:

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

He seemed to find this last position quite comfortable: he remained like that for the better part of an hour, squawking irritably at passing birds, presumably because they did not spontaneously drop food into his waiting gullet. Had he been a small bird, of a size and shape one might expect from a fledgling recently tumbled from a nearby nest, this behavior might have made more sense, but our hero was immense, a titan among crows.

He should, in short, have known better. And so should protagonists who go around asking other characters questions.

That’s right, campers. It’s time once again for my annual foray into concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite species of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes; this is a serious manuscript megaproblem. A protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon.

Don’t heave a sigh of relief, writers of anything but mystery or suspense. Most fiction plots feature at least one interview scene, regardless of book category. Let’s face it, few human beings currently treading the earth’s crust are omniscient; as a result, an extremely high percentage of plots involve the protagonist(s) trying to find something out. Why does everyone in town refuse to talk about the day the old mill burned down? Why does Uncle Mortimer limp? Why is the boss suddenly acting so standoffish? What’s in that casserole, anyway? Why don’t you love me like you used to do, when my hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue?

Getting the picture?

In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters. What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

The result? A protagonist standing there with his beak open, waiting for some passerby to drop something yummy into it.

The last time I wrote about this particular manuscript megaproblem, as so often happens when I have planned to attack a particular issue, craft or promotional, in this venue, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. It would have been ungrateful of me not to use it as an example, right?

Heaven forfend that we should disregard the gift of the Fates. See if you can catch the interviewing problem in the following story. To render it a trifle more instructive, I shall present it in standard manuscript format — and as usual, if you should have difficulty making out the words, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

Okay, what did you identify as the problem here? If you pointed out the extremely common one of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If, on the other hand, it occurred to you that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another.

Memoirs and fictionalized reality frequently suffer from both of these defects. And why? Haul out your hymnals and sing along with me, campers: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting, amusing, or even worth recording on the page.

But these were not the only weaknesses you spotted in this narrative, were they? If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being as clairaudient as Joan of Arc, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now — what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer.

Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer all those years ago?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. Had I written the dialogue with an eye to increasing conflict, I might even have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t it be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I write the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few standard narrative devices annoy professional readers (like agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener) who’ve been at it for a while than a narrator — or protagonist — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why? Well, for starters, lousy interviewers are so very common in submissions. On a manuscript’s page, a poor interview scene tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Romeo claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Juliet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Montague. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Romeo detached their clasped hands so quickly that Juliet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Juliet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Montague bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why might an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my anecdote about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because a poor interview scene represents a lost opportunity for intriguing conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a tad impatient.

Why? Well, think about it: in a first-person or tight third-person narrative, the protagonist is the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After a while, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader simply by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

Before I do, however, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers. And not only professional ones like Millicent, who tend to harbor a well-founded objection to narratives that toy with them too much.

Why might a lay reader object, you ask? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by deliberately withholding information from the reader.

Especially if that information happens to be something that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Again, don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. If you have ever constructed a narrative that involved dialogue, you’ve almost certainly written at least one interview scene.

What makes me so darned sure of that? It’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain a one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses.

In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are those of you who have survived previous craft series with me already warming up your highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes often beg to be flagged for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

Yes, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Evelyn.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or just plain necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, Herbert, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might presenting any of these plot points present pacing problems? (Try saying that seven times fast!) Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

To be blunt about it, too-easy detective work makes the mystery seem less important. It’s hard to care much about a secret if the narrative makes it evident that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene.

Astonishingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

Or, as our friend the crow might put it: where’s my breakfast?

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

Yet a novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers. Yet when was the last time you heard an advocate of realism on the page object to the formerly mild-mannered librarian suddenly bursting into florid epic storytelling mode the instant a protagonist asks for a particular book?

What makes secrets interesting, generally speaking, is the fact that not everyone knows them. Good mysteries are hard to solve; intriguing truths are hard to dig up. In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s that for an intriguing narrative possibility?

When you are trying to increase the overall level of tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often difficult to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple revision trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods.

This both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Automatically, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a hidden truth in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention — and this isn’t an insignificant consideration when trying to get a submission past Millicent to her boss, the agent of your dreams — being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview techniques consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be compelling in a book? Probably not.

Again, perish the thought that this basic principle applies only to mysteries. Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, it’s not all that surprising that someone might side-step the particular conflict in this anecdote. I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. (Or at any rate I didn’t know at the time; I’ve since mentioned the incident to Pansy’s mom, to minimize the possibility that the child’s next bravura performance of that musical number will take place in school, where she might get into some real trouble. Or in church.) As a protagonist in a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made.

Come on: you wouldn’t have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you what it was?

Starting to empathize more with Millicent’s impatience when she sees this sort of interview scene in fourteen consecutive submissions in any given week? And she’s not the only one who is notoriously touchy about it: ineffectual interviewing and false suspense are both legitimately annoying narrative practices.

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Mr. Crow.

How might a savvy reviser take this principle to heart? Consider eschewing the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills — and give your interview subjects stronger backbones.

Your manuscripts will be more interesting for it, I promise. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXIII: how much detail is tutu much?

degas dance class pink

The blogger’s life is all about constantly creating new content to foist upon an eager world, but I have to say, I was so pleased with the way yesterday’s post turned out that I was tempted, albeit briefly, just to pretend that I couldn’t get to my computer for the next week or so. That way, the post would have lingered at the top of the blog for a nice, long time, all of you would have had some time to ponder your individual authorial voices, and I would have gotten a bit of a vacation.

Wait, why did I decide not to do this? It sounds like a great idea.

Oh, yeah: we’re rapidly heading toward August, and I didn’t want to slow down anyone’s revision efforts. Specifically, I did not want any of you coming to me in mid-September, saying, “Wow, Anne, I wish I’d known some of the editing fixes you were talking about late in the summer before I sent off my submission to the agent of my dreams! But there we were, just a few short weeks before the annual August exodus, and you decided to take a week off. Unbeknownst to anyone concerned, the piece of advice that would have enabled me to turn my opus from pretty good to yowsa would be in the very next post!”

Oh, you may laugh — but would you care to hear just how often readers or students in my classes have said similar things to me?

A small forest of hands shot into the air in the middle of the quote from the fantasy creature I choose to regard as representative of future readers. Yes, hand-raisers? “But Anne, why would mid-to-late July be a particularly poor time for you to stop lecturing us on craft issues? And what did your imaginary friends mean about the annual August exodus?”

Ah, the answers to those two trenchant questions are interconnected, my friends. Traditionally, enough of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation between the end of the second week of August and Labor Day that it’s genuinely difficult to pull together an editorial committee in order to approve the acquisition of a manuscript or book proposal. That means, in practice, that agents are not all that likely to be able to sell books during this period, so they, too tend to go on vacation during that period. Oh, a Millicent or two might be left behind to watch the store while the rest of the agency seeks less humid climes, but generally speaking, it’s a dead zone.

What does that mean for aspiring writers, you ask? Why, that mid-August through mid-September isn’t usually the best time to query or submit. Unless, of course, one happens to harbor an active desire to have one’s query or manuscript sit on a desk for a month or two.

Did that vast collective gasp mean that at least some of you were expecting to hear back sooner — or at any rate, for Millicent and her boss to get cracking immediately after midnight on Labor Day? Think about it: if you didn’t go into work for a few weeks, how much mail would pile up on your desk?

Got that image firmly in mind? Good. Now imagine the state of that desk if you routinely received 800-1200 queries per week.

On a not entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned that the next few weeks would be a great time to get those queries out the door? Or to polish up and send off those requested materials?

To facilitate your pursuing one or both of those laudable goals, I’m going to be winding down the Frankenstein manuscript series with today’s post. Oh, we’re not going to be leaving the wonderful world of craft — beginning with my next post, we’re going to take a serious foray into pepping up your dialogue. But for the nonce, we’re going to be stepping away from manuscript-polishing issues, so that you may more easily take the time to…well, polish your manuscript.

And honestly, weren’t you getting just a little tired of all those Roman numerals?

To round out the series with a bang, I’m going to devote today to challenging you to assess yet another reader’s actual text. Rather than present you with her opening pages, however, I’m going to show you an action scene, of a sort, and encourage you to try to spot potential revision opportunities.

Why launch into a mid-book scene, you ask, rather than my usual target of choice, the opening pages? Partially, so we could talk about pacing — as the expressive industry term sagging in the middle may already have led you to suspect, narratives are more likely to slow there than at either the beginning or the end — but also, as is my wont, to answer a reader’s question. Quoth abbreviation devotee Kathy:

What if your world, so to speak, involves a skill that not everyone is familiar with? In my case, my MC is a dance student, and much of the WIP occurs during her classes at a studio.

I’ve gotten comments from critters saying both put in more details about the step or combinations and leave out the details. So how do I balance out the necessary details so non-dance readers can visualize my MC’s dance movements and not put in so many that it stalls the action?

As delighted as I am at the mental image of critters providing feedback on a manuscript (and as concerned as I am that not every reader will know that MC = protagonist and WIP = work in progress; while WIP is arguably writing-class jargon, MC is not), this question has been causing me some chagrin. As we have seen throughout this series, this is precisely the kind of question that is impossible to answer without taking a close look at the scene in question — as much as aspiring writers might like for there to be hard-and-fast formulae for figuring out this kind of proportion, what works honestly does vary from story to story.

Yet now that we have a nice, well-stocked revision tool kit, we need fear no writing fix-it challenge. So let’s take a peek at Kathy’s pages with an eye to improving them, shall we?

Before we do, though, I have a confession to make: when I use readers’ examples here, I have been known to clean up the formatting prior to posting them. That way, the reader kind enough to allow me to write about actual text gets the benefit of specific feedback, and you, dear readers, don’t become confused by seeing improperly formatted pages.

Since this is going to be the last concrete example in this series, however, I’m going to show at least the first page of this one initially as it arrived in my e-mail. Kathy’s made two extremely common mistakes for a submitter; Millicents whose boss agents accept e-mail queries and submissions see these all the time. I’m rather pleased to be able to show them to you in their natural habitat, as most professional readers will automatically reject requested materials with either.

See if you can catch them on her first page. Hint: either would be apparent to Millicent the agency screener from ten feet away.

Kathy as is

See the problem? This page is not formatted like a manuscript page: it lacks a slug line (and thus any way to identify this page, should it become separated from the rest of the submission), and there is a skipped line between each paragraph. Also, although it may be hard to tell in this version, the writer skipped only one space after each period and colon, rather than two, rendering it significantly harder to edit. (Which, admittedly, some agents would prefer; check their websites for specific instructions on the subject.)

It’s formatted, in short, as though it were intended for insertion into the body of an e-mail, not as samples from a manuscript page. Which would have been appropriate only had the professional reader in question (in this case, me) specifically asked for the materials to be sent — wait for it — in the body of an e-mail.

In case anyone’s wondering, that request is usually reserved for electronic queries where the agency likes to see a few pages of text or a bio. It’s virtually never the expectation when an agent or editor asks a successful querier or pitcher to send actual manuscript pages.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, I’m particularly pleased to be able to show you this phenomenon in action as I wrap up the Frankenstein manuscript: this level of formatting gaffe might easily be sufficient to prevent Millicent from reading any of the text at all, at least if her agency asked (as I did) for the pages to be sent as a Word attachment, the industry standard means of online submission.

In case I’m being too subtle here: formatting counts in submissions, even e-mailed ones.

That’s not, alas, as widely-known an axiom as it should be. Like so many aspiring writers, Kathy probably mistakenly believed that what this professional reader wanted to see was the content of the requested pages, but that’s not the only thing being judged in a submission. Any professional reader would also be looking to see if the submitter was aware of how manuscripts should be put together.

Why is it problematic if a submission consists of just writing, rather than writing presented in standard manuscript format? Even if Millicent read it and fell in love with the writing, the presentation just screams that this would be a time-consuming client to take on: clearly, she would need to be shown the ropes.

And that, from the other side of the submission desk, is a problem — or, depending upon how serious Millicent is about ever seeing her desktop again, a solution. Given that a good agent will routinely receive 800-1200 queries per week (yes, even during the August break), and that she gets enough properly-formatted submissions to fill her few new client spots hundreds of times over, why should she instruct her Millicent to read improperly formatted materials? By the same token, why should Mehitabel the contest judge consider those same materials for finalist status in a literary contest?

That last bit was not entirely rhetorical, by the way. In the Great First Pages contest I sponsored here in May, a good third of the entries were not properly formatted. Rather surprising, as the rules asked that entries be submitted in standard format as a Word attachment. Or it might have surprised me, had I not so often served as a contest judge; experience had taught me how often contest entrants simply do not read the rules with care. (But don’t worry, Great First Page entrants: finalists have been selected, and the winners shall be announced soon.)

The moral, should you care to hear it: unless an agency, small publishing house, or writing contest’s rules either ask you to submit your writing in the body of an e-mail or SPECIFICALLY ask for some other kind of presentation, you should assume that they’re expecting to see standard manuscript format. And if you don’t know what that should look like on the page, run, don’t walk, to the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.

Heck, for starters, you could just look at today’s example again, now that I’ve taken the time to format it as Millicent would expect to see it. (As usual, if you are having trouble reading the example, try holding down the COMMAND key simultaneously with +, to enlarge the image.) To protect the innocent, I’ve taken the liberty of changing the last name of the submitter, as well as the title of the book.

Kathy page 1
Kathy page 2

Ready to tackle Kathy’s question now? Well, probably not, if you’ve been following this series closely. I’m guessing that what jumped out at your first was all the word repetition, right?

In case it didn’t, let’s apply our usual test for word and phrase frequency, to see how this page would have looked to Millicent’s critical eye. Notice in particular the name repetition.

Kathy's marked 1
Kathy's marked 2

Colorful, isn’t it? Since we have already discussed word choice stagnation in general and name repetition in particular in some detail in this series, I don’t want to dwell too much on these problems as they manifest here. Except to point out one thing: notice how hard it is to evaluate the text on any other basis while all of that repetition is starting you in the face?

It’s every bit as hard for professional readers. So should anyone still be looking for a great first step toward an overall revision, I would highly recommend starting with word and phrase repetition.

But where, if a savvy reviser had to choose, would the next level of revision start? Would it, as Kathy suggests, be at the jargon level, reassessing the amount of actual dance steps in this scene?

That’s a legitimate concern, but I tend to doubt that would be the very next problem Millicent would notice. Assuming that word repetition is off the table, here are the kinds of issues that might concern her.

Kathy edit 1
Kathy's edit 2

Again, where to begin? My vote would be in the first paragraph, with a problem that dogs many a manuscript these days, especially in YA: having more than one character speak or think per paragraph.

Actually, paragraph #1 presents a couple of rather interesting thought dilemmas. Take a gander as it currently stands:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind. Miss Sylvia said, “Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa. Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.” Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

The perspective is a trifle puzzling here, even for an omniscient narrative. In the first sentence, the action is seen by third parties, from the other side of a window. In the next sentence, the narrative jumps into Melissa’s head, but in sentences #3 and #4, Miss Sylvia is speaking. Yet in sentences #5 and #6, we’re back in Melissa’s perspective, underscored by #6′s italicized thought.

A touch confusing to the spatial sense, is it not? No worries — a bit of judicious application of the pinkie to the RETURN key will instantly clarify matters:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind.

“Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa,” Miss Sylvia said. “Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.”

Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

See how the simple act of giving each perspective its own paragraph removes any possibility of perspective drift? Not to mention being allowing a far more conventional presentation of dialogue.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” italicized thought-lovers everywhere exclaim as one, “why did you remove the italics around Melissa’s thought? They were used correctly the first time around, weren’t they?”

Well, yes, they were — although that’s a qualified yes, since there are plenty of Millicents out there for whom italicized thought equals lazy writing. (Their rationale: “Shouldn’t a genuinely talented writer be able to alert the reader to the fact that the protagonist is thinking without resorting to fancy typefaces?”) Amongst those who do accept this convention, though, Kathy’s use here would definitely fly.

