Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XII: reading from the other side of the envelope

I’m sitting in a Berkeley espresso place right now, surrounded by people who apparently stepped directly out of either my memoir (my parents were local beatniks) or the novel currently in editorial limbo (my protagonist’s parents were local hippies). Seriously, I could cast movies of either very comfortably without walking outside into the prevailing misty fog.

Why am I here? Well, I’m waiting to be interviewed for a documentary about Philip K. Dick. My mother is in front of the cameras right now, and since, as filmmakers and physicists agree, the process of being observed changes that which is being observed, I have taken myself off to blog. This is only the second time I’ve ever allowed myself to be interviewed about Philip (contrary to what the PKD estate claims on its fan forum), and the first on film, and I’m finding the process absolutely fascinating. Naturally, any procedure that encourages my mother to drive around Berkeley with a movie camera strapped to the hood of her truck gets my vote, but now I’m thinking that I should add a short chapter to the memoir about it, the observed observing the observers.

Okay, back to business, before I am called upon to reminisce again. I think taking on the Idol rejection reasons (see my post of October 31) one by one is being very fruitful, but heavens, there are a LOT of them, aren’t there? I’m moving through them as fast as I can. I’ve gotten a lot of great questions from readers while I have been going through them, matters about which I normally would have written a post right away, but I did not want to disrupt the Idol flow. I’m anxious to get back to them!

Today, I want to deal with the rejection reasons that did not fit comfortably into general categories — the odd ducks, as it were:

39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
60. The details included were not telling.

Shaking your head over the practically infinite subjectivity of this set? There’s a good reason for that: just as one agent’s notion of fresh is another’s idea of weird, one agent’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

And this is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality? (Which, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men.) Weren’t we all ordered to write what we knew? (Which led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle class white teenagers.) Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? (Which left us all sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.)

I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I? A quick survey of my fellow espresso-drinkers here in Berkeley reveals that most of them received similar advice in their formative writing years.

Unfortunately, from an agent’s point of view, all of the good students following this advice has led to a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. (See #6, took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story’s taking time to warm up, as well as #7, not enough action on page 1.) These opening scenes may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from a marketing professional’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — such an opening translates into
“hard to sell.”

And, to be perfectly frank, most of them simply do not have the time or the patience to read on to see what this story IS about. Remember that burnt-tongued unpaid intern whom I told you to channel last week? She might well be a few minutes late for her lunch date for the sake of a page of gorgeous prose, but if she doesn’t have an inkling of a plot by the end of it, she’s probably not going to ignore her stomach’s rumblings long enough to turn to page 2.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, this is not how it would work if I ran the universe. If I did, all good writers would be eligible for large, strings-free grants, photocopying would be free, and all of you would be able to share the particularly delicious pain au chocolat I am enjoying at this very moment. So gooey that the bereted gentleman (yes, really) at the wee round table next to me offered a couple of minutes ago to lick the chocolate off my fingers so I could readdress my keyboard in a sanitary manner.

The locals are very friendly, apparently. And very hygiene-minded.

This (the ordinariness of characters, that is, rather than licking chocolate off fingertips) is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. “An interesting character in an interesting situation” is in practically all of their personal ads on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOTA paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie. That sort of thing.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?) An interesting character is surprising, at some level: could you work an element of surprise onto page 1, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

One of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to raise the importance of what is going on in the opening for that character — which leads us nicely to critique #41, the stakes not being high enough. “Why should I care?” is an extremely common question for screeners to ask — and if the book opens with the protagonist in an emotionally-fraught or otherwise dangerous situation, that question is answered immediately.

Yet another reason, to revisit a topic from a few days ago, that too-typical teenage characters often fall flat for screeners: a character who is trying to be cool and detached from a conflict can often convey the impression that what is going on in the moment is not particularly important. But what’s more engaging than a protagonist who feels, rightly or wrongly, that what is going on before the reader’s eyes is the most important thing on earth right now? When the protagonist wants something desperately, that passion tends to captivate the reader.

It doesn’t always work to open with an honestly life-or-death situation, of course, but far too many novels actually don’t start until a few pages in. Seriously — it’s not at all uncommon to find a terrific opening line for a book on page 4 or page 10, or for scene #2 to be practically vibrating with passionate feeling, while scene #1 just sits there. (Again, I think this is a legacy of the heroic journey style of screenwriting, which dictates that the story open in the protagonist’s everyday reality, before the challenge comes.) Choosing to open with a high-stakes scene gives a jolt of energy to the reader, urging her to keep turning the pages.

Many, many writers want to keep something back, to play their best cards last, to surprise and delight the reader later on. But for very practical reasons, this is not the best strategy in a submission: if this Idol series has made anything clear, it is that you really do need to grab a professional reader’s attention on page 1.

#39, too many generalities, is a trap that tends to ensnare writers who are exceptionally gifted at constructing synopses. In a synopsis, it is very helpful to be able to compress a whole lot of action into just a few well-chosen words; it’s a format that lends itself to a certain amount of generalization. It is tempting, then, to introduce a story in general terms in the book itself, isn’t it?

So why do agents frown upon this practice? Well, it feels to them like the writer is warming up, rather than diving right into the story. The average fiction agent is looking for good, in-the-moment sensations on the first page, visceral details that will transport her quickly to the time and place your characters inhabit. The writer is the travel agent for that trip, and it’s your job to make the traveler feel she is actually THERE, rather than just looking at a movie or a photograph of the events described.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: too many writers rely too heavily on visuals. Sensual details sell. Or, to put it another way: doesn’t your protagonist have a NOSE?

