Naming names, part III: hey, I don’t make the rules


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.


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!

Improving those opening pages, part III: and then there are Millicent’s page 1 pet peeves

woman tied to a train tracklion and tamertommygun1

How have you been enjoying this week’s series on editing page 1 of your manuscript, campers…or is enjoying too strong a word? I’ve been getting such a varied response (ranging, understandably, from thrilled to horrified) from such a wide spectrum of writers (straight nonfiction, memoir, every stripe of fiction) that I’m already toying with making this a regular feature — the first page of the month, perhaps — to give us time and a great excuse to dig deep into the peculiarities and joys of various book categories.

All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions, after all; what is expected in one may seem downright poky in another. A passive female protagonist might well be a drawback in a mainstream fiction manuscript, for instance, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon.

Doubt that? Okay, to a peril-seeking reader, which would be the more exciting rescue object: the lady tied to a train track while menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun, or the bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down who always carries large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack?

I’ll leave you to ponder that cosmic mystery on your own. Let’s get back to analyzing our sample first page.

So far, we’ve talked about how Millicent the agency screener might respond to the way this page appears on the page (formatting issues, punctuation, grammar), what clues about the rest of the manuscript she might derive from certain authorial choices (italics usage, word choice, repetition), and book category appropriateness. Today, I want to concentrate on matters of style — which, on the first page of a submission, requires some consideration of the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Already, I see some hands raised in the air, clamoring for my attention. “But Anne,” rules lawyers everywhere cry with one voice, “since Millicent is a composite character, the fanciful Author! Author! personification of professional readers’ attitudes toward submissions, how meaningful could it possibly be to talk about her pet peeves? Are they not by definition personal, and thus variable from reader to reader?”

Yes and no, rules lawyers. Yes, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living harbors at least a couple of individual dislikes — it drives me nuts, for instance, to see She graduated college on the page, as opposed to the more grammatically correct She graduated from college. Have you noticed how common it’s become to ignore the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs? Not to mention the vicious, civilization-dissolving practice of transmuting perfectly innocent nouns into verbs, presumably to save a couple of characters per sentence — why, just the other day, my weary eyes were insulted by The institute tributed director X in a fairly respectable local newspaper. Would it have killed the article’s writer or his editor to adhere to the longstanding norms of the English language by coughing up the extra character for the less nonsensical The institute paid tribute to director X? And whose bright idea was substituting tonite for tonight, anyway? What great contribution to Western literature do abbreviators believe they are going to be able to achieve with those two saved characters?

Those of us who read for a living tend to cherish our personal pet peeves, as you may see, but there’s not very much an aspiring writer can do to protect herself from running afoul of any given Millicent’s. Or, indeed, from annoying her with your subject matter.

“Oh, God,” Millie mutters, “another romance set in Paris? That’s the third one I’ve seen this week!”

You’re scowling, aren’t you? I’m not at all surprised. Of all of the many aspects of the submission process over which the writer has no control whatsoever, the role of who happens to be screening on the day a particular manuscript arrives in an agency is one of the least understood and most resented by writers. Perhaps with good reason: we’d all like to believe that our manuscripts will receive a fair, impartial reading, regardless of the pet peeves or mood of the screener.

However, there’s just no denying that if you have written a semicolon-heavy literary fiction piece about the many loves of an airline pilot, and the agent of your dreams has just hired a Millicent who simply loathes semicolons, is a dedicated monogamist, and was jilted yesterday by a pilot, the best writing in the world probably is not going to prevent her from rejecting your submission.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you — but an aspiring writer who is aware of the role that personal preference and chance inevitably play in whether a manuscript gets rejected or accepted is, in the long run, going to be significantly happier than one who believes that all Millicents read identically. Ditto with contest entrants; every contest judge brings a few personal preferences to the table. Assuming, as virtually every aspiring writer does when first submitting, querying, and/or entering, that any individual professional reader’s reaction to his work is representative of what EVERY professional reader’s opinion would be is just, well, wrong.

It’s also a strategy notoriously likely to depress aspiring writers into not querying, submitting, or entering widely enough to get their work into publication. If every professional reader’s opinion is identical, fledgling writers are all too apt to reason, why shouldn’t a single rejection — or two, three, or forty-seven — be taken as if it were the entire publishing industry’s reaction to the book in question?

There’s a very good reason, as it happens: screeners are individuals, with personal opinions. So are agents, editors, and contest judges. Keep sending out your work until you find the one predisposed to love it.

But that didn’t answer the rule-mongers’ question, did it? “That’s all very pretty and inspiring,” they concede. “Does that mean I don’t need to worry at all about Millicent’s pet peeves?”

Well, no — certain pet peeves are shared by most professional readers, simply because they turn up so often in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Spotting even one non-doubled dash on a manuscript page leaves many a Millicent gasping with indignation, for instance; a submission without indented paragraphs renders many positively apoplectic. And if you really want to ruin a pro’s day, try submitting something with unnumbered pages.

Hey, standard format is standard for a reason.

Most of the ire-inducing gaffes above are relatively well-known (but if any of them came as a surprise, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right, if only for the sake of Millicent’s blood pressure). I was delighted to see, however, that our sample page 1 included several of the lesser-known ones. Discussion gold!

Okay, so perhaps delighted isn’t a particularly normal response. Had I mentioned that reading manuscripts for a living radically alters how one reads?

Here is our example again; don your Millicent mask and try to ferret out three common screeners’ pet peeves we have not yet discussed. If you want a hint: two of them are dialogue-related.

page 1 example wrong

How did you do? The third in particular might be a tad hard to spot if you didn’t happen to have spent the last six hours reading first pages; certainly, it would be significantly harder to get excited about it. To give you a sense of how exorcized Millicent might have gotten about all three, allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your quick scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

If it’s the latter, don’t be embarrassed — very few readers would have, at least consciously, and self-editors. If you’re caught up in the characters’ lifeworld (as Millicent hopes you will convince her to be by the bottom of page 1), none of these questions is likely to occur to you. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her.

1. Opening with an unidentified speaker.
I’m really glad that our generous example-provider chose to open the manuscript this way, because it’s a very, very popular choice: depending upon the fiction categories Millicent’s boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages. So when they pick up page 1, they’re looking for some pretty specific information.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me ask the question that Millicent would almost certainly be asking herself by the middle of the third question: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by NOT identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Trust me on this one: a Millicent in a hurry tends to dislike guessing games, especially on page 1. Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. In fact, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as, well, old-fashioned. Not to mention unnecessary. Which leads me to…

2. Including unnecessary tag lines.
Unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines — he said, she asked, they averred — aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Let’s face it, quotation marks around sentences are pretty effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

So why include them, in instances where any reasonably intelligent reader would already be able to figure out who the speaker is?

That’s a serious question, you know. Most editors will axe them on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts.

So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism. Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well: a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited.

Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully. Take another gander at it then ask yourself: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the next one. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a legitimate narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely.

Sort of changes your mental picture of how and why the average submission gets rejected on page 1, doesn’t it? Professional reading doesn’t miss much. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors; every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1′s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

3. Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about.
This is a really, really common problem for first pages — and first chapters of both novels and memoirs, if I’m being honest about it. A lot of writers like to take some time to warm up…so much so that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4.

Then, too, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anyone spot a SLIGHT drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary. The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way, I think), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? We’re not going to get into the next scene until next time.

So let’s stick to our moral for the day: since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense. Remember, Millicent is looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict — appearing as soon as possible in the manuscript. You might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page gives all that to her.

Just a suggestion. Or three. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VII: describing your book well is a matter of focus

leaves in bird feeder

Sorry about the odd timing of my posts this week, campers — a nasty, lingering migraine leapt through my studio’s window and gobbled up a couple of days. I emerged only long enough yesterday to announce the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, then crawl back into the dark cave under my blankets.

Just in case my brain-befogged state rendered the rules less than perfectly clear, what YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I are inviting the Author! Author! community to do is submit the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages. Phoebe and I will critique the lucky winners’ first pages in a future blog post.

In other words: if you’d like to know what Millicent the agency screener would say about your first page before you send it to her, this contest would be a great opportunity.

Let’s get back to business. In my last post in this series, we discussed . Regardless of whether you chose to emphasize only one of the characters’ storylines or tell the story of the novel, not of each protagonist, I encouraged you to emphasize the most original parts of your story.

That’s not a bad rule of thumb for writing a query for any manuscript, by the way, regardless of your voice choices within it. Since agents tend to specialize in just a few book categories, Millicent sees a whole lot of queries promoting rather similar-sounding stories — or so they start to seem to her, after she’s read 20,000 of them. The more unexpected details you can work into that descriptive paragraph, then, the more likely your query is to cause her to exclaim, “Hey, I want to read this manuscript — it sounds fresh.”

I also suggested that attempting to summarize the entire plot of a 400-page manuscript in a scant paragraph is a Herculean task for even a single-protagonist novel; trying to pull it off for a seven-protagonist novel is akin to the labors of Sisyphus. For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, he’s the guy the gods condemned to roll a giant rock up a steep hill, only to have it keep rolling back down again, for all eternity.

Which I’m guessing sounds like a lighthearted romp in the park to those of you who have spent months trying to concoct an effective query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel.

Instead of continuing to push that boulder up the hill, why not borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book, and leave some of the story to Millicent’s imagination? After all, as we’ve discussed, all a successful query or pitch really has to do is show Millie an interesting protagonist(s) in an interesting situation(s), right?

Or, to put it in terms that would be easier to describe in a hurry, a good query or pitch introduces the player(s), their goal(s), and the barrier(s) to achieving them. Like every page of a strong manuscript, the descriptive paragraph should contain conflict.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to dismiss your query as offering her a book about a passive protagonist, would you?

As I’ve been typing those last few paragraphs, I could hear the trees outside my window buffeted by some pretty massive gusty collective sighs. I understand: many, if not most, of you multiple-perspective lovers feel — and with good reason — that how you have chosen to tell your characters’ stories is as integral to your book as the stories themselves. Necessarily, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your query or pitch, in practical terms.

Remember, neither the descriptive paragraph in a query or a two-minute pitch is intended to be a substitute for reading the manuscript in question. Their sole purpose is to get Millicent or the agent to whom you are pitching to ask to read it.

So it honestly is not in your interest to give away too much of the story, or even to talk too much about all of the nifty narrative tricks you’ve worked into the text. Let all that come as a pleasant surprise. Instead, try regarding your descriptive paragraph or pitch as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can tell a story — and a fresh one at that.

Part of it, anyway.

How does one decide which part? You’re the one who understands your storyline well enough to divide it up into multiple perspectives — you tell me.

The cedar tree in my yard is still bending with the force of those sighs, I notice. “Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see why I might need to lighten my storyline a bit in order to query or pitch it, if we want to reduce the discussion to mere marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my query or pitch. From where I’m standing, its complexity is its main selling point. Wouldn’t narrowing the focus of my description just make it sound, well, simple?”

Well, there’s are a couple of practical reasons narrowing the focus usually helps — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a query-reader or pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within the first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the description makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, Millicent will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to describe a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out on everybody but Melissa. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in the course of a two-minute pitch doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue. Even the most hardened Millicent is likely to start to experience plot blurring after a few hours of screening.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only query or pitch that agent has seen or heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re not trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone ask about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important single fact about your novel?

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to any complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener or bleary-eyed Millicent will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers and queriers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the second descriptive paragraph above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching or querying the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean entire. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, even the most patient agent may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

So how well do you think it’s going to work if you open the descriptive paragraph of your query that way?

Word to the wise: keep your description snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place.

Yes, in answer to that indignant gasp, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches and queries all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but few in the publishing industry are likely to care about why you wrote a book until after they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but publishing is a business, after all.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: perspective choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself. And in the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, it’s the only meat.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the querying/pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Or to put it in more practical terms: hands up, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels who have seen an agent or editor’s eyes glaze over just after hearing the words, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question, come to think of it.

There’s another very good reason not to overload your query or pitch with too much in-depth discussion of how the story is told, rather than what the story is. Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book before it get published.

Let’s face it: the main reason writers query or pitch a manuscript is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility, isn’t it?

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple point of view narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting throughout this entire post. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

What does this mean in practical terms? If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your query or pitch may raise some red flags for Millicent. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

Does the fact that a branch just flew off my cedar tree indicate that my arguments have not quelled all of the righteous indignation, out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “all I want to do is to present my manuscript honestly in my query or pitch. If I ignore 90% of the story, isn’t that misleading?”

Not really, considering that you’re presenting your book in a context that absolutely precludes telling the entire story — and everyone involved understands those limitations. Trust me, once Millicent and her boss fall in love with your manuscript, neither is ever going to say to you, “Hey, the descriptive paragraph in your query letter led me to expect a simpler, less delightfully complex narrative! Begone with you, lying scum!”

Brevity is simply the nature of the beast. If you accept that the point of the query or pitch is not to distill the essence of the book, but to convince someone in a position to help you get it published to ask to read it, all you’re doing is delaying Millicent’s delighted discovery of just how complex your narrative is.

Preserve some of the mystery the first time out. A query or pitch is not a synopsis, after all.

Before your gasps do my cedar any more damage, let me add hastily: next time (probably this weekend, headaches permitting), I shall be giving you some tips on how to construct a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. So regularize your breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

At long last, I keep my promise to talk about narratives with multiple protagonists

tile roof in Spain 3

You know how I keep mentioning that reality is a lousy storyteller, apt to toss in flatly unbelievable elements and time revelations poorly? Still more evidence: within the last week, two of my classmates from my genuinely small high school passed away, one from illness, one from self-inflicted violence. The first died in the hospital where he was born; the kind soul who broke the news to me had been born just down the hallway, within a few days of our late friend. Their mothers had chatted in the maternity ward. The second took his life in his parents basement, I’m told, found by his father, one of the town’s long-standing personal physicians.

And who was one of his patients? You guessed it: our late friend, the party of the first part.

No novelist in her right mind would run with a plot like that; it would be well-nigh impossible to render plausible. And that’s all I’m going to say about why I’ve been posting rather sporadically over the last week.

Back to the business at hand. In the course of our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) and how to protect your manuscripts and contest entries from their wrath, I have fleetingly but persistently brought up the plight of the novelist juggling more than one protagonist. Instead of following a single character closely, as the POVNs would prefer, these ambitious narratives trace the careers of several, through either several distinctive first-person voices, each giving her own perspective (in the manner of Pulitzer Prize finalist THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), or through tight third-person narration that sticks to the perspective of a chosen character for a particular period of the book, then switches to another.

What separates the third-person version from an omniscient narrator, generally speaking, is the focus of perspective upon a single character, rather than the masses. When the reader is seeing through Character A’s lenses, he is privy to only the sensations, thoughts, insights, etc. of Character A. This is true even if the following chapter is going to be entirely from the point of view of Character B — and Character B is in the Character A scene.

Taken individually, a POVN would be happy with each of these chapters, because they stick to a single perspective. In theory, at least.

Why only in theory? All too often, POVNs end up dissatisfied with how rigorously the perspective barriers are maintained. In many manuscripts with multiple protagonists, Character B’s perspective will bleed into Character A’s scene, or Character A into Character B’s, as though the author has temporarily lost track of whose turn it is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, professional readers tend to have a very good eye for such perspective slips, rendering multiple protagonists a brave narrative choice: it’s genuinely difficult to pull off, especially in a present-tense narrative. Once the narrative rules are set in a manuscript, even non-POVN readers will expect the writer to honor them.

We’ll talk a bit later about strategies for pulling off this delicate trick well, but for now, let’s stick to the conceptual lever: why attempt a dive from such a high board?

Well, contrary to what the POVNs will tell you, there are plenty of stories that cannot be told plausibly from a single perspective. This is particularly true in first-person narratives, where a lone protagonist may not be physically present for (or emotionally open to) participation in all of the important scenes. When the story arc demands another point of view, the narration simply follows another protagonist. Following two or more characters can allow the reader to see all of the important action from a point of view that allows for close observation of the chosen character’s emotional and physical response. (For an example of how great a difference opening up the perspective can make, please see this recent post.)

For the purposes of avoiding protagonist passivity, too, the multiple-protagonist strategy has some definite advantages, even in a third-person narrative. Switching worldview automatically gives a narrative more texture, if done well, and ideally, the ability to switch allows the reader to follow the most active character during any given scene.