So why did I chose to eschew italics here? Simple: there are so many French terms in this scene. On the manuscript page, it’s rather confusing to the eye to have both the foreign terms and the thought italicized; as the French had to be italicized, the thought was the obvious one to change.

And I ask you: wasn’t it still clear that the last sentence was Melissa’s thought?

Of course, for an editorial change like this to work, it would have to be made consistently throughout the entire manuscript — altering it in this scene alone, or even only in the jargon-heavy ballet scenes, might well result in text that read like a mistake. Every fiction writer needs to decide for herself whether to italicize thought or not, and then cling to that resolve like a leech. (But if you would like some guidance on how to italicize thought correctly, you might want to check out the ITALICS AND WHEN THEY ARE CORRECT TO USE category on the archive list at right.)

There’s another structural problem, also related to RETURN key usage, that might also strike your garden-variety Millicent’s eye forcefully. Any guesses?

If you instantly sent your fingertips shooting skyward, shouting, “By gum, there are a couple of single-sentence paragraphs in this excerpt, but it takes at least two sentences to construct a narrative paragraph,” you have either been paying close attention throughout this revision series, or your eyes are sharp enough to have picked up the rather dim red marginalia above. While a dialogue paragraph can indeed be a single sentence long:

“But I like single-sentence paragraphs,” Kathy pointed out.

it’s technically incorrect to limit a narrative paragraph to a single sentence, like so:

He nodded.

As we’ve discussed, the prevalence of single-sentence paragraphs in newspaper and magazine writing (in AP style, they are perfectly acceptable) has led to an ever-growing acceptance of the things in published books, particularly nonfiction. That’s not going to help you, however, if your Millicent should happen to have graduated from a college with a particularly good English department.

If you just like the way single-line paragraphs look — many an aspiring writer seems to positively pine for them — use them as judiciously as you would profanity. To co-opt Mark Twain’s quip about taking the Lord’s name in vain, select a time when it will have effect. How about, for instance, limiting their use to when the statement that follows a full paragraph is actually surprising?

Again, we’ve already talked about this issue earlier in the series, so I shall not harp upon it. For the moment, it’s enough to realize that Millicent would notice and zero in such paragraphs — enough so that it really would behoove the writer to make sure that he’s deriving some significant benefit from breaking the rules. In this excerpt, at least, neither of the single-line paragraphs rises to that level of usefulness.

I hear a positive fusillade of fingertips drumming on desks. “But Anne,” cut-to-the-chase types protest, “while all of this is interesting, from a self-editing perspective, you haven’t yet addressed Kathy’s question. Is there a reason that we needed to discuss all of these technical matters before getting to the issue of whether she’s overusing detail here?”

Yes, actually, a very good reason: from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s difficult to assess questions of style before the more basic writing issues — spelling, grammar, clarity — and presentation requirements — our old pal, standard format; choices like word repetition and italic use that might produce eye distraction on the page — have been resolved. That’s partially why I’ve been talking about attacking a Frankenstein manuscript in waves of revision: as each level of text scrubbing takes place, the style and voice lying just beneath can emerge.

It follows, then, as dawn succeeds the night, that as a self-editing writer winnows away his manuscript’s technical problems, underlying stylistic difficulties may leap to the fore. In the case of today’s example, two related problems have cropped up — maintaining narrative tension and the use of necessary technical jargon.

Let’s tackle the latter first. Kathy had asked how best to tell how much detail to include in her dance studio scenes, but from the perspective of a reader unfamiliar with ballet terminology, there’s actually not a great deal of detail in this scene. There is, however, quite a bit of dance jargon, a series of phrases that leap off the page by virtue of being italicized.

Why, we were discussing the eye-distraction potential of those words and phrases just a few moments ago, were we not? What a coincidence.

The fact that so many of these terms are in French, and thus require italicization, is not the only reason that the ballet jargon is problematic in this excerpt, however. Much of the time, the jargon is taking the place of description, not adding to it.

What’s the difference, those of you who have done some time in ballet class ask? The answer to that one is easy: please tell us, readers who don’t know an arabesque from the proverbial hole in the ground, how are you picturing the action in this scene?

Not very clearly, I’m guessing — which is almost always the case when a narrative leans very heavily upon jargon for its descriptions. Naming an action or object is not the same thing as showing what it looks like, after all.

That’s genuinely a pity in this scene, as I suspect (having put in my time in ballet class) that the movements the characters are making would be quite pretty to see. So my first choice for stylistic revision would be to replace at least some of the jargon with some lyrical description of flowing arms and tremulous balances, enough so that a reader who did not know much about dancing could still enjoy the movement of the scene.

And you thought I wasn’t going to answer Kathy’s question!

The other problem — maintaining narrative tension — also speaks to her concern. If the level of detail is too high, the tension of the scene can suffer; as we discussed last time, one way to keep an action scene moving along is the thoughtful application of summary statements.

So I ask you: is the level of detail appropriate for the ideal pacing of the scene?

I’m turning it over to you in part because personally, I find that question a trifle difficult to answer; I suspect a reader who had not spent her wayward youth glissading and pas de bouréeing would have quite a different response than one who had. If the target audience is made up solely of girls who live in leotards, the level of detail may not need to be tweaked much. If, however, the intended readership includes — and I think it should — kids who always wanted to take dance classes but have not had the opportunity, the illustrative details should be ramped up a thousandfold.

You want them to feel as though they are in that dance studio, don’t you?

Not convinced that’s a pacing issue? You bet your boots it is. A reader already familiar with the terminology would be able to skim through this scene in 60 seconds flat. She might long for more connection to the plot and characters as they exist outside of the dance studio — all three characters in this scene seem to be living entirely in the moment, a relatively rare condition for both real-world residents and characters in books — but I doubt she would feel that the scene dragged. Its characters have a goal to achieve, and they attain it in under two pages.

But what of our other reader, the one who will either be puzzled by the undefined jargon or will simply skip over it? (Not an uncommon response to encountering technical talk on the page, by the way.) To her, the scene might well seem slow, or even confusing. What are these people doing, she wonders, that cannot be described adequately in English?

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about revision solutions seldom being one-size-fits-all; a savvy self-editor is constantly juggling any number of relevant issues. Because this is a not a simple process we’re talking about, my friends — like an onion, a Frankenstein manuscript with potential has many, many layers.

And can induce tears.

Keep those good craft questions rolling in, everybody, and many thanks to Kathy for letting us take an informative peek at her manuscript. Next time, we tackle dialogue — but may I suggest taking a glance at the calendar and perhaps resolving to send out a query or two on the side?

Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXII: letting a few of those darlings live to see another day

love-in-a-mist

Throughout this series on Frankenstein manuscripts — which, should anyone be joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style; like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may 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 consistent authorial voice — I’ve been asking you to examine your texts very closely. And with good reason: since every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text, it’s vitally important to examine your own manuscript to learn what yours are.

We’ve been talking a great deal, in short, about what to take out of a manuscript. Today, I would like to discuss what to leave in, or even what you might want to add.

And the masses rejoice! “Oh, that’s such a relief, Anne,” burnt-out revisers shout from every corner of the globe. “Here I’ve been working my fingers to the elbow, excising redundant text, spicing up my dialogue, and, of course, getting rid of all of those ands, all the while steeling myself for the inevitable moment when you would talk me into axing my favorite sentences and phrases. Because, after all, we’ve all been told time and time again to kill your darlings. But may I, kind lady, dare hope that you’re going to tell me to keep them instead?”

Oh, you poor dears — no wonder you’ve been quivering in your boots. How could you not be, when writing teachers all over North America have been shouting at their students to axe their favorite bits of prose since practically the moment the classic piece of advice fell out of Dorothy Parker’s well-rouged lips sometime during Prohibition?

Well, I’m not going to do it. While a willingness to consider cutting even one’s pet bits is indeed a useful trait in a self-editor, in my experience, most talented writers — published and as-yet-to-be-published alike — actually have a pretty good sense about the little things that shine in their manuscripts. They may not be right that all of the pretty bits are indispensable to the story they are telling, but they usually know which sentences sing.

You have at least a visceral sense of what I’m talking about, right? Those telling little details, original, fresh, surprising specifics that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges when they appear nestled in a manuscript — particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” causing Millicent to sit up straight for perhaps the first time that screening day and cry, “By gum, maybe I should NOT toss this one into the rejection pile.”

As lovely as eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. Yet an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before in this series, in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Ah, some of you formerly joyous revisers have wilted a bit, haven’t you, under the realization that keeping your favorite writing may require more work than cutting it wholesale? “But Anne,” you whimper, “how can a revising writer tell if the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to harm the narrative? More importantly for submission purposes, what density of telling details is enough to continue pleasing a professional reader’s eye?”

Excellent questions both, revisers: we’re all aware that the answer to the first is not necessarily the answer to the second, right? The first is largely a matter of personal style, after all, as well as the narrative expectations of a particular book category. Some writers wrangle generalizations better than others. Generally speaking, though, the higher the proportion of exquisite detail to generalization, the more literary the writing; the more summary statements predominate, the lower the expected reading level of the audience.

And if the three repetitions of general in those last two paragraphs drove you crazy, I’m proud of you. You’ve been doing your editing homework.

In answer to the indignant collective gasp I heard echoing about the cosmos just a moment ago, literary is not simply a synonym for high-quality when we’re talking about writing. Let’s face it, there is plenty of good fiction writing that isn’t literary fiction — and plenty of excellent writing that isn’t literary. Just as the various striations of YA presume specific reading levels, literary fiction assumes a college-educated audience, or at any rate readers with a college-level vocabulary.

Thus, literary fiction is a book category, not a value judgment. It is possible, however, to bring a literary voice to other book categories — one sees literary-voiced memoir (like, for instance, Barbara Robinette Moss’ extraordinary CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER from time to time, and many breakout novels are literary-voiced genre works.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a highly literary voice would be appropriate to every book category — or indeed, to every story. Only you, as author, can decide the best voice for your story, but in order to figure out the detail/generalization level appropriate to your book category, you can pick up some external clues.

How? By keeping up with the market in your chosen field, of course. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: unless you are willing to read recent releases in your chosen book category — as opposed to what was coming out five or ten years ago — you’re going to have a much harder time querying, submitting, and yes, revising your own work.

Why, you ask? Because you won’t know what the current expectations and conventions are.

Case in point: detail vs. summary statements. Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I shall continue to cherish that to my grave.)

That’s one of the many, many reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see.

Some other popular reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.

I’m hearing a few of you sniffing disdainfully. Yes? “But Anne, none of this can possibly apply to me or my manuscript. My book is ART, you see: it is totally original. It cannot be forced into an artificial category.”

I can understand why you might feel that way, oh sniffers, but I have a news flash for you: there’s no such thing as a published book in the United States market that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. It’s simply how agents, publishers, and booksellers think of books. (If that is indeed news to you, and for some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right.)

Because that’s the case, the pros’ eyes tend to glaze over whenever an aspiring writer refuses — or even hesitates — to say to which category his manuscript belongs. To them, that just sounds like, you guessed it, a lack of familiarity with the current book market.

It’s not enough, though, to have a general (there’s that word again!) sense of what kind of writing is currently highly regarded in your chosen book category. You also need to get a feel for your own personal style. Before you can decide where you want to pitch your manuscript on the detail scale, you need to figure out where the telling details already tend congregate in your work — and where they do not, so you may work toward overall voice consistency.

Which brings us right back to close textual analysis, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out. Whip out your trusty marking pens, campers, and try this experiment:

1. Print out three chapters of your manuscript: the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book.

Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often. Second or third from the end will give you a better idea of your voice when you’re trying to wind things up.

Do print out Chapter 1, though, because if Millicent reads any of them at all, she will start there.

2. Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.

Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of you with young children gladdening your daily lives, but this isn’t relaxation: this is work. So don’t you dare feel guilty about taking the time to pore over your prose.

Yes, I know: your three-year-old will not be all that impressed that I said so. But you owe it to your writing to get to know your own voice.

3. While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form.

Yes, this will be a phenomenal amount of work, but I’m deadly serious about this. Mark everything from Angelique felt envious to Maxine was a shop welder of immense proportions to “Zeb was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.”

4. Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood.

Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — what you are looking for are passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like, rather than simply stating it as a fact. To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include:

Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin, or

Maxine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop, or even

Zeb was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.

Beginning to see some patterns here? Good. Now your manuscript is color-coded to tell you at a glance what your summary statement/telling detail ratio is, how consistent is your narrative being about preserving those proportions?

That’s a big concept to get your mind around, I know. While you’re pondering, let’s get back to that colorful text.

5. Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted. Circle those in a third color — let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate.

Such summaries tend to lurk in the environs of telling details — usually unnecessarily, as telling details by definition speak for themselves. You may find them elsewhere, naturally, but these will be the easiest to spot.

6. For each green-marked sentence, ask yourself, “Self, is this summary absolutely necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say? Could it in fact be cut, and would the manuscript be both shorter and better for it?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page he has written himself — from a writerly perspective, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — the writer may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing (in every sense) who dote on telling little details.

Again, that’s not to say that specifics should trump generalities every time. Abstract statements that bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, and actions (Eileen was morose, Teddy was sexy, Elvira was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc.) can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that can come in very handy. In a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

The effect can be even greater when there is a lot going on. When an action scene suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl — which, inevitably, would convey the impression that O.H. is being beaten up in slow motion.

Fast-paced action deserves fast-paced narration, short, tense sentences that get the blood pumping. Short, to-the-point summary statements (Edmund ducked sideways. The anvil thudded into the wall behind him. may well serve the scene better than long, lyrical, detail-rich ones (As Edmund veered sideways, the rush of air by his ear, percussive and harsh, reminded him of that long-ago summer of fireflies and BB guns, unwashed berry juice climbing up to his elbows after braving the bees for an afternoon’s blackberrying. Funny, how something as dangerous as an anvil flung at his head could awaken such long-dormant memories.

Yes, the second set was prettier — but which would work best for this SPECIFIC action scene in this SPECIFIC story, told in this SPECIFIC voice?

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements — and again, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically polished — the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Does that distinction sound at all familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Yet constructing an effective narrative is not as simple as eschewing the latter and embracing the former. Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both abstract and concrete statements. Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear.

Context matters — and so does book category.

Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

But you knew that already, right?

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily. Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s famous My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. That being said, however, it is worth noting that on any given reading day, your garden-variety Millicent sees a whole lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking (ooh, there’s that pesky word again), if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off in most types of submission.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in the manuscript you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s go back to dig up those yellow, red, and green pages from above. But this time, grab a fourth color of pen –- how would you feel about embracing something in the purple family?

7. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so let me mark up a bit of text for you. The sentences destined for purple overcoats are in caps:

I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT, ZACHARY THOUGHT.

WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Nanette asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”

OH, WOULD ONLY THAT HIS ONGOING DISSATISFACTION WITH THEIR MARRIAGE STEMMED FROM A SOURCE AS SIMPLE AS NAUSEA. WAS HIS WIFE HONESTLY SO SOULLESS THAT SHE COULDN’T FEEL THEIR WELL-MANICURED LAWN CREEPING UP THE DOORSTEP TO SMOTHER THEM IN SEDUCTIVE NORMALCY? “No, I just had a long day at work.”

Everyone clear on the distinction we’re making here? Excellent. Now humor me a little and dig up a fifth color of pen — blue, anyone?

8. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from #4, but plow ahead nevertheless, please. Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what get out of your character’s head! means, at least not most of the time. Generally (ooh!), it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a significant detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you: show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more popular with professional readers like our old pal, Millicent — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses.

And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive.
To put it bluntly, a novel or memoir that conveys protagonist response in ways other than thought a significant proportion of the time will at very least enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so very common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.)

Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud. That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, Millicent would be happier about most submissions in practically every book category if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Nanette was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Zachary’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Zach!” Nanette’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner. The narrative’s gotten out of the characters’ heads — and stepped right into their bodies.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How blue is it? How heavy purple is that prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.)