Which segues very nicely into #60, the details included were not telling. The wonderful short-short story writer Amy Hempel once told me that she believes that the external world her characters inhabit is only relevant insofar as it illuminates the character’s mood or moves the plot along. I’m not sure I would put it quite so baldly, but I think there is a lot to this. If a protagonist is sad, I want to hear about the eucalyptus trees’ drooping leaves; if she is frenetic, my sense of her heartbeat will only be enhanced by the sound of cars rushing by her as she jogs. And, of course, if I’m going to be told about her shoes — which, I must confess, don’t interest me much as objects — they had better reveal something about her character.

Few good short story writers would think to take up space with unrevealing details, but even very good novelists frequently get bogged down in description for its own sake. (See the Idol list for abundant evidence that this is not the best strategy on page 1 of a book.) But if the description is peppered with revealing details, it is hard for it to feel extraneous to what is going on.

For instance, I could tell you that the café I currently inhabit is brightly-lit, with windows stretching from the height or my knee nearly up to the ceiling, small, round tables with red-varnished wooden chairs, and a pastry case full of goodies. A young and attractive barista is making the espresso machine emit a high-pitched squeal. I just held the door for a woman on crutches who was wearing a yellow rain slicker and a green scarf, and four of us here are working on laptops.

That description is accurate, certainly, but what did it tell you as a reader? I could be in virtually any café anywhere in the world; it is probably raining outside, but my reader does not know for sure; you don’t even know the sex of the barista.

But what if I told you that in order to work, I have had to turn my back to the glass doors that keep sending fog-chilled blasts past my skirt as patrons shed their coats in the doorway? That gives you both seasonal detail and information about me: I am concentrating; I am wearing a skirt despite the cold weather; I am not expecting to meet anyone I know here. Or that the barista’s three-day stubble reminds me of a Miami Vice-loving guy I dated in college? That both describes the guy in my peripheral vision and tells the reader my age, in rough terms. Or that I am bouncing my leg up and down at roughly the same rate as the fresh-faced girl in sweats across the room, scowling into a sociology text book? That conveys both caffeine consumption and the fact that I’m near a university.

Get the picture?

Now how much more do you feel you are here with me if I add that the air is redolent with the smell of baking cheese bread, the oxtail soup of the flat-shoed retiree at the table next to me, and the acrid bite of vinegar wafting from her companion’s I’m-on-a-diet salad? What if I mention that I have been moving my cell phone closer and closer to me for the past 15 minutes, lest the clanking of cups, nearby discussions of Nancy Pelosi and the war in Iraq, and vintage Velvet Underground drown out my call to flee this place? What about if I tell you that the pony-tailed busboy currently unburdening the overflowing wall of meticulously-labeled recycling bins — a receptacle for glass, one for plastic, one for newspaper, one for cardboard, one for compostable products — a dead ringer for Bud Cort, of Harold & Maude fame, put down his volume of Hegel to attend to his duties, and ran his beringed hand across the Don Johnson clone’s back as he passed?

All of these details help set a sense of place, and of me as a character (rather nervous, I notice from these details; must be the coffee) within it.

All right, I’ve outstayed the beret-wearing finger-lover, so I am going to venture out onto the street now. My call may come at any minute, and I probably should not drink any more coffee.

Keep up the good work!

PS to Matthew: I answered your (very good) question via that same June comment; I try to respond to questions actually on the site as much as possible, so folks later reading those posts may see the response, too. I’m going to try to write a blog on the subject next week, too, though — I suspect that you’re not the only one in that particular boat!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part IV: we have a schedule to keep here, people!

I had taken the time to write a long, luxurious post today, a nine-pager all about various rejection criteria on the Idol list (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out my post for October 31), but much to my annoyance, my computer just ate it in a single bite. Not a trace of it left.

So I seriously considered not investing the time in trying to recreate it — but then I realized my current annoyed-and-pressed-for-time mood is actually quite close to the average agent’s attitude when she’s screening a mountain of submissions, and thus might be the perfect mindset for writing about the most common category of rejection reasons: those that are about wasting the agent’s TIME.

So pay attention, people: I’m only going to say this once.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Idol list can be a pretty intimidating (and internally contradictory) set of guidelines if you try to follow each and every one of them to the letter. In the interests of gleaning insights that you can actually use in your writing, I’m breaking them down into conceptual bundles, so you can get into the habit of writing opening pages that hold agents’ and editors’ attention. Today, I have selected the rejection reasons that are temporally-based:

#1. An opening image that did not work.
#2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
#3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
#4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
#5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
#6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
#8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
#18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

Now, not all of these appear to be time-wasters at first glance, do they? But from an agent’s point of view, they are — if, as they do, you count the time to be wasted in nanoseconds. Because, you see, all of them require the reader to spend time figuring out what the writer is doing.

Okay, let’s get you into the mindset of an agency screener, to help you understand why this might be the case: you have fifty submissions to read in the next hour; you have worked through your lunch hour for the last three days straight, and since you have a date today, you have no intention of doing it again, considering how little you’re paid to do this work; you are spending your evenings wading through grad school applications, and you have, of course, just burned your tongue on a too-hot latte.

Got all that firmly in your mind? Good. Now, start reading.

First, let’s start with a set of manuscripts that have the following problems: #2, opened with rhetorical question(s); #4, the first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene; #5, the first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene; #8, the opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch.

“My God,” you think, rejecting all of them by the end of the first paragraph, “do these writers think I’m made of time?” Okay, let’s think about why: what do all of these objections have in common?

I won’t keep you in suspense long (because I have THINGS TO DO, people!): they all are, from the screener’s point of view, delaying tactics that prevent the start of the story of the book.

Oh, and I suppose now you would like me to show you how and why… oh, okay, but let’s make this quick. #2 (opening with a rhetorical question) and #8, (the opening sounded like a recap of the pitch) are over-selling: these techniques can work beautifully in a query letter, pitch, or NF book proposal, but obviously, if anyone at an agency is reading your opening page, these sales techniques have already worked.