The trick to making this work in a multiple first-person or multiple tight third-person narrative is to make it pellucidly clear from the very beginning of the scene whose perspective the reader will be following, and clinging to it consistently all the way through. As opposed to, say, an omniscient narrative, where the narrator can know what’s going on from every character’s perspective and hop between them at will. That way, a simple section break before the next scene is sufficient to alert readers to an imminent perspective change.

But if you use this trick, make sure you apply it consistently; remember, Millicent tends to regard violations of the rules a manuscript has set for itself as mistakes. If she (or her boss, the agent) is not a POVN, she may well accept be delighted to see a really well-done alternating perspective submission, but the more complex the pattern, the easier it is to see deviations from it.

As you may see from the photo above, come to think of it. So before you even consider submitting a manuscript or contest entry with alternating perspectives, do me (and yourself) a favor:

1. Flip through your manuscript, making a numbered list of each scene in the book. For each, briefly note what happens and who is the protagonist is.

A lot of work? Sure. But trust me on this one: that list is going to become your best friend at revision time. Which may come sooner than you think…

2. Wait a few days, then choose a scene at random from the list. Read through it carefully, asking yourself at the end of each paragraph: is this entirely from the scene’s protagonist’s point of view, or have I engaged in head-hopping here? If it’s the latter, is an alternating first-person or tight single third-person narrative really the best way to tell this story?

3. Repeat Step 2 until the narrative choices are consistent throughout the manuscript.

How may a writer decide which of his many protagonists should be the dominant in any given scene? Often, it’s a matter of simple rotation: once a Chapter 1, Character A/Chapter 2, Character B rhythm is established, many writers seem to be reluctant to mess with the running order. A rigid adherence to pattern does not always pay off from a storytelling perspective, however: sometimes it makes more sense to mix the perspectives up more, as the storyline dictates.

So what other criterion might a writer use? Often, the best choice for protagonist in any given scene is the most active character, or at any rate, the one most central to the conflict. Interestingly, though, many, if not most, aspiring writers of multiple-protagonists texts apparently do not use activity of character as their primary criterion for perspective choice on the scene level.

Indeed, I have seen many a manuscript where the author has taken quite the opposite path, bestowing the protagonist’s mantle upon the guy in the scene who is just sitting around and watching the others emote up a storm. The effect is rather like watching a wedding video where the camera was passed around from guest to guest: the cameraman of the moment may in fact be a fascinating person, but while he is holding that camera, what we see are the other guests’ antics; the cameraman’s perspective is evident primarily through where he chooses to focus the lens at any given moment.

Just between us, that’s not a structuring tactic Millicent tends to favor: it more or less guarantees a passive protagonist, right? So here are a few self-editing tips for multiple protagonist buffs who favor the chapter- (or scene-) alternation method, assuming they have already worked their way through Steps 1-3, above.

4. Go through your list, manuscript at your elbow, marking which scenes have passive protagonists or ones who are primarily observers.

5. Wait a few days, then pick a passive scene from your list. Read through it carefully and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view? If so, try reworking the scene from that character’s perspective.

6. Repeat Step 5 until you have worked through all of the scenes you marked with the dreaded passivity symbol.

Yes, yes, I fully realize that what I just asked you to do might well take hours, if not weeks, of your precious writing time. Your point?

“My point,” those of you who favor observer-narrated fiction, “is that I believe that scenes are better observed by those who are not the primary actor in them. They can notice more, because they are not distracted by being all caught up in that messy conflict. They’re the closest thing to an objective narrator a first-person or tight third-person narrative can get!”

Um, if you don’t mind my asking, oh espousers of passive protagonists, if you’re so fond of objective narration, why aren’t you writing your story from an omniscient or a distant third-person perspective?

That’s a serious question — objectivity may be a positive boon to journalistic accounts, but for a first-person story, it can be dreadfully flattening. Who wants to read a memoir, for instance, that could have been written by just anyone? The first person cries out for individual quirkiness.

As does the tight third person in a multiple-perspective narrative. If every character viewed every situation in the same manner, what would be the point of alternating perspectives? Defining different camera angles aimed at the same immovable object?

Isn’t it more interesting if individual perspectives are presented as, well, individual, incorporating differing worldviews? Even if your various protagonists are from nearly identical backgrounds (or actually identical, like the sisters in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), even a slight personal bias can present a scene quite differently.

Don’t believe me? Okay, consider these two photographs:

tile roof in Spain 3

tile roof in spain 5

The first is the photograph of a tile roof in Spain at the top of this post, right? So is the second; the picture’s merely been flipped around. Yet objectively, both are a shot of the same roof at the same time of day, and even with the same negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an objective perspective, inherently; it merely tends to be a tad distracting in an alternating-perspective narrative. All too often, writers of such stories will lapse at some point in the manuscript into objective narration, as if they’ve forgotten that one of the premises of the book was to show a multiplicity of individual perspectives.

“Who is this unnamed new narrator?” Millicent thinks, annoyed by what she perceives to be an internal rule violation. “God? Should I expect Him to play an active role in this story, or should I assume that the writer originally wrote this scene in an omniscient voice, then forgot to come back and revise it after she settled on an alternating perspective model. I’m going to throw this one back, to give her a chance to revise it before submitting it again. Next!”

I think the tendency to lapse into so-called objective narration is a side effect of movies and television, where the camera itself is a passive observer of the action at hand, ostensibly undistracted by its own agenda. But one of the charms of the novel as an art form is its unparalleled ability to get inside characters’ heads: I can think of plotting or characterization reasons to forego that opportunity every once in a while, but as a general rule?

Have you already started reaching for your scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators? (See, I told you it would come in handy as an editing tool.) A grand idea — let’s deepen our examination.

7. Go back to the list, revisiting the scenes you marked earlier as passive. (Yes, even the ones you’ve already revised to a more active perspective; think of it as a tune-up.)

8. Read through those scenes one by one, continually asking yourself: is he acting like a camera here, an observing machine? If so, what is the narrative gaining by his remaining somewhat aloof? What could be gained in terms of plot complexity, insight, and/or character development if the perspective moved closer to the action?

9. Repeat Step 9 until…oh, you know the drill by now, don’t you?

Another great benefit to telling a story from multiple perspectives is a bit less straightforward — and often under-exploited by writers. Having access to different characters’ minds allows individual variation in rhythm, thought pattern, and observation to mark the text distinctively, permitting more latitude of worldview and sensation than is possible with a single focus. On the page, this means that the different sections can read differently, in almost as extreme a way as if Character A and Character B were telling their stories in the first person.

My, that was an extremely technical description, was it not? Anyone mind if I translate that into practical terms?

Everyone has an individual way of observing the world, responding to it, and moving within it, right? A great actor playing identical twins would not play them identically, after all; that would be boring. (If you’ve never seen Jeremy Irons’ brilliant double turn in DEAD RINGERS, you’re missing out. Part of what you’re missing is quite a bit of gore, admittedly, but I think it’s one of the great performances on film.) So naturally, a chapter (or scene, or paragraph) told from Character A’s perspective would differ from one told from Character B’s.

(Yes, yes, that’s a tall order. Next time, I’ll talk about ways to make the perspectives that distinct. Humor me for the moment, because here comes the cool part.)

As a truly gifted writer establishes the various mindsets, tastes, overreaction triggers, etc. for each particular protagonist firmly in the reader’s mind throughout the course of the story, the perspective switches will start to become obvious to the reader. Viewing the world through the various character’s eyes (and minds, and bodies) starts to feel very familiar, natural, the way that you can predict that your mother’s probable reaction to receiving a big bunch of roses would be different than your sister’s.

Admittedly, that’s pretty hard to pull off, and the more dueling perspectives you’ve got going, the harder it is to pull off consistently and decisively. But when it works — oh, baby, it’s magical. Back to our list we go:

10. Pick a protagonist, consult your list, and read all of the scenes grounded in that character’s perspective back to back. Do they all read as though they are from the same person’s perspective?

11. If not, is there a character trait you could emphasize to make them so, something that she and only she does, says, thinks, and/or feels? A particular turn of phrase used habitually (but not often enough to get boring), for instance? A certain cultural or personal bias? An allergy to bananas? A tendency to confuse the colors tangerine and melon?

12. Repeat Steps 10-11 for each protagonist.

Again, a time-consuming exercise. But you were the one who decided to attempt the high dive here; I’m merely coaching you on how to make your mid-air twists prettier.

Another distinct advantage of the multiple-perspective approach is the relative ease of broadening the sensual range of the piece. Before anyone starts giggling, I’m not talking about sex here — I’m talking about how the narrative utilizes the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

The more feelers, tasters, sniffers, seers, and hearers a novel features, the more different ways the fictional environment may be brought alive for the reader, right? Think about it: you wouldn’t expect a Brownie to perceive a particular scene in exactly the same way as a professional fire-eater would, would you? (Assuming, of course, that the Brownie in question isn’t a professional fire-eater.)

This advantage is a corollary of the one before it, really — since different people experience the world so differently, broadening the focus of a novel onto the sensations of several people automatically allows for the introduction of distinct sets of sensations. If Character A is a prude, there would be a great deal of room to contrast his perceptions of social interactions with polyamorous Character B’s. Or even ordinary high school sophomore Character C’s.

The mind positively reels with the creative possibilities, doesn’t it?

Again, I think that writers of multiple-perspective books could exploit this more — and not merely in love scenes. (Although that does just leap to mind as one of the human events inherently experienced differently by the various participants in the same act.) Some people have more acute hearing than others; some noses’ perceptual abilities put others to shame.

And so forth. Have some fun with it.

Having trouble opening up this particular Pandora’s box on behalf of all of your 17 protagonists? Don’t worry; I have a fun exercise for playing with perceptual variations.

13. Return to your list. Pick one scene from each of your protagonist’s perspectives and read through them, so they are firmly in your mind.

14. Now return to the first scene and re-imagine it with the protagonist’s sense of smell gone. Changes the scene considerably, doesn’t it?

15. Move on to the next protagonist, but this time, make the protagonist color-blind. Or unable to distinguish sweet from sour. Or chronically cold, or seeing through filthy eyeglasses, or…

Well, you get my point. Multiple protagonists mean multiplied opportunities for wowing the reader with your ability to convey action, environment, and characterization. If you’re going to attempt the high dive of juggling perspective, you owe it to your small army of protagonists to differentiate between them beautifully.

Keep those scene lists handy, campers — next time, we shall be pulling ‘em out again, rolling up our proverbial sleeves, and diving back into your manuscripts. In anticipation of that delightful prospect, keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part VII: raising the stakes for your protagonist, or, wait — wasn’t the baby supposed to STAY in that bath water?


Before I launch into the topic at hand, I have a bit of good news to announce about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community (and sometime guest blogger here): Arleen Williams has been named a quarterfinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition! Congratulations, Arleen — our fingers are crossed for you!

(If anyone reading this is thinking, “Hey, I made the cut, too — why isn’t Anne congratulating me?” about this or any other literary contest, please leave a comment and let me know. I love announcing my readers’ triumphs, but I cannot do it unless I know about them.)

Should any of you want to take a gander at Arleen’s entry — or, indeed, any of the quarterfinalists’ — Amazon has conveniently provided free downloadable excerpts. (And no, I have no idea how the contests’ organizers decided what or how much to excerpt.) Do a little browsing, perhaps leave a few comments — and, more importantly, get a sense of what kind of prose contest organizers are handing Mehitabel the veteran contest judge these days.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt keep saying until my terminal breath, one of the best crash-courses a writer can have is an opportunity to be a literary contest judge, at least in the early rounds of competition — it’s the closest an aspiring writer can get to replicating Millicent the agency screener’s daily experience. See the same types of manuscript megaproblems turning up in seventeen or eighteen consecutive entries, and you’ll start to gain a pretty concrete sense of why our Millie has developed such a hair-trigger for rejection.

Another means of extracting this kind of practical information: have a nice, long chat with anybody who reviews books for a living. Even long before these dissolute days when newspapers and magazines have been dropping book reviews from their pages like the proverbial hot potatoes, reviewers rejected hundreds of potential review-objects, often using strikingly similar criteria to Millicent’s.

Don’t believe me? Take a peek at the recent confessions of a literature-loving book reviewer — he’s already thinking of tossing that review copy aside by the end of the second sentence.

Yes, of the book. Sound at all familiar?

Which brings me back — and it was a rather circuitous road, wasn’t it? — to the burning question of my last post, just how long a protagonist may safely remain passive (or feeling sorry for himself) before Millicent’s hand begins drifting toward the form-letter rejection pile. Last time, I suggested that since that hand can start drifting after just a few lines, and since that drift is equally likely to occur on page 273 as on page 1, a prudent writer edits with an eye toward keeping that protagonist pretty darned active.

If, as the pros say, there should be conflict on every page, the protagonist should be involved in it as often as possible. Ideally, of course, the bulk of that conflict won’t be merely random — there’s a limit to the number of times a protagonist can stumble down the wrong alley and onto a knife fight, after all — but integrally connected to the ongoing struggle in which Our Hero is engaged.

Was that giant crash I just heard the sound of a thousand eyebrows hitting a thousand hairlines? “But Anne,” writers of comparatively peaceful plotlines protest quaveringly, “what on earth do you mean by ongoing struggle? I don’t think of my protagonist as engaged in a constant struggle. Sure, there are things he wants, but I want to keep this book realistic — he struggles sometimes, but in other scenes, he’s resting, playing softball, tending his rock garden, and other real-world activities. I think this makes him easier for the reader to identify with, dag nab it.”

Easy there, slice-of-lifers — no need to devolve into the aggressive idiom of Yosemite Sam. If I may take the liberty of verbalizing the unspoken question that tends to linger in Millicent and Mehitabel’s minds while perusing, say, the third similar rock-gardening scene in a book, if a scene doesn’t either move the protagonist toward his goal or present a new obstacle, enemy, or ally, does it really belong in the book? Or is it merely marking time until the next action scene?

Hey, they asked it, I didn’t. But I must admit, in most manuscripts — especially overly-long or rather slow ones — they have a point. While off-plot scenes, like pages on end of unbroken interior monologue or clever summaries of what has just occurred, are often abundantly justifiable from the writer’s viewpoint as subtle character development (hey, a protagonist who thinks about things must be smart, right?), from a reader’s point of view, they can start to seem like detours, distractions from what’s going on in the book. As a result, many sagging-in-the-middle manuscript could be firmed up by the simple expedient of trimming the scenes that are not integral to the plot.

I know, I know: cutting a scene outright seems like too blunt an editing tool to apply to finely-constructed literary fiction, or indeed, to any nice piece of writing, but remember, in order for an agent to be able to pitch even the most beautifully-written book to an editor, that agent is going to have to be able to say what that book is about. Typically, books are about their plots, not the sentences that are the medium for presenting those plots.

Or, to put it as an agent intending to pitch it might, a good book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is about an interesting person (the protagonist or protagonists) in an interesting situation (the premise) who wants something (the goal), but faces obstacles before she/he/them can obtain it. In confronting and overcoming those obstacles (that struggle I mentioned earlier), the protagonist(s) creates, strengthens, and/or breaks relationships, as well as grows personally/collectively.

Oh, your plot isn’t like that? What are you writing about, a completely antisocial wallaby?

I’ll bet that if you thought about it hard, you’d find that even that wallaby wants something, though, and faces obstacles in getting it. From Millicent’s perspective, that’s the essential story of WALTER THE LONELY WALLABY — and no matter how much she might happen to love wallabies, scenes that are extraneous to that storyline, or seem to slow it down, or appear to be recovering the same territory as a previous scene, are going to have a harder time keeping her interest than those in which Walter is actively engaged in confronting those obstacles.

In other words, the scenes with plot-relevant conflict in them.

Some of you aren’t all that comfortable with the implications, are you? “Wait a minute, Anne,” a few pale wallaby-distracters ask. “What did you mean about scenes that cover the same ground as a previous scene. You couldn’t possibly be referring to — gasp! — scenes where my protagonist tells some other character what’s just happened to her, could you? I’d been thinking of those scenes as active alternatives to internal monologue — dialogue is action, right?”

Well, not necessarily — and dialogue in which all of the parties basically agree with one another and share the same goals tends not to contain much conflict. There’s no denying that such scenes usually recap plot that the reader has already seen first-hand; to Millicent and Mehitabel, they are merely redundant.