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and blue-marked sentences – note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or purple between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or purple, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the five-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

At the end of it all, however, you will have a much, much clearer idea of what your narrative voice sounds like — not only at its best and worst, but when it is just trying to do its job. You’ll gain a sense of what it sounds like when you’re tired or excited, trying desperately to get a thought down before it vanishes or having the time to allow your words to revel in their own beauty.

Once you gain that working sense of your own voice, editing your own work will become easier. You’ll be able to spot the telltale signs that the narrative has slipped away from it; you may even come to feel the drift before the words hit the page. It sounds like magic, but it isn’t: it’s narrative consistency.

What does all of this have to do with saving your darlings? Plenty. Just think about it: how wonderful would it be if your best writing did not jump out at the reader because the entire manuscript was that good?

A lovely thought, isn’t it? Your darlings will be comfortable housed in a strong, sure narrative; they may — and this happens more than one might think — be your pets because they are already written in your personal narrative voice.

But you won’t know that for sure until you know your voice inside out, will you? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXI: Millicent holds these truths to be self-evident. Trust me.

signingdec

Ah, another evening, another installment in our gargantuan self-editing series. I have to say, I’ve been having a good time with it — usually, I spend this time of year talking at length about how to construct a winning conference pitch, followed by another couple of weeks devoted to concocting a professional-looking query letter. We’ve been having so much good, productive fun working on revision issues lately, however, that I haven’t wanted to break up the party.

So a summer of craft it is. Onward and upward!

I’m still very much at your service if you are interested in pulling together a pitch, query letter, or synopsis, of course — as always, feel free to ask questions. If you’re in the market for in step-by-step instructions, hie yourself to the quite detailed archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page, where you will find categories helpfully labeled HOW TO WRITE A PITCH, HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER, HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS, and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET. After your have pitched or queried successfully, you might want to avail yourself of the posts in the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET categories.

Or, if you should happen to be perusing these categories in a panic the night before or just after a writers’ conference, searching frantically for the absolute basics, try the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE, HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER IN A HURRY, and HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS IN A HURRY.

In short, please don’t assume that because I’m spending the summer reveling in manuscript problems — because, let’s face it, insofar as anyone can actually revel in manuscript problems, I do — I’m not still interested in helping members of the Author! Author! community with practical marketing. If you don’t find answers to your questions in the archives, please, I implore you, speak up.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Now let’s plunge back into the full enjoyment of revision.

What’s that you say? Enjoy doesn’t precisely capture the emotion current swelling your breast at the prospect of another discussion of manuscript megaproblems? Well, may I at least assume that everyone’s been learning a little something each time?

I sincerely hope that the learning curve has been sharp for many of you, because honestly, I do not think we writers talk amongst ourselves nearly enough about these issues. The art of self-revision is so difficult to teach that many writing gurus eschew it altogether –- and not merely because there is no magical formula dictating, say, how often it’s okay to repeat a word on the page or how many summary statements a chapter can contain before our buddy, Millicent the agency screener, rends her garments and cries, “Enough with the generalizations, already! Show, don’t tell!”

Although experience leads me to believe that the answer is not all that many.

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. As we discussed last time, there’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

Which, of course, is necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you saw the same easily-fixable error 25 times a day (or an hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #26 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Because — feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, common writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? At this point in our Frankenstein manuscript series, it should.

In not entirely unrelated news, today, I shall be acquainting you with a manuscript problem frequently invisible to the writer who produced it, yet glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about yet another eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

I heard some of you out there chuckle ––you caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in this sterling opening. (Sorry about the slight fuzziness of the page here. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting +.)

obvious example 1

Do correct me if I am wrong, but is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm, or toes not on the foot?

Seeing a pattern? Are you also seeing abundant invitation for revision, I hope?

Ideally, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. Why do I want you to develop a sensitivity to this kind of statement on the page? Well, let me put it this way: any sentence in a submission that prompts Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger.

Yes, all by itself, even if the rest of the submission is pretty darned clean, perfectly formatted, and well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to remind you: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — you’re inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows.

To a professional reader in such a state, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the ostensibly innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to the bland sentence, The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance or the cessation of gunfire or the bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Here’s a little number that I like to call the Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem:

obvious example2

This account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process, right? As narrative in a novel, however, it would also be quite dull for the reader, right because it requires the retailing of so many not-very-interesting events in order to get that door answered. Any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it in the terms we’ve been using over the past few days: is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity? Or, if we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, why not have the narrative simply jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text mentioning the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Instead of narrowing down the steps necessary to complete a project to only the most important, or presenting the full array in such a manner that the most vital and interesting steps, a WATR text mentions everything, up to and sometimes including the kitchen sink.

What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it, an impression considerably exacerbated by all of those ands. Every detail here is presented as equally important, but the reader is left with no doubt that the account is complete.

WATR problems are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore.

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details, while undoubtedly accurate, swamp the story. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Not sure why that’s a serious problem? Be honest now: didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you cry, desperately rubbing your eyes to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making fiesta. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: it’s spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week.”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop, my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement.”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting ALL such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you are absolutely positive hat your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

The trouble is, they’re hard to catch. Self-evident statements virtually always appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. “What do you mean?” the writer of the obvious protests indignantly. “Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed?

Provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his cobbler with a fork, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood, in fact. But see how much of it could be trimmed simply by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every cut counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Fair warning: self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so.

In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look specifically for instances of self-evidence. Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

You never can tell; I’m wacky that way. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XX: banishing that dreaded feeling of déjà vu

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Since we’ve been on such a roll, discussing dialogue with vim, I’ve been rather reluctant to wrest us back to a subject that we absolutely must cover before we round out the Frankenstein manuscript series, conceptual redundancy. (Don’t worry, dialogue-huggers; I’ll be getting back to it in a few days.)

Actually, as topics go, it’s not all that far removed from edit-worthy dialogue: as I mentioned in passing just a few days ago, real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition. Add to that the simple truth that since it can take a heck of a long time to write a book, a writer does not always remember where — or even if — he’s made a particular point before, and even if he does, he may not be confident that the reader will remember it from 200 pages ago, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already!” a great deal more than any of us might like.

Yes, do take a moment to admire that last epic sentence. I doubt we’ll see its like again.

We’ve already talked about some reasons that redundant dialogue bugs your garden-variety Millicent so much, but at least the problem is easy for a reviser to spot. Heck, if your antagonist favors a catchphrase — please tell me she doesn’t — the fix is downright easy: a quick confab with Word’s FIND function, a few creative substitutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

Conceptual redundancy, however, requires both time for close reading of the entire manuscript and a retentive memory for a reviser to catch. Even if that reviser happens to have been blessed with both, after slaving over a Frankenstein manuscript for months or years on end, repeated or largely similar snippets of dialogue, explanations, and even relatively important plot points can seem…well, if not precisely fresh, at least not memorable from earlier in the latest draft.

Unfortunately, this quite predictable byproduct of revision burnout does not always fill professional readers with sympathy for the writer’s dilemma. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Great jumping Jehoshaphat!” Millicent groans over many a submission. “Didn’t this writer bother to read this manuscript before sending it to us? Couldn’t she see that she TOLD us this already!”

To give you a sense of just why she might have this reaction, allow me to regale you with an anecdote from the dim reaches of my past. Some of you may remember it; it’s an example I have often used before when discussing conceptual redundancy.

I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B- range.

Frankly, my tepid-to-begin-with enthusiasm had begun to fade practically as soon as I stepped into a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. All brown eyes and braids, I had already spent several hours holding my mother’s hand while my father took my older brother on D and E ticket rides. And I was not particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story: the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean.

Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives persistently remain dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride. It was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. The longer we stood in line, the harder I found it to muster even the appearance of childish joie de vivre.

Why was I feeling so oppressed, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times.

It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

He patted me on the back as he hurried me toward the exit. “I know,” he whispered. “By the end of the day, I want to strangle someone.”

I was mightily impressed by the power of so much mindless repetition. And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my formative years — it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations, but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Mortimer — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, Yvette, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this phenomenon — again, this may seem a tad familiar to some of you, but that sort of is the point here — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. In case, you know, kids might not have picked up on any of that.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed genuinely concerned about the retentiveness of its young viewers’ memories, or perhaps our general level of intelligence: it was rare that any point was made only once — or that the fate of the Good Kid Who Made One Mistake was not obvious from roughly minute five of the program. True to this storytelling tradition, Strangers With Candy’s heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphed upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Ernest, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

Seriously, Millicent sees this all the time. Yes, even when the first 50 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up to devote her life to excising all of that ambient redundancy.

At base, conceptual repetition is a trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the serial killer first revealed — wait for it — that he had a lousy childhood.

Wow — who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. As we discussed earlier in this series, one of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions.

That’s a problem, because one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day. We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. Really boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being a test pilot or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are MORE likely to notice repetition of every variety than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying. If 6 of the last 10 submissions Millicent has screened were conceptually redundant — a proportion not at all beyond the bounds of probability; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive — your first repetition may annoy her as much as the eighth in her first manuscript of the day.

And no, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to affect where your work falls in her to-read stack. Thanks for asking, though.

All a savvy reviser can do is — speaking of concept repetition — re-read his submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before allowing it to see the inside of a mailbox or hitting the SEND key. Minimizing the conceptual redundancy within the manuscript is the best (indeed, the only) insurance policy a writer can take out against the submissions read just before hers is to make hers as clean as possible.

I see some of you shrugging. You don’t think your manuscript could possibly fall prey to that level of bad luck? Okay, oh confident ones, here’s a challenge for you: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

Did you find even one? Then you actually do need to worry about Millicent’s cry of, “Oh, no, not THIS again!”

For those of you who did not turn pale: what if I also ask you to highlight similar and culturally-common phrases in the narration, as well as the dialogue?

First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA. Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition.

Honestly, it would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s been lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.

But remember — once again, this concept should be at least slightly familiar by now — just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. A writer cannot perform that magic trick, however, without first identifying where it should be applied.

Is your head aching from all of the homework I’ve heaped upon you already today? Oh, but I’m far from done.

For starters, here’s a pop quiz: did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in this post so far?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous shout of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad. Your comments on conceptual redundancy were themselves conceptually redundant. You’ve made some of the points above two or three times — and via examples you’ve used before, too. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge. Please, for the sake of your sanity, do not attempt to ride the Peter Pan ride anytime soon.

Even if you were not actively annoyed by my repeating myself, you may well have been a trifle insulted by it. Repeating a concept, fact, or sentence too often — or even once, if the bit in question was particularly memorable the first time around — does convey an impression to readers that the author does not trust them to be able to recall salient matters without a narrative nudge. Or perhaps does not believe they are intelligent enough to figure out even self-evident logical connections without assistance.

What other purpose, after all, would a writer have for producing a sentence like I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you?

“In heaven’s name, why must anyone leap to such an unflattering conclusion?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have such an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

All of which should sound annoyingly familiar by now, right? Getting the picture?

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point simply because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did above, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is a signal that a manuscript requires quite a bit more revision.

You can feel more homework coming, can’t you? Clever you; you must have seen this movie before.

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submissions tend to get rejected in the early pages — thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often — page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you have the time to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) Go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on? Or could some of them be cut without endangering the reader’s ability to follow the plot?

In answering question #4, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. (Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.) Ditto with a contest entry: Mehitabel generally reads each one just once.

(5) Immediately after reading each yellow section, re-read the pink section that follows it. Are all of the highlighted bits actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason. Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips.

Save something for the sequel, for heaven’s sake. You needn’t always be raring to go-o-o-o.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

Often, this is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. Far too much of the time, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who incorporate the real into the texts: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Gee, where have I heard all of this before?

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Now that I have alerted you to the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Eleanor, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Fritz dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the terrified child.), it’s only fair to mention that both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut.

Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss a sentence if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. As you read, think about just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Yes, text-retentive ones you are correct: I’ve used this example before, too. No exertion of laziness has been spared to drive today’s points home. (Oh, and happy Bastille Day, Cardinal.)

But tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

Even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene. Take a gander:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, leaning against the fridge.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit was straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

What would that mean for our example? Well, if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?) Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often signposts telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not — and yes, I’ve used it before. I simply will not have my long-time readers walking away from this post willing to tolerate conceptual redundancy.

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation.

Okay, it’s well past the time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: who has got a good ear for dialogue?

Listening-Recording-Device

There’s been quite a bit of interesting discussion of late in the comments about what does and does not constitute good dialogue. Why, just the other day, a reader asked a startlingly simple but trenchant question: what authors did I think had a good ear for dialogue?

Immediately, as is my wont, I started thinking of authors — specifically, those who write the kinds of books I happen to be reading at the moment. That’s not altogether surprising, since not everyone reads every category of book, and what might ring true on a memoir’s pages could come across as maddeningly incommunicative in a mystery. What works beautifully in literary fiction might seem downright florid in a Western, and heaven knows, however finely “Whatever!” might fit into a YA scene, it would just seem out of place in most adult fiction.

In short, what might be a good recommendation to a writer in one genre would not necessarily be useful for a writer in another. But you, my friends, read and write across every conceivable book category, don’t you?

Here is what I propose, if you are up for it: tell me which writers in your chosen book category have the best ear for dialogue, and why you think so. To render these stirring endorsements more useful as examples to others, kindly mention the category in which you write.

The authors you name need not necessarily be your favorite writers, or even those you believe to be exceptionally good ones. What I am hoping to hear is who you think is the best at writing dialogue that rings true to the characters peopling the lifeworlds in these books.

Since the asker of the original question writes YA Fantasy, I would particularly like to hear from writers of YA and fantasy, respectively, but honestly, the more book categories we can address here, the better. Also, the more of you who weigh in, the better an idea I shall have of what kind of examples will best speak to you in future posts.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you want me to talk more about your chosen kind of writing, this would be an excellent opportunity to offer me incentive to do it. Heck, get your whole writing group to chime in.

So please let me hear your thoughts on the subject! I’d love to hear your suggestions and insights. And, of course, keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIX: the quirkiness of real life, or, so long, Harvey

American Splendor poster

I am genuinely sad to record the passing of graphic novel pioneer Harvey Pekar. His intensely-observed presentations of both the most mundane and most trying aspects of everyday life not only stretched his genre, but demonstrated time and time again that accounts of ordinary life need not be ordinary.

I’m morally sure that Mssr. Pekar would have enjoyed the irony of his having joined the choir invisible right in the middle of our discussion of real-life vs. real-sounding dialogue. As any fan of OUR CANCER YEAR (co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) could tell you, he relied very heavily upon actual speech — something substantially easier to pull off when animation appears side-by-side with words on the printed page. Yet just when the dialogue seemed most mundane, one of his quirky characters would come out with a zinger:

“15 amps…15 amps! That’s all we’ve got, and I bet my computer uses half that. This place is a fire trap. You know what’s behind this wall? All our wiring is still in its original paper insulation. Melting copper, wrapped with newspaper. With headlines that read, ‘Jack the Ripper Still at Large!’”

That may sound like the extempore chat of any exasperated person, but as we discussed last time, simply transcribing actual speech is not usually the best — and certainly not the only — means of producing realistic dialogue on the page. There’s nothing wrong per se with lifting quotes from real life, but a savvy writer lifts selectively, judiciously.

And always, always with a definite point in mind. Dialogue that apparently serves no other purpose than to demonstrate that the writer is aware of normal, everyday speech tends to provoke an undesirable speech pattern in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener: “Next!”

Especially if, as often occurs in the opening pages of novel submissions, that meticulously-reproduced everyday speech either delays the action from beginning, slows down action already in progress, or — and Millicent sees this more than any of us might like to think — it takes the place of action happening offstage, so to speak. Many a potentially exciting opening scene has been smothered by the protagonist stopping to be polite — or just chatty.

