Pet peeves on parade, part II: head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…

Your eyes do not deceive you, campers: last post’s one-time venting of a professional reader’s spleen has transmogrified into a series. I’m inviting you to an all-you-can-eat buffet of ways to horrify our old pal, Millicent the agency screener (you know, the sweet lady who narrows the hundreds of requested manuscripts and tens of thousands of queries down to the handful the agent who employs her has time to read in any given year), her cousin Maury the editorial assistant (the fine fellow who performs a similar weeding function for an acquiring editor at a publishing house), and their aunt on the distaff side, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge (the volunteer devoted to whittling the masses of entries down to a few finalists). Belly up to the bar, folks; there’s plenty for everyone.

Why devote a week or two to what are, frankly, pretty minor manuscript gaffes? We have, after all, spent a fair amount of time

Because these minor infractions are so common in submissions and contest entries that virtually anyone who reads for a living will cringe a little at the very sight of them. Their very ubiquity conveys the false — and, from a doe-eyed aspiring writer’s perspective, utterly unfair — impression that 90% of submitted manuscripts are, if not the same, at least similar enough in writing style that Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel can feel justified in rejecting them within the first page or two.

Those of you who just cringed in your turn are in fact correct: if a manuscript or book proposal contains an abundance of these gaffes within the opening pages, most Millicents, almost all Maurys (Mauries? Maurizionis?), and pretty much every Mehitabel will just stop reading. That means, in practice, that no matter how marvelous pp. 3-257 might be, it’s extremely unwise for an aspiring writer to justify an unpolished opening with, “But the plot/writing/character development really springs to life on page 15!”

Why? Well, let’s just say that there’s a saying amongst those of us who read for a living: it doesn’t matter how marvelous the writing is nobody would stick with the manuscript long enough to read it.

Which is a pity, really: you wouldn’t believe how many promising novels have a great opening line buried around p. 4 or so. Or how frequently an exciting plot’s early pages are tangled up with backstory, rather than just plopping the readers down in the middle of the action.

But we’re not concentrating on those larger problems, are we? In this series, we’re focusing on the little things that might not trigger instant rejection on first sight, but cumulatively, add up to one grumpy Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel, simply because they pop up with such frequency.

Why should you worry about what other people do on the page? Because submissions and contest entries are read back-to-back, that’s why. One never knows where one’s requested materials might fall in a reading queue, after all. Even if you are too savvy a submitter to indulge in some of these easy ways out often in your manuscript, if the last three — or thirteen, or thirty-three — Chapter Ones M, M, or M read all had a character roll his eyes on page 1 — when your protagonist’s fifteen-year-old casts his eyeballs heavenward on your page 2, it’s going to feel redundant to the reader, even if no one else in your book ever rolls his eyes.

Fair? Not at all. But a reality of submission? Yes. So may I suggest that if you are featuring a teenager within you first five pages, it might behoove you to keep his eyes focused firmly forward?

Trust me, any Millicent who reads either YA or Women’s Fiction all day, every day will thank you; eye-rolling teens are such a popular manuscript decoration that it’s positively a vacation to a professional reader when those eyes stay put.

It’s also quite a treat when characters don’t shake their heads, raise their eyebrows, furrow those same eyebrows, or nod several times per chapter scene page paragraph.

Yes, people do these things all the time in real life, but as actions go, they are not particularly interesting. Yet such phrases creep into manuscripts on little cat feet: these are such common actions that most writers don’t have any idea how often their characters perform them.

Trust me, Millicent is keeping count. So is Maury. So is Mehitabel. So are the doctors who take their blood pressure.

Yet they seem innocuous, don’t they? They’re just simple descriptive terms, after all — and isn’t the point of, say, the narrative portions of a dialogue scene to describe what the characters are doing when they are not speaking? According to that logic, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an exchange like this:

“I’ll have to think about that one,” Thaddeus said, furrowing his brow. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet shook her head over her stone-cold cup. “No, thanks. This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

He nodded. “Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She nodded. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” Thaddeus cocked an eyebrow. “Less than forthcoming?”

Janet nodded, relieved at last to have found someone who understood. She grinned at the old man. “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you must admit, hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He nodded. “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you…”

Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. So she hadn’t been imagining it. “To get out of town?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently.