Again, they have a point — and not merely because repeating the same information makes some readers feel that their intelligence is being insulted. (“What? This author thinks I’m incapable of remembering what happened ten pages ago?”) Review scenes, whether they take place mentally or via the ever-popular (and plot-stopping) I’ll talk it all over with my best friend/mother/spouse/coworker/fellow foxhole denizen dialogue, seldom add much forward momentum to a plot.

They may appear to do so, by showing how the protagonist comes to a decision about what action to take next, but by definition, such scenes force the reader to travel the same road twice. Like scenes where the protagonist mulls over his options for a few pages, even fairly lengthy let’s talk it over scenes can usually be replaced by a quick Sheila talked it over with George, then they headed out to the abandoned mine to check for ghosts. The reader doesn’t really need to see the recap; most of the time, it may safely be assumed to have occurred offstage.

What’s the inherent risk of keeping such scenes front and center? Pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series: is a scene where the protagonist thinks over what has already occurred (perhaps while tending that pesky rock garden) more likely to depict him as active or passive? What about the scene where Sheila and George nurse a few beers while speculating about whether those noises she heard in the abandoned mine were really the restless dead?

Uh-huh. Still want to take your chances that Millicent or Mehitabel will be engaged enough in the plot to plow through ‘em?

If your answer to that last question was a resounding, “Yes, by Jove!” that’s certainly your authorial prerogative, but I would strenuously advise taking some writerly action to increase the reader’s investment in the outcome of the plot — or at least in the protagonist’s overcoming the barriers between herself and her heart’s desire.

How do I know that your protagonist does in fact face barriers to attaining her heart’s desire, you ask? Simple: if she didn’t, you wouldn’t have much of a plot going there, would you?

That does not mean, obviously, that all struggles for all goals are equally engaging for the reader. Generally speaking, the less sympathetic the protagonist, the less worthy her heart’s desire, and the less challenging the obstacles, the harder the narrative must work to keep the reader interested in the outcome. Ditto with clichés and predictable plot twists.

So take a good, hard look at your central conflict: are the stakes for which the protagonist is fighting high enough for the reader to keep rooting for him to win? Are the obstacles he faces serious enough to require some genuine ingenuity, persistence, and/or other character trait you want the protagonist to develop over the course of the book to overcome?

If not, could you ramp up the stakes? Make the obstacles more varied? Have an ally suddenly transform into an enemy — or vice-versa?

And yes, it is possible to pull off all of these feats within any storyline, even the most mundane. Realism need not be the enemy of either complexity or conflict; the writer of the real is merely limited by what’s plausible.

Okay, so that’s a pretty big merely. As an aspiring slice-of-life writer wrote in to point out, it can be difficult to ramp up the stakes for

…a protagonist whose problems are — well, trivial is such a harsh word…shall we say not of life-bending importance? This seems to be the problem I’m having with my work-in-progress. While my readers like it, they’re not thrilled by it. Which makes me wonder if I will ever see it published.

Today, it seems you can’t write about an ordinary person and her troubles, but have to throw earth-shattering obstacles at her. As if life isn’t hard enough already.

I hope you’ll discuss this situation and offer some pearls of wisdom to remedy it, without throwing everything out and starting over. Yikes!

Funnily enough, just a few days before the reader posted this suggestion, I had been discussing this very problem with a literary agent at a book launch. Naturally, when he brought up the issue, he described it from the other side of the submission envelope: “I keep getting manuscripts with good characters and good writing, but there’s just not enough at stake.”

Did that collective harrumph I just heard indicate some disbelief that my commenter and the agent were talking about the same phenomenon? Trust me: I’m fluent in both writer- and industry-speak.

Both parties were referring, you see, to a very common manuscript megaproblem, a little something I like to call the Cinema Verita Dilemma: how does one write truthfully and movingly about ordinary life — which is, at least most of the time, stubbornly resistant to the basic rules of drama — without producing a text that’s too ordinary to excite reader interest?

Would it surprise you to hear that the agent probably wouldn’t agree with the writer’s suggested solution of throwing earth-shattering problems into the protagonist’s path in order to make the piece more marketable? Nor would I, as it happens.

Most of the time, it’s just not necessary. More than that, it’s not always plausible.

But I’m overjoyed that the writer brought up the possibility, because many revisers do go a bit overboard in response to the suggestion that they raise the stakes of their protagonists’ conflicts a little, give them a more complex array of problems, and generally make the journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z a bit more circuitous.

How far overboard, you ask? Well, let’s just say that giving the protagonist’s best friend/husband/child a fatal disease, lingering addiction, or propensity to wander out into traffic is all too frequently the FIRST step. From there, the changes can get truly dramatic.

Finding ways to make the ride more interesting is a more useful way to think of adding conflict, perhaps, than simply throwing more obstacles into your protagonist’s way. Most writers are pretty fond of their protagonists — so the notion of making that nice character’s life HARDER can be pretty distasteful.

Especially if, as is often the case with a first novel (and pretty much always the case with a memoir), the protagonist’s original situation was based all or in part upon some aspect of the writer’s life. “Make her life more difficult?” these writers exclaim. “But millions of people struggle with the problems she had in my first draft every day! Surely, that’s important enough to carry a whole book, isn’t it?”

Well, as that agent would have been likely to tell you, it all depends upon the writing. But the fact is, ordinary life tends not to be all that interesting, dramatically speaking.

So whose job is it to make it so on the page? That’s right: the writer’s.

I suspect that pretty much all of us who write about the real are already aware of this on some level. I mean, the fact that we writers tend to describe such stories as ordinary is kind of a tip-off, isn’t it? If the characters are just surviving, rather than engaged in an active story arc, it’s difficult for the reader to feel pulled along with the story.

Let’s face it: the Fates, while unquestionably gifted at producing real-life irony, are not always the best at dramatic timing. So, again, whose job do you think it is to correct for that on the page?

This is equally true of fiction and nonfiction, by the way. Even memoir is seldom just the straightforward reproduction of life as it is actually lived — or, to be more precise, memoirs that sell are seldom just that. In order to make readable stories, memoirists tell their stories through their own individual lenses, selectively, and in a manner that makes a particular point.

Which, if we’re honest about it, is more than whatever deity is in charge of the running order of quotidian life tends to do.

In fiction, simply reproducing one’s diary (or real-life scenes verbatim) doesn’t very often work on the page, either — and, as I mentioned a few days ago, I suspect the fact that most of us were first taught to write short stories, not novels, tends to disguise that marketing reality.

Possibly because good slice-of-life short pieces of the type that most of us were weaned upon in Comp class are usually DESIGNED to disguise that marketing reality.

I’m not joking about that: the essence of slice-of-life literature is conveying the illusion that it is ripped from real life and displayed more or less as is, in much the way that found art is. But actually, considerable craft is required to produce that effect.

What, did you think that David Sedaris just stood in his childhood living room with a tape recorder, writing down transcripts of his family’s hilarity? (Can you believe the ridiculousness of that so-called exposé of Sedaris’ writing, by the way? Some humorlessly anal-retentive researcher went over his books with a fine-toothed comb to try to figure out how much of it was literally true. Apparently, no one involved had noticed that Mr. Sedaris is a COMEDY WRITER — or had heard of poetic license. But I digress, and that’s bad for plot development.)

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there — and not with the writer of that exposé. “But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers protest, “hasn’t there been a lot of great literature that reveals truths about everyday life through closely-examined, beautifully elucidated moments of life as it is actually lived?”

Of course there has been — and still is, amongst each and every year’s crop of literary fiction, memoir, and fiction in every genre. No need to fear that such writing isn’t getting published anymore, because it undoubtedly is. However — and this is one whopper of a however — the reception such a book tends to receive depends almost entirely upon the quality of the writing.

Wait — where have I heard that before?

I’m not going to lie to you: a book that aspires to consist of nothing but such moments and isn’t billed as literary fiction or memoir would probably experience some resistance from Millicent. And before any of you dismiss her taste as philistine-ish, remember that it’s her job to sift through her boss’ submissions, looking for work that has market potential, not just what’s well-written.

Suffice it to say that few agencies are charitable organizations; they exist to sell their clients’ writing, not just to serve the interests of High Art. (Just a quick comprehension check before I move on: everyone out there IS already aware that literary fiction and good writing are not synonyms, right? The former is a marketing category; the latter is a descriptor of work in every book category. If you’re unclear on how to define the former, well, you’re in good company: ask any two agents who represent it for a definition, and you’ll probably get at least two different responses. For more on the ongoing debate, please see the LITERARY FICTION category on the list at right.)

Which brings me back to my little chat with that agent at the book launch: what he was saying, I think, is not that he would like to see writers of books about ordinary people toss them aside in favor of writing something completely different, but rather that he would like to see those ordinary people be a bit more interesting on the page.

As, indeed, my slice-of-life-loving commenter asked me to explain how to do. So I suppose I’d better get around to it.

Unfortunately, like so many good questions about craft, there isn’t a simple answer, or even any single technique to apply. Most of the techniques we’ve discussed in this series would help, to tell you the truth.

But as I am apparently incapable of walking away from a half-answered question (I really do need to work developing that skill, if only so I can get a bit more sleep), here are a few other tricks o’ the trade for pepping up the reality-based — as well as narratives that aspire to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Fair warning, writers of the real: you’re probably not going to like #1.

(1) Give your protagonist a few more problems. Frankly, most novels and memoirs feature characters that are a little too straightforward — and so are their problems. In real life, most people are dealing with a whole rash of issues simultaneously. So why should a novel’s protagonist be luckier?

They don’t need to be big problems to be effective, either. You needn’t cut off her leg, for instance, but how would it complicate the plot to have her sprain her ankle at a crucial juncture? Would it give more scope for character development?

(2) Make solving those problems — and smaller problems along the way — more urgent for your protagonist. Or, to rephrase this in industry-speak, if the protagonist isn’t vitally interested in the outcome, why should the reader be?

A lack of urgency is an unbelievably common problem in slice-of-life submissions. Even if the conflict at hand is quite small, the protagonist’s (and other characters’) involvement in it can make it seem immensely important to the reader.

Again, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that alchemy occurs, not the reader’s job to remain interested in whatever happens to be going on.

(3) Make your protagonist a bit more off-beat. Often, self-described ordinary characters are relatively devoid of quirks — which, again, is not particularly realistic, as anyone who has lived in an ordinary small town can tell you. Almost everybody has at least one or two genuine character oddities; why not let ‘em out for some air?

A very tangible fringe benefit: quirky protagonists tend to be a bit more likeable than salt-of-the-earth nice ones. The former are less predictable. Which brings me to…

(4) Allow your protagonist to act out of character every once in a while. Most aspiring novelists think that keeping a character absolutely true to type 100% of the time is a mark of narrative sophistication — but to tell you the truth, consistency is overrated. (Except, of course, consistent plausibility.)

Why, you ask? If a character isn’t very complex to begin with (see tips 1 and 2), the result can be utter predictability. Especially in a piece that aspires to feel very true-to-life, too much character consistency can sap considerable tension from even a very exciting storyline.

In a flatter story arc, it can take it away entirely.

Think about it: if the reader already has a pretty good idea of how the protagonist is going to react to any given stimulus, and if the storyline self-consciously avoids major twists and turns, what precisely is going to keep that reader turning pages?

(5) Add occasional humor in a serious narrative — and serious moments to a comedy. One-note narration can render even an exciting series of events flatter, yet variation in tone is surprisingly often missing from slice-of-life stories and memoir. Since humor astonishingly seldom plays a major role in memoirs, it can be even more effective to enliven a slow scene.

(6) Allow the external environment to reflect the protagonist’s state of mind. This is an old literary fiction author’s trick: from time to time, instead of showing the protagonist’s mental state through the on-the-nose method of typing her thoughts, why not have a nearby dog growl when she’s angry? Or a sunny day seem made for her alone?

(7) Play to your narrative strengths. Normally, I’m reluctant to give this particular bit of advice, as most writers have particular phrases, sentence structures, types of images, etc., that they would just LOVE to add 400 more times to their current manuscripts. But for quiet books, it honestly is a good idea to figure out what makes the best scenes so good — and to try to replicate that magic in a couple of other instances throughout the book.

Just a couple, mind you. If any of you 400-times-per-manuscipt types claim down the road, “Well, Anne Mini said it was okay to play to my strengths,” I shall deny it vociferously.

(8) Accentuate contrasts. Even in the most prosaic storyline, there are ups and downs, right? Try heightening the joys and deepening the despair.

At first, this may seem as though you’ve made your protagonist bipolar, but a too-even keel tends to reduce a reader’s sense of the importance of that’s going on in a scene. Which leads me to..
(9) Raise the stakes of the conflict that’s already there. This need not mean making every conflict a matter of life or death — but if a conflict seems vitally important to the protagonist, it generally will to the reader as well.

It’s harder to make the day-to-day seem vitally important (see comment above about highs and lows), but that’s just another challenge for a talented writer, isn’t it?

Finally — and this is advice that it would do most aspiring writers good to embrace — try to avoid the temptation to blame the publishing industry’s market-oriented tastes for what is very often a narrative problem. Once a writer’s gone there, it’s just a short step to the slippery slopes that lead to deciding that it’s not worth querying (“Agents only want books with non-stop action.”) — or revising (“They’re not publishing books like mine anymore, so I might as well trash this manuscript and start on a potboiler.”).

A warning flare that one might be getting close to that slippery slope: catching yourself speaking about the process in superlative terms. Watch out for words such as neveralwaysonly, and impossible tumbling out of your mouth when you discuss your book’s prospects.

Or, like today’s commenter, thinking that maybe it would be easier just to throw out the current manuscript and start fresh with a new story. Admittedly, sometimes that actually is a good idea — but as writers are rather more likely to produce this sentiment at the beginning of the revision process, rather than at the middle or the end, I tend to regard it as a more reliable symptom of a lack of confidence than a lack of potential in the book.

And when the thought is attached to a manuscript that has yet to be submitted, it sounds as though the author is trying to talk himself out of sending it out at all. Yes, the current literary market is exceptionally tough, but the only book that will certainly never get published is the one upon which the writer has given up.

Or, to translate it so everyone on both sides of the industry can understand: no one really knows for sure whether a book is marketable until its author has tried to market it extensively. So there.

Sure, the obstacles to publication are lofty, but the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Like so many factors in the life of the successfully compelling protagonist, these facts may be annoying to struggle against, but you can’t deny that they make the writer’s life interesting. Keep up the good work!

Where ARE my manners? Slowing down the story, probably

me in the Xmas ball

I intended to post this self-portrait a few days ago. Don’t blame me: the flu snuck up behind me, repeatedly bopping me on the head. Which perhaps explains why there are four iterations of me in the reflection, instead of the usual one; if you don’t think that this year’s flu has the power to shred the soul into several jagged shards, or at least bifurcate it into the part that’s coughing mercilessly and the part that’s anxiously looking out the window for the undertaker, well, I’m guessing you haven’t had it yet.

And I hope that none of you do. It’s not an experience worth living through, even for the sake of writing about it later. But here’s a tip, just in case infection does catch up with you: do not, I implore you, use your convalescent time to peruse the latest news about changes in the publishing world. It might just kill you.

When you’re ill, you want your will to live bolstered, right, not rapidly drained away?

Think I’m kidding? Okay, try this little experiment: turn your head, cough — and contemplate Amazon’s recent press release asserting that on Christmas Day, more customers bought Kindle versions of books than physical copies.

Now, do you feel better or worse than before you began the experiment?

Admittedly, this downloading fiesta is best contemplated while carrying a giant grain of salt in one hand and waving a banner reading caveat emptor with the other. After all, it’s only reasonable to expect people who got a Kindle for Christmas to hop right on the downloading bandwagon, pronto. Their ardor may well cool as the weeks pass.

But still, that chilling claim bears thinking about, if you happen to be a writer. At least, one who is — or ever plans to — making a living by writing books.

Strange days for writers, these; the miasma of murky copyright issues hovering around electronic publication has been engendering some pretty fascinating discussion — and, let’s face it, quite a bit of anger. Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, has just resigned from the Authors’ Guild because, she says, she felt that its settlement with Google did not adequately protect its members’ rights. That was both brave and generous of her — an author as established as she has been for many years (and deservedly) is unlikely to suffer anywhere near as much as the legions of authors who will come into print over the next few years.