Not sure what I mean? Okay, here are a couple of openings for the same story, each cut off at the point at which Millicent probably would have stopped reading. (Hey, you think it’s easy to come up with fresh examples night after night?)

“Why, Kathy!” Evan exclaimed. “I thought you weren’t going to make it?”

Well might he have asked. Kathy was not the sort of girl who typically turned up in dank attics, covered with cobwebs, soaking wet, and shaking with fear.

Still, her mother had brought her up right. “Hello, Evan. I thought you were going to Sharon’s party tonight.”

“My date came down with the flu.”

“That’s a shame. And after you got all dressed up, too.”

Evan glanced down at his normally spotless khakis. Climbing up that trellis might not have been such a good idea. He’d have to sneak his pants into the wash before Mom saw them, or he’d be in for it. “I hadn’t expected company.”

Kathy looked away. “Can you tell me what the Algebra homework
was?”

A trifle annoying, isn’t it? It’s fairly obvious that something has happened to Kathy just before the scene we’re seeing, but all of the narrative’s energies seem aimed toward delaying showing us what that something was. (And what is that called, campers? That’s right: false suspense.) Other than slowing the action, keeping the reader from knowing what’s going on, and probably pushing off the first scary happening of the book for a few pages, what purpose is this dialogue serving?

Before you answer, let me caution you that from Millicent’s perspective, but people really talk like that! is not a sufficient answer. Yes, two teenagers running into each other in a haunted house late at night might conceivably say things like this, but why does the reader need to see them say it?

Actually, why does the reader need to see this character say that? is a pretty good question for the reviser of a Frankenstein manuscript to ask early and often, especially when going over a scene that doesn’t go much of anywhere for a third of a page or more. (Hey, Millicent often doesn’t read more than that before deciding to reject a manuscript. Screeners read fast.) In a good submission or contest entry, there’s no such thing as a throw-away line, after all.

As we discussed yesterday, any line of dialogue unequivocally worth keeping exhibits one or more of the following characteristics: it either advances/complicates/resolves a plot point, reveals some interesting and relevant aspect of a character previously unseen in the book, or is interesting, amusing, and/or entertaining in its own right. As the closer readers among you may have noticed, practically none of the dialogue in the example above rises to any of these challenges.

So what’s a savvy reviser to do? Well, we have a number of options. We could back the timeline up a bit, to begin with an interesting character in an interesting situation.

Kathy felt fingers running gently through the sweaty tendrils on the back of her neck. So Evan did like her enough to meet her in the haunted house at midnight. “I don’t scare that easily.”

He didn’t answer. She tilted her head, resting it on his caressing hand. It was ice-cold. And bonier than she remembered.

“Okay, enough with the Halloween jokes.” She wiggled in his grasp. He was surprisingly strong for a chess club captain. “Your girlfriend may like this kid stuff, but…”

The side of her head hit the claw-footed bathtub so hard that she saw stars. She’d always thought seeing stars was a myth, just like the Holton Hall ghost. Water flowed over her face, smothering any further thought but escape.

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Thinking objectively, which opening would be more likely to spur you to keep reading, this or the first version?

And THAT is why, in case you were curious, writing gurus urge students to begin their works with a hook, to establish interest right away. But capturing a reader’s interest — particularly a professional reader’s interest — is not like tag: once you’ve hooked ‘em, they don’t necessarily remain hooked. Think of maintaining interest as being akin to love: no matter how hard someone falls for you at first, if you do not keep wooing, that interest is going to flag sooner or later.

Too many aspiring writers take their readers’ interest for granted, an often-costly assumption. So let’s talk wooing strategy.

In the industry, the standard term for what keeps a reader turning pages is tension. All too frequently, writers new to the game confuse it with suspense, but suspense is plot-specific: a skillful writer sets up an array of events in such a way as to keep the reader guessing what will happen next. In a suspenseful plot, that writing-fueled curiosity keeps the reader glued to the page between plot points.

Suspense, in other words, is why one doesn’t get up in the middle of a Hitchcock film to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge, unless there’s a commercial break. You want to see what is going to happen next.

Tension, on the other hand, can stem from a lot of sources, mostly character-generated, rather than plot-generated: the reader wants to know how the protagonist is going to respond next, a different kettle of fish entirely. Sometimes tension-rich dilemmas are plot points, but not always – and this gives the writer a great deal of freedom, since it’s a rare plot that can maintain a major twist on every page.

Or even every other page. (THE DA VINCI CODE, anyone?)

Some of the greatest contemporary examples of consistent tension in novels are the HARRY POTTER books. Actually, not a lot happens in most of the books in this series, particularly in the early chapters: kids go to school; they learn things; they have difficulty discerning the difference between epoch-destroying evil and a teacher who just doesn’t like them very much; Harry saves the world again.

Of course, the lessons they learn in the classroom ultimately help them triumph over evil, but that’s not what makes the HARRY POTTER books so absorbing. It’s the incredibly consistent tension. If J.K. Rowling’s publisher infused each page with heroin, rather than with ink, her writing could hardly be more addictive; there’s a reason that kids sit up for a day and a half to read them straight through. With the exception of the first 50 pages of the last book (hey, I’m an editor: it’s my job to call authors on their writing lapses), the tension scarcely flags for a line at a time.

Technically, that’s a writing marvel, a achieved not by magic, but by doing precisely the opposite of what the movie and TV scripts with which we’re all inundated tend to do: she gives her characters genuine quirks substantial enough to affect their relationships and problems that could not be solved within half an hour by any reasonably intelligent person.

Rather than making the reader guess WHAT is going to happen next, well-crafted tension lands the reader in the midst of an unresolved moment — and then doesn’t resolve it immediately. This encourages the reader to identify with a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) to try to figure out how that character could get out of that particular dilemma. The more long-term and complicated the dilemma, the greater its capacity for keeping the tension consistently high.

A popular few: interpersonal conflict manifesting between the characters; interpersonal conflict ABOUT to manifest between the characters; the huge strain required from the characters to keep interpersonal conflict from manifesting. Also on the hit parade: sexual energy flying between two characters (or more), but not acted upon; love, hatred, or any other strong emotion flying from one character to another, spoken or unspoken. Or even the protagonist alone, sitting in his room, wondering if the walls are going to collapse upon him.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for judging whether a scene exhibits sufficient tension: if you would be comfortable living through the moment described on the page, the scene may not provide enough tension to keep the reader riveted to the page. Polite conversation, for instance, when incorporated into dialogue, is almost always a tension-breaker.

“But wait!” I hear some of you slice-of-life aficionados out there cry. “I hate to be redundant with the questions, but shouldn’t dialogue EVER reflect how people speak in real life?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it should, insofar as good dialogue reflects plausible regional differences, personal quirks, and educational levels. I’ve heard many an agent and editor complain about novels where every character speaks identically, or where a third-person narrative reads in exactly the same cadence and tone as the protagonist’s dialogue. Having a Texan character use terms indigenous to Maine (unless that character happens to be a relative of our last president’s, of course) is very likely to annoy a screener conversant with the dialect choices of either area.

Yes, Virginia, the pros honestly do notice these little things. That’s one of the many, many reasons that it is an excellent idea for you to read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you mail or e-mail it off; it really is the best way to catch this flavor of writing problem.

But it’s just a fact of the art form that the vast majority of real-life dialogue is deadly dull when committed to print. While the pleasantries of manners undoubtedly make interpersonal relationships move more smoothly, they are rote forms, and the problem with rote forms is that utilizing them absolutely precludes saying anything spontaneous. Or original.

Or — and this is of primary importance in a scene — surprising. Think about it: when’s the last time someone with impeccable manners made you gasp with astonishment?

Even rude real-life conversation can be very dull on the page. If you don’t believe this, try this experiment:

1. Walk into a crowded café alone, sit down at a table near a couple engaged in an argument (not all that difficult to find, alas) and start taking notes.

2. Go home and write up their actual words — no cheating — as a scene.

3. Read it over afterward. Does it work dramatically? Is it character-revealing? Or do these people sound generic and their bickering dull?

99% of the time, even if the couple upon whom you eavesdropped were fighting or contemplating robbing a bank or discussing where to stash Uncle Harry’s long-dead body, a good editor would cut over half of what the speakers said. And if the two were in perfect agreement, the entire scene would probably go.

Why? Because real-life conversation is both repetitious and vague, as a general rule. It also tends to be chock-full of clichés, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, jokes that do not translate at all to print, and pop culture references that will surely be outdated in a year or two.

In a word: boring to everyone but the participants. It’s an insult to the art of eavesdropping.

So is, incidentally, dialogue that insists upon showing the reader every pause or hesitation, however miniscule. Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that a speaker stops saying anything for a moment is not invariably important enough to record for posterity. Nor is it, in itself, interesting.

You’re not believing me again, aren’t you? Okay, smarty pants, take a gander at this relatively commonplace example of this type of dialogue.

Sheila stopped in mid-step. “Edmond, what’s wrong? Are you…”

He hesitated before answering. “I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“But are you…I mean, is it something we need to worry about?”

“You worry too much, Sheila.” He paused. “But I should probably get to…a doctor. Or even…a hospital?”

“A hospital!” She couldn’t say anything else for a second. Then she grew brisk: “Edmond, you’re not…thinking clearly. I’m taking you to the emergency room, now.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. Do you need to lean on me to get to the car?”

Quite heavy ellipsis for just a few lines of text, isn’t it? Apart from being repetitive on the page, all of those dots aren’t really adding much to the scene. As those of you who are editing for length will be delighted to see, most of them could be cut entirely without changing the conflict or decreasing the tension of the scene at all.

Look at how painlessly those pauses may be minimized — and while we’re at it, let’s excise some of that redundancy as well:

Sheila stopped in mid-step. “Edmond, what’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“Is it something we need to worry about?”

“You worry too much, Sheila.” He took in a shuddering breath. “But I should probably get to a doctor. Or even a hospital.”

She grew brisk: “I’m taking you to the emergency room, now.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. Do you need to lean on me to get to the car?”

See? All I retained was one reference to stopping and one ellipsis — but the scene is, if anything, more full of tension than when Sheila and Edmond were wasting all of our time by speaking so slowly.

That’s right, those of you who just gasped — I did say that wasting our time. Professional readers aren’t the only ones who tend to bore quickly when faced with dialogue whose primary recommendation is realism.

“But Anne,” the gaspers protest, “I thought the point of good writing was to show the reader the world as it actually is! If their eyes are going to glaze over just because I show a pause or two — which actual people do all the time in the real world, by the way — or include a few pleasantries, how is it going to be remotely possible for me to tell the realistic tale I want to tell?”

It’s more than remotely possible, reality-lovers — it’s probable, provided that you concentrate on what is surprising and interesting about that tale. Usually, the best way to achieve this is to focus upon what is unique about your self-described ordinary characters, rather than how they are just like everybody else.

That’s a taller order than it might at first appear, from an editing perspective. Far too often, slice-of-lifers and Everyman-producers will not differentiate between the expected ordinary details and the specific quirks of individual characters; their Frankenstein manuscripts tend to include everything, up to and including the kitchen sink. The trick to revising such text is to winnow out what the reader might expect to be there, so the genuinely unusual personalities of your real-life characters can shine forth.

Strong character development is as much about what the writer chooses to leave out as what s/he elects to leave in, after all. Mundane, predictable statements, however likely characters like yours may be to utter them in real life, seldom reveal much about the speaker’s personality, do they?

And that’s doubly true if more than one character says the same types of things. Yes, real people do frequently echo their kith and kin in real life, but unless you prefer to define true-to-life as synonymous with dull, I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that you can’t come up with something different for each character to say.

The same holds true for individual quirks. The more seemingly ordinary your protagonist, the more you ought to consider giving him a unique trait or two. Remember, one reader’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

Ah, the gaspers seem to have caught their breath again. Yes? “But Anne, what you’re saying is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality in our prose? Weren’t we all ordered to write what you know? Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I?”

Unfortunately, no — judging by contest entries and submissions, quite a few writers did. But let’s pause for a moment — you’ll like that, won’t you, slice-of-lifers? — to consider just how reflective of real life those Writing 101 standards actually were. Universality, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men; exhortations to write what you know led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle-class white teenagers, mostly male. And the popularity of the slice-of-life short story (it’s awfully hard to maintain for an entire novel) left many of us sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s point of view, all of the good students obediently following this advice has resulted in a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. Every day, she reads of universal protagonists (read: ordinary people) in situations that their authors know intimately (read: ordinary life) acutely observed (read: the ordinary seen through a magnifying glass).

It’s not that some of these many, many stories aren’t well-written; many of them are. And there’s nothing wrong with portraying all of that ordinariness, per se. It’s just that Millicent sees so darned much of it that it’s hard for an average Joe or Jane protagonist in an ordinary situation not to strike her as…

Well, you get the picture.

Whether that slice-of-life story is presented as fiction or memoir (a book category where it tends to work better on the page), ordinary characters may never be excused for being dull or predictable. Not in a manuscript submission, not in a contest entry, and not in a published book. Millicent is screening to find the extraordinary manuscript, the one with the fresh worldview, spin, or writing style applied to a story about a character (or characters) who are different enough from character(s) she’s seen before to remain interesting for the length of an entire book.

Aspiring writers, particularly memoirists, often seem to fail to take that last part into account when preparing their submissions: if the story presented does not appear from the very first line on page 1 to be about a fascinating person in an intriguing situation, the manuscript is going to be a tough sell to everyone from Millicent to her boss to an editor at a publishing house to a contest judge.

So if a book is about an Everyman living a life with which an ordinary reader might identify, it’s IMPERATIVE that he demonstrate some way in which either he or his story is not ordinary right away. Why? Because otherwise, the manuscript is far too likely to get dismissed as just not very interesting or surprising.

It’s not for nothing, you know, that agents complain about how many submissions they see that took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story took too much time to warm up, as well as the ever-popular not enough action on page 1. These complaints are reflective of the hard reality they see on a daily basis: many, if not most, first pages have no conflict on them at all, but are purely set-up.

Such an opening scene may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from the business side of the industry’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — a slow opening translates into hard to sell.

The ordinariness of characters, that is, is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. An interesting character in an interesting situation is featured in practically all of their personal ads advice on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOT paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie.

That sort of thing. In Millicent’s world, interesting and surprising are synonymous more often than fans of the ordinary might think.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure to his team? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?)

So I ask you: isn’t it possible for you to work an element of surprise onto page 1 of your submission, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

Before you chafe at that request, remember that lack of surprise can render a protagonist less likable, even for readers who do not, like Millicent, drop a book like a hot coal if the first few paragraphs don’t grab them. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, given how often writing teachers lecture about the importance of opening with a hook, this justification for keeping the opening lively is seldom mentioned, but it is in fact true: ordinary characters tend not to be all that engaging, precisely because they are average, and thus predictable.

For most readers, an unpredictable jerk is more interesting to follow than a beautifully-mannered bore, after all. It’s hard to blame Millicent and her cronies for that.

Or if it won’t work in your story to open with something surprising, how about vitally important? I don’t necessarily mean important on the global scale, but within the world of the story you’re telling.

Seriously, one of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to elevate the importance of what is going on in the opening to that character. A protagonist or narrator’s caring passionately about the outcome of a conflict practically always renders a scene more interesting, because it prompts the reader to care about the outcome, too. (Of course, this is a whole lot easier to pull off in an opening scene that features a conflict, right?)

Whatever you revisers of Frankenstein manuscripts do, however, do not under any circumstances allow the reader to become bored for even so much as a sentence of page 1. Or to be able to predict what the next line of dialogue will be. If your current opening scene cannot be edited to avoid both of these dreadful fates, consider beginning your submission with a different scene.

I ask you again: were you drawn into Kathy’s story faster when you saw her attacked by a water-loving ghost, or when she was chatting with a classmate after she’d fought off the spook?