In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with any of these individual uses of these common actions. Cumulatively, however, they get to be a trifle redundant — if not downright soporific.

To a professional reader, they are something worse: percussively redundant. Because their eyes are trained to ferret out word and phrase redundancy, all of these similar actions will just leap off the page at them. So rather than focusing upon the dialogue tucked between all of this head and eyebrow action, they will focus on the actions themselves.

Want to see how distracting that would be? Here’s that same scene as M, M, or M would read it:

“I’ll have to think about that one,” Thaddeus said, furrowing his brow. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet shook her head over her stone-cold cup. “No, thanks. This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

He nodded. “Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She nodded. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” Thaddeus cocked an eyebrow. “Less than forthcoming?”

Janet nodded, relieved at last to have found someone who understood. She grinned at the old man. “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you must admit, hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He nodded. “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you…”

Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. So she hadn’t been imagining it. “To get out of town?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently.

To a professional reader, these phrases are not merely word repetition — they represent a radical waste of page space. These actions may be an accurate reflection of what happened, but the point of a dialogue scene is not just to list every utterance and describe every action that might conceivably have occurred if this exchange happened in real life, right? It’s to provide an entertaining take on the exchange between two interesting characters by reporting only the character-revealing, plot-advancing, and/or relationship-illuminating details.

None of that eyebrow-wiggling and head-bobbing passes that three-part test, does it? None of those actions are especially character-revealing, plot-advancing, or relationship-illuminating. So what if we replaced it with actions that were — or simply eliminated the unrevealing activity? While we’re at it, let’s get rid of some of those unnecessary tag lines, shall we?

“I’ll have to think about that one.” Thaddeus fiddled needlessly with his long-dead wife’s bone china tea service. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet took a mock-sip from her stone-cold cup. “This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

“Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She gripped the armrests, shaking from the effort of not leaping up to throttle the truth out of old man. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” He ran his fingertips skittishly along the curio shelf nearest to him as if he were checking for dust, causing the Hummel figurines of bland, blond children to rattle together. “Less than forthcoming?”

At last, someone who understood! “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

The ceramic children clashed noisily. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

“But how can you justify…” Suddenly, the world went blurry. Had he spiked her tea? She struggled to maintain her composure. “Hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He reached a blue-veined hand toward her — or was it three hands? “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you.”

So she hadn’t been imagining it. Or was she imagining the fourteen old women who had sulk into the room, quietly menacing? “To get out of town?”

“Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently, manually closing her eyes as if she were a corpse.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? By minimizing the mundane and the too-common, we’ve freed up plenty of room for exciting new developments.

Let’s apply the same principle to another radically overused set of actions, looking at another — or, almost as popular, exchanging glances with her — in lieu of, well, doing something more expressive of character, emotion, or situation. A not particularly exaggerated example:

Spiro glanced at Tanya. She didn’t seem to be kidding. But it couldn’t hurt to double-check. “Are you kidding, Tanya?”

She looked him dead in the eye. “What do you think?”

He stared back, trying to read that mysterious expression in her eyes. “That you couldn’t possibly be serious. Pierrette is our friend.”

She just looked at him. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked fourteen times.

He averted his eyes. “Okay, so maybe she has kicked our dog occasionally.”

She grabbed his chin, to force him to look at her. “Have you seen Fido today? Or this week?”

Her gaze bore into him like a drill. He dropped his eyes. “No,” he whispered.

That’s quite a lot of eye activity, is it not? Too much, I suspect, for me to need to play with the typeface in order to show you how Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel might respond to the conceptual repetition.

The redundancy is not the only reason that M, M, and M might respond to this passage negatively, however. Any other guesses?

If your hand instantly flew into the air, and you shouted, “Hey, the mere fact that this character looked at another does not tell us much about what said character is thinking or feeling — or, indeed, what our hero Spiro is reading into Tanya’s peepers,” I hereby award you the Self-Editing Medal of Valor with walnut clusters. Instead of showing us how it was apparent that Tanya was not kidding, or what the mysterious expression in her eyes actually would have looked like to a bystander, the narrative is simply telling us that these people moved their eyes around.