So on behalf of all of us: thank you, Madame LeGuin, for thinking of us. I’m perpetually shoving fledgling SF and fantasy writers in the direction of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN as a crash course in craft. And what’s not to admire in an author of your stature’s tackling the TAO TE CHING?

She’s not the only one, either — to register a public protest of the changing writerly landscape, I mean, not to explicate Taoism.

Sherman Alexie has been arguing, and cogently, that authors are in a battle to the death for their rights. Kudos to you, sir — and I thought your most recent book, WAR DANCES, was far more interesting a literary experiment than many reviewers seemed to notice. May your inventiveness and copyright protections endure long.

And they are certainly not the only authors who feel that the book may be tumbling down the same slippery slope as new music: still profitable for the companies doing the releasing and those artists lucky enough to have established a fan base before the industry transformed, but darned hard for anyone newer to the game to make a living at it. The game is changing, and not in a manner at all likely to enable the struggling writer to move out of that picturesque garret, or even to quit his day job: as I mentioned the other week, over the last couple of years, the disparity between bestselling authors’ advances and first-time author’s is about as great as it has ever been, and just keeps widening.

Which would concern me less, I must admit, if pretty much every author I know weren’t being expected these day to invest more resources than ever before in promoting her own books. Is it me, or is there something wrong with the math here?

Still, the picture is not all gloomy. Until I know for sure that the Kindle and similar devices can be used to read in the bathtub without being potentially life-endangering, I have to believe that the physical book serves a necessary function that cannot easily be supplanted by electronics. I do read the writing trades every day, however — in electronic form, I must admit — so I’m not laboring under any illusions that publishing isn’t going to have to change somehow. I’m just not convinced that it’s going to be as radically as we’ve all been asked to believe.

Case in point: if memory serves, practically the instant the internet hit the mainstream — i.e., when it stopped being almost exclusively the playground of academics and computer geeks, two groups for which I harbor considerable affection, and became absorbed into the non-specialist’s everyday life — media types threw up their hands in a panic, insisting that conventional shopping was dead. Within just a couple of years, these minor-key Nostradamuses (Nostradami?) assured us, no one, but no one, was going to be buying so much as a can of beets at the local grocery store. The internet was going to handle all commerce, we were told; the storefront mercantile would soon be as dead as the dodo.

It’s years later now. Tell me: where was the last place you bought beets?

For me, it was my local farmers’ market. Very good they were, too. Lovers of good literature are still trekking to the corner store for those beets, bless their hearts, if in dwindling numbers, And in case nobody out there has noticed it, it’s only the sales of new books that are dismal — used books are, I’m told by thems as know, actually selling better since the beginning of the economic downturn.

See my earlier comment about reading the bathtub. It’s a socio-economic phenomenon worth considering, I tell you.

Soggy pages and beet salad aside, I am darned worried about the future — and present — of the working author. Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I skipped running my usual GREAT GIFTS FOR WRITERS WITH GREAT GIFTS series this year: right now, I think the best thing any of us can do to help ourselves or the authors we admire is to buy books by living writers.

Oh, any of the gifts I suggested in the GREAT GIFTS series (gathered for your convenience under the category of the same name on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page, should any of you still be trawling for gifts) would probably make a serious writer happy, particularly the one where kith or kin create time or space for the writer to, well, write. That invaluable present has the advantage of being either very expensive (some of the writers’ retreats out there are essentially resorts, and are priced accordingly) or very inexpensive (what writing parent wouldn’t love a hand-colored book of gift certificates for undisturbed writing hours from a 7-year-old willing to play quietly by herself?)

Yet for months now, whenever I have been asked to suggest a present, I’ve simply told the asker to run, not walk, to the nearest physical bookstore, preferably an independent one that truly supports living writers, like Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books or Portland’s Powell’s — both of which will happily issue gift cards in any amount, you know — and start exercising some literary taste toute suite. Because as I have said before here at Author! Author!, and shall no doubt say again, if we writers want a world where new voices can break into the biz, we need to keep buying books.

Speaking of which, a quick reminder: between now and the end of the year, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) author and hyper-generous soul Mary Hutchings Reed will be donating $1 per copy sold of her novel, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a Chicago organization providing pro bono legal services to emerging artists, as well as 50 cents per copy to the Seattle YWCA for its GirlsFirst project because, well, it’s a cause I like. Full details of the charity drive may be found here, but to whet your appetite for literature:

CKH_Cover FinalCourting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Please consider helping us raise some money for these very worthy causes, by the karma-fluffing means of — wait for it — buying a book by a living author. Amazon offers it both in hard copyand for Kindle. In case, you know, anyone wants to enjoy the irony of ordering the latter.

Better still, buy it “directly from the author or from a great independent bookseller like Village Square Books (and you thought I forgot your impassioned plea for indie booksellers, Pat! Never let it be said that a reader left a good argument in my comments in vain.)

If not this book, by all means, pick another. And another and another, selected from the part of the bookstore where you hope one day to see your magnum opus gracing a shelf. Because the best, the most unarguably successful means of convincing agents and editors that there’s a market for books like yours is for readers like you to buy, you guessed it, books like yours.

That’s enough preaching for one day, I think; I’m feeling quite winded. Before another coughing fit carries me off, let’s knuckle down for some more discussion of self-editing for pace.

Last week, we were chatting about the desirability of structuring your submissions to avoid that most subjective of pitfalls, being boring. The problem is, a lack of tension — an extremely common cause of ennui amid agency-habitué set — is one of the hardest traits for a writer to spot in her own work. Especially, for some reason, in novels and memoirs.

Partially, I think, this writerly blind spot tends to be the a side effect of working so hard on plotting. The protagonist needs to get from Point A to Point B in a scene, and if the narrative gets her there in a fairly expeditious and plausible manner, we tend to be satisfied.

For the first draft, anyway. Then, if we’re good revisers, we suddenly awake one fine morning and exclaim, “Wait — there’s more to telling this story than getting to the end of it, isn’t there? Might I conceivably make some changes that — dare I say it? — render the protagonist’s journey from A to B more enjoyable for the reader?”

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how often it comes as a surprise to aspiring writers who eschew revision that the manuscript not only needs to be a good story well told, but entertaining to boot. “But my novel/memoir/analysis of the rise of the Visigoths isn’t meant to be merely entertaining,” these first-draft lovers exclaim indignantly. “This is a story that needs to be told. If potential readers just want to be entertained, they’ll simply flop down in front of their TVs or computers.”

Precisely. Wouldn’t you rather that someone who liked to read would pick up your book and continue to peruse it with pleasure than surf the internet for, say, beets?

Like it or not, part of the job description for being an author involves entertaining people, regardless of the type of book. Good writing beguiles, among other things; it should not bore.

Before any of you begin rolling your eyes and decrying the decline of literature, allow me to add: Robert Louis Stevenson (after whom my junior high school was named, perversely enough) once compared the working life of the professional writer to that of a fille de joie. (If you can’t extrapolate what that is, your parents probably wouldn’t appreciate my filling you in.) Readers, even those who prefer the most literary of literary fiction, the most serious political analysis, or, heaven help us, in-depth discussions of semiotic theory, engage in the practice because they enjoy it.

As a matter of marketing, not to say ethics, I think it’s self-defeating to blame them for that. Or punish them with turgid prose.

Am I being a bit too subtle here? Okay, I’ll take off the gloves and take another swing: it’s pretty apparent to Millicent the agency screener — and, indeed, any other professional reader — when a writer who does not care enough about his readers’ enjoyment of his book to revise, or even re-read, his own manuscript before submitting it. Among other things, an obvious first draft (and they are often very obvious indeed to Millie) sends a signal that here might be a writer who will kick and scream if an agent or editor asks for any revisions whatsoever.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s a radical conclusion based on some pretty scant evidence. But remember, Millicent’s job is first and foremost to reject manuscripts, not to give them a nice, long chance to entertain her.

I suspect, too, that many, many writers worry a touch too much about making their protagonists seem like nice people, at the expense of other, more risky character development. Manners are certainly delightful and desirable in individuals, but when courtesy takes over dialogue for any length of time, the result can be deadly. Take, for example, this sterling bit of prose:

Everett lifted his hat, a well-creased Homburg inherited from his father, a man known all across the Back Bay for his impeccably-groomed head. “I’m delighted to meet you, Maude.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” Maude waved him to a chair. “May I offer you anything to drink? Coffee, perhaps? Tea? I could sacrifice a goat.”

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Nothing, thanks.”

Maude began to burrow in her purse. “I suppose you are curious about why I asked you here.”

“I am, rather.”

Did you notice how the pace of the scene stopped DEAD after Everett thanked Maude? There was a palpable lull, from which the reader was only saved by all of that purse-rummaging. Pretty remarkable, given that one of the characters here is evidently not averse to a spot of blood-shedding.

I tell you, lovely manners can be death to a scene. Minimize their appearance.

Don’t believe me? Okay, glance over that micro-scene again. Are you at all curious about what happens next? Do you want to hear more about either of these characters? To be blunt about it, have you in fact learned anything from that group of 103 words (yes, I checked) that could not have been easily conveyed in all of its glory in the following 36?

“Coffee?” Maude asked.

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Why did you ask me here?”

See how much snappier the second version is? Here we see in action tried-and-true editors’ trick: don’t have the characters answer questions just because they are asked.

Seriously — it’s often an almost instant scene-enlivener. While of course it is polite in the real world to respond directly and promptly to the queries put to one, a narrative that exhibits a slavish adherence to having all questions answered the very instant after they are put — and having characters answer them absolutely directly, truthfully, and completely — can get boring FAST.

Why? Well, characters who do this–– as most characters in most novels submitted to agents and editors do, I tremble to report — are the last thing you want an interesting character to be: predictable. REALLY predictable.

Take another gander at the shortened scene. Does Everett come across as particularly impolite? Not really. Both characters still come across as relatively nice people, but now, the reader is not invited to dwell on their manners — which, by definition, are impersonal, rather than habits that reveal individual character, right? — but instead is drawn into the mystery of why Everett has been asked to this strange dorm room.

Let me repeat something I just mentioned parenthetically, because it may be on the final exam: manners, like clichés, are reflections of social norms, not individual characteristics. Therefore, while showing a character deviate from good manners or mangle clichés can be effective character development, cliché-spouting (dangerous even as a comic device, in a submission) and courteous speech actually do not tell the reader much about the characters who emit them.

So when your protagonist shows what a nice guy he is by saying please, thank you, and asking about acquaintances’ mothers’ respective healths, he is not actually revealing much who he is as a person. He might be demonstrating something about the people who raised him, of course — while no one can deny that part of Elvis’ complicated charm was that he called people older than himself “sir” and “ma’am,” the fact that he habitually did so was certainly his parents’ and teachers’ doing, right? — but part of the point of good manners is that they are used socially to avoid insulting anyone.

Or to put rude people in their place. That, however, is conflict, and needs to be shown explicitly in the narrative; remember, however vividly the speaker’s tone may be heard in the writer’s head, the reader can’t know about it unless it shows up on the page. If the narrative simply assumes that the reader will fill in the necessary details, Millicent is all too likely to conclude with a yawn that politeness on the page is simply good manners, not tastefully-concealed conflict.

That’s not such an unwarranted conclusion: let’s face it, courtesy is generic. Manners are most people means concealing a part of their true identities, at least in the moment. Complete honesty tends not to be polite — and, as anyone who has spent 20 consecutive minutes with a small child can tell you, politeness is the learned skill, not truth-telling.

While absolute truth-telling is actually rather rare in adult life, except in small bursts — please tell me that no one is shocked to hear me say that — small, inadvertent pieces of self-revelation are lovely, aren’t they? I love to find them in a new writer’s work, as evidence of a good eye and a sharp insight into human nature.

I am not alone in this; telling little details are beloved by professional readers, partially because a manuscript peppered with ‘em is actually rather a rarity to encounter.

A shame, really — but let me turn the question around to you: given the choice, would you rather read a page of dialogue that showed a protagonist SAYING one polite thing after another? Or a page that showed the protagonist talking about something else entirely, perhaps engaging in conversation that reveals something about his relationship with the person sitting across from him, or a passion of his own — and then showed him leap to his feet, without even thinking about it, to give his seat to his grandmother?

Put like that, the choice is kind of obvious, isn’t it? Sounds like the first cousin of those old workhorses show, don’t tell and actions speak louder than words. Or the now seldom-used adage from before the crowned heads of Europe began to tumble, You can tell a lot about a man by the kind of lace edging his shirt.

Hey, times change. So do standards of what is and isn’t boring.

How can self-editing writers tell if the manuscript in their trembling little hands incorporates enough of this kind of telling little detail? Ah, that is one of the great burning questions of the writing life — and a subject for a future post, my friends. Like, say, tomorrow’s.

In the meantime, try not to be depressed by the trends in the industry; do your bit, however, small, toward creating the kind of literary market you want. Come up with ways to delight your readers, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Excising redundant dialogue, or, there’s a reason Chatty Cathy is not the world’s best-selling doll

reindeer in motion

Last time, I eased our discussion of self-editing for pace toward that graveyard of many a promising manuscript submission and contest entry, problematic dialogue. Through the subtle means of showering you with example after example, I sought to nudge you, gently, 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.

So I guess that, in a manner of speaking, this sprawling series on the art of revision is not only my holiday present to aspiring writers all over the English-speaking world, but all of the Millicents as well. God bless them, every one.

In the interest of making this the kind of present our Millie will really love, I’m going to turn the discussion toward a few types of dialogue that are particularly irritating to see for the 700th time. Let’s start with one that gets under her 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!” Sandy fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Jeff replied.

“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?”


“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.” Jeff was crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Sandy 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? Or do you think that’s just blaming the victims?”

“Could be.”

“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,” Jeff said, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Jeff serving in this conversation, other than listener? 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 now, I hope, how Millicent and her cohorts feel about that in a submission.

So 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 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, okay?”

It’s not okay, at least according to Millicent. At the risk of sounding like everyone’s 9th-grade composition teacher, show, don’t tell.

Everyone clear on why that one is problematic? Okay, let’s move on to another that makes Millicent’s teeth grind: characters with catchphrases.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Sitcoms are famous for it, as are sketch comedy shows: a character, usually a comic one, repeats his stock statement at every available opportunity. And the audience laughs not necessarily because it’s funny, but because it’s familiar.

But I can tell you now that Millicent will not laugh. At all. Because to her, repeated dialogue is simply redundant. Not to mention a missed opportunity for character development.

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

Some of the comedy writers out there are grumbling into their eggnog over that one, I bet. “But Anne,” hilarity-mongers everywhere protest, “people constantly repeat themselves in real life.”

Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.

That answer didn’t mollify you, did it? “But 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, her father 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.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual people say quite 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:

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

B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”

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

B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. She was supposed to be visiting her mother sometime soon. She’s not married yet, is she?”

A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”

Me: (Seeking escape route.) Yes. How’s your son? 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.

A: And how’s your mother?

Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.

B: Give my regards to your mother.

Me: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to Bobby.

A: Well?

B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

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 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?”

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.

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, this might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: the average agent or editor’s maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is approximately well under a minute.

Not a lot of room for fudging there. 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.

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, tension is confused with suspense, and thus taken less seriously as a writing necessity by writers in other genres. 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 well-crafted, consistent tension in novels are the HARRY POTTER books. (Yes, I know that they’re for children, but children grow up, and it would behoove anyone who intends to be writing for adults ten years from now to be familiar with the Harry Potter pacing.) 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 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 to read. 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 at holiday time, 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.

“Boring,” of course, 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. As a group, professional readers bore FAST.

How fast, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, my friends, but many of the fine people currently reading submissions across this great land of ours are disconcertingly capable of becoming bored within the first paragraph of a novel. Or, at the very most, by the bottom of the first page.

While we could talk all day about the ethics of agencies and publishing houses employing screeners and assistants with attention spans comparable to the average three-year-old’s — and I’m talking about a three-year-old who has just eaten two big slices of birthday cake here — I have to say, I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: the vast majority of manuscripts suffer from an ongoing 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?’”

At the risk of art’s imitating life this holiday season, I’m going to be talking about interpersonal — and inter-character — tension for the rest of the week. Keep that dialogue lively, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Details that tell it all, or, leaving on a jet plane

leaving on a jet plane

Throughout December, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been concentrating on craft issues, the nitty-gritty business of constructing and polishing a narrative. Specifically, because my magic bloggers’ antennae tell me that quite a few of you are planning to query and/or submit right after the new year (or, if you’ll take my advice, three weeks later, after all of the writers whose New Year’s resolution to get their work out the door have begun to flag a bit), I’ve been talking about self-editing.