Believe me, “boring” is absolutely the last adjective you want to spring to Millicent’s mind while she’s perusing your work. Even “annoying” is better, because at least then the manuscript is eliciting a reaction of some sort. But once the screener has a chance to think, “I’m bored with this,” if the next line does not re-introduce tension, chances are that the submission is going to end up in the reject pile.

That’s the VERY next line; you can’t count upon your manuscript’s ending up on the desk of someone who is going to willing to be bored for a few paragraphs. Or hadn’t I mentioned that as a group, professional readers bore fast.

Try not to hold it against them. I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: the vast majority of manuscripts suffer from a chronic lack of tension.

Dull dialogue that does not reveal interesting things about the characters saying it is a primary culprit. I know, I know, being courteous seems as though it should make your protagonist more likable to the reader, but frankly, “Yes, thank you, George,” could be spoken by anyone. It doesn’t add much to any scene. And reading too many pages of real-life dialogue is like being trapped in a cocktail party with people you don’t know very well for all eternity.

“Deliver us from chit-chat!” the Millicents moan, rattling the chains that shackle them to their grim little desks clustered together under those flickering, eye-destroying fluorescent lights. “Oh, God, not another attractive stranger who asks, ‘So, have you been staying here long?’”

You’re just the writer to answer their prayers, aren’t you? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVIII: were you leading up to a point, Chatty Cathy? Or just killing some time with conversation?

chatty cathy doll

When last we met, I was urging you, through the oh-so-subtle means of inundating you with example after example, into an appreciation of just how annoying redundant, non-character-revealing, or just plain dull dialogue can be to someone who reads manuscripts for hours on end. Like, say, Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge.

Why bring this up in the midst of an ongoing series on self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript? Well, several reasons. First — and it pains me to tell you this — more otherwise well-written submissions and contest entries drop precipitously in M & M’s respective esteems due to lackluster dialogue than is generally believed. Due to the pervasiveness of this phenomenon (and we’re gearing up for the second reason here), typically, one of the quickest, easiest ways to cut length off an over-long manuscript is to track down and excise the ordinary, everyday dialogue, the chatter that neither advances the plot, creates interesting conflict in the moment, or reveals character.

How can I state that so confidently? Because almost every writer who has taken an English composition course was told repeatedly that good dialogue should sound real, the average novel or memoir manuscript overflows with dialogue that’s apparently there simply because people say those types of things.

Which is not to say that striving to make your dialogue realistic is bad writing advice. It’s very good advice — but what the vast majority of composition teachers should have added immediately thereafter yet did not was an explanation that real-sounding dialogue and the things that people actually say in real life are not the same thing.

The former rings true on the page; while the latter can sometimes be very interesting, it can also lull the reader into a deep, deep slumber. Trust me, when people talk about an author with a good ear for dialogue, they’re referring to someone who consistently produces real-sounding dialogue, not someone who simply holds a microphone up to life and records the unedited results on the page.

Of course, we writers want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in on the page.

This is especially likely to occur when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

“Oh,” Babette said. “You’re home.”

Rufus nursed the thumb the dodo trod upon earlier. “Yeah.”

“Have a nice day?”

“Um-hm.”

“I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Rockaway Beach to scatter Grandfather’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if all of our ancestors and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

“Yeah. We sure got wet that day.“

“Ham sound good for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

Ordinary dialogue makes her especially antsy — again, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but if I don’t, who will? — on page 1. And that’s unfortunate, since this kind of chat is quite popular in the opening pages of manuscripts.

Why would the dialogue above have annoyed Millicent? Well, cast your eyes over it and tell me: what’s going on here? What is this story about? Who are these people, and why are 7 of the 10 opening lines of this story wasted on dialogue that doesn’t even begin to answer any of these questions?

Already, I see some hands raised out there in the ether. “But Anne,” writers of the real everywhere protest, and who can blame them? “It’s unfair to assume that every reader, even professional ones, would be turned off by the example above, even if it did appear on page 1. I think that Millicent and Mehitabel would be intrigued by its very terseness; I believe it would render them more likely to keep reading, not less, if only to find out what’s going on. I, for one, want to hear more about that dodo bite.”

I’m glad you brought that up, mythical hand-raisers, because the strategy of withholding basic information from the reader in an opening scene in order to create curiosity about what is to come is a suspense-building technique popular only with aspiring writers. Established writers soon learn not to do it, for the exceedingly simple reason that professional readers like Millicent, Mehitabel, and even Maury, Millie’s cousin who works as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, tend not to find this kind of opening titillating.

How do they regard it? Negatively, almost always. There’s even a term for it: false suspense.

That’s also the term for when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now. Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense.

I’m not here to talk about plotting today, however — but don’t worry; I’ll be coming back to it later in this series. For now, suffice it to say that even if you are one of those writers who absolutely adores reproducing everyday speech down to the last grunt and hesitation, you might want to keep those mundanities off of page 1 of your submission. Or page 2. Or, really, out of the opening chapter.

You wouldn’t want Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury to mistake your submission for the hundreds of thousands of others that don’t have as good an ear for dialogue as you do, right?

As a general revision guideline for any page of the manuscript, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays on point.

I’ll admit it: my fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and early in my career, I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to write as I do? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

But I apply a slightly different twist to it. For each line of dialogue, I ask myself: Is this here because it needs to be, or just because it’s something a character like this would say? In memoir and reality-based fiction, it can indeed be there simply because someone actually did say it — but is this particular line essential to the story being told here? And regardless of whether it’s a quote or not, if it isn’t either plot-advancing, character-revealing, or interesting in its own right, does it really need to be on the page at all?

Why, yes, you’re right, everyone who just grabbed the nearest sofa cushion and screamed into it: that is an awfully high standard to apply to every single line of dialogue in a manuscript. Your point?

To help the rest of you understand why your fellow readers felt faint at the mere thought of placing their manuscripts under that powerful a microscope, let’s take a gander at a species of dialogue gets under your garden-variety Millicent’s skin like wet sand under a swimsuit: the de facto monologue.

You know, the kind of ostensible dialogue that involves one character talking about something, while the other character doesn’t really add much to the conversation. It tends to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Steve replied.

“You can say that again. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”

“Um-hm.”

“I’ll bet you did. You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No.” Steve was crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Antoinette dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?”

“Could be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You think I’m blaming the victims?”

“I never said that.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Steve serving in this conversation, other than providing validation, the opposite of conflict? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of mostly colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. We all know by this juncture, I hope, how Millicent and her ilk feel about that in a submission: “Next!”

Even if you find none of those excellent arguments for revision convincing, there’s another, quite practical one you might want to consider. Just look, self-editors concerned about the fact that your manuscript is 40 pages longer than the expected length for a first book in your category, at how much shorter this scene would be if it were presented as an actual monologue:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Saying that women don’t know anything about cars is sure a lousy sales technique. Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

While Steve crawled into the passenger seat via the smashed back window, she dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. She set about hot-wiring the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition.

“Or maybe it’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?” The engine roared. “Bingo, baby! I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

See? Steve’s silence makes his unwillingness to argue every bit as clear as his bland continual agreement did above. So what would have been the payoff for retaining his chatter?

Perhaps more to the point, if such lightly-disguised monologues provide neither character development, interesting inter-character conflict, nor, frankly, many sentences worth preserving for posterity, why are they so very popular with aspiring writers? Expediency, mostly: there’s no denying that having a protagonist, villain, or crucial minor character suddenly hold forth like Hamlet is a mighty efficient way to convey information to a reader.

But from the professional reader’s point of view, this use of page space is not efficient at all: it’s the narrative equivalent of having a play’s lead excuse himself to the other characters mid-scene, walk to the edge of the stage, and say, “Look, I really don’t have time to convey everything you need to know in dramatic form, so I’m simply going to tell you what would have happened in the next couple of scenes if we had bothered to stage them, okay?”

It’s not okay, at least according to Millicent. She’s reading your manuscript partially in order to find out how you tell a story — is it honestly in your interest to make her read through filler before reaching your best writing?

Ditto with dialogue that repeats what the reader already knows, as in that archetype of easily cut-able scenes, the one where the protagonist tells another character what happened in a previous scene. As in what the reader has just read. This might be defensible if the protagonist were adding a new twist on the information, but most of the time, s/he recaps the information exactly as the reader has already experienced it because — you can see this coming, can’t you? — it’s what a reasonable person might do in real life.

How easily cut-able are such scenes, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s rare that an accurate retelling, even one that takes up pages of text, could not be summed up in a single sentence: Sheila ran back to the classroom and told everyone what had happened.

Here’s an axiom for the ages: by definition, redundant text adds nothing new to a narrative. It merely takes up space.

That answer didn’t mollify some of you reality-huggers, did it? “But Anne, isn’t realism valuable in and of itself? I know plenty of people who effectively have their own catchphrases.”

As do I, as it happens. In fact, I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, both her father AND her uncle spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no. So I ask you: would it or would it not be a good means of revealing the background of a character from my home town to incorporate it repeatedly in the text? What about using it as that character’s personal catchphrase?

Pardon my asking, but what precisely would it reveal about her character — other than the not-very-interesting fact that she uses this phrase often? If it does not add anything to the dialogue other than repetition, what possible incentive could I have to reproduce this verbal tick except so readers who already knew the person upon whom the fictional (or memoir) character was based would recognize her?

Is that honestly a good enough reason to bore all of those potential readers who have never had the pleasure of making her acquaintance? Would those excellent souls gain anything but chagrin out of my fidelity in reproducing a rather annoying true-life speech pattern on the page?

The answer to all of those seemingly rhetorical questions was no, by the way. The fact that a real-life person a writer has chosen to use as a character in a book really speaks repetitively does not justify forcing the reader to put up with it.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of the phrases that actually were typical of my home town, real-life tropes that actual people say bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

Mrs. Price: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

Mrs. Darter: “I was picking peaches. Sure is a great crop this year. How did your dentist appointment go?”

Mrs. Price: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

Mrs. Darter: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. Haven’t seen her for a while. She’s not married yet, is she?”

Mrs. Price: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie.

Dr. Mini: Oh, hello, Mrs. Price. Hello, Mrs. Darter.

Mrs. Darter: I haven’t seen you in a long time, dear. Moving back to town, I hope?

Mrs. Price: Or just visiting friends who have been loyal enough to return to the town that nurtured them as babes?”

Dr. Mini: (Seeking escape route.) How’s your son, Mrs. Price? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to significant other, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

Mrs. Darter: And how’s your mother?

Dr. Mini: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you both.

Mrs. Price: Give my regards to your mother. Tell her that we hope to see her soon.

Dr. Mini: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to (thinks hard) Bobby.

Mrs. Price: Well?

Mrs. Darter: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Mrs. Price: Just wait until I tell Bobby. At least he’ll be pleased.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not, as I mentioned, necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality? And why oh why do we learn so little about Bobby?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life. (But trust me, you don’t want to know more about Bobby. His character strikes me as inherently hostile to development.)

More to the point of this series, the boring bits of this ripped-from-reality dialogue would be significantly more difficult to edit out of a manuscript than a linguistic trope such as my old pal’s “like I said…” Cutting the latter would a particularly easy edit, not only because the writer could simply use the FIND function in word to excise it, but because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice).

But reworking the exchange above to render it snappy? That would take an almost complete rewrite. Nevertheless, one of the best places for a self-editor to start looking to trim manuscript fat — or even eliminate entire scenes — is generally in scenes taken directly from real life. Most writers cut-worthy include elements in such scenes simply because it happened that way, not because those elements or lines of dialogue add crucial elements to the scene.

To put it bluntly, blandness tends to linger in reality — and that’s potentially problematic at the submission stage. To paraphrase one of Millicent’s most frequent exclamations, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”

While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener — and an even worse agent — his observation might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: some screeners and contest judges’ maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is well under a minute.

So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15; it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito. Not that every Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury would stop reading that quickly — but enough of them would that it just doesn’t make strategic sense to take a chance.

Especially on page 1. Had I mentioned that?

Oh, seven or eight times? Funny, I hadn’t noticed. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVII: minimizing dialogue predictability, or, hot enough for you?

beach day

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m rather proud of this photograph, one of the best I’ve taken in an awfully long time. Over and above the fact that I like how it turned out (especially the wave details), I shot it while flat on my back (my injured back, to be specific) at an extremely crowded beach, yet it looks as though these two fine fellows were the only beachcombers for miles around.

It just goes to show you: whether you are taking a snapshot of friends or constructing a narrative, perspective choice is key. So is knowing what to cut out — in this case, the three surfers, arguing couple, and half a dozen assorted tanners lying around just outside this shot.

Ah, once the urge to edit creeps into the soul, it’s hard not to let it creep into every aspect of one’s life. Wouldn’t those of you caught in the heat wave currently sweeping the U.S., for instance, just love to have the ability to cut from reality iterations #2 – 742 of “Hot enough for ya?” you’ve heard within the last week?

Oh, you laugh now. But just see if you aren’t reaching mentally for the Liquid Erase the next time you hear someone say it.

On the page, of course, such conversational redundancy tends to make one reach for something else — a scissors, to cut the repetitive (and thus predictable) dialogue right out of the book. Of course, Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge don’t need to slice and dice dull dialogue literally; all they have to do is reject or disqualify it.

Not sure why characters echoing one another — which, after all, people do all the time in real life; there’s a reason most sitcoms lean so heavily on catchphrases for laughs — gets old fast on the page? Okay, let’s listen in on a representative sample:

Absent-mindedly, Barb wheeled her loaded grocery cart into the next aisle. “Oh, hi, Ellen.”

“Hello, Barb,” Ellen replied. “Hot enough for you?”

“Sure is. How are the kids?”

“Oh, fine. They grow up so fast, don’t they? How are yours?”

“Oh, I can’t complain. We sure could use some rain.”

“We sure could. Oh, here’s Ed. Hello, Ed.”

Ed was indeed slouching his way toward the canned goods. “Hi, Ellen. Hi, Barb. Hot enough for ya?”

“Hi, Ed,” said Barb. “It sure is. How’s the wife?”

“Oh, fine, fine. How’s yours?”

“Just fine,” Barb said.

“Mine, too,” Ellen added. “How are your twins doing, Ed?”

He shook his head ruefully. “They grow up so fast. Hey, here comes Jeremy. Hi, Jeremy! Hot enough for ya?”

Everyone laughed merrily. “It sure is,” Jeremy said, clutching a swiftly-melting carton of ice cream to his chest.

Had enough? They haven’t — but Millicent, I assure you, abandoned this page long ago. Why? Well, it’s just not very interesting, is it?

That made some of you drop your ice cream cones, didn’t it? “But Anne,” lovers of realism exclaim, mopping your dripping brows, “that’s how people talk in real life! You don’t seriously expect us to believe that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Actually, yes, I do. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on in a scene. Or not character- or situation-revealing. Or, as we’ve seen above, just not all that exciting.

To put it as Millicent might: is it the writer’s job to be a transcriptionist, furiously scribbling down everything a real person does or might say in a particular situation — or is the goal of writing well to improve upon reality, offering the reader not merely what s/he might hear on any street corner, but dialogue that exposes emotion, creates conflict,

That immense mouthful was a rhetorical question, by the way. From Millicent’s perspective, if any given line of dialogue doesn’t either advance the plot, reveal character, increase conflict, or add some new dimension to the scene, it should go.

Yes, even if people say it all the time in real life. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, and excu-u-u-se me!

(Note to readers under 30: that last bit would amuse readers who happened to be watching American TV in the late 1970s, just as “You look mahvaleous,” might still bring a grin to viewers who recall the mid-1980s. As you will note, the phrase that had ‘em rolling in the aisles then are not particularly amusing now, but people did in fact repeat them with astonishing frequency back then. You had to be there, I guess.)

Nothing dates a manuscript so fast as TV or movie catchphrases. (”I don’t know karate, but I do know car-azy.” Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) That may not sound like much of a problem for those of you planning to see your work in print imminently, but frankly, it’s likely to worry Millicent or Mehitabel.