Don’t over-close; by the time they reach the first page, they expect the pitch to be over and the substance to have begun. (This is also, incidentally, one of the reasons that the kinds of generalities that work so well to sum things up in a synopsis often don’t receive a warm reception on the first few pages of a manuscript: agents expect the specific writing to begin on page 1.)

#4 (the hook was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene) and #5 (the hook was an unrelated image, rather than something that was happening in the scene) are also, from the point of view of the industry, delaying tactics. Instead of launching right into the story, such openings are a pre-show come-on; rather than being indicators of what is to come, they simply attract the reader’s attention to the book. And since agents don’t like to be tricked, they tend to instruct their screeners to stop reading as soon as it is apparent that such a bait-and-switch has occurred.

Why? Well, picture yourself as that screener with the sore tongue. You are going to have to be able to pitch any manuscript that survives that first read, and with fiction, that means being able to recap the story. So the second question you are going to ask yourself as you lean over the page is, “What is this story about?” (Your first question, of course, will be, “Is this in standard format?” Your third will be, “Can this author write?”) So if you have to read beyond the first third of a page to figure out what the story IS, you’re probably going to get a trifle miffed.

Hey, your lunch date is waiting.

The fact that a hook can be a deal-breaker is a little counterintuitive to anyone who has ever taken a writing class in North America, isn’t it? We’ve all been told time and time again that every manuscript needs a hook, a stunning first line, opening image, or conflict to draw the reader into the rest of the work. Since this advice is so ubiquitous, unfortunately, there are a lot of manuscripts out there where unrelated matters have been grafted onto the first page or so, to provide, the author thinks, a kick that the opening of the story itself does not provide.

Not too offensive, really, as shortcuts go. But imagine reading a hundred manuscripts that used this trick every week. It would get a trifle old, wouldn’t it?

The moral of these first four admonitions: don’t provide a preamble to your story; jump right in.

See, that wasn’t too intimidating, was it? We all could remember to do that much.

Burn your lips afresh, campers, and get back into your agency screener costume, because we’re going to move on to the next set of rejection reasons. What do all of the following have in common: #3, the first line is about setting, not about story; #22, the first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action; #23, too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict; #24, the opening spent too much time setting up the environment, and not enough on character.

Seeing a pattern here? The essential complaint is the same in them all: the narrative does not open with the story itself, but with setting the scene for it; essentially, such first pages begin before the story opens.

And that’s going to set that latte-scalded tongue swearing, believe you me. Why? Because the author has just expected her to read a whole lot of verbiage that isn’t going to help her one iota in constructing a pitch for that book. Next!

Again, this is a touch counter-intuitive to anyone who has spent five consecutive minutes in a room with an English teacher, isn’t it? We’ve all been taught that good writers set the scene meticulously; most of us like to show what our characters look like and where they are right off the bat, so the reader can picture them, or even give background information so the reader can understand where the protagonist has been, and where she finds herself now.

Brace yourself, because this is going to make your pacifist, Hemingway-loving tenth grade English teacher reach for a meat clever with the intent of committing homicide, but in the current industry, this type of opening is almost universally frowned upon in novels. Plenty of readers like the physical details minimal, so they can picture the characters for themselves (so all of that oh-so-common tossing around of long red or blonde hair on opening pages is often gratuitous), and actually, for most scenes containing conflict, the most interesting thing about the characters is not how they look or the room that they’re in, but what is going on amongst them.

Unless you’re Charles Dickens (who I doubt would care much for my blog), those types of details can be introduced slowly — and often, background information actually doesn’t need to be in Chapter 1 at all. Folks in the industry — and that includes both potential representers of your work and potential publishers of it — consistently express a preference for jumping directly into the action early and often.

So the moral of this set: begin in the scene, not before it. Let’s not waste the nice screener’s time.

At first blush, the remaining rejection reasons — #1, an opening image that did not work; #6, took too long for anything to happen; #18, the unnamed protagonist cliché, and #26, when the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified — might not appear (other than #6, of course) to be about how long it takes for the screener to make it through the first paragraph. This is why it’s so important to place yourself in the screener’s shoes in order to evaluate your own work: from her point of view, all of these are about wasting her time.

Let’s take them one by one, to see why. #6 is the easiest to comprehend, of course — although from a lay person’s point of view, the idea that any sane person would start moaning about a slow opening by the end of line 3 seems a trifle, well, insane. Yet in order to be able to answer that crucial second question (“What is this story about?”), the screener needs to find out what the story IS. With her tight schedule (see above), what do you think the chances are that she’s going to read all the way through a slow opening scene to get to the meat of the conflict?

That’s right: not high. Once again, this is a fact that will drive the average English teacher into a straitjacket, but remember, we’re not talking here about advice that’s going to teach you how to produce great literature; all of these tips are geared toward helping you understand why certain submissions are welcomed by agents and editors and others rejected within a matter of seconds.

That is a line that gets blurred, I think, at too many writers’ conferences: the advice from the business end of the industry isn’t about art — it’s about what sells. That’s what they mean by good writing.

And no, tenth-grade English teacher, those don’t need to be mutually exclusive, so put down that axe you’re wielding.

To see why #18, the unnamed protagonist cliché, is a time-waster from a screener’s point of view, here is an example of it in action: “The woman fled through the forest, her long, red hair cloaking the bundle clutched to her ample bosom, shielding her precious bundle from the driving rain. She couldn’t feel if the baby was still breathing; she had no time to stop and check. All she could do was speed them both away from the marauding (insert enemy of choice here) troops, away from any possible medical help for her too-soon born babe, away from everything she had ever known.”