Today, you may or may not be delighted to hear, is no exception. But before I launch into the hardcore theory part of our program, allow me to tell you a little story.

To set it up: I’ve been traveling a good deal lately, boarding plane after plane. (My ailing Grumpy Relative lives far away, alas.) Since the airlines have started charging to check bags, many passengers have simply begun wheeling their bulky suitcases down the center aisle, fighting with one another to find space for them in the overhead bins. During the holidays, this battle royale necessarily entails jostling some passengers’ shopping bags full of presents too delicate or valuable to pack in checked luggage. In the midst of this ongoing conflict between the crammers and the fearful, I set my tale.

After my companion and I were seated — he in 18B, I in 18C — I felt my chest tighten: the gentleman behind me had evidently bathed that morning in cologne. That, or he was a secret agent for the airline transit authority, testing the viability of toxic scents in rendering nearby passengers senseless.

A sympathetic flight attendant told me I could move if I could find an empty seat free of nerve agent. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack, wiggled my way into the center aisle, and began scouting.

Up by row six, I was brusquely pushed aside by a tall woman in cashmere. Hastily, I vaulted out of her way, which unfortunately placed me in the lap of the man in 6C. I apologized for treating him like Santa Claus (he didn’t seem to mind much), but I could not budge: the imperious woman was blocking the aisle too thoroughly while searching for a place to stow her immense roll-on luggage in the already crammed overhead bins.

A time-conscious flight attendant murmured in her wake, tactfully replacing the shopping bags the passenger was blithely flinging to the floor. “Could you please hurry, ma’am?” the flight attendant kept saying. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Clearly, though, that baggage had to be placed just so. As the passenger made her noisy way down the aisle, I was able to free myself of my human seat cushion. Trying to make my way back to my seat, I felt like the caboose in a slow-moving train.

By the time I could smell where I was supposed to be, the picky passenger had managed to free enough space in the bin above row nineteen to shove her suitcase inside. The flight attendant and I pushed from behind.

As I slipped, choking, into my assigned seat, the woman turned to the flight attendant. “Well, that’s a relief. Now you need to switch my seat assignment.”

The flight attendant looked at her blankly. “You’re in 6E.”

“Yes,” the woman said testily, “but my bag is back here. I’ll have to wait until everyone else gets off the plane before I can grab it. I need to sit next to it.”

Feeling both revolutionary levels of resentment rising off the rest of the passengers and my throat constricting from the cologne fumes, I knew my time had come. “She can have my seat!” I exclaimed, leaping to my feet. “I don’t mind coming back for my carry-on.”

The woman had plopped herself into my seat before the flight attendant could even nod. She thanked no one.

The flight attendant propelled me forward to row six before the picky passenger could change her mind. I gave the five extra bags of pretzels she slipped me to the man who had let me share his lap.

Amusing, I hope? Good, but as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! has probably already begun suspecting by the end of the first paragraph, I didn’t share that anecdote with you purely for entertainment value, or even to vent. (I thought the other passengers were going to attack the rude woman. She must have delayed our departure by 15 minutes.)

No, I’ve included this story here because it has an editing problem — several, actually. Any guesses?

Hands up if you think it is too long. Is the action/narrative ratio off? Do you think a swifter telling would have allowed the comedy inherent in the situation to come out more clearly, or would you have liked to see more internal reaction from the narrator?

Which is right? Well, it depends upon what kind of narrative it is — and where the scene is going. In a memoir, the reader expects the narrator’s character to be revealed through her reactions to the events around her, so I might well want to ramp that up. In a romance, the reader would probably want a slightly different focus, perhaps showing my companion’s dismay at being first left alone, then saddled with another seatmate, or more complex interactions with the gentleman with the lap.

If, on the other hand, this is a thriller, and the reader has some reason to suspect that one of the passengers on the plane is carrying something lethal, this semi-amusing bit of business is merely a way to prolong the suspense, right? In that instance, I would want to edit to speed up this scene.

Many self-editors, though, as well as a hefty percentage of writers’ group critiquers, would not take intended book category into account when making the decision to trim this scene. All too often, short and terse is deemed appropriate for any type of book.

But it doesn’t always work, because — wait, I’m going to let you see why for yourself. Here’s that scene again, winnowed down to a just-the-facts-ma’am telling.

After my companion and I reached our seats, I felt my chest tighten: the guy behind me reeked of cologne. I waved down a flight attendant to ask if I could change seats, and she said yes, but she was too busy to find one for me. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack and began scouting.

A woman shoved me into some guy’s lap in row six. She was trying to find an overhead bin to stow her luggage, but the ones near her seat were already crammed. The flight attendant kept urging her to hurry, since the plane couldn’t start taxiing until everyone was seated. I remained trapped in the guy’s lap until the woman had exhausted all of the possibilities near her seat and moved up the aisle, with the flight attendant replacing the items she had displaced.

The woman finally found enough space for her bag above row nineteen, just behind me. But before I could buckle myself in, the woman demanded to sit near her bag, rather than in her assigned seat.

The passenger and flight attendant had a small argument about it, causing the other fliers to express resentment. I offered to switch seats with her, in order to solve both of our problems. The flight attendant gave me extra pretzels; I shared them with the guy whose lap I had occupied.

Not a very effective editing job, is it? It’s precisely the same story, true, but most of its charm has evaporated. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “The humorous voice is gone!” lower that hand and pat yourself on the back with it. Very, very frequently, insecure self-editors will sacrifice narrative voice to pace, resulting in the kind of tale you see above.

But one of the main selling points a writer has for an agent or editor is freshness of voice! If it’s largely edited out, how is Millicent to know that this is a writer with an interesting and unique worldview?

If, on the other hand, you cried out, “In this version, the reader doesn’t really learn much about who these characters are or why this incident is important. It’s just a flat description of events,” you also deserve a pat on the back, because that’s also true. Characterization is another very frequent casualty of the revision process, because, well, it takes up room on the page.

I’m reserving today’s gold star, though, for those of you who noticed both of these problems, yet pointed out, “Hey, Anne, both of these examples share a flaw I’d like to see fixed: what are any of these people like? Admittedly, the second example exhibits much weaker characterization than the first, but most of these characters are one-note: the pushy passenger is rude, the flight attendant harried, and the guy with the lap vague. I’d find this story both more enjoyable and more plausible if the narrative showed them more. In fact, isn’t this a show, don’t tell problem?”

Wow, that’s one well-earned gold star. Both versions are indeed light in the characterization department.

Some lovers of terseness out there find that diagnosis a bit dismaying, I sense. “But Anne,” they protest, trying to keep their commentary brief, “isn’t the usual point of editing to cut out what doesn’t work? You admitted above that the original anecdote was a little long — won’t adding characterization just make it longer?”

Not necessarily — if the characterization is achieved not through analysis or lengthy descriptions, but through the inclusion of telling details. Such as:

The lanky woman seemed barely muscular enough to drag her leopard-print suitcase behind her, yet she surged up the aisle, flinging open every single overhead compartment on both sides as she passed. They gaped in her wake. The flight attendant leapt to keep the morass of holiday gifts, rolled-up winter coats, and overpacked suitcases from tumbling onto the passengers who had arranged their carry-ons so carefully just minutes before.

“Could you please hurry, ma’am?” she kept murmuring after every slam and between bites on her regulation pink-frosted lips. The first-class flight attendant was wearing the same color. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Thirteen sets of hanging doors later, the woman shoved aside a red shopping bag to make room for her suitcase. I helped the flight attendant wrestle the last three compartments shut before both of us provided the necessary muscle to inter the leopard. She did not thank us.

Obviously, these two paragraphs are not an adequate substitute for the entire story, but see what I have done here? The details provide characterization that neither the first version’s narrative reactions nor the second’s series of events showed the reader.

In this third version, however, the reader is neither left to fill in the specifics nor expected to guess what conclusions the author wants him to draw from these actions. The telling details make it perfectly plain that the lanky woman could not care less about anybody else’s comfort, feelings, or even rights: leaving those bin doors open behind her for the flight attendant and another passenger to close shows the reader what kind of person she is, just as the specifics about the volume of the luggage and the uniform lipstick, contrasted with the flight attendant’s consistent politeness, illustrate her dilemma, and the narrator’s automatically pitching in to help demonstrates her approach to the world.

Starting to get the picture? Good, because I’ve been yammering about telling details, albeit sometimes indirectly, all month.

But that’s appropriate, because telling details are the gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little details that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which telling little details appear in a manuscript is often one of the primary factors professional readers use in determining whether to keep reading.

Why? Well, more than almost any other device, they give the reader insight into the author’s worldview.

Sound like too amorphous a concept to be useful at revision time? It isn’t. A good writer sees the world around her with unique eyes, and — ideally, at least — powers of observation heightened to an extent that many non-writers would actually find painful.

This requires pretty sensitive nervous tissue, as H.G. Wells pointed out: he liked to call writers Aeolian harps (that’s a fancy way of saying wind chime, in case you were wondering), responding to our perceptions of the world through our art and, he hoped, making it better in the process.

Wells is now best-known for his science fiction, of course, but in his lifetime, many of his most popular novels were about social interactions. As I mentioned back on Veterans’ Day, his Mr. Britling Sees It Through was considered at the time THE definitive work on the British home front during the First World War. My favorite of his social novels is The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, a comedy about marriage and the establishment of decent, affordable apartment buildings for young working women.

Okay, so his political beliefs were not particularly well-hidden in his social novels. But his eye for social nuance — and social comedy — was exceptionally good.

The tiny little details that our sensitive nervous tissue lead us to notice — the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, as the song says — are a large part of what makes great writing seem almost miraculous to readers. Not everyone notices the worn-down heel of the left shoe of the man in his interview suit, after all, or the way the eyes of the president of the local charitable organization occasionally glaze with hatred while her mouth is loading the members with drippingly complimentary gushings.

Feeling special yet? You should: being aware of these telling little details is a gift, after all, an eye with which not very many human beings are endowed. Yet most writers don’t rely upon it nearly heavily enough in constructing their narratives.

And to someone whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, every day, seeing that gift wasted can start to get pretty annoying. “Where are those delightfully unexpected little insights?” the Millicents of the world think, running their fingertips impatiently down page 1. “Where is the evidence that this writer sees the world in a way that will change the way I see it myself?”

A tall order, yes, but — wait, do I hear some cries of distress out there? “Did you just say,” a strangled voice asks, “page ONE? As in my manuscript should produce evidence of my unique worldview and uncanny eye for telling little details that early in my book? Can’t I, you know, warm up a little?”

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s a series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1, a pretty sobering group of posts.)

Some of you may find the necessity for cajoling reading more than a few paragraphs from people who, after all, asked you to send a chapter or 50 pages or your entire book. If you’re a novelist, it can be especially galling: presumably, if your forté as a writer were brilliant single-page stories, you would be entering short-short competitions, not writing 400-page books, right?

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to this view. If I ran the universe, agents and editors would be granted an entire extra day per week, so they could read at least 10 pages into every submission they request. Writers would get an extra day, too, and lots of paid vacation time, so we could polish our work to our entire satisfaction before we sent it out.

And Santa Claus would tumble down my chimney to shower me with presents every day of the year, instead of just Friday morning.

Unfortunately, I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe. If we writers want to be successful, it behooves us to recognize that submissions are often read very, very quickly, and adapt our first few pages to that reality.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that. But before you condemn the rigors of the industry too vigorously, take a moment to consider the conditions that might lead to someone at an agency or publishing house to conclude that it would be desirable, or even necessary, to give a requested manuscript only a page to establish the author’s brilliance.

Lest we forget, Millicent the agency screener is the world’s most impatient reader, the one to whom you pray your manuscript will not be assigned: while some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millicent is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

It is now 12:10, she’s just noticed a run in her tights, and your manuscript is the next in the pile. How easy do you think it is going to be for it to impress her into reading past page 1?

I bring up Millicent’s foul mood not to scare you — but since a writer has absolutely no control over the mood of the person deciding whether to accept or reject his manuscript, it is worth preparing your submission so that it would impress EVEN Millicent at her most frustrated. That’s just good submission strategy.

Actually, I have a quite a bit of sympathy for the Millicents of the agenting world, as well as Maury, the editorial assistant who is her equivalent in publishing houses. They are expected to read reams and reams of paper very, very fast — and for this Herculean effort, they are not necessarily always paid. Often, in this harsh economy, this work is assigned to interns. If it’s the summertime, Millicent is probably on break from a good Northeastern college, someplace like Barnard, and since her parents can afford to support her while she takes an unpaid but résumé-building job, she’s probably from an upper-middle class background.

If it’s the rest of the year, or she has already graduated, she is probably paid — poorly — and lives in an apartment the size of a postage stamp with four other young people with similar jobs. Millie would not have gone into this line of work had she not liked reading — in fact, she may have writing aspirations herself, or she may want to become an agent or editor, so taking a job screening queries and submissions seemed like dandy on-the-job training at the time.

But now, after weeks on end of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of rather similar storylines, her capacity for appreciating literature has markedly dimmed. Sometimes, when she is especially cranky, a single line of awkward dialogue or two lines free of conflict can make her feel downright oppressed.

And your manuscript will have to get past Millie, and often also a senior assistant who has been screening manuscripts for even longer and has an even shorter boredom fuse, before it lands on the agent’s desk.

It had better not bore her.

Especially if, as occasionally happens, your manuscript is the next on her list to read immediately after she has broken up with her loutish boyfriend, she twisted her ankle clambering up from the subway, or she’s wondering how she’s going to pay the rent. And if poor Millie has just burned her lip on her non-fat double-shot tall latte…well, let’s just say that the first few pages of your manuscript had best be tight.

And feature at least a few delightful little details that will make Millicent sit up, forgetting her bright magenta lip, and cry, “Eureka! This writer showed me something I’ve never seen before, presented in magnificent, clear prose! Forget my lunch date — I have something to READ!”

The miracle of talent, as Mme. de Staël tells us, is the ability to knock the reader out of his own egoism. Let your first pages be living proof of that.

I think you have it in you; that gift of insight is what made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Don’t let the difficulties of the submission process dim that mission. Millicent, and readers everywhere, will be the better for the originality of your insight.

Show it to the world; don’t leave Millicent wondering about it. Oh, and share those overhead bins, please — that space is for everybody, and some of us are transporting glassware. Keep up the good work!

Slicing and dicing life into interesting shapes, or, ordinary is as ordinary does

barcelona market

As I mentioned last time, I’m planning to spend the next few weeks going through my to-blog-about stack, concentrating on all of those great questions from readers that I answered briefly in the comments, but never managed to get around to devoting a entire post or two to expanding upon, as I intended. I’m well aware of the old saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but until today, I was not aware that the highway markers were provided by procrastination.

Case in point: intelligent and insightful reader Jen posted today’s question onmy post commemorating John Updike’s passing, an event that my archives tell me happened way back in January, and have I devoted a post yet to answering it? Well, have I?

I’m asking semi-seriously, because as of this morning, I honestly didn’t remember. I often so go to town in answering questions in the comments that I have the illusion that I have indeed blogged on a subject. But since the comments aren’t searchable via the wee-but-powerful engine at the upper right-hand corner of this page (I know; I think it’s weird, too), my waxing poetic over a question doesn’t really help anyone but the people who happen to check — and re-check — the comments on that particular post.

It’s kind of like forgetting to post any of my photos of Barcelona until seven months after I took them. The market’s pretty, isn’t it?

Okay, that’s one goal checked off my list. Here’s another. Quoth Jen way back when:

Anne, —in 2002, Dr. James Plath, an English professor, friend of the late writer, and specialist in John Updike’s work said, “While other people were writing about characters in the extreme, John Updike spoke and wrote about people who lived middling lives in the middle of the United States which is the anchor of this country.”

Especially with the higher standard unpublished writers must reach, middling Midwesterners, on the surface, have an extra challenge in getting past criteria #1 on panelists’ dream-date list. Yet, like the character development shown in your excerpt, isn’t it how we expose our characters that pushes them past the bell curve (or not)?

I should admit my Midwestern protagonist is feeling a bit ordinary today.

Jen, this is a question I hear in my craft classes all the time: how does one write about ordinary characters and ordinary life without the result being, well, ordinary?