Why, you ask? Because — long-time readers, feel free to sing along with me now — manuscripts take a while to make it into print. A catchphrase that’s sweeping the nation today may well be passé or even forgotten by the time a book containing it hits the shelves.

Let’s be practical for a moment, shall we? Even if a manuscript wins an agent’s heart tomorrow, the agent will probably request revisions before submitting it to agents at publishing houses. Editors’ desks are almost invariably piled high with a backlog of submissions, so again, even if it wows the first editor who reads it, she may not have time to read it for a few months. Few novel manuscripts sell on their first round of editorial submissions, so multiply the number of editors your agent wants to see it by even a couple of months, and the book may be circulating for a year or two. Then, once some lucky editor acquires it, even if he does not want revisions (which he probably will), it’s usually at least a year between contract signing and book release. Sometimes more.

For nonfiction, the timing’s even less predictable. Yes, it’s substantially less time-consuming to write a book proposal than an entire book, but once you have it in hand, all of the same time restrictions on agents and editors’ reading time still apply. And don’t forget to add in the time you will need to write the book itself after a publisher picks it up — publication contracts vary, but anywhere from six months to a year and a half is fairly standard. After that, the publisher will have to approve the manuscript (which may entail, you guessed it, more revision) before it can be placed in the print queue…and that’s not even taking into account the fact that certain types of books tend to be released at certain times of year…

Oh, and some of you are working on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, aren’t you? How long do you anticipate that will take?

Getting the picture? More importantly, are you still absolutely certain that the catchphrase that seemed so hip and trendy when you originally typed it last spring will still read as fresh when the first edition of your book first falls into grateful readers’ hands?

To compress all of this into a revision tip: unless your story is set in a specific period in the past, consider cutting current cultural references and colloquialisms. Believe it or not, the day will come — and it’s probably not all that far in the future — when teenagers will roll their eyes when adults-trying-to-be-cool say, “Whatever!”

That’s SO 2005, Grandpa.

Even if your chosen catchphrase is historically appropriate for the setting of your book (dig it, man!), keep an eye on how often it crops up in the text. Repetition is repetition, after all, and a character who repeats herself too often is, among other things, predictable.

It’s also very, very easy to go overboard with the cultural references; one too many, and your character may come across as a stereotype. It’s perfectly fine to differentiate between a pair of sisters by having one’s junior high crush be on David Cassidy, while her young sister later swooned over Shaun, for instance, but must the elder also continually hum John Denver tunes, creating macramé plant holders, and talking about Watergate while wearing her Laurie Partridge pantsuit over a burned bra as she sports a yin-yang ring to P.E. classes still unaffected by Title 9? And is it really necessary for the younger to toss her Farrah over her Leif Garrett albums while simultaneously watching the Muppets and mourning the demise of Sid Vicious?

Hands up, any of you who caught all of those cultural references. If you did, please turn to the blank-eyed person next to you and explain them. Don’t be deterred by their persistent yawns; I’m sure the young will be amused to learn what albums were.

And if your first instinct was to point out huffily that there was never actually an event where bras were burned (the cliché actually comes from the public burnings of Vietnam-era draft cards, transposed into a different social movement), or that a Leif Garrett fan would NEVER have been listening to the Sex Pistols, well, you’re right. But having a firm grip on historical realism does not give you carte blanche to start carting in cultural references by the wheelbarrow load.

I assure you, they are not indispensable. Whenever you find one in your text, ask yourself: is this detail meaningful enough to keep? Or could I convey an accurate feeling of the time and place through more unusual — and therefore less expected — means?

While you are scanning your text for redundant dialogue, catchphrases, and soon-to-be-dated cultural references, bear in mind that television and movies often shape day-to-day speech in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the standard first response upon hearing that someone has experienced bereavement: I’m so sorry for your loss.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with expressing sympathy that way, inherently, but think back a decade or two: did real people say this much before police officers on TV shows and in movies began spouting it every time they encountered a victim’s family?

Even if you want your characters to sound as though they’re playing bit parts on a Law & Order spin-off (because that’s not a cultural reference that will puzzle stumblers upon this post ten years hence), is parroting a standard impersonal phrase really the most character- or situation-revealing way those characters could respond to something as inherently dramatic as the news of a death? Isn’t saying precisely what anyone might say something of a waste of dialogue space?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: predictability is the enemy of snappy dialogue, and while the polite phrases that everybody uses are nice to encounter in real life, they can be deadly dull on the page. Compare, please, this series of events, ripped from real-life dialogue:

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thank you for telling me, Sergeant Jones.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The officer gave a sympathetic smile. “But I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Oh, of course, of course.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, Shane excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss,” Ted said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, nothing.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“That’s okay,” Shane said vaguely, wondering if thank you were actually the proper response.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” the desk clerk said. “You’ll find the forms you need over there.”

Eloquence did not come easily. Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

“Well, you can take it home and bring it in later.” The clerk smiled at him. “Don’t worry.”

“We’re sorry for your loss,” the receptionist called after him as he stalked out of the building.

As you may see, these characters are simply say what is socially acceptable these days. Again, people do this all the time in real life, but does it make for either exciting or character-revealing dialogue? Are at least some of these stock responses substitutes for some potentially interesting dialogue.

You be the judge — but before you decide, let me stack the deck with some evidence that this scene could have been handled to better effect.

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I suppose I should be grateful, Sergeant Jones.”

“Nobody likes hearing bad news.” The officer gave a sympathetic shrug. “Or what I have to say next: I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Of course,” Shane muttered. “It’s not as though I have to break the news to my great-grandmother or anything.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, her excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Well, I suppose we could have somebody else rearrange the cat food display.” Ted’s tone implied that the lack of Shane’s unique stacking savvy might well send Cats R Us into immediate bankruptcy. “But get here as soon as you can.”

No, thanks: there’s nothing you can do. I’m fine, really. “I appreciate it.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “I know it’s hard, but you’re doing a great job.”

“Thank you?,” Shane said vaguely.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, God, you’re the third walk-in today.” The desk clerk pointed to a cluttered table on the far side of the room. “You’ll find the forms you need over there. The deadline for tomorrow’s edition is in ten minutes, so chop-chop.”

Eloquence did not come easily to him under normal circumstances, but with the clerk helpfully counting down the minutes like some misplaced staffer from the NASA launch command center, he found it difficult even to spell Terry’s middle name correctly. Feeling like a failure, Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand and went sheepishly back to the front desk. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

The clerk sighed gustily. “Well, I didn’t know the guy.”

The obituary editor caught him just as he was in the act of slamming the office door. “You can take the form home and fill it out there, you know.” He produced a fresh copy. To Shane, its very blankness was a threat. “You can bring it back whenever you want. Or,” he lowered his voice, presumably so the clerk would not hear him, “mail it in.”

Just one of a multiplicity of possibilities, of course. Frequently, too-polite interactions stifle genuine human interaction. While manners ease social tensions, drama demands conflict.

So here’s a suggestion for revising polite chatter: make at least one of the parties less polite, and see what happens. Maybe it will be interesting.

Speaking of interesting reactions, I have been hearing faint howls of protest for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “that first version felt more real to me. Surely Millicent will be willing to put up with the occasional polite platitude in the interests of realism?”

Think of what you’re saying. Remember, in addition to being predictable, canned polite responses tend to be clichés. Why precisely would Millicent be inclined to skim over hackneyed phrases, except in the hope that something more original may ensue?

More importantly, why would a reader — especially if those predictable courtesies make up any or all of the dialogue on page 1? (Oh, it happens.)

Lest any of you be tempted to dismiss those questions as yet more evidence that marketing concerns are antithetical to art, let me provide you with a solid creative reason to excise the stock responses: real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as writers sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Gary.” Monique picked up the crumpled wad of paper before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the administrative assistant’s desk.

Celeste glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Monique stammered awkwardly. “I thought you had dropped it.”

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Celeste grew large in her seat, a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“But the recycling bin’s right under your desk!”

“March!”

“I’ll save you a seat in the meeting,” Gary offered, embarrassed.

Celeste turned to him with exaggerated courtesy. “How kind of you, Mr. Coleman, and what a nice tie. It sure is hot out today, isn’t it?”

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Monique obediently took the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the hall. Her boss hated it when anyone missed his opening remarks.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Celeste is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Celeste ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Celeste’s response; fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

Nor does the scene achieve much than make Monique seem like the better person. But if Celeste is not important enough to the storyline to be fleshed out as a character, why should the reader care?

This, in short, is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty, because Celeste was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Celeste — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you attributed it to the fact that his memory of Celeste the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a great big popsicle. (Because it’s hot where you are, isn’t it?) In his mind, the character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Monique is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I was darned annoyed, now that you mention it. Yet because I am a good writer and most excellent human being (better than some I could name, at least), I have changed the names, the context, and several significant details to protect the guilty.

But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this tale of woe and uproar, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read AND it advances the plot.

I also might want to keep in mind, while I’m at it, that it’s both unnecessary and annoying to keep reminding the person visibly baking in front of you that it is in fact a hot day. Or humid night, as it is right now. Excuse me while I go drink 17 glasses of ice water, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVI: oh, say, can you see?

Monseurrat and rear view

Since my last post focused so tightly on the nit-picky aspects of revision (go through and check all the tabs? Scrutinize every semicolon? Really, Anne?), I thought I would let it sink into your brains slowly over a couple of days. Today, however, I’m back and full of vim for editing.

Why so excited? Because today, my friends, I’m going to be walking you through an even nit-pickier type of revision.

Oh, you may laugh, but this time around, I’m going to be challenging you to catch some pretty subtle stuff. (Can’t you feel the excitement burbling through the air?)

I certainly can. Since we concentrate so often here at Author! Author! on problems within a writer’s power to fix — as opposed to larger, less predictable pitfalls that fall outside a submitter’s control, such as whether a particular book category will still be popular a year hence, or if Millicent the agency screener has just burned her lip on a too-hot latte immediately before reading your query — I tend to show negative examples. That’s been especially true in this series on Frankenstein manuscripts, stuffed to the proverbial gills with practical illustrations, so you may learn to spot creeping manuscript illnesses in their natural habitat.

Today, I’m going to turn my usual approach on its head, approach it from another angle, sneak in the back door, and engage in any other euphemism for changing tactics you might happen to name. This time, I’m going to present you with a very good set of opening pages and challenge you to find the subtle problems that might tempt Millicent to change her “Wow!” to “Oh, so close.”

Interestingly, today’s example first came to my attention because of its writer’s doubts about whether she had pulled off a conceptually difficult passage in her work. Those of you who have been following this series may recall reader Christie’s thought-provoking question on a recent post:

You really made me think today, and I thank you, Anne. I have a scene that was bothering me anyway that came to mind when I read your post. My difficulty lies in the fact that the scene involves looking into a rear-view mirror, and I am finding it hard not to resort to all of the visual words associated with looking. I know that I still have too many of them, but it’s hard to know how to change them.
When I printed the pages in question, and read them aloud, I realized how irritating it would be to a reader. I had never considered reading my manuscript aloud until I came upon your blog recently… Any other advice you might offer on the subject would be appreciated.

I love good questions from readers — especially when, like this one, they are so politely phrased. But Christie’s question was unusually hard to answer: as we have seen in recent posts, the answer to how much repetition is too much? varies from book category to book category, as well as from manuscript to manuscript. What works on Writer X’s page 1 will often not work at all on Writer Y’s.

I could, of course, have given my standard answer: when in doubt about what is stylistically acceptable in your chosen book category, rush off to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling recently-released books akin to yours off shelves, and start reading random pages.

This trick works equally well for writing-based questions ranging from establishing the vocabulary level of your target audience, getting a feel for the expected narrative tone in your subgenre, and determining when, if ever, semicolons may appear in a manuscript. Just make absolutely certain to select pages from many different books, rather than those by your favorite authors, and that any book you consult came out within the last five years. (Longer than that, and you won’t be learning about the current market.)

Since the phenomenon Christie was talking about was unlikely to turn up very often in a well-edited published book, however, this answer, though good advice in itself, seemed a trifle dismissive. So I did what any self-respecting nit-picker would do: I took a look at the pages in question.

Here, by her kind permission, is her opening scene. (If you have trouble reading it, try increasing the size by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing +.)

Christie page 1
Christie page 2
Christie page 3

Pretty good grabber, isn’t it? It introduces the characters well, establishes the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and tosses the reader smack into the middle of an ongoing conflict, all in a believably chatty first-person narrative voice. This scene is, in short, a good hook for a submission. The closing dialogue is a bit conceptually repetitive, but overall, well done, Christie!

But I come to address her question, not to praise her. So I ask you: are there too many visual references in these pages? If so, which do you think should go?

While you’re pondering those two pertinent issues, allow me to raise another: in which fiction book category would you say, based solely upon these three pages, does this opening belong?

I imagine that each of us will have a slightly different answer to those three questions. Let’s get technical for a moment, to make sure that we’re all concentrating upon the same things. To keep things interesting, let’s apply the same test I’ve been advising for ferreting out any kind of repetition: highlighting every instance of it. Take a gander:

Christie 1 marked
Christie 2 marked
Christie 3 marked

Seems like quite a few more vision-based references now, doesn’t it? To a professional reader, all of those references to sight would have popped out the first time around, without all of the green ink.

And yet compared to most fiction and memoir submissions, these pages actually rely upon vision and visually-based conclusions rather less than most. In fact, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that in 90% of first pages, no sensations either than sight or sound appear at all.

Happily, Christie has been savvier than that: her opening paragraph is stuffed to the brim with sensual imagery. That choice saves the page, from a reader’s perspective: yes, there is quite a bit of reliance upon sight here, but all of that seeing and appearing (what, you hadn’t regarded that as a vision-based term?) is balanced by observations based upon the narrator’s other senses. (Kudos again — but, nit-picker that I am, I would have liked to see that trend continue for the rest of the scene.)

That’s the answer from the reader’s perspective — but the writer is not the reader, right? So short of running out into the street the moment she finished her most recent revision, grabbing the nearest stranger, and forcing him at knifepoint to read these pages, how might a writer go about trying to answer the just right or too much question herself?

Ah, but we highlighted those visual references for a reason. The real test here is how often those green boxes rear their frog-like little faces: how many are there per page, and do they occur in clusters?

Here, the eye activity is not pervasive, but congregated in certain parts of the text. Guess where it would make the most sense to begin revising?

Is the scratch-scratch-scratch sound I’m hearing an indication that half of you are making furious notes to yourself about what to tackle next in your Frankenstein manuscripts, or has a race of giants suddenly all found its respective tummies itchy?

Some of you are managing to raise your hands while taking notes, I see. “But Anne,” those who are thinking strategically inquire, “while the marked-up pages certainly make clear where the writer might start revising, I’m not quite sure how she might go about it. Should she just proceed from box to box, eliminating as many references to sight as she can?”

Actually, that’s not where I would advise making changes first. Since, as Christie herself points out, quite a few of the sight references are integral to the action, I would first try removing all of the non-essential visual words.

Oh, didn’t those leap out at you? They would have at Millicent.

1. Words and phrases that imply seeing
Remember, many words and phrases can mean different things in different contexts; our exemplar may not have been thinking of some of these words and phrases as visually-based, but the reader may perceive them that way.

For instance, several of the word choices here are visually based, logically speaking: apparition, apparently (as I said, almost everyone overlooks that one, so to speak), em>appeared (ditto), vanishing act (although it is used literally here, it often is not), hallucination. Simply selecting other words would substantially reduce the amount of vision-based description in this narrative voice.

Other candidates for changing the wording: some of the phrases used to describe activities other than seeing. Tried to focus, for example. The narrator is not literally trying to focus upon anything, but within a scene with a lot of visual references, is this really the best way to phrase it?

2. Activities that would require seeing, but use different words
This is a subtle one, so stick with me here: as we have discussed before, most manuscripts rely almost exclusively upon the senses of sight and sound, as if no others existed. We could quibble endlessly about how much the ubiquity of these two senses in narrative prose may be attributed to the rise of television and movies, which can use only sight and sound to make their points.