Now, there’s really no shortage of action in that opening, is there? Nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story is obviously going to concern this woman, her baby, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety. Assuming that the long, red hair cliché and the “everything she had ever known” exaggeration didn’t knock this submission out of consideration, why, then would it be rejected this far into the text?

Hint: think like a time-pressed screener here, not like a writer, or even like a reader. It’s vital to bear in mind that folks in the industry, bless their nit-picking hearts, do not think like writers. We tend to be acute observers of human behavior, in love with rhythm and form; they tend to be acute observers of the printed page, with a preternatural drive to ferret out what’s wrong with it.

So while a lay reader might read the opening above and think, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?”, and a writer might think, “Wow, the pacing is good here, but I would like to see more character development for the woman,” the agency screener would think, “Is there any particular REASON that I’m being held in suspense about this broad’s NAME? Is it really MY job to read on until the author deigns to tell me? This writer has seen too many movies; in a book, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name. And oh, damn, I’ve already spent a minute and a half waiting to find out!”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

#26, the speaker of the first line of dialogue’s not being identified, is another indirect time-waster — and an effect of the Thou Must Create a Hook school of writing advice: a startling statement can make a great opening for a book. But again, let’s take a field trip into that screener’s head while she’s reading such a manuscript: “Oh, great, I’m left to guess who said this. Guess I’ll have to keep reading into my lunch hour to find out who’s who here — NOT! But at least there’s no long, red hair in this one.”

The moral of the last three: do not waste the nice reader’s time, even indirectly. The animals become fractious around feeding time.

#1, the opening image that did not work, is subjective, of course, but to a screener, it’s also a time-management issue. She can either spend the next five minutes bending her problem-solving mind to figuring out WHY that opening image, metaphor, line of dialogue, etc., didn’t flow right on the page, or reject it right away and spend the other four and a half minutes screening other manuscripts. Heck, if they all have opening paragraph problems, she might get through ten or fifteen of them in that time.

Okay, time to check whether I’ve been too subtle here: what is that overarching lesson to be learned from all of these?

I’d tell you the answer, but I just don’t have time. I have a whole lot of reading to do.

Keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part V: Characterization

Before I launch into today’s installment, I am delighted to have some good news to report about a member of the Author! Author! community. Remember last month, when I announced that long-time reader Janet Oakley was a finalist in the Surrey Writer’s Conference Literary Contest, for her essay, DRYWALL (from a larger work entitled TIME OF GRIEF)? Well, she WON! Everyone, please join me in a great big round of applause!

As I mentioned before, Janet is no stranger to contest recognition: her novels THE TREE SOLDIER and THE JOSSING AFFAIR were both past PNWA contest finalists. Primarily a writer of historical fiction, she has published articles and essays on a broad array of subjects, in everything from Rugby Magazine to Historylink.

Congratulations, Janet, and may this be a stepping-stone to many more victories for you! And everybody, please keep sending in your success stories – I love to be able to report good news about my readers.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. Throughout this series, I have been using an anecdote about a conference to show the dangers of incorporating real-life stories into your fiction submissions. Quite apart from the fact that such stories can sometimes feel very peripheral to the plot (come on, most of us have shoehorned a scene we liked into a book at least once), they often, perversely, lack the ring of truth when reproduced in a fictional context.

In this series, I have been trying to show you how and why. Let me try telling the anecdote again.

I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts – necessary, but hardly thrilling – which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days on end. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation, introduced herself hurriedly as Ellen, and started telling us both about her book.

At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I wasn’t altogether surprised. Ellen was, after all, the person who had brought the screenwriting class to a screeching halt the day before: when asked to give her three-line pitch, she spoke for the following twelve minutes nonstop. Four of those twelve minutes were unrelated anecdotes about her early life, begun in response to the screenwriting teacher’s polite but increasingly strained attempts to get her to narrow down her story to, well, three lines. I had to give her points for personal style.

By the end of the fortieth minute of monologue over coffee, however, her charm had begun to fade a little for me, I must admit. My initial conversational companion needed to catch a shuttle to the airport soon, so we had both begun to drop miniscule, subtle hints to Ellen that it might be time for us to stop listening and move on to pastures greener, or at any rate more airborne. Yet miraculously, each polite attempt to excuse a move toward the doorway seemed to remind Ellen of yet another anecdote marginally related to her book.

Not that it wasn’t entertaining stuff. Most of her stories concerned her grandmother’s ongoing plots with her father to humiliate her mother, who evidently was not the brightest crayon in the box, if you get my drift. Grandma was cultured, refined, the kind of lady who brushed off bores by rising imperiously and declaring, “If you will excuse me, I have some correspondence to which I simply must attend immediately.” Unfortunately, Grandma did not suffer fools gladly: her pet name for Mama was evidently “you ninny.” In fact, I gathered from the collected anecdotes, the only thing that drab little Mama had ever done in her life to please Grandma had been to marry Papa, thus providing an apparently endless stream of opportunities for the old girl and Papa to trick Mama into embarrassing situations.

Hilarity, naturally, ensued.

Amused as I was, I have to say, the more Ellen talked, the more I disliked Grandma qua character; I was starting to side with poor abused Mama, catering to that harpy for fifty years, married to that cad, AND doing all of the cooking and cleaning. Yet in each and every (and I do mean EVERY) story, Ellen presented Grandma as an admirable person, a gem forced to live in a henhouse, wreaking her well-justified revenge upon the people who supported her for their stupidity. (Oh, yes: Grandma used to target the townsfolk, too. I’ll spare you what he did to the Lutheran pastor; suffice it to say that he moved on to another parish toute suite.)