I’m not sure that I would agree with your professor’s assessment — Updike was hardly the ONLY portrayer of Middle America in the post-war era. (Andre Debus, anyone? Rachel Ingalls? About a thousand other writers?) But it’s absolutely true that the portrayal of a so-called ordinary character can elevate that character above a dull normal.

In order to pull that off, however, that character — or lifestyle, or workplace, or situation — cannot be merely sketched out, however. The writer has to imagine a fully-rounded protagonist who is more complicated than what a casual observer would consider typical of his job, class, sex, race, political affiliations, sexual preferences, and so forth, because unless the writer conceives him as an individual, he’s likely to come across as a mere representative of a group, trend, or background.

Taken far enough, of course, the result is a stereotype. But haven’t we all seen enough mean-spirited cheerleaders (who invariably rule the school in fiction), sulky teenagers (rolling their eyes and sighing perpetually in submissions), absent-minded professors (or, even more common on the page, professors who constantly speak as though they were giving a lecture), intolerant small-town denizens (with or without pitchforks in their hands), and soulless corporate lawyers (okay, I’ll give you that one) to last a lifetime?

Or several lifetimes, if we happen to read a lot of submissions?

Updike was very, very good at elevating ordinary characters into something beyond representatives, at least for male characters. His men are not just stand-ins for their position in society or backgrounds, but fully-realized individuals operating within the rubric of what Wallace Stevens called the time and space in which we breathe.

So that’s the short answer, Jen: fashion characters that do not feel like characters, but people, occupying a world that is very much like ours, only more interesting. Not only to the author, or to people who live within the environment being depicted, but to readers who know nothing about them.

Well, that’s another craft problem neatly polished off. Moving on…

Oh, how I wish it were that simple — or that fewer good writers mistook the classic writing advice write what you know for a directive to reproduce even the not-very-interesting life around them. Bordering-on-boring slice-of-life submissions are so common that I’ve seen more than a couple agents and editors march into writers’ conferences and declare that slice-of-life fiction is just bad writing.

I think that’s a pretty radical overstatement — there’s plenty of excellent slice-of-life writing out there — but I can certainly understand how someone who read manuscripts for a living might be annoyed into that extreme a conclusion. Many, many aspiring writers take write what you know far too literally; originally, the advice was meant to discourage writers from speculating in print about social conditions and situations they knew little or nothing about.

Why? Well, in part, because doing that tends to result in stereotype-generation. Not to mention fiction that may not ring true. So a more sensible version of write what you know might be do your homework, then write what you find out.

Another unfortunate interpretation of write what you know is the quite untrue supposition that just because something happens in real life, it will necessarily be interesting on the page. Editors have been driven into madhouses by this one since the Brontë sisters first got the idea of placing pen to paper. Including too many details — or uninteresting ones — makes it hard for the reader to figure out what is and isn’t important in a scene.

Those of us who read manuscripts for a living have a number of terms for manuscripts that include mentions of every paper clip on a desk, as if each were as important to the scene as the dead body lying on top of them, but you probably don’t really want to know. They are not very polite. About the nicest is lazy writing.

That made some of you realism-lovers out there sit up in your chairs, didn’t it? “But Anne,” fans of the mundane sputter indignantly, “how can doing too much work possibly be construed as lazy? I can understand how it might be irritating to an agent or editor to have to edit out extraneous details, but isn’t it far better to over-describe than to leave the reader guessing what the physical environment is like?”

I understand your ire, oh sputterers, but the question misses the point, from a professional reader’s point of view: ideally, you shouldn’t be picking between two extremes, but finding an ideal balance between too much information and too little. And since it’s the writer’s job, not the editor’s, to discover where that happy medium lies for any particular story, I don’t think you can really blame the pros for regarding writers who shirk this duty as lazy.

Think about it: if all that were necessary in order to convey the feel of a room or truth of a situation was to describe it down to the last dust mote and/or stray frown on a bystander, film would trump good writing, every time. The old cliché that a picture’s worth a thousand words is often true, in the sense that if there’s a lot going on in a photo, it would take a great many words to describe it.

But there’s also a pretty good reason that novels don’t typically contain photographs: part of the point of the art form is to describe things, people, and situations not by depicting them in exhaustive detail, but rather by the author’s selecting what is most important to the truth of the scene and concentrating on it.

To put it a bit more bluntly: a large part of a writer’s value to the reader lies in her ability to winnow out the unimportant. Just because something is real — or realistic — doesn’t mean it’s going to capture a reader’s interest. And every writer on earth should be pretty happy about that, because if every aspect of quotidian life were hugely entertaining, novelists and memoirists would be rendered obsolete, replaced by film cameras and court reporters.

But what we fiction and creative nonfiction writers do to reality is far, far more complex than simply holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, right?

That’s something that writers of the ordinary are prone to forget, alas: the novelist’s job is not merely to tell a good story and to provide trenchant insight into the world he’s depicting, but to entertain. No matter how true-to-life your protagonist may be or how realistic the situation, if the way you write about it isn’t entertaining on some level, people will have a hard time reading it.

I see some of you turning up your nose at that, murmuring about how pandering to the lowest common denominator is death to literature. That may be comforting to believe, but actually, the imperative to entertain applies equally well to the least accessible literary fiction as to the most mainstream. The audience expected to enjoy the book in question is merely different.

Instead of regarding the need to interest and entertain the reader — and Millicent, as the gatekeeper of the agency that is, we hope, going to bring your book to the publishing house who will get your book into the hands of that reader — as a burden, why not think of it as a useful reminder that one of the biggest distinction between a professional writer and a hobbyist is not whether she gets paid, but whether she is willing to write with a target reader’s literary desires in mind, as well as her own? Wouldn’t you rather that your ideal reader found your work scintillating, rather than a chore to read?

Chew on that for a while, lovers of abundant and unimportant detail: wading through a sea of irrelevancies is no fun. And frankly, your reader would prefer for you to make the decision about what is and isn’t important for him to know. How you draw the line is part of your authorial voice.

Far more frequently, though, slice-of-life fiction suffers from the opposite problem: many writers assume — again, wrongly — that if they’re writing about everyday life, they don’t need to fill in the details of the environment, social relations, characterization for minor players, etc. Everybody knows what an office is like, right, and a gas station? Everyone has known an incompetent middle manager, an annoying co-worker, a bored check-out girl?

This, too, tends to get labeled as lazy writing, for obvious reasons: it’s the writer’s job to create a full and interesting world for her readers to inhabit, not the reader’s job to fill in the details from his own experience or imagination. And as any Millicent would be only too glad to tell you, it’s not the agent or editor’s, either.

Before any literal-minded reader demanding to know whether I’m saying that it’s always imperative to provide a physical description of every character as soon as she appears on the page, I hasten to reiterate: how much detail serves the story best is ultimately the writer’s decision, and an important one. Although each book category does have its own storytelling conventions, the choices involved are creative, not absolute.

So matter how much any given aspiring writer out there would like for there to be a hard-and-fast rule governing, say, the timing (or inclusion) of physical descriptions, or a foolproof formula for a dialogue-to-narration balance, there aren’t. What will work best for any given story is different.

Hey, this is an art we’re talking about here, not a science. Constructing an enjoyable narrative is hard work.

I see a few hands raised out there. “Okay, Anne, I get that as the writer of a story, I’m ultimately responsible for how I tell it. But I genuinely want to give my readers an accurate feeling for real life as I perceive it — and that means having to take them to some pretty ordinary places. Offices. Traffic jams. Supermarket aisles. How can I make that kind of place interesting to the reader while still remaining true to life?”

Oh, that’s a snap to answer: by how you write about it.

I know, I know — that sounds like I’m being flippant, but actually, I’m not. Often, the author’s perception of the protagonist’s ordinariness is more problematic than the locale: in the vast majority of submissions that deal with so-called ordinary people, their lives and characters are depicted as dull, as composite or representative of an entire group of people rather than as we encounter people in real life, as individuals with personal quirks. Interesting personal quirks, ones that the reader might not expect.

Not having any surprising depths would be problematic for any protagonist, anywhere, anytime — and frankly, with most readers, not just the professional ones.

Why? Well, Millicent and her ilk simply see more dull normal characters than the average reader, for the simple reason that they read many more books, at least in part. From their point of view, reading about an ordinary character from a generic background — even a background that a great many potential readers share — is rather like listening to an actor doing a generalized foreign accent, rather than one tailored specifically to the background of the character she’s portraying.

If you doubt this, try listening to some of the faux Irish brogues that turn up on US stages — they tend to be better on Canadian ones — that wander from County Cork to Dublin and back again with a winsome disregard for geographic probability, or ersatz American accents on British stages, evident hangovers from WWII GIs, with adjectives evidently from Brooklyn, nouns from Houston, and verbs from the movie lots of LA.

Genuine accents are always individuated, to a certain extent — and thus potentially a source of surprise and interest on the page. A close listener to my speech might discover, for instance, that my vocabulary changes when I’m talking about politics (the result of years of graduate school), my hometown boasts a specific cadence unshared by people who live 15 miles away that pops up when I talk about my childhood, and when I’m embarrassed, some of my English grandmother’s vowels come tripping out of my mouth. (“Oh, I’m so very sorry!”) And don’t even get me stared on the kid I knew in college who was from New Jersey, but tried to speak like a Cambridge graduate in tribute to his deep and abiding love of Monty Python.

My point is, real accents are a seething mass of influences and choices, so when we hear an actor produce a voice seemingly representative, it can sound rather fake. So, too, with characterization. No one is absolutely the product of a monolithic background, any more than anyone remains in character 100% of the time.

It’s the deviations and moments of departure that render us interesting. So if your ordinary protagonist is in danger of becoming too predictable, why not have him act out of character every now and then, as people do all the time in real life? Why not have one of the minor characters flip out about something out of a clear blue sky? Or have his love interest be in a lousy mood not because of anything that’s going on in the plot, but because she’s just gotten a parking ticket?

Starting to get the picture?

Ordinary does not have to mean uneventful or unquirky. It’s far from impossible to portray an ordinary person in an ordinary situation in a manner that will be interesting to a reader.

It does, however, require thinking about the character and scene differently than most writers were taught in their composition classes. Most beginning writing classes fall into the write-what-you-know school, tending to encourage neophyte writers to concentrate upon building their craft through acutely observed everyday life — a good place to start, certainly, but not one that necessarily takes the reader’s point of view into account as much as Millicent might like to see.

We all know why by now, right? From the industry’s point of view, it’s the writer’s job to render the protagonist and the situation fascinating, not the reader’s job to say, “Oh, this is supposed to be an everyday character; I guess I don’t mind his being predictable.”

Predictability is the enemy of interesting fiction — which renders writing about the mundane especially challenging. Yet virtually any plot or character is capable of generating something that the reader will not have expected, and the essence of freshness as the industry defines it is placing a new narrative twist on the world we all share.

The ability to surprise isn’t exclusive to any particular time zone, after all.

But that doesn’t mean that an agent, editor, or contest judge fond of good writing would seriously expect a writer portraying an average Joe or Janet to have them do something they would never do, either. The challenge in portraying any culture foreign to Millicent — and I think a good case could be made that quotidian life in the rest of the country is often rather foreign to NYC-based agents — is to present it to her in a manner that will both educate and intrigue her.

Oh, and entertain her as well.

Ditto with a so-called ordinary protagonist: instead of concentrating upon what makes her typical, why not figure out what makes her different from what a reader might expect? Or, to put it with the bluntness which is actually a bit out of character for me, what makes this character interesting enough for a reader to want to follow her for an entire book?

That, too, was a serious suggestion, not a flippant one: why write this character’s story, and not another ordinary person’s?

If you don’t know, chances are that the reader will not, either. Unpleasant to contemplate, but true. If a protagonist’s creator feels that a protagonist is a bit nondescript, readers will usually draw the same conclusion.

Unlike readers, however, the writer has the opportunity to do something about it. Again, instead of thinking of that as a drawback, try regarding it as an interesting challenge: if you’re feeling that your protagonist is ordinary, perhaps your fine writer’s sense is telling you that it may be time to make him more complex.

That’s easier than it may seem on first blush, you know. Most people are actually pretty interesting if you take the time to get to know them: not their daily habits, which may have been formed externally, but who they are inside, what memories they hold, how they reacted on the day that a giant redwood fell onto the local schoolhouse, etc. Try giving your protagonist a secret shame, a bizarre hobby, a long-ago childhood determination to become an astronaut — even if those elements never actually make it onto the stage, as it were, your knowing that they are in her background will probably make a difference in how ordinary you feel she is.

Not all black sheep carry their wool on the outside, if you catch my drift. Play with the past a little, or tinker with long-held desires to create an intriguing view of the future.

Not everything that’s going on in a story should be right on the surface, after all.

There you go, sitting up straight in your chairs again, but think about it. Giving your protagonist a more intricate past than a dismissive, “Oh, he’s an ordinary Midwesterner,” can inform his actions, even if you choose never to let the reader in on that past.

Besides, I can’t be the only writer out there who has met fascinating Midwesterners, can I? I’ve known many who were positively bristling with quirks. Not to mention secret plans for personal pleasure-seeking, business re-envisioning, and world domination that would make some of us more timid souls on the coasts gasp.

A good way to jump-start brainstorming about ways in which your protagonist as interesting is to invest some time in drafting a brief bio for him. Try going back a generation or two. I’m often surprised at how infrequently US writers discount the family backgrounds of characters whose kin have been in this country for more than a generation or two; go back far enough, and you’re bound to find a dandy Ellis Island or that’s-when-they-moved-us-off-the-reservation story that can be tied to the current generation’s worldview or habits in some surprising way.

Even a practically inert character with a swashbuckling great-grandmother is kind of intriguing.

Don’t laugh — I know an agent who claims descent from pirates. One of the thing I love about living on the West Coast is that practically everybody whose family migrated prior to World War II has a genuinely quirky relative or two lurking about the family tree; there’s a middle school named after a forebear of mine who…well, I might want to use that in a book someday. Let’s just say that I’d be rather surprised if the school board had been aware of the rich variations within his character when they decided to put his picture up in the principal’s office.

All they knew about him was that he was a pillar of the community. How ordinary, right?

I’m not saying that it’s going to be a walk in the park to render an everyday character scintillating — naturally, it’s going to be a bit more of a challenge than retailing the exploits of that agent’s pirate forebears. (Oh, like you weren’t already picturing them.) But if we writers are being absolutely honest about it, didn’t we take up this most complex of human art forms not because it was a snap to achieve the effects we imagined, but because we wanted the glory of creating entire new worlds and taking our readers for a field trip into them?

That’s as noble an aspiration if that new world is a small Midwestern town as if it’s Manhattan. Or the planet Targ. Keep making things interesting for your characters — and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XVI: what’s black and white and read all over?

skunk on a rampageglasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car

Answer: not a synopsis, necessarily. It’s only read sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified. “You drive me to distraction, Anne,” many synopsizers cry, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending weeks on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here?”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do — at least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries. As in under 30 seconds a piece.

Before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math. If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money off reading queries at all; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. Oh, they might see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case any of you have been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing in at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their agents into switching.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing to 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, a half- or full-time employee. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically necessary, I’m afraid.

So how will she decide which to read and which to skip? The ones that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to pass by, as would those whose query letters prompted a rejection. If Millie’s already decided to give the project a pass, she doesn’t need to spend any more time on the query packet, right?

By the same token, she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of incentive to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why spend the extra minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where she’s on the fence about requesting pages — which means that the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by gum, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis


Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page. Millicent probably would not read even a line of this one.)

I’m going to level with you here: on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it. Yet setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and insane typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. The first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease,

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is not an adequate character-identifying phrase. Where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns?

And so forth. My point is, Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her yea-or-nay decision on the query packet is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping here on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into demonstrating a couple of matters I touched upon briefly earlier in this series. As I devoutly hope those of you who have been paying close attention recall,

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a couple of concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author — me, but play along with my conceit here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s now look at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? If the query letter fell into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or mentioning up front that it’s based on real events, Millicent could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? This is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way. Use either that looks best to you, but be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

You are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon, next week, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XII: originality, plausibility, and burning all of those candles at both ends

candles at Lourdes

Brace yourselves, campers: today is going to be a long one. Think of it as a candle that’s going to stay lit for a while.