Writers of books, on the other hand, have more possibilities, and you really should take advantage of them. Why must your protagonist see that field of flowers through her window, for instance, instead of smelling it?

That’s a change that would tend to please a professional reader. A revision far less conducive to Millicent’s happiness would be — and don’t pretend that this hasn’t occurred to you throughout this series — when a writer just seeks out all of the visual words (see, look, regard, etc.) and replaces them with other ways of saying that the protagonist is seeing something.

This is such a common revision tactic for Frankenstein manuscripts (especially, I suspect, in the months after we have been discussing repetition here) that even if the writer intends no such thing, Millicent may well draw the conclusion that someone’s been very busy indeed with the search-and-replace function.

In an opening like this one that contains a lot of visual references, that would be a dangerous conclusion for her to draw. But it’s not at all unlikely: go back and re-read the first ten lines of our example, if you don’t believe me.

They contain 8 visual references, right? Of them, 3 are necessary for the reader to understand what is going on: the protagonist checked the rear view mirror; she felt watched; the lights behind her flashed in the mirror. Another, momentarily blinding me is a reaction to the flashing, and thus probably worth keeping.

The other 4, however, could easily be changed; indeed, we’ve already discussed altering one of them. But what are we to make of the repetition of I checked the rear view mirror (line 3) and I kept hastily checking (line 7)?

I can tell you now what an eye-weary Millicent would make of them. She would either assume that the writing in the rest of the manuscript relied on relatively few verbs (not a fair assessment, given the rest of this scene) or that the writer did a word search, noticed two instances of I looked in the rear-view mirror, and changed them both to I checked the rear-view mirror.

Which, of course, is another way of saying that the protagonist looked at something. And, as you may already have noted, is also word-repetitious.

In order to slay the I looked dragon, it’s not enough just to change specific words. Often, the writer will have to come up with both a different way of phrasing and another means of showing the reader what is going on.

3. Visually-based emotional shorthand
There are also places in the text where vision is invoked as a means of expressing emotion: my eyes practically leapt out of their sockets, to give him my best icy glare, my eyes shut instinctively in disbelief, I blinked in total bewilderment. If these emotions could be expressed other than through eye activity — especially since in context, none of them need be conveyed through the eyes — half of the visual references on page 2 would be gone.

4. Head-hopping and narrative assumptions
Stand well back, because I’m about to trumpet a rule: for a first-person narrative to ring true to the reader, it must adhere to two basic rules: report in the narrative only what the narrator could actually have seen, heard, felt, etc., and don’t make unwarranted guesses about other characters’ motivations, feelings, or thoughts.

So mentioning a visual detail that could only be observed from outside the narrator (his own eyes glazing over, for instance), or saying why another character is doing something is not playing fair. That’s just logical, right? One person cannot say for sure what another is seeing or feeling, any more than he can be absolutely certain that he knows why somebody else does something.

Thus, when a first-person narrator reports that her pursuer was trying to get a better look at me, that’s technically a perspective slip. It may be a correct conclusion, but it is necessarily a conclusion, not a fact. For the same reason, the helmeted head was studying me is our heroine’s best guess of what the person on the motorcycle was doing; she may not be correct about that.

5. Characters who look instead of doing something more interesting
As we discussed earlier in this series, aspiring writers often have characters look, as if the act of looking were to the independent observer particularly fascinating. It isn’t, usually — so why not enliven your text by having all of those lookers do, well, almost anything else?

Christie could cut quite a few of the visual references from this scene in this manner. What if, for example, the thing she fears is following her wasn’t sitting in the back seat with an axe, instead of being bottom-lined as nothing stared back at me? How about if the narrator did or said something in response to being startled, rather than just blinking, as my eyes shut instinctively in disbelief and I opened them again imply?

6. Reminding the reader that the narrator or protagonist is in fact the one observing things.
We’ve already talked about this one, right? Once a first- or tight third-person narrative has established that the reader is being shown only a single perspective, anything that the narrative reports is ASSUMED to be from that character’s perspective. Continually inventing narrative excuses to remind the reader who is seeing what (or, more commonly, to justify including a description) is unnecessary — and, when done in excess, downright annoying to Millicent.

The good news is that this type of reminder can usually be cut in its entirety, with no cost to the text. For instance, removing I glanced in the side mirror to get a better idea of who I was dealing with could be excised from the top of page two without lessening the tension or altering the reader’s perception of the flow of events at all.

Notice anything, campers? Once all six kinds of looking are revised away, not even the hardest-nosed Millicent would carp over the amount of visual references in this scene.

So I ask you again: were there too many in the original text?

For my taste, yes — but not by very much. Since the tension level was consistently high throughout the first two pages (it flags a bit once the conversation starts, since the narrator is no longer conveying panic), I would have kept reading.

But that’s just me; another professional reader might feel differently.

Also, it’s important to remember that even though we are focusing for the sake of discussion upon visual references, they might not strike every Millicent as the potential red flags in this opening. Remember, professional readers are trained VERY closely; not much gets past them. So while Christie has presented us with an unusually clean manuscript, that doesn’t mean that solving the vision problem is necessarily all of the revision she would want to do.

Scratching your head, wondering what else she might try afterward? Let’s take a peek at how Millicent might see these pages, to see if she can help steer us in the right direction. (Speaking of visual criteria, my apologies for these photos; apparently, my studio was invaded by some bright red lights today.)

Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

That’s a lot of purple ink, isn’t it, for an opening few pages that we all saw for ourselves were in pretty good shape. And they are in pretty good shape, by submission standards — even if Christie decided to embrace each and every one of Millicent’s suggestions, this is probably only a few hours’ worth of revision. (Don’t strain your eyes, Christie — I’ll send you the marked-up pages.)

That places these pages far, far ahead of the vast majority of what our Millie sees. But that doesn’t mean that they could not use some further revision. In all probability, no individual issue we’ve discussed today would be sufficient to provoke a knee-jerk rejection, but together? Who knows?

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, every professional reader has slightly different tastes in literary style. What virtually all of us share, however, is an affection for nicely-written, well-proofread, grammar-checked, professionally formatted text that tells a good story well.

Which means, in essence, that going over your submission line by line, checking for red flags, is not just likely to increase your chances of pleasing Millicent; it’s her minimum expectation of what a talented writer will do. It’s not as though most manuscripts are rejected based upon a single problem, after all; like formatting problems, writing goof-ups tend to travel in groups.

A high bar to leap? You bet. Lest we forget, Millicent’s standard for comparison is not merely the other submissions that cross her desk on the same day as yours; it’s presentation perfection, solid writing, and a marketable book concept.

That may seem like a gigantic set of goals for as detail-oriented a process as revision, but what you’re doing here is not merely ironing out the rough spots in this manuscript. Working through a really conscientious manuscript revision is going to change the way you write — for the better, if you’ve done your homework. Those old-fashioned schoolteachers who used to make their students write out sample sentences a hundred times had a point, you know — once you’ve devoted a few days to tracking down and examining every single visual reference in a 350-page manuscript, the probability that you’ll have to perform the same search on your next manuscript is rather low.

Trust me on this one. A Frankenstein manuscript can offer a magnificent growth experience for a writer. Like most growth experiences, it’s not much fun in the moment, but the results are ultimately worth it.

Please join me in extending many thanks to Christie for the excellent question and the great example, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XV: the creature rises afresh, or, this is what nit-picking gets you

son-of-frankenstein poster

Is everyone rested and refreshed after the long weekend our brief hiatus from discussing revision issues? I thought very seriously of posting on the 4th, for the benefit of those of you who had no intention of barbecuing anything or endangering your precious, manuscript-creating fingers with fireworks, but a page into critiquing the Declaration of Independence by modern editorial standards (will your audience consider those truths self-evident, Tom? It’s just lazy writing not to explain the underlying logic here), the whole enterprise began to feel a tad disrespectful.

So even though the darned thing is stuffed to the gills with ands, nouns capitalized for no apparent reason, and paragraphs made up of only a single, often run-on sentence, I left it alone. Perhaps I will get back to it fourscore and seven years hence.

Note to readers outside the United States: that running joke actually was kind of funny. Honest. You’d have to be here.

Before I leave the Founders to their own devices, however, I would like to give all of us a running start back into nit-picking mode by borrowing a couple of sentences from Jefferson’s immortal document to talk about a phenomenon that plagues many a modern-day manuscript: misused semicolons. Cast thy worthy eyes over these classic sentences, citizens, and see if you can spot the problem:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Did it leap out at you, as it probably would have at our old friend Millicent the agency screener (and almost certainly would have at her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge)? No? Here’s another specimen of semicolon abuse:

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He, by the way, was King George III; I wouldn’t want the resemblance to current political events to confuse anybody. That last sentence, incidentally, was a correct use of a semicolon: it joined two complete sentences together. Functioning as an effective contraction of comma + and, a semicolon allows two complete sentences to occupy the same sentence without technically creating a run-on.

See the problem now? Like so many aspiring (and, unfortunately, established as well) writers of our own day, our third president evidently did not understand that ; and is inherently redundant. That’s why, in case anyone out there had been wondering, it’s technically improper to place a semicolon before the and in a list: this thing is red; that thing is blue; and the other thing is chartreuse. is, it pains me to tell you, incorrect. It should be: this thing is red; that thing is blue, and the other thing is chartreuse.

Fortunately, this species of semicolon abuse is extremely easy to rectify, either by the means I just used above, changing the improper semicolon to a comma, or by removing the and allowing the semicolon to function as God intended.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

A reviser could also, should s/he be of revolutionary propensities, simply turn the gargantuan sentence into two, removing the necessity for the semicolon altogether. While I’m at it, I can’t resist cleaning up the commas a little:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Yes, yes, I know, semicolon-lovers: a semicolon indicates a pause longer than a comma, but not the full stop of a period. It is not beyond belief that in these specific sentences, Jefferson might have been making a point by cramming two sentences’ worth of information into single sentences.

I grant you that — but as an editor, I cannot in good conscience forbear pointing out that if that was his goal in these sentences, it would have worked better if he had not made it his goal quite so often. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: the more often a writer uses a literary device or sentence-level trick within a short run of text, the less effective each subsequent use will be.

The Declaration of Independence (or, more properly, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, a cumbersome mouthful) is almost five pages long in standard format. Tell me, do you believe that a modern-day Millicent would keep turning the pages after the second misused semicolon? What about Mehitabel?

Actually, depending upon the book category, they might take umbrage at the first semicolon, properly used or not. Although ubiquitous in nonfiction (due, no doubt, to their popularity in journalism), the semicolon is not particularly welcome in most fiction book categories. Other than literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mainstream and high-end women’s fiction — the fiction categories that also assume the largest vocabularies in their respective target audiences — semicolons tend to be rare in published novels, at least in the U.S.

Enough so that it’s usually in a reviser’s best interest to minimize their use, unless the manuscript he’s slaving over happens to fall in one of the categories mentioned above. It may not be necessary to omit them altogether — although, frankly, most freelance editors would tell you that it’s virtually always a good idea in a submission — but do your best not to use more of them per page than is common in first novels in your chosen book category.

Yes, scanning enough recent releases to see what kind of writing the popular kids are selling these days is going to be a lot of work, now that you mention it. Sorry about that, but using either what the bigwigs in the field can get published or what was considered the best writing in your category ten, fifteen, or fifty years ago won’t give you a very clear idea of what Millicent’s level of tolerance for semicolons — or, indeed, any other literary trick you might happen to favor — is now, will it?

Besides, we all know in the depths of our creative little hearts that most semicolons turn up in manuscripts not because they are essential to the paragraphs they grace, or even for rhythmic effect, but because so many writers really like them. Some really, really like them. They like them so much, in fact, that they often find ways to work ‘em in four times a paragraph.

Is Millicent’s objection to them starting to make a bit more sense? She sees so many dots over commas that her desk sometimes seems overrun with aphids. To see yet another reason why that might be annoying, let’s seek out more evidence of Jefferson’s apparently troubled relationship with punctuation:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

Funny how pertinent some of his issues still seem, isn’t it? Not just politically, but grammatically: what on earth was he thinking, using more than one semicolon within a single sentence? Happily, this, too, is easy to fix.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States. For that purpose, he has obstructed the laws of naturalization for foreigners, refused to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raised the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

Doesn’t really lose anything by being freed of semicolons, does it? Neither does the average sentence in your garden-variety semicolon-laden manuscript.

I’m bringing this up, not to sadden those of you who worship the semicolon, but to remind you just how closely professional readers scrutinize manuscript submissions and contest entries. Remember, they do not read like folks who read for pleasure; for the opening chapters of a manuscript, at least, they tend to be on the look-out for reasons to reject it.

So while it may seem tedious — heck, may be tedious — to search a 400-page haystack for needles, going over each page with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to make sure that every sentence is your best writing, Millicent and her boss would not consider such behavior above and beyond the call of duty for a serious writer.

Do you know what they would consider it? A good writer’s job.

That’s why, in case you’ve been scratching your collective head over it, I’ve been hammering so hard throughout this series on the importance of re-reading your work not only for story and characterization, but also for sentence-level stumbling blocks like word repetition. Or seemingly unimportant formatting issues.

Everything adds up to create an impression. Believe me, Millicent would be much, much happier about recommending a manuscript that just bellows, “Look! My writer is capable of taking infinite pains in order to present her story and voice in their best possible light!” than one that sighs, as so many do, “Well, my writer may be talented — if you look past the technical mistakes, you’ll find evidence of it.”

Remember, too, that even a Millicent or Mehitabel willing to invest the effort to ferret out the occasional beautiful sentence in a poorly-presented manuscript may be put off by formatting problems. They have been trained to zero in on them, after all — just as no entry is so easy to knock out of finalist consideration as one that has broken one of the contest’s rules, no submission is as easy to reject as one whose very margins declare that the writer hasn’t done his homework about what professional manuscripts are supposed to look like.

In fairness to Millicent and Mehitabel, once your eyes are accustomed to spot the small stuff, it’s pretty hard to overlook. That’s a pity, because the small stuff is often the most difficult for the reviser to catch.

If that last paragraph didn’t automatically make you murmur, “And that’s why it’s a good idea to read your submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off,” well, I must not have repeated it enough in this series. Which I find rather hard to believe.

To illustrate just how difficult it can be to see the little problems that would jump up and down on the page as a screener or contest judge scanned it, clamoring distractingly for attention, I have called upon a brave reader to allow me to use his opening page as an example. Reader Nick has kindly provided us with the following:

krygier example

Did the little problems flag you down, distracting you from the narrative? Believe it or not, as few and small as the gaffes here, they would have made it difficult for Mehitabel or Millicent to be drawn into the unfolding story.

I see raised hands out there, trying to flag me down. Yes, hand-wavers? “But Anne,” many of you protest breathlessly, “I don’t see anything wrong with Nick’s page, technically. I suppose Millicent might quibble about the semicolon in the opening sentence, depending upon the book category, but it is properly used. What’s she reading with, those X-ray specs that used to be advertised in the back of comic books?”

No, merely the eyes of experience. Let’s take a look at this page as she would have preferred to see it presented.

krygier example2

See the difference? Admittedly, I tinkered with a few of the style choices here — while anyways may have been intended to show that the narrator is not well-educated, using it twice on the same page invites Millicent to recognize that it isn’t proper. Since the narrator here clearly means anyway, it was an easy change. Ditto with the redundant use of right now: excising it does not alter the meaning of the second sentence, so why antagonize Millicent with the word repetition? (Speaking of things that might annoy her: who is the friend mentioned in paragraph 2, the reader wonders? Is this a sarcastic reference to the doctor? The text does not offer an explanation.)

While either Millicent or Mehitabel would have caught all of these problems on a first read-through, drawing conclusions accordingly, those are probably not the gaffes that would have caught their attention first. The fact that the text began too high on the page would have struck any professional reader, as would the fact that each paragraph is indented five spaces, not .5 inch.