To compound the problem, Ellen’s anecdotal style was a bit diffuse, so as listeners, we were forced to be active, clarifying minor details such as, “What year was this?” “Why was it necessary to euthanize the dog?” and “What exactly did the King of Sweden have to do with this situation?” But mostly, being nice, well brought-up women, we said, “Oh, how hard that must have been for you,” and “My, how fascinating,” and glanced furtively at our watches.

As shuttle time ticked closer, our hints grew somewhat broader. We asked for the check; we paid the bill; we gathered our things, all the while murmuring whenever Ellen drew breath, “Mmm,” or, “How interesting,” or, “Look at the time — I’m going to miss my plane!” as the opportunity warranted. By the time Ellen launched into what I devoutly hoped was going to be her last anecdote, my friend and I were both standing, clutching the backs of our chairs, saying how nice it had been to meet her.

Ellen settled back into her seat, clearly all ready for hours of storytelling. Her next story concerned Grandma, of course. Seems she and Papa had worked out a system to prevent Mama from talking about herself (apparently, ever), a nefarious scheme for total domination so effective that Lex Luthor would have ground his teeth with envy. Whenever Mama began speaking on topics that did not interest the other two (all the examples Ellen gave were occasions when Mama wanted to express a personal opinion, I noticed), Grandma would interrupt her to ask Papa to fetch her something from the other room. Papa would beat a hasty retreat, with the understanding that by the time he returned, Grandma would have changed the subject to something of interest to civilized people, like the weather or Canasta.

One day (Ellen told us), Mama finally caught on. “You know,” she said, “I sometimes think that he does that just to get away from me.”

Ellen was laughing so hard that she could barely tell us Grandma’s characteristic reply: “I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out, you ninny.”

Ellen seemed quite astonished that we did not join in her laugh. This story must have been knocking ‘em dead at Lutheran potlucks for decades. “I have to say,” I observed, backing toward the door, “in your mother’s place, I would have poisoned the old woman’s pancakes the next day.”

“Just LOOK at the time,” my companion said. “I have to catch my plane.”

These seem to have been the first two sentences either of us had breathed that made an impact on Ellen. She fixed me with a fiery eye, the kind that Grandma had probably leveled at the ninny on an hourly basis. “Not everyone appreciates comedy,” she said, and, turning very pointedly to my companion, began another anecdote.

The end.

Now that story was significantly funnier in the pages-long version than it had been in the rather cursory earlier versions I told you, wasn’t it? It’s not the only way to tell it, of course, but here, I set the scene, gave you enough detail about Ellen and myself so you could follow our brief relationship, included relevant background detail, and made the narrative voice comment on what could have been a rather dull account. See the difference?

My main point this time around, though, is not about how I told the story of something that had happened to me, but how Ellen did. Ellen (naturally, not her real name) made the single most common mistake of the writer of real-life stories: she assumed that not only was every nuance of her family’s life inherently and instantaneously fascinating to people who had never met them (always a dangerous supposition, even in memoir), but also that HER point of view on who was the heroine of the stories she told was the only possible one. Yet actually, the pure facts of the tales said to my companion and me that poor ninny Mama was a more sympathetic heroine.

In other words, her dramatic emphasis boomeranged, not only negating the effect she wished her stories to have upon hearers, but causing us to switch our sympathies to the character she had cast as the villain. Ultimately, on in a manuscript, this would have turned us against the narrator for being so biased against our emotional favorite.

I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve seen this happen on paper. Take it as a rule of thumb: no matter how hard people at cocktail parties laugh at anecdotes, thumbnail sketches with a strong slant in favor of a single character almost never work when translated directly to the page. These stories need more telling, more fleshing out, and the author needs to pay attention to their impact upon the reader. And above all, the hero of the piece needs sufficient character development that the reader can empathize with his response to the villain.

In glaring at me, Ellen exhibited the classic real-story writer’s “But it really happened that way!” attitude. The problem was not in how the story was told, this attitude implies, but in the listener’s or reader’s RESPONSE to it. If a joke falls flat, it must be because the listener is a ninny; if the scene doesn’t work, it must be because the agent isn’t really interested in good writing.

And this attitude, unfortunately, often means that at revision time, the real-life scenes remain untouched, while the fictional scenes are revised into unrecognizability. As an editor, I can tell you: the opposite is usually what is warranted. Take a long, hard look at those real-life scenes first.

There endeth the parable. Import reality into your fiction with care, boys and girls, and as always, keep up the good work!

Writing the real, part III, in which I both stress the importance of dramatic emphasis and illustrate what you might not want to do at a conference if you want to win friends and influence people

Pardon my Dickensian title today: I’m returning to the topic of including real-life incidents in your work, and I realized that my point here is AT LEAST twofold. Truth in advertising, don’t you know. Today, I am going to continue my conference story AND my blather about the importance of maintaining dramatic emphasis in order to make a real-life incident work on paper. Which brings me at long last to the conference anecdote I’ve been threatening to tell you for the last few days.

At a recent conference that shall remain nameless, a novelist of an apparently heavily autobiographical novel was telling me about her book. At some length. As in geological time. Admittedly, I wasn’t terribly surprised by this: this was, after all, the dear soul who had filled me with glee during the screenwriting class; when called upon to give her three-line pitch, she talked for twelve minutes nonstop. I had to give her points for personal style.

So I dispatched the other attendees waiting to ask me questions with promises to listen to them at length later and let the lady hold forth. She was an entertaining storyteller, and has evidently had quite the exciting life. Her storytelling style was a tad episodic, however, and somehow in telling, she veered off from her first novel into her second, in order to tell me a series of anecdotes about her maternal grandmother.

As one does.