So like the head motions and eyebrow gyrations above, all of this eye-motion is taking up page space that could be devoted to more revealing activity. My editorial inclination would be to get rid of practically of it, especially if this scene happened to fall within the first chapter of the manuscript: at the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), since the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers seriously overestimate just how much meaning the reader can derive from the simple statement that one character looked at another, or that they looked at each other, a professional reader is likely to respond to even a little bit of unnecessary eye movement as if it were filler.

Again, I think we can do better. Take a gander:

Her tone betrayed not the slightest hint of humor, but it couldn’t hurt to double-check. “Are you kidding, Tanya?”

The corners of her mouth twitched. “What do you think?”

He had never been able to read past her poker face. “That you couldn’t possibly be serious. Pierrette is our friend.”

She merely continued cleaning her revolver. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked fourteen times.

Spiro’s guts twisted sideways. “Okay, so maybe she has kicked our dog occasionally.”

“Have you seen Fido today?” Casually, she pointed the gun at him. “Or this week?”

“No,” he whispered.

See how much room eschewing a bare description of who was looking where when freed for more interesting activity? It also removed the hint of another extremely common Millicent-irritant, the glance into which the protagonist reads such complicated meaning that the reader is left wondering whether what our hero is actually seeing in those peepers is subtitles. Here, we see the phenomenon in a relatively mild form.

He stared back, trying to read that mysterious expression in her eyes.

Since we are neither shown what Tanya’s eyes looked like at this particular moment, nor told just how they evinced mysteriousness, nor even treated to an insight into why Spiro expected those baby blues to just blurt out — in Morse code, perhaps — what she is thinking, this statement would a little flat for most readers. If they were interested in the story, however, they might be willing to do the writer’s job, filling in what Spiro saw swimming around in those irises. But how likely are Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, who may well have been treated to dozens of pairs of mysterious eyes in the hours of reading prior to picking up your manuscript or contest entry, to be willing to guess?

Uh-huh. Admittedly, the annoyance of the implicit expectation that they will invest the energy in guessing what the author intended here probably won’t be enough to provoke M, M, or M to shout, “Next!” But if it’s the third or fourth common gaffe within the first few paragraphs, can you honestly blame them for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that (a) the rest of the manuscript must be peppered with such irritants and thus (b) the writing in the manuscript is not different enough from the other submissions the pro has read that hour/day/week to be exceptional, so (c) the pro would be entirely justified in not reading any more of it?

Okay, so it is possible to blame them. But it’s not impossible to understand why the sight of the 20th or 30th pair of hyper-expressive eyes in a single morning might render Nos. 21-30 more likely to be rejection-triggers than Nos. 1-5, is it?

Or that irises that shout entire sentences — nay, paragraphs — might be rejection-triggers even early in the day. Seriously, M, M, and M regularly read of eyes so eloquent that it’s downright maddening. Yes, eyes do tend to be expressive in real life, but how precisely would they convey a sentiment like this?

Clara shrank back, stunned by the intensity of Simon’s gaze as it tried to compel her to bend to his will. “Come to me,” it said, “and I will protect you from harm. Do not fear the Morrison brothers’ machinations; I will outwit them, for I love you as Shane Morrison never could. Only have faith in me, and I shall make sure everything turns out right.” He must be mad, insane, completely off his rocker to believe she would fall for him again.

I’ve read masters’ theses that advanced less complex arguments than these eyes are wordlessly conveying. What’s happening here, clearly, is not that Simon’s peepers have started flashing these sentiments, but that Clara is choosing to read volumes into an appealing glance.

So why not just admit it? Why not just show Simon’s facial expression, then allow Clara to get on with her mental gyrations?

Abruptly, Simon’s face became dead white, causing his overflowing black eyes to stand out against his skin like newsprint on a page. Clara shrank back, stunned by the intensity of his gaze. She knew now what dark bargain he was offering: protection from the Morrison brothers in exchange for her love. He must be mad, insane, completely off his rocker to believe she would fall for him again.

Noticing a pattern here? By avoiding the Millicent-annoying tropes upon which most aspiring writers rely, we open up the possibilities for showing, rather than telling, what’s going on.