This is a mistake that I have suddenly begun seeing with great frequency within the last six months or so; it was relatively rare before, perhaps because it’s a gaffe that someone who had taken a typing class would be unlikely to make. Word sets an automatic tab at .5 inch, so all one has to do to indent the right amount is to hit the TAB key.

It’s less trouble, honest. Speaking of going to unnecessary trouble, did you spot the most serious formatting problem on the first page?

Instead of the lines of text falling evenly on the page, there is extra space between paragraphs. This would look quite wrong to a professional reader — and since it’s usually not the default in Word, it’s probably the result of some writerly tinkering in the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/INDENTS AND SPACING box. Not only is this sort of fancy manuscript formatting annoying to set up — it’s improper. Just allow the lines to fall naturally, equidistant on the page.

And all that’s visible before Millicent or Mehitabel read so much as a single sentence of the submission. See why it might be a good idea to take a gander at your work IN HARD COPY, even if you are planning on submitting it electronically?

Of course, either dear lady would have caught some problems within the text itself. The dashes are not consistently doubled, with a space at either end, and there’s a comma missing from the quote — neither perhaps rejection reasons individually, but together, they would indicate to a pro that this page had not been proofread for consistency.

As we discussed earlier in this series, consistency in formatting, grammar, and voice is much, much more important to professional readers than most self-editors even begin to suspect. Inconsistencies are jarring — more so, sometimes, than consistent mistakes. To prove that, we need look no farther than the dashes in the first example: obviously, given the correct second usage, the writer here knows that dashes should be doubled; he evidently just forgot to do it the first time around.

And what would have been the best way to catch a nit-picky problem like that, campers, an oversight that a spell- and grammar-checker would not pick up? That’s right: reading this page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Which, you must admit, is quite possible that the writer already did before letting me post this (thanks again for that, Nick); most of these are, after all, quite small cosmetic problems. The vast majority of aspiring writers would not even have looked for at least half of these.

But we aspire to high standards than that, don’t we?

Scarcely had this set of admittedly small revisions fallen off my weary fingertips when I sensed a certain amount of disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “Oh, God,” a fairly hefty percentage of you murmured, “revising my Frankenstein manuscript is going to be an infinitely more complex matter than I had previously anticipated. Or so I nervously surmise from the fact that Anne is now talking about problems I could not solve, or at any rate locate, with a simple search-and-replace. Horrors!”

Actually, my finely-tuned silent, far-flung reader detector picked up three distinct flavors of chagrin floating around out there, each a fairly common response to being greeted with advice to perform any sort of microsurgery on a manuscript. (If there’s a fourth type of stressed-out writer who does not become at least momentarily distraught at the notion of spending days, weeks, or even moths months nit-picking his way through the submission he thought would be snapped up by an agent a year ago, let’s just say I haven’t bumped into him recently on the writers’ conference circuit.)

The first kind is someone I suspect all of you who have spent any time around aspiring writers have met in spades: the oh-it’s-too-much-bother. “But Anne,” representatives of this easily-discouraged type exclaim. “Going through my manuscript to check for something as minor as dash consistency is going to take WEEKS. I know that you like to set high standards for all of us here in the Author! Author! community, but aren’t you over-reaching a bit here? Surely, no reasonable agent or editor is going to back off from a good submission for something that minor. I’m just going to hold off and wait until my future agent/editor/reviewers of my bestseller tells me point-blank that I need to correct this type of problem. In fact, I think I’m going to put off dealing with any revision problem that requires a tool more sophisticated than a simple search-and-replace or spell-check.”

Whoa, revision-eschewers — for such you almost certainly are, or will end up being — who is over-reaching now? As we have discussed throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, the firm belief that books by new writers get picked up before they are polished is, while rather charmingly old-fashioned, one that tends to make those of us who read manuscripts for a living smile sadly and murmur to ourselves, “Oh, this one’s going to have a hard time landing an agent.”

Why? Because a writer who does not habitually proofread implicitly expects that other people will do it for her. While many agents will provide a limited amount of editorial feedback to their clients, especially to new ones, few would be eager to send out manuscripts filled with eye-distracting errors. And in these sad days when even very large publishing houses are laying off editorial staff, is it really a good idea to assume that even the editor who falls in love with your book enough to push it through an editorial committee will have either the time or the inclination to go over the text with that fine-toothed comb I mentioned earlier?

Especially when, if you’ll pardon my bringing it up again, that’s your job?

Just in case any of you are still harboring illusions on the subject, at this point in literary history — and this was true even before the recent economic downturn sent the publishing industry into its current let’s-lay-off-a-third-of-our-editors spree, by the way — aspiring writers are held 100% responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of their manuscripts’ ills. It could hardly be otherwise: Millicent sees so many technically perfect, beautifully-written submissions that she seldom has qualms about rejecting ones that are merely in pretty good shape.

Translation: if your manuscript has a slight cough, it’s up to you to provide the cough drops before she sees it.

With a Frankenstein manuscript, it can be very hard to tell when enough revision is enough, though. Increasing warmth of rejection letters as a writer revised and submitted, then revised and submitted again until an agent snapped up the book, used to provide a pretty good barometer of how a manuscript was improving over time. (That’s why, in case you’d been fretting in the dead of night about it, you might have heard an agent or editor say at a conference that getting only form-letter rejections is always a sign that a manuscript needs intensive revision: in the good old days, that would have been true.)

Now, the MS with emitting the occasional ladylike “Ahem!” usually received precisely the same prefab rejection letter as the MS infected with an advanced case of whooping cough. Or, still worse, with no reply at all. As hard as rejected writers might try to read specific meaning into general statements like I just didn’t fall in love with this story or while the writing is strong, I just don’t think I can sell this in the current market, personalized rejection letters have mostly gone the way of the dodo.

We’ve all heard that such creatures once roved the earth, but few of us have ever seen one in person.

The second variety of revision suggestion-induced panic runs to the opposite extreme, plunging aspiring writers into orgies of incessant worry about whether they’ve cleaned up their manuscripts enough prior to submission. Faced with the kind of alarm I’ve been raising throughout this post, the victim immediately snatches up her editing pens and shouts, “Thanks for telling me, Anne! I’ll clear my schedule for the next three weeks to attend to the matter!”

She is, in a word that I suspect I’m making up on the spot, over-conscientious.

Most of us have probably encountered advanced cases of panic #2, right? Every time the sufferer runs into a new writerly axiom, he rushes to apply it to his work. Adherents of this philosophy would rather spend their time cleaning minute specks of dust off their writing with a toothbrush like an archeologist exhuming the ruins of Troy than run the risk of anything whatsoever being wrong with their work by the time some kind mailman pops it under Millicent’s nose.

In moderation, such devotion to detail is laudable. Over-indulgers, however, can fret themselves into an absolute standstill. Since there’s never any shortage of ostensibly never-fail writing advice out there, a writer who becomes addicted to dipping his cup into the stream of wisdom too frequently can feel as though he’s trying to drain Lake Titicaca with a teaspoon.

The third type, of course, is the one who exclaims, “Oh, my God — the publishing industry is so unreasonable! No wonder nothing of value ever gets published! I might as well give up now.” Which is no skin off Millicent’s freckled nose, of course: see my earlier comment about the number of technically perfect manuscripts she sees in any given year, far more than her boss agent could ever hope to sign to representation contracts.

Welcome to the joys of living in a great, big country filled with talented, creative people. Isn’t competition grand?

By now, I suspect that I’ve given all three types a common cause upon which they agree absolutely. “Heavens, Anne,” they cry in unison, “if your goal was to depress us into a stupor, you’ve certainly succeeded. Knock off for the day, will ya?”

Actually, that wasn’t my goal — although, admittedly, it’s an achievement into which I stumble with some frequency whenever I talk about being realistic about the grim odds that face even an excellent agent-seeking manuscript. (Although while you’re already antsy: if you don’t mind my asking, when’s the last time you made a back-up of your writing files? Or, to put it less gently, if — heaven forfend! — anything happened to your computer tomorrow, would you have to go back and re-make all of those changes you’ve already made on your manuscript? See my point?)

The intention behind bringing up the common stripes of over-reaction to revision suggestions is to encourage all of you to stop yourself from heading toward any of these extremes.

When faced with the prospect of ferreting out and fixing either a manuscript megaproblem or a whole string of little gaffes, what serves a writer best is to come up with a practical plan of attack. Nothing is better at staving off that feeling of being overwhelmed by complete strangers’ extremely high and sometimes rather arbitrary standards.

Trust me on this one. You’ll have a substantially happier life as a writer if you train yourself not to give in to any of the very natural emotional first reactions.

Like, say, to a post like this. Ponder manuscript matters small and great, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Naming names, part III: hey, I don’t make the rules

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Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north! Way to combine those provinces and keep them together!

At the risk of sounding trite, my most memorable Canadian experience actually was Mountie-related. I was leaving an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts in a museum in Victoria, I thought the sudden transition to bright sunlight had done something terrible to my eyes: everywhere I looked, I saw blaring red. Every square foot of public space was filled with Mounties in uniform — scarlet jacket, shiny black boots, the works — chatting with friends and relatives. Hundreds, at least, a veritable red sea.

The sight was, I need hardly say, staggering. I felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a recruitment poster.

Back to business. In the roughly 24 hours since I wrote my last post on name selection, I have sensed a certain amount of reader bewilderment. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) At least a few hands, I suspect, are still raised from Wednesday. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I have been writing all week about how to avoid confusing readers.

For the last couple of posts, I have waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon, manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3. “Who,” the befuddled reader cries helpfully, “are Ernest, James, and Algernon, and what are their respective relationships to Delilah, the character I have been caring about for the last hundred pages? Have they been mentioned earlier in the book, and I have simply forgotten them, or is this their first appearance?

Don’t dismiss this cri de coeur as the just punishment of an inattentive reader, my friends — from a reader’s perspective, manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming pretty fast. Especially, as we have discussed, if the COT members have similar names, either beginning with the same capital letter (to which the skimming eye is automatically drawn, right?), ones that replicate letter patterns and sounds, or — and we have not yet talked about this much — are too like the other proper names in the book.

Still in doubt about the eye-distracting effect of all of those capitals? I wouldn’t want you to have to take my word for something like that — cast your gaze over this sterling piece of prose.

Names first letters

See the problem? No? Okay, get up from your desk chair, take two giant steps backward, and look at it again. Notice where your eye is drawn first?

Even when the names don’t look anything alike, introducing too many of them in one fell swoop can prove equally frustrating to the reader. Again, take a gander:

Names in abundance

An avalanche of characters on page 1, in particular, before the narrative has established a context in which they might be understood, tends to have a character-blurring effect.

“Who are all these people?” the reader muses. “And why are they all dressed in the quite striking uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?”

Either variety of confusion, it pains me to say, causes readers to cast otherwise well-written books aside, it pains me to report. If that’s not a strong enough reason for a writer self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript to say, “Hmm, perhaps I should devote a few hours of my precious revision time to weeding out some of the extras lurking in the corners of my story,” here’s another: our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tends to become impatient when characters pile up.

As, indeed, do editorial assistants, contest judges, and other professional readers; just because it’s their job does not mean that they possess a magical ability to absorb 23 names in a single page without mixing them up. “How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled manuscript wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Is this writer planning to market this book with a program, or perhaps dress the background characters in numbered jerseys, so the reader can possibly tell the individual members of this mob apart?”

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Next!”

Ooh, the notion of the pros not putting in the necessary effort to keep track of all of your characters ruffles a few writerly feathers, doesn’t it? “Wait just a minute” I hear some of you murmuring indignantly. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but Millicent does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis first in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers to see submissions packaged that order. Why is it in your interest to pay attention to such minor niceties? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging.

And please trust a frequent literary contest judge (hey, I don’t spend all of my scant leisure time wandering around Canadian museums) when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too. Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Professional readers tend to harbor great affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of every publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count in requested materials; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him.

Ditto with contest rules, incidentally. General submission or entry guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.)

Which is to say: if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters. If she asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because she’s the one who is going to be deciding whether she wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with her truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you said you wanted to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: she will. So will her Millicent and any contest judge you might see fit to treat in a similar fashion.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Writers brand-new to the biz make this mistake all the time, learning only through hard experience that such extrapolations seldom pay off. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, 1 agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Bear that in mind, please, the next time you find yourself confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, that synopsis you slaved to make short enough is not always considered at the submission stage. Reading the synopsis is often not necessary to determining whether to ask to see the rest of the book — and why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis of a manuscript she has just finished reading in its entirety?

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend. There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage, presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it. The only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens after the last page of the submission.

Try not to waste any energy being annoyed about this. If Ernest, James, and Algernon appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that they wouldn’t have shown up in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, this ubiquitous rule means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming himself can be a genuine chore. Novelists attached to their characters’ names should be sympathetic to that: if it’s trying to track down and change every mention of Monique to Madge when she’s your creation, imagine the emotional difficulties involved when Monique has to rechristen herself.

That’s not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying renaming may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but either your first or your last appearing alone as well.

That may seem like rather redundant advice — every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests he enters, right? — but this is the single most common way memoir entries get themselves disqualified. For a memoir entry, you should never just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in; check the rules very carefully and apply them to your pages first.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one you believe would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both your first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why take that extra precaution, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible not refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely here: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name. See me practicing what I’ve been preaching?)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because I suspect that there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entrants apparently doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s even your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. It would behoove you, then, to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, quite rightly pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch. “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character other than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

Remember, as I pointed out above, self-references to either your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she printed it up, would she not?

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself these days), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way, at least since I was partially blinded by a Mountie convention. Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: may I recommend…

friendly waiter

I shall be posting another lengthy discussion of name use in manuscripts later this evening, of course, but since those of us in the United States are heading into a long weekend, I thought I would devote a few inches of blog space to asking all of you charming, erudite members of the Author! Author! community to weigh in on some issues that have been floating around my mind of late. (Like, for instance, whether a sentence as long as the one I just finished typing is ever justifiable within a blog context.) I’m always glad when readers post comments, but these are topics I don’t think anyone has brought up lately.

I honestly would like to know what you think on any or all of these. In no particular order:

(1) In the book category in which you have chosen to write, what is your favorite book, or couple of books? What about that book made you want to write for that audience?

(2) If you met a writer who had just decided to write in your category, what books would you advise her to read? I don’t just mean books on craft (although it’s always interesting to hear which writers find helpful), but also those that would give a neophyte a sense of what books in your category should be.

(3) If you met a junior high school or high school student who wanted to be a writer, what books would you immediately hand him? (Yes, I know — I’ve asked a version of this one before, but book trends vary so much that I’m curious to see if people’s answers have.)

(4) If you bumped into a parent whose child had been devouring the TWILIGHT books, but was not a reader in general, what books would you advise the parent to slide under the kid’s nose next? (A question I hear from parents approximately four times per week, by the way.)

(5) If you are a teenager (or younger) who writes, what are the best and/or worst books adults have recommended to you? If none have struck you as especially apt, what books do you think they should have handed you?

(6) What made your best writing teacher so good? Conversely, what made your worst one so bad?

Okay, that’s probably enough for one Let’s Talk About It post. As you MIGHT have been able to tell from the general bent of the questions, I spent part of today chatting with the mother of a Seattle-area teen who wants to be a writer. She asked me which local high school had the best writing program — please pipe up, if you have a good answer for that — and I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining that from a professional writer’s perspective, what makes a great writing class is not just what is taught, but also what isn’t taught. Bad writing habits, to say nothing of mundane ones, are much harder to unlearn than most people believe.

All of which, naturally, made me think of you fine people and all you had learned over the years. Do let me know what you think.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

P.S.: Speaking of Seattle-area young writers, I’ve just received word that a local magazine is looking for a summer intern, ideally, one who can write. Should any member of the Author! Author! community be interested, just say so in the comments, and I’ll pass along the info. (Don’t worry about providing contact information; the blogging program will let me send a private e-mail response to a post.)