Her grandmother, I am sorry to say, was one of those souls whom one had to know in order to love. The best way of pleasing her seemed to be not to end up in her gun sites. In these stories, the author was always presenting her as the heroine, yet somehow, in every instance, she seemed to be acting awfully villainish…

Okay, pop quiz: what am I doing wrong in telling this story? (You thought you were going to be able to sit back and enjoy the story, but no: I have a didactic purpose here.) A little hint: what am I doing that the vast majority of true story-tellers do when they include anecdotes?

Well, for starters, I’m telling you about this situation, instead of showing it — which, admittedly, is probably the way I would tell the anecdote verbally. Almost every writer falls into this trap when she first starts writing about the real: what works in a water cooler conversation will work on paper, right?

Not necessarily, and actually, not very often. Flesh out the details.

I am also assuming, within the context of this telling, that not only are you, my readers, going to have enough experience teaching at writers’ conferences that you will be able to provide context (because THAT’S such a common background to have…) without my telling you about it, but also that you will understand that as the teller, I am actually the protagonist here, rather than the old lady. My reaction to her is, in fact, the star of the story.

Like telling-not-showing, these are vintage traps of the real-life anecdote: like the first, it leads to under-writing the scene; I’m not presenting the situation vividly enough for you to get a real sense of what was going on. The last two are assumption problems, every bit as much as including a stereotype in your work. What the writer pitches, the reader does not always catch.

To give you some idea why agents and editors tend to break out in hives when confronted with this kind of anecdotal telling, let’s do a little role-playing, shall we? You play the agent, and I’ll play the author of the piece above. Let’s say you confronted me with the underwriting, and I immediately cried, “But it happened this way in real life!” Technically, I would be justified, you know; this did in fact occur.

What would you say in response? A bit tricky, isn’t it, without launching into a governessy diatribe that either implies that the writer’s craft is poor or that she shouldn’t be relying upon her own experience at all?

And that, my friends, is why you will seldom hear agents and editors talk about this problem at conferences. It makes them sound hostile. This reluctance to talk about the problem does not, however, prevent them from routinely rejecting manuscripts that have it.

I know; it’s dreadfully unfair to judge people by standards that they don’t know exist. That’s why I’m broaching the subject here. Because here is an instance where including a real-life anecdote may well be the best, or even the only, way to help writers walk a mile in an agency screener’s proverbial moccasins.

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the more subtle problems such anecdotes often have. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Like I said: real-life dialogue

I’m taking a break in my series of pep talks on keeping your spirits up in the face of an industry that goes on frequent collective vacations without taking reading material along for the ride, because I have just been visiting 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. 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 it’s 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, 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, “Hot enough for you?” “the grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), and “How about this rain? Sure do need it.”

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: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue. As would a character who was constantly punctuating 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 on this very day:

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 boyfriend, 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.

Yes, it’s how people really talk, but it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? 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, which is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there. Just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue.

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”
B: “Yeah.”
A: “Have a nice day?”
B: “Um-hm.”
A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”
B: “Yeah. “
A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”
B: “Yeah.”

As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Usually, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.

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

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words. “Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Now, since the dialogue in her work seldom strayed beyond three lines, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own. I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. Because if it isn’t interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

Oh — a member of the Little Old Lady Mafia just walked into the café where I’m writing, so I had better go, before she starts reading over my shoulder. Like I said, they might not be the best producers of dialogue to be passed down to the ages, but since my local reputation will be hanging on how nice I am to this one until I swing back through town again, I’d better be on my best behavior.

Keep up the good work!

Characters who think, part III

For the last couple of days, I have been addressing the issue of how to integrate your characters’ thoughts into the narrative. As usual when there’s not a hard-and-fast rule, I found I had a lot to say on the subject. Yesterday, I discussed several different common methods of indicating thought, means both more and less graceful than just saying that a character is thinking:

I want to go to the prom more than I want to live to be twenty-five, Janie thought.

Today, I want to talk about playing with these methods to reflect both your personal writing rhythms and your writing goals in particular instances. How you choose to present thought in a given scene should be reflective of the action and tone of the scene, as well as your personal writing preferences. Sometimes, the extra beat allowed by saying “he thought” works better in the scene than a more direct method; some methods allow you to show different sorts of characterization than others.

To help you decide, let me show you the same scenelet done several ways. (Please bear in mind that I haven’t figured out how to make the blog show italics, so italicized phrases are indicated by asterisks at the *beginning and end* of the phrase.) First, let’s look at a fairly traditional way to handle thoughts in a group scene in a third person narrative, maintaining narrative perspective while choosing one person’s thoughts to highlight:

Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into his Tattersall vest. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Gertrude was furious. Chicken pox, smicken pox, she thought, seething. It was perfectly obvious to her that her sly little sister had been at her while she slept with a permanent red marking pen. *Little vixen. I’ll boil your guts for soup.* “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down on the bed with a firm motherly hand. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

This works fine with a variety of styles, doesn’t it? Not even the most virulent of point-of-view Nazis would have a problem with this. But what about in a tighter third-person narrative, one where the narrative voice is more closely aligned with the protagonist? Let’s look at this scene again, with the perspective tightened onto Gertrude:

Boring old Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into that stupid Tattersall vest his wife never seemed to be able to pry off his decrepit corpse. What, were those stripes painted onto his torso? “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Chicken pox, smicken pox. That little beast Janie must have been at me with a permanent red marking pen while I napped. Yeah, right, Mom: I needed that extra fifteen minutes of beauty sleep. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma shoved her back down on the bed with a hand that must have been soaking in an ice bucket for an hour. Predictably, she came down on the side of caution. Big surprise. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Allows for a bit more character development, doesn’t it? If you have a very opinionated protagonist, this method can give you a lot of freedom to bring out character richness through perceptual details, without the tedium of identifying the protagonist as the instigator of these ideas each and every time.