I’m not going to be waxing lengthy today merely because I’m returning my list of questions to put to your synopsis before you send it on its merry way, although that’s part of the reason. Once a year, I like to bring readers a sort of hit parade of the most commonly-made mistakes. Normally, I draw it out a bit more, arranging the problems by topic and devoting different days to different species.

But I’ve got to be honest: tomorrow is my birthday, and I’m not planning on spending it blogging. (Yes, I know that I have in previous years; my personal new year’s resolution is to try to reduce my 16-hour work day to something closer to 12. Since it’s hard to pry me away from the computer mid-scene, my first step toward chiseling away at my average hours is to take days off a bit more frequently.)

So let’s get right to business, shall we?

For those of you joining us mid-series, this checklist is intended less to help any aspiring writer who might happen to stumble upon it to create a jim-dandy synopsis from scratch, but to improve an already-existing draft. That, and to encourage you to regard synopsis-writing as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form, rather than treating it as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent.

Okay, so it’s still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce. But addressing these questions will help it show off your talent more effectively. (Hint: you’re going to want to have a hard copy of your synopsis and a few highlighter pens in front of you. Go ahead and print it out; I’ll wait.)

All ready? Excellent. Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far:

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound like a good story? Does it hang together? Does this presentation make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable, or are some mentioned so quickly that they might start to blur together in the reader’s mind?

Is everyone happy with those? Or, if not precisely happy, because revising a synopsis can be a heck of a lot of work, at least conversant with why I might have suggested such darned fool things?

I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By jingo, yes!” from each and every one of you. (If by some strange fluke that’s not your personal reaction, by all means, chime in with a question in the comments.) Let’s move on.

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

That question made some of you giggle, didn’t it? Actually, fiction synopses that imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity is a bit hard to avoid, but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.

And no, in answer to what some of my more literal-minded readers just thought very loudly indeed, you should NOT clarify this point by the inclusion of such English class-type sentences as The protagonist is Martha, and the antagonist is George, any more than you should come right out and say, the theme of this book is… Industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Why? Veteran synopsis-writers, take out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk ABOUT the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Excellent question, lovers of many protagonists. Essentially, my suggestion for handling this particular dilemma in a synopsis would be the same as my advice for handling it in a pitch: tell the story of the book, not of a particular character.

And before anybody point it out: yes, I’m aware that this approach might cause a conscientious writer to run afoul of Point #6 for a paragraph or two, but honestly, the multiple-protagonist format doesn’t leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room. Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story.

And, above all, be certain that your synopsis doesn’t violate Point #7. Oh, hadn’t I brought up #7 yet?

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

Again, this question may make some of you chortle, but you’d be surprised at how often novel synopses stress the averageness of their protagonists, the everydayness of their dilemmas, and seem to taunt Millicent with a lack of clear motivation or major plot twists. “How on earth,” she is wont to exclaim, “is this super-ordinary character/this very common situation going to maintain my interest for 350 pages, when s/he/it is already starting to bore me a little in this 5-page…zzzz.”

Trust me, you don’t want Millicent to have to take an extra a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes to make it through your synopsis. Contrary to popular opinion amongst enthusiasts of slice-of-life literature, if a story sounds mundane on the synopsis page, particularly at the query packet stage, most Millicents are not going to be eager to read the book. Everyman may be a popular protagonist, but super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis.

Which I suspect may come as something of a surprise to many of you. Many aspiring writers deliberately go out of their respective ways in order to present their protagonists as completely ordinary, normal people leading lives so aggressively mainstream that George Gallop is inclined to sit up in his grave at the very mention of them and shout, “At last! People so average that we don’t need to perform broad-based polling anymore! We’ll just ask these folks!”

Or, to put it in a less melodramatic manner, these writers are fond of slice-of-life writing.

The problem is, book-length slice-of-life writing is usually pretty hard to sell — and nearly impossible to synopsize excitingly. Even the most character-driven of literary fiction needs to have a plot of some sort and a protagonist engaging enough (or appalling enough) to render the reader willing to follow him/her through the relevant high jinks, right?

Stop wailing, please, literary fiction writers: yours is a highly specialized market, and you shouldn’t be sending out synopses to agents who don’t represent your kind of book, anyway.

“Okay, Anne,” some of you literary fiction writers say, bravely wiping your eyes, “I realize that I’ve chosen to write in a book category that represents only about 3-4% of the fiction market; I know that I’m going to have to target my queries very carefully. But I have a wonderful slice-of-life novel here about Everyman and Everywoman’s universal struggles to deal with the everyday. How should I go about synopsizing it?”

In a way that may well strike you as running counter to your goal in writing such a book: by emphasizing what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.

Before any of you get huffy at the prospect of soft-selling your aim of holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, listen: in the current market, no agent, no matter how talented, is going to be able to sell a novel to an editor by saying, “Oh, this book could be about anybody”; no matter how beautiful the writing may be, the agent of your dreams is eventually going to have to tell an editor what your book is about.

In industry-speak, ordinary is more or less synonymous with dull. Sorry to have to be the one to break that to you, but it’s true. I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull.

So why isn’t s/he, precisely? How is s/he different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?

Getting the picture? The synopsis needs to demonstrate not only that you can write, but that your book concept is fresh.

Actually, the questions above are dandy ones to ask about any fictional protagonist, not just those who grace the pages of literary fiction. What makes this character interesting and different from the protagonist of any other novel currently on the market — and how can you make those traits apparent on the synopsis page?

But what about a nonfiction story? Glad you asked.

(8) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

And you would have thought that the identity of a memoir’s protagonist would be awfully hard to hide for long, wouldn’t you? If you walked a mile in Millicent’s shoes (sipping her latte, no doubt), or cozied up to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, you would know otherwise. To your sorrow, probably.

Just make it clear who the narrator is, okay?

Actually, memoir synopses scuttle themselves even more frequently by running afoul of that second criterion — the one about being an interesting character embroiled in an interesting situation — for the very simple reason that memoirists are prone to regard their stories as self-evidently interesting just because the events in them really happened.

As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, that’s not always the case. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.

So the synopsis-writing memoirist has an additional goal: not only to present her life story as important and intriguing, but also to render it pellucidly clear precisely how her life has differed from other people’s. A memoir synopsis that doesn’t convey this information within the first paragraph or so — ideally, by showing, rather than telling — tends not to maintain Millicent’s interest thereafter.

If you find it hard to figure out what to emphasize, try thinking of yourself as a fictional character. Why would a novel-reader want to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline?

While we’re on the subject, another good way to determine what might make dear self interesting to others…

(9) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if she attains this goal — and if she doesn’t?

Or, to twist these questions in a slightly different direction, does the synopsis present the book’s central conflict well?

If ordinariness tends to raise Millicent’s uncannily sensitive am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles — but nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.

Admittedly, not every good novel features life-or-death stakes. Nevertheless, your story is going to be more memorable to someone who reads synopses for a living if the conflict appears to be vitally important to the protagonist.

Trust me on this one. In Millicent’s mind, conflict = interesting. She probably works for an agent who goes around spouting the old industry truism, a good manuscript has conflict on every single page.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s debatable. But if Millicent rejects your query packet or submission at the synopsis-reading stage, that’s a debate you’re never going to get to have with the agent of your dreams.

(10) In a nonfiction synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?

Again, this is a stakes issue: remember, however passionately you may feel about your chosen topic, Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and her Aunt Mehitabel will probably not already be conversant with it. It’s your job as the writer to get them jazzed about learning more.

Yes, even at the synopsis stage.

One of the more reliable methods of achieving this laudable goal is not only to present your subject matter as fascinating, but also to demonstrate precisely why your readers will find it so. In other words, why does your subject matter, well, matter?

Which leads me to…

(11) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

When agents specialize in a particular kind of book (and virtually all of them do limit themselves to just a few types), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books, NF books, romances, and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries. Instead, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

Translation: Millicent sees a whole lot of plot repetition in any given pay period.

This may seem self-evident, but it has practical ramifications that many aspiring writers do not pause to consider before blithely sending off their query or submission packets. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

Most likely, the application of Millicent’s favorite word: next!

“Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear those of who have attended conferences before protesting. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”

Yes, you are quite right, anonymous questioners: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is on the bestseller lists right now. Actually, though, this isn’t typically what they mean in practical terms.

Since it would be completely impossible for a book acquired today to hit the shelves tomorrow, and extremely rare for it to come out in under a year — and that’s a year after an editor buys it, not a year from when an agent picks is up — what is selling right now is not what agents are seeking, precisely.

They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence. Which, common sense tells us, no one without highly-specialized psychic abilities can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.

So when agents and editors tell writers at a conference that they are looking for books that resemble the current bestseller list, they really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.

I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes. Just make your book sound original, okay?

Some of you are pouting at that last bit, aren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you inveterate bestseller-readers point out, “I’ve done my homework; I’ve gone to conferences. The same authors sell well year after year, so I’ve written a manuscript that’s more or less in the style of (fill in bestseller here), except mine is far, far better. Why wouldn’t that excite any market-minded agent?”

Your question made me smile, oh pouters: there was a good joke on the subject making the rounds of agents a couple of years back.

A writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

“Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”

Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality.

What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So at this point in literary history, you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Don’t believe me? Have you checked out the sales figures on PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES?

The fact is, a too-close imitation of a bestseller is always going to strike Millicent as rather derivative of the bestseller — and doubly so if the bestseller in question happens to be a classic. Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.

At the time of the experiment, there was much tut-tutting discussion of how this outcome was evidence that editors wouldn’t know great literature if it bit them, but my first thought was, how little would you have to know about the publishing industry to think that an unsolicited, unagented novel would NOT be rejected unread by the big publishers? Mightn’t this have actually been a test not of how literature fares, but what happens to submitters who do not follow the rules?

My second thought, though, was this: at this point in publishing history, wouldn’t even an excellent rehashing of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE seem old hat? How could the submitter possibly have presented it in a manner that seemed fresh?

After all, it’s been done, and done brilliantly — and re-done in many forms, up to and including PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. I can easily imagine pretty much any English-speaking editor’s taking one look, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, God, here’s somebody ripping off Jane Austen again.”

My point, in case you were starting to wonder, is that agents and editors tend to be pretty well-read people: a plot or argument needs to be pretty original in order to strike them as fresh. The synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs from the rest.

And what’s the easiest, most direct way of doing that, for either fiction or nonfiction? By including surprising and unique details, told in creative language.

Even if your tale is a twist on a well-known classic (which can certainly work: THE COLOR PURPLE is a great retelling of the Ugly Duckling, right?), you are usually better off emphasizing in the synopsis how your book deviates from the classic than showing the similarities. Here again, vivid details are your friends.

One big caveat, however: please bear in mind that Millicent (like Maury and Mehitabel) tends to make a strong distinction between original and weird, as well as between plausible and implausible. Which brings me to…

(12) If I’m marketing fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

I could sense some of the novelists out there rolling their eyes before I even finished typing that one. “Um, Anne?” a few of you scoffed. “What part of FICTION don’t you understand? By definition, fiction writers make things up.”

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page. If the internal logic of the premise doesn’t seem to be applied consistently in the synopsis (or in the manuscript, for that matter), Millicent is likely to pass.

Yes, even if the synopsis in question happens to be for a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional and every other character has a couple of extra arms, toes, or senses. If a plot doesn’t seem to be following its own rules, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

Why? Well, when a reader is swept up in a drama (or a comedy, for that matter), she engages in behavior that Aristotle liked to call the willing suspension of disbelief. Basically, she enters into a tacit understanding with the author: the rules that govern the world of the book, no matter how wacky or impractical they may be for the reader’s world, are precisely what the narrative says they are. Most of the time, as long as the narrative abides by them, the reader will be willing to go along for the ride.

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story.

(Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. That’s usually an automatic-rejection offense for Millicent. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post when I finally polish off this run of series on practicalities and get back to craft issues.)

Millicents are notoriously sensitive to being pulled out of a story by a plausibility problem. So are their bosses, the agents who employ them to reject as high a percentage of submissions as possible, and the editors to whom those bosses sell books.

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison. “Is it one of those automatic-rejection reasons you mentioned up there in the parentheses when you thought nobody was looking? I’d really have to do it a lot to annoy her, right?”

Got the smelling salts handy? In a manuscript submission, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. Thus, Millicent may be excused for thinking as soon as she casts her hyper-critical eye over one, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

Okay, so this may be an unfairly broad conclusion to draw from a line or two in a synopsis — especially when, as we’ve discussed earlier in this series, many, many talented aspiring writers simply throw together their synopses at the last possible minute prior to sealing the submission or contest entry envelope. But lest we forget, Millicents are in the BUSINESS of making snap judgments; they couldn’t get through the hundreds of queries and submissions they see every week otherwise.

Aren’t you glad you had those smelling salts handy?

If you’re not absolutely certain that your synopsis is internally consistent enough to pass the plausibility test, have someone else (NOT someone who has read the manuscript, ideally) read it and tell the story back to you. Better yet, have someone else read it, tell the story to a third party, and have the third party try to reproduce it for you AND a fourth person.

Why such a mob? You may not catch the “Hey, wait a minute!” moments, but chances are that #4, at least, will. Listen carefully to any follow-up questions your experimental victims may have; address them in the synopsis, so that Millicent will not be moved to ask them of the ambient air at the screening stage.

Pay particular attention to any spot in the synopsis that provokes an unexpected giggle. Few narrative gaffes provoke bad laughter — the giggles that spring from readers or audience at a spot where the writer did not intend for them to laugh — as readily as deviations from the internal logic of a story.

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Which brings me to…

(13) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Too often, NF writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

Just as a novel’s plausibility depends upon the narrative’s consistently following its story’s internal logic, a nonfiction account or argument needs to hang together, with no missing steps. In a manuscript, plausibility problems tend to arise from incomplete set-ups and telling stories out of chronological order.

Where nonfiction synopses usually fall down on the job is by providing insufficient background — prompting questions like, “Why did this happen?” Again, you will be much, much better off if you can solicit such questions from someone other than Millicent, so you may address them before she reads your synopsis.

I think I’m going to leave you with that lovely conceptual cliffhanger and sign off for a couple of days. Those birthday candles aren’t going to blow themselves out. Many happy returns of tomorrow for all of us, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part VIII: truth in advertising

parrot sketch

It’s got to be a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers: as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t turn up here yesterday, the monster deadline I mentioned last week has devoured me whole. While I’m busy crawling out of its gullet, though, I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten you.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the remaining members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow. More’s the pity.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it?

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for our pal Millicent the agency screener — or her Aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the blurb above’s veracity — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, both forms of self-compliment come across as clichès.

Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — INTRIGUING SPECIFICS.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:


(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”


(2) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?”


Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after a contract is signed.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

(Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.)

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part III: keeping some of those plot cats in the bag

concealed cat

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many different people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check the requirements.

Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis. Unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide an overview of the book in question’s plot or argument, a 1-page synopsis is essentially a teaser for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

This goal should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through my recent Pitching 101 series. In both verbal pitching and 1-page synopsizing, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along with me now: to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis. Certainly, it’s quite a bit more than most that cross our pal Millicent the agency screener’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents of their already-signed clients, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) for a novel or memoir, show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages? I can see how it might feel that way, but believe it or not, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that giant-sized sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who DIDN’T answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned what they were for; I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone; I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it. Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes, two excellently-becreamed courses, and a dessert that the waiter took great delight in lighting on fire later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for two years!”

Of course, it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches; it’s a learned skill.

I also hadn’t lived through any of the real-life events that I had every reason to expect formed major incidents in the book. (What tipped me off? What tips off so many pitch-hearers and query-readers: the fact that the author not only prefaced her summary with that statement so beloved of first-time novelists, “Well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me…” but she also very kindly told me after her descriptions of the fact-based incidents how the actual events had been different, as an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. Quick hint to those of you writing autobiographical fiction: to a professional reader like an agent, editor, or contest judge, such statements almost never render a writer more credible as a narrator; if people in the publishing industry want real stories, they turn to memoirs and other nonfiction. Save the accounts of how closely your novel mirrors your life for interviews after your book is published; trust me, your biographers will be agog to hear it.)

Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot – which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses, as I suggested in passing yesterday. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel know what I’m about to advise, don’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least a rough draft: you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, your work will hit the agent market faster. How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for one. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…”

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample, too — and will be judged accordingly. A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in? Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell a compelling story: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots.

Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points:

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed yesterday:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them.