These are not the only ways that those overtaxed body parts try M, M, and M’s patience, however. Perhaps the most provocative to the professional reader is that subset of irritants that not only suffer from overuse, but are internally redundant as well.

Like, say, the phrase she nodded her head. Pardon my asking, but what other body part could she possibly have nodded? Her spleen?

And what about that old standby, he shrugged his shoulders? In your long and doubtless eventful life, have you ever heard of someone, anyone, no matter how talented, shrugging a body part other than his shoulders?

Oh, you laugh, but try reading either of these phrases 50 or 100 times in a day. You would find yourself asking the question above through gritted teeth, too. Or perhaps crossing out her head so hard that your pen poked through the manuscript page.

Not all such phrases are so obviously redundant, of course. She pointed with her finger or he waved his hand are over-explanations, since pointing generally involves a finger and waving a hand. Yes, it is possible to point with a toe or wave an elbow. However, if one were to point or wave with a non-standard body part, it would be necessary to state explicitly which part is being used, right? If one just says she pointed at the ghost or he waved good-bye, any reader would assume that a finger and a hand were involved, respectively.

By contrast, M, M, and M’s eyes would skate tranquilly by characters that snap their fingers, tap their toes, crack their knuckles, or even shake their heads. It is possible to crack something other than a knuckle — a nut, for instance. And while tapping is generally the province of feet, it’s also possible to tap one’s fingers on a table, one’s fork against one’s wineglass to call for quiet, or a magic wand against a top hat to produce a rabbit.

But I’m over-explaining this, amn’t I? Let’s just move on to another way that fictional heads cause Millicent chagrin. See if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Monique nodded. “Yes, I agree.”

Seth shook his head. “And I said no. I couldn’t disagree more.”

Betty shrugged. “Oh, I just don’t know. Or perhaps I simply don’t care.”

How did you do? If you were jumping up and down by the end of the second line, bellowing at the top of your lungs, “Hey, Anne, each of these paragraphs is conceptually redundant — in fact, multiply so,” I hereby award you the Self-Editor of the Week medal, complete with a bright red ribbon. The physical actions convey the same meaning as the dialogue, so technically, they are redundant.

Don’t see it? Okay, what’s the difference in meaning between

Monique nodded.

“Yes,” Monique said.

and

“I agree,” said Monique.

They all express the same thing: Monique is in agreement with whatever just passed. “So why,” Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel wail, “does this writer need to tell me about it three times?

Trust me, once will suffice. Characters who nod while saying yes, shake their heads while saying no, and shrug (their shoulders, no doubt) while expressing factual doubt or indifference are a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

“What’s next?” Millicent and her relatives demand wearily. “Characters who walk with their legs, put shoes on their feet, and don gloves on their hands? Alert the media! Next, you’ll be astonishing me by depicting characters clapping hats on their heads, wrapping belts around their waists, and wearing rings on their fingers instead of the widest part of the arm.”

Have a bit more faith in your readers’ intelligence, especially if that reader happens to do it for a living. Narratives that explain more than necessary, or that over-make their points, can easily seem as though they are talking down to their audience. Just as a mystery-solving protagonist will come across as smarter if she figures out what’s going on without needing every relevant puzzle piece handed to her along with extensive explanation, so will the narrative voice seem smarter if it does not explain the obvious.

Have I made that plain? Please shake your head, say, “No,” and respond negatively, if not.

And please bear in mind while you are reading your work IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD: just because all of the phrases I have mentioned today are in common usage doesn’t mean that they will necessarily work well on the page. Professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and, to a lesser extent, Mehitabel are trained to zero in upon redundancy, both literal and conceptual.

They’re not going to be impressed by your stamping your manuscript over and over again with the same phrases, no matter how common they are in everyday speech. Minimizing your narrative’s reliance upon typically overused phrases and unnecessary explanation will not only help you steer clear of these common pet peeves, but also free up precious page space for your one-of-a-kind quips, vivid descriptions, and evocative phrases.

In other words, to unveil your good writing. And if that doesn’t cause you to cheer, “Hooray,” I’m not sure what will. Keep up the good work!

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