Do be aware, though, that this method can get a bit confusing if you have chosen to write a scene from an omniscient narrator’s perspective, showing the reader several different characters’ thoughts within the same scene. In that case, you will need to label who is thinking what, for clarity:

Oh, no, Dr. Butler thought, time to bring on another spoiled pretty girl tantrum. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Get your hands off me, you filthy old trout, Gertrude seethed. Chicken pox, smicken pox. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down onto the bed: Mother of God, the girl’s flesh was burning up. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish.” She frowned the livid scratch welts on Gertrude’s arms. *I would have killed for skin as smooth as hers at that age, and all she can think to do is hack at it?* I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Janie clutched Gertrude’s taffeta dress against her body, watching herself surreptitiously in the full-length mirror on her sister’s closet door. How like Mom not to notice the hot water bottle under Gertie’s pillow. How like Gertie not to notice that her wake-up coffee had been loaded with ipecac. It was amazing, how little grown-ups paid attention. “Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful dress. Shall I go downstairs and tell Tad you’re not going?”

As you may see, a number of different methods of identifying character thought can be made to work well. Here, without overuse of the verb to think, the reader can enjoy the humor inherent in the unspoken battle of perspectives. However, it requires constant vigilance on the part of the writer to make sure that we always know who is thinking what. Even a single thought left floating in the air can throw off the rhythm of the whole scene.

That’s a long answer to your question, Cathryn, but I hope it helps. It’s less a issue of finding a rule to apply in every instance, I think, than figuring out what will serve your character and scene — as well your narrative — best in the moment.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question. And everybody, please: when you are puzzled by a technical issue, or curious about the business side of the industry, or anything in between, feel free to post a comment or question about it, and I’ll take a swing at addressing it. Chances are, you’re not the only reader who wants to know.

Keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision VI: Not THAT old saw again!

For the last few posts, I have been talking about capturing the elusive quality of freshness in your submissions, and triggers that may lead a harried agent or editor to decide that your book is not fresh — or even is ordinary. To avoid this fate, it’s a good idea to take some pains to avoid these triggers.

Today, I would like to talk about one of the most common ways that fiction and nonfiction submissions both tend to mark themselves as ordinary in the eyes of professional readers: stereotypes.

Television and movies have rather hardened us to stereotypes, haven’t they? In visual media, stereotypes are accepted means of shorthand, a way to convey intended meaning without adding length to the plot or character development for minor characters. And since the audience has, over time, learned this shorthand language, many filmmakers rely upon it heavily.

This is why, in case you were curious, in the TV and movie universe, almost all “regular guys” are invariably commitment-shy, inarticulate about their emotions, and into meaningless sex; pretty women are be shallow, especially if they’re busty; anyone whose name ends in a vowel is Mafia-connected, if the plot requires it; every white Southerner is bigoted, and every politician is corrupt, unless played by the romantic lead. Although men invariably do the proposing in these plots, they all have cold feet just before their weddings (and want to have wild bachelor parties where they sleep with total strangers); all women want to be married, and nearly everyone is a heterosexual, except perhaps the heroine’s best friend, to show that she’s not prejudiced (yes, that’s shorthand, too). And the lead will always, always learn an important lesson — although, of course, in a sitcom, he will have forgotten it utterly by the next week’s episode.

This kind of shorthand requires audience collusion, you know: most of us have become so inured to our complicity in it that we don’t even blink when it happens. The moment that Oliver Stone decided to show us Jim Morrison having a metaphysical experience in THE DOORS, we all already knew that he was going to stick a Native American somewhere in the frame as a spiritual merit badge; all we needed to do was wait for it.

Personally, I find this kind of predictability utterly boring, both on a screen and on the page. As soon as any man in a horror movie is mentioned as having had “a hard childhood,” don’t we all know by now that he’s going to turn out to be the serial killer? Yawn. Don’t we all know instantly that if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she must be pregnant? Snore. And oh, lordy, as soon as we see Jackie Chan standing next to a ladder, don’t we all instinctively brace for a fight to break out?

Don’t get me wrong — I adore Jackie Chan; he’s a wonderful comedy writer. But after seeing dozens of ladder-related incidents in countless movies throughout his deservedly long career, I suspect that he could garner laughs at this point by walking up to any given ladder, turning to the camera, and inviting the audience to join him in counting until a gang of ruffians appears to beat him up.

And, alas, this type of shorthand is not limited to film. It has found its way — oh, how abundantly — into novels. Many, many writers incorporate these stereotypical plot elements and characters into their work. Why? Because TV and movies have made those stereotypes so very accessible that almost every reader will recognize them.

If I find such predictable elements boring, reading a couple of hundred manuscripts per year, imagine how the redundancy must make the fine people who read thousands and thousands of agency submissions for a living want to tear their own hair out, strand by painful strand. Apart from every other argument against stereotypes, they are incredibly, indelibly, excruciatingly ordinary.

The sad thing is, incorporating them is often unconscious on the part of the writer. It seems natural to us that every professor should be absentminded, every redhead should have a fiery temper, every high school cheerleader be a bimbette who cares only for boys with expensive cars. And, for what it’s worth, there are many, many readers out there who won’t lift an eyebrow if you reproduce these stereotypes in your work.

Unfortunately, the screener at an agency tends not to be among the immobile-eyebrowed masses. Just because a stereotype is widely accepted is no reason that YOU should reproduce it. And here’s a hint: if a joke is permanently associated with a particular character in a movie or a TV show, chances are that it will not reproduce well on paper. It dates the manuscript terribly, and often, it’s not even funny.