The other common panicked response to the demand for brevity, particularly in a 1-page synopsis, is to turn it into a projected back jacket blurb for the book. Contest judges see this all the time: the requested synopsis is, after all, not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, many contest entrants apparently think, so why not use it as an opportunity for promotional copy?

The result, alas, tends to be a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts, looking a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. (If you didn’t spot any, or if this is the first you’ve ever heard that there is an expected format for book submissions, please dash as swiftly as your little legs will carry you to the archive list at right, click on the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED heading, and absorb, absorb, absorb.)

If you can bring yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example, take a close gander at the content. Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the second and third SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above? To recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but dumbs it down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book, but it entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man).

Most seriously, (4) this blurb pretty actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners. Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romances be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And when you come right down to it, isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well, but in getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the book (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is one of the great comedies of the English language — so shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the summary portion of a 2-minute pitch — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals.

Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and she’s just about to finish printing up the former. Can you pick up the pace of revision, please?

See how much harder it is when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t have been nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send when the request came in?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet.

The results, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce. Next time, we’re going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part X: making the book sound like a real page-turner

Did everyone have a delightful Labor Day weekend — or, even better, one filled with productive writing and/or querying time?

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst.

The last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, that’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book, or even an exciting one.

You’d be surprised at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound so. It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.

Just not true, I’m afraid. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the books being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter.

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Still seem unfair? Think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), the letter is going to have to make HER believe that the book is fascinating.

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query letter is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is.

Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along: realistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

And that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a book’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many samples out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues. But first, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far, shall we?

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

(23) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?

(24) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?

(25) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?

(26) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

(27) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?

(28) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?

Anyone being kept up at night by any of those, or experiencing any difficulties in putting one or more into practice? If so, please speak up — my goal here is to be helpful.

While you’re framing your questions, let’s get back to the imperative to be interesting.

(29) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be — the goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about wowing Millicent with amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like:

she’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

she’s a ditsy cheerleader, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader

Get the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(30) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — notoriously common in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché, and few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if he does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

(30) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects: how better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible (“But they really sound that way!”), but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(31) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context: your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences (or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in them). As in,

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope you will be interested in representing it. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA. Today, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem?

As I have argued about manuscripts, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line. Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning.

After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.

(32) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Avoiding the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because — not to put too fine a point on it — most professional readers have been trained to believe passive voice equals poor writing, inherently.

Yes, I was aware that you already knew that. I bring it up, though, because when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses: on an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(33) Does my summary make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in earlier posts (see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations.

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it.

(34) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
For a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder.

(35) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XX: getting from ho-hum to “Interesting. I’ve never heard that before.”


After yesterday’s post on how to pull everything we’ve learned throughout this series into a formal 2-minute pitch, couldn’t you feel the excitement crackling in the air? The moment nearly brought a tear to the eye: the public rejoiced, the heavens opened, lions and lambs lay down together, and agents all over New York spontaneously flung their arms around the nearest aspiring writer, gurgling with joy.

What, you missed all that? Even the good folks cleaning up the ticker tape parade?

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a trifle. And maybe those of you who aren’t planning to attend a conference and pitch anytime soon didn’t find it all that goosebump-inducing. “Let’s get on with it, Anne,” some nonambulant writers scoffed. “Let’s get back to the type of stuff that writers do at home in the solitude of their lonely studios: writing, rewriting, querying, rewriting some more…”

Patience, oh scoffers: as I MAY have mentioned once or twice in the course of this admittedly rather extensive series, learning to pitch is going to make you a better querier. And perhaps even a better writer, at least as far as marketing is concerned.

Did I just hear the scoffers snort derisively again? Okay, allow me to ask a clarifying question: hands up, every querying veteran out there who now wishes devoutly that s/he had known more about how the publishing industry thinks about books before querying for the first time.

That’s quite a response. Keep ‘em up if you sent out more than five queries before you figured out what your book’s selling points were.


Or, heaven forfend, your book category.

That last one is so common that I decided to spare you the artistic representation, so there would still be room on the page for today’s post. The very idea of querying without knowing makes me cringe: can you even guess which agents to query before you’ve come up with that?

See my point? Not only are many of the same skills required to construct a winning pitch and a successful query letter, but many of the actual building blocks are the same. So I hope those of you who are intending to send out anything remotely resembling a query anytime soon have been paying attention for the last few weeks.

And yes, of course I’m going to walk you through it; would I leave you to apply those lessons on your own?

Rest assured, it’s all part of my evil plan. By the end of Labor Day week, if you’re all very good and do your homework diligently, you should have a niftily revised query letter in hand.

Why are we aiming for the week after Labor Day, you ask? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because a hefty hunk of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation from the second week of August through Labor Day. And when they get back, guess what’s piled up high on their already-cluttered desks?

Uh-huh. Might as well hold off until they’ve had a chance to dig through those thousands of piled-up queries.

“But Anne,” I hear some reformed scoffers point out, “why shouldn’t I add my letter to the pile? Won’t they answer them in the order received?”

Well, more or less. However, Millicent the agency screener’s been known to be a mite grumpy until she has cleared enough desk space to set down her latte. Any guesses what the quickest way to clear a desk of queries is?

Wait until the second week of September.

Okay, back to the topic du jour. Last time, I went over the basic format of a 2-minute pitch, the kind a writer is expected to give within the context of a scheduled pitch meeting. Unlike the shorter elevator speech or hallway pitch (and if you remain unclear on those, please see the appropriate categories at right), the formal pitch is intended not merely to pique the hearer’s interest in the book, but to convey that the writer is one heck of a storyteller, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.

In case that’s too subtle for anyone, I shall throw a brick through the nearest window and shout: no matter what kind of prose you write, your storytelling skills are part of what you are selling here.

How might a trembling author-to-be pull that off? Basically, by dolling up one’s elevator speech with simply fascinating details and fresh twists that will hold the hearer in thrall.

At least for two minutes.

Because this is a genuinely tall order, it is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by buttonholing like-minded writers at the conference for mutual practice. Otherwise, as I mentioned n passing last time, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes — a fairly standard length for such an appointment — doesn’t allow any time for rambling or free-association.

This can dangerous, and not just because you may run out of time before you finish your story.

Rambling, unfortunately, tends to lead the pitcher away from issues of marketing and into the kind of artistic-critical (“What do you think of multiple protagonists in general?”), literary-philosophical (“I wanted to experiment with a double identity in my romance novel, because I feel that Descartian dualism forms the underpinnings of the modern Western love relationship.”), and autobiographical points (“I spent 17 years writing this novel. Please love it, or I shall impale myself on the nearest sharp object.”) that he might bring up talking with another writer.

Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art and theory can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with these people. (A great rule of thumb, incidentally, even if you happen to feel an instant personal rapport with the person across the pitching table. However simpatico this person may be, a pitching situation is not primarily about making friends).

Don’t forget that that the formal pitch is, in fact, is an extended, spoken query letter, and it should contain, at minimum, the same information. And, like any good promotional speech, it needs to present the book as both unique and memorable.

Glad you asked. Time to whip out one of my famous lists of tips.

(1) Emphasize the most original parts of your story or argument
One great way to increase the probability of its seeming both is to include beautifully-phrased telling details from the book, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else. What specifics can you use to describe your protagonist’s personality, the challenges he faces, the environment in which he functions, that render each different from any other book currently on the market?

See why I suggested earlier in this series that you might want to gain some familiarity with what is being published NOW in your book category? Unless you know what’s out there, how can you draw a vibrant comparison?

I sense a touch of annoyance out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” a disgruntled soul or two protests, “I understand that part of the point here is to present my book concept as FRESH, but I’m going to be talking about my book for two minutes, at best. Do I really want to waste my time on a compare-and-contrast when I could be showing (not telling) that my book is in fact unique?”

Well, I wasn’t precisely envisioning that you embark upon a master’s thesis on the literary merits of the current thriller market; what I had in mind was your becoming aware enough of the current offerings to know what about your project is going to seem MOST unique to someone who has been marinating in the present offerings for the last couple of years.

Regardless of HOW your book is fresh, however, you’re going to want to be as specific as possible about it. Which leads me to…

(2) Include details that the hearer won’t be expecting.
Think back to the elevator speech I developed earlier in this series for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: how likely is it that anybody else at the conference will be pitching a story that includes a sister who lectures while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met?

Not very — which means that including these details in the pitch is going to surprise the hearer a little. And that, in turn, will render the pitch more memorable.

(3) Broaden your scope a little.

In a hallway pitch, of course, you don’t have the luxury of including more than a couple of rich details, but the 2-minute pitch is another kettle of proverbial fish. You can afford the time to flesh out the skeleton of your premise and story arc. You can, in fact, include a small scene.

So here’s a wacky suggestion: take fifteen or twenty seconds of those two minutes to tell the story of ONE scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail.

I’m quite serious about this. It’s an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief AND fresh.

Yes, even if the book in question is a memoir — or a nonfiction book about an incident that took place in 512 BC, for that matter. To make any subject interesting to a reader, you’re going to need to introduce an anecdote or two, right? This is a fabulous opportunity to flex your show-don’t-tell muscles.

Which is, if you think about it, why a gripping story draws us in: good storytelling creates the illusion of BEING THERE. By placing the pitch-hearer in the middle of a vividly-realized scene, you make him more than a listener to a summary — you let him feel a PART of the story.

(4) Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story.
Remember, your job is not to summarize the plot or argument; it’s to present it in a fascinating manner.

Leaving the hearer wanting to learn more is a great strategy, because, after all, the point of the pitch is to convince the agent or editor to ask to read the manuscript, right? So focusing on making the premise sound irresistible is usually a better plan than trying to tell the entire story arc.

Don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger at the end of your pitch– scenarios that leave the hearer wondering how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation? work very, very well in this context.

(5) Axe the jargon.
Many pitchers (and queriers) assume, wrongly, that if their manuscripts are about people who habitually use an industry-based jargon, it will make their pitches more credible if that language permeated the 2-minute speech. In fact, the opposite is generally true: terminology that excludes outsiders usually merely perplexes the pitch hearer.

Remember, it’s never safe to assume that any given agent or editor (or Millicent, for that matter) has any background in your chosen subject matter. Use language in your pitch that everybody in the publishing industry can understand (unless, of course, your book is about the publishing industry, in which case you may be as jargon-ridden as you like in your pitch.)

(6) Delve into the realm of the senses.
Another technique that helps elevate memorability is to include as many sensual words as you can. Not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the operation of the senses. As anyone who has spent even a couple of weeks reading submissions or contest entries can tell you, the vast majority of writing out there sticks to the most obvious senses — sight and sound — probably because these are the two to which TV and movie scripts are limited.

So a uniquely-described scent, taste, skin sensation, or pricking of the sixth sense does tend to be memorable. I just mention.

How might you go about this, you ask? Comb the text itself. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer murdering pastry chefs? We’d better taste some fois gras.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and ask to read the book.

Which leads me to ask those of you whose works are still in the writing phase: are there places in your manuscript where you could beef up the comic elements, sensual details, elegant environmental descriptions, etc., to strengthen the narrative and to render the book easier to pitch when its day comes?

Just something to ponder.

(7) Make sure that your pitch contains at least one detailed, memorable image.
There is a terrific example of such a pitch in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you enter a pitching situation. The protagonist is an executive at a motion picture studio, and throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director, played by Richard E. Grant, chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, right?) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell him the film in 25 words or less.

Rather than launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting: he spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

“That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Pitching success!

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free! Give some thought to where your book might offer up the scene, sensual detail, or magnificently evocative sentence that will make ’em do a double-take.

Or a spit-take, if your book is a comedy.

(8) Let the tone of the pitch reflect the tone of the book.
It’s just common sense, really: an agent or editor who likes a particular kind of book enough to handle it routinely may reasonably be expected to admire that kind of writing, right? So why not write the pitch in the tone and language you already know has pleased this person in the past?

A good pitch for a funny book makes it seem entertaining; a great pitch contains at least one line that provokes a spontaneous burst of laughter from the hearer. Similarly, while a good pitch for a romance would make it seem like a fun read, a great pitch might prompt the hearer to say, “Is it getting hot in here?”

Getting the picture?

I’m tempted to sign off for the day to allow all of you to rush off to stuff your pitches to the gills with indelible imagery, sensual details, and book category-appropriate mood-enhancers, but I know from long experience teaching writers to pitch that some of your manuscripts will not necessarily fit comfortably into the template I’ve laid out over the last couple of posts. To head off one of the more common problems at the pass, I’m going to revive a reader’s excellent question about the pitch proper from years past. (Keep ’em coming, folks!)

Somewhere back in the dim mists of time, sharp-eyed reader Colleen wrote in to ask how one adapts the 2-minute pitch format to stories with multiple protagonists — a more difficult task than it might appear at first glance. By definition, it would be pretty hard to pitch it as just one of the characters’ being an interesting person in an interesting situation; in theory, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

So what’s the writer to do? Tell the story of the book in the pitch, not the stories of the various characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — it has to be, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your pitch, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward pitch brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable pitching time in telling an agent that your book was written in the third person, would you? (In case the answer isn’t obvious: no, you shouldn’t. Let the narrative choices reveal themselves when the agent reads your manuscript.) Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant, concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it?

That something should be the subject of your pitch. Why? Because any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it.

“Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see that, if we want to reduce the discussion to marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my pitch.”

Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, they will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to pitch a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in two minutes doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only pitch that agent or editor has heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re NOT trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone in the pitching session ASK about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important fact about your novel?

Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told. Thus, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your pitch.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to ANY complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the elevator speech above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use the speech above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, they may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place. (Yes, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but nobody in the publishing industry is likely to care about why you wrote a book until AFTER they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: POV choices are a WRITING issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Which is why, in case you are curious, so many agents seem to zone out when a writer begins a pitch (and believe me, many do) with, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

I have a bit more to say on this subject, but I’ve already run long for today. Dig deep for those memorable details, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part VIII: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and a professional pitch for your work doesn’t hurt, either


“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Welcome back to my fourth annual series on building the toolkit to construct a stellar pitch — or a brilliant query letter, for that matter. While I’m taking my time this year, walking you through the essential elements, if you happen to be in a great big hurry — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area weekend after next — feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through this process at record speed.

How do I come up with those esoteric category names?

Even if you do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever — I would strongly encourage you to work through this series as if you were. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation.

Which is, in fact, learned. As in any other business, there are ropes to learn. No shame in that.

Stop shaking your head in disbelief: pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, no matter how inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter is often rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

Onerous as it is, it truly behooves writers to start to think like marketers, at least for the few weeks immediately prior to attending a literary conference or sending out a flotilla of queries.

Okay, that’s enough justification for one day. Back to the business at hand.

Last time, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Why? Well, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book; contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s WANTING to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly — sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously these pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, these pitchers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn about why agents and editors pick up books.

Surprised? Don’t be. A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyperemotionalism.

Sadly, pitchers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the pitchers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the description), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this. Whenever I teach pitching classes, I like to ask writers about their books’ selling points before they pitch or query in order to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask this perfectly reasonable question — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query ever again.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Your job in generating selling points is to SHOW (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can practically hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference just a week or so away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. So here is a short, short answer: yes.

Before you pitch is EXACTLY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH.

Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you — and, I must say it, better than the seventeen pitchers before you who did not talk about their work in professional terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who wept for the entire ten-minute pitch meeting about how frustrating it was to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

The more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your pitch will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So let’s get back to constructing that list of selling points for your manuscript, shall we?

Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige points. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees on your list of selling points, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. We shall be going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

Let’s get cracking, shall we?

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

What you should NOT do under any circumstances, however, is stammer out in a pitch meeting (or say in a query letter) that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of fiction pitches include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter.

Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

(Perhaps it goes without mentioning, but I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.)

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:

Novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2008 search on revealed over 1,200 titles.

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. As we discussed earlier in the week, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:

400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage.

I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2009, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2009, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually SAYS that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

So be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a NF book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform. Some possible examples:

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
Remember a few weeks back, when I was talking about the distinction between a fresh book concept and a weird one? Well, this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. (And if you missed that discussion, you might want to check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

I like to see EVERY list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific.

Now go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Next week, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech.

But since you’ve all been working so hard, I have a treat in store for you this weekend. Be sure to tune in; it’s going to be a good one. (Hint: those of you who write comedy are going to be really, really happy.)

So prepare yourselves to get pithy, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!