And if you are still tempted to incorporate a current pop culture catch phrase, would you mind doing an experiment first? Try writing one of Billy Crystal’s 1980s Saturday Night Live catchphrases into a scene out of context and showing the result to someone unfamiliar with his magnum opus. Like, say, a 13-year-old. No fair explaining why people originally found the joke funny.

You’ll be lucky if it generates even a fleeting smile from a teenager, even with the explanation.

If the idea of your submission’s reading like 150 others your dream agent has seen that week doesn’t scare you into rushing to your computer to do a stereotype-and-pop-culture-cliché search, perhaps this will. Remember how I told you yesterday that a writer can have literally NO idea who is going to read his submission, and so it makes sense to assume that it will be read by someone of a different age, sex, race, political affiliation, etc. than the writer? I advised you then to scan your manuscript for things people unlike you might find inappropriate.

Well, now I am going to ramp up that level of scrutiny. Assume that this crucial reader — crucial because that person will make the decision whether your work is worth promoting or not — believes or does not believe about the patterns of human interaction is a big mystery. Is it really worth gambling that this person is going to, say, laugh at the same jokes as everyone at your office?

Come on — you know what I’m talking about. As anyone who follows standup comedy can already tell you, there are a lot of people out there who will laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes, as well as other humor not particularly insightful about the nuances of the human condition. (Anyone want to hear about the differences between New York and LA? Anyone? Anyone?) And those jokes — and the assumptions that underlie them — turn up with surprising frequency in the dialogue of novels. When combined with another stereotype or two, it can become a bit much.

Again: how sure are you about who will be reading your submission? Isn’t it just possible that it will be someone who picks up your manuscript longing for it to be the first one this week where a Native American character actually WALKS into or out of a room, rather than appearing mysteriously and/or melting away into the darkness?

I’m not saying that you should strip your sociopolitical views from what you write, or wash all of your characters’ mouths out with metaphorical soap. Definitely not. But do be aware that, like the law professor I mentioned yesterday who struck up a conversation with an unknown colleague without realizing that the unknown’s wife was a Supreme Court justice, your reputation can only be improved by utilizing every ounce of tact at your disposal. Every time you use a stereotype, even one you’ve seen a million times on TV, you run the risk of offending someone’s sensibilities on the receiving end.

That’s just a fact.

And perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. Many years ago, when e-mail was just starting to become widely used, an old high school classmate of mine looked me up. For awhile, we exchanged messages daily about what was going on in our lives (okay, I’ll admit it, while we were both at work; it’s how office-bound Americans got their revenge for losing coffee breaks and paid overtime before blogging became popular), but like many people, Mark was no creative writer. When he started to run out of material, he started forwarding jokes that he’d found on the Internet.

Jokes, unfortunately, that he would not necessarily tell face-to-face.

Some of those jokes were awfully darned offensive, but my gentle twitting in response did not make him stop sending them. My bouncing them back to him did not work, either. So, on a day when he had sent me three jokes that were sexist and two that were racist, I sent him a reply wherein I detailed exactly WHY the jokes were not funny to me; because I am a funny writer, I even rewrote one of them so it was funny without being offensive, to show him the difference. I thought he’d get a kick out of it and would stop forwarding such jokes to me.

You can see this coming, right? Yep, I had accidentally hit the REPLY ALL button.

When I went to work the next day, my inbox was crammed to the gills with nasty responses from people I had never heard of, much less intended to e-mail. About the nicest thing any of them called me was a snob; many suggested that my hobby was doing unpleasant things to men for which dominatrixes are very well paid indeed, and most seemed to think I was of the canine persuasion. It was, in short, a bloodbath.

It took me several hours to figure out what had happened: apparently, Mark had been routinely forwarding these same jokes to everyone in his office.

How did I figure it out? Two subtle clues: a sharp rebuke from Mark, beginning with, “Are you trying to get me fired?” — and five e-mails from female coworkers of his, imploring me for confidentiality, but thanking me for asking him publicly to stop. According to them, since the boss routinely forwarded (and told) this type of joke himself, they were all afraid that they would get summarily fired for being bad sports if they said anything about it. (I suspect they were right about that, too — the boss had sent me one of the nastiest of the flame-mails I received.)

Now, the content of the jokes is actually not my point here: other people might well have read them without finding them offensive; it’s entirely possible that I was simply the wrong audience for them. The important thing to note is that both Mark and I made, in one sense, the same mistake: we each sent something out assuming that the recipients would take them the same way we did.

And that is always a mistake.

In this case, our respective assumptions merely ended a friendship — which, given that we’d been friends since junior high and this incident occurred when I was in graduate school, was not an insignificant loss. But consider this: was what either of us did really so unlike what writers who include stereotyping in their work do every day when they submit to agents and editors?

When you send in a submission, you have even less idea about the interpersonal politics and personalities at any given agency or publishing house than I did all those years ago about the corporate culture of Mark’s company. You may not intend to hurt feelings or raise hackles, but honestly, you have no way of knowing that the agent’s assistant WASN’T a cheerleader in high school — and class valedictorian to boot. Maybe your use of an ostensibly harmless bimbo character will be one use too many for her — because maybe, just maybe, that reader is the kind of really nice person who worked at Mark’s company, who has been shrugging off offense after offense for years, because that’s how you get along at a job.

You never can tell.

Besides, you’re more talented than that. You don’t need to resort to stereotypes to get your point across, any more than you need to have your characters mouth clichés instead of original dialogue. You’re more than capable of making your characters your own, without taking the easy way out of invoking stereotypes as a substitute for character development.

I just know it. Keep up the good work!

Getting the balance right

Hello, readers –

I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.

As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):

The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.

Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.

To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.

This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.

Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.

I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?

Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.

To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.

Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)

Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.

If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?

When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.

I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?

You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.

This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.

I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.

Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.

In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.

Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.

Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.

Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”

So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini