Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part V: I’ve got three favorite cars that get most of my job done — no, wait, make that four

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZqI5b5wGA4

Sorry about the slower-than-expected follow-up post, campers: I honestly did intend to devote this week to structural repetition — because, as we all know, there’s nothing like a sexy topic for drawing in the readers. Our cat began acting strangely, however, so I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time at the vet’s office. Fortunately, I had a good book on me, my buddy Nicole Galland’s new release, I, IAGO, and lordy, is it a great read. I’m seriously tempted to leave my copy in the vet’s waiting room after I’ve finished, to provide a lush mental escape for the worried.

Seriously, how often has a book made you laugh out loud while waiting for blood test results? From the publisher’s blurb:

From earliest childhood, the precocious boy called Iago had inconvenient tendencies toward honesty — a “failing” that made him an embarrassment to his family and an outcast in the corrupted culture of glittering, Renaissance Venice. Embracing military life as an antidote to the frippery of Venetian society, he won the glowing love of the beautiful Emilia, and the regard of Venice’s revered General Othello. After years of abuse and rejection, Iago was poised to win everything he ever fought for — until a cascade of unexpected betrayals propel him on a catastrophic quest for righteous vengeance, contorting his moral compass until he has betrayed his closest friends and family and sealed his own fate as one of the most notorious villains of all time.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for any blurb containing the word frippery. One of my failings as a human being, I suppose.

One of my other failings as a human being, but a positive boon for my life as an editor, is a reading eye that leaps instantly to the anomaly on the page. Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising, as a have a doctorate in pattern recognition, but honestly, it does render casual reading a bit of a challenge. A slug line in the wrong place, for instance, will drive me mad, regardless of the quality of the writing lurking beneath it. So will adverbs beginning three out of five sentences in a paragraph: Clearly, there was something wrong here. Obviously, though, your garden-variety reader would not catch it. Bizarrely, any professional reader would.

Fortunately (God, there’s a fourth one!), however, in the publishing world, this sort of eye is not only an advantage — it’s pretty much a requirement for a good editor. Apart from accountancy and computer programming, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job better suited to the obsessive-compulsive. Thus, it follows as night the day, spring winter, and baby ducks their mother that those who cater to the tastes of editors would develop a similar seventh sense for patterns on a page.

Oh, you thought this wasn’t going to lead back to you and your manuscript? You and your manuscript keep me up nights. I worry so that your good writing might not get the fair reading it deserves at the hands of Millicent, the agency screener, if it exhibits too much word, phrase, and/or structural repetition.

Speaking of hands, a third of my audience’s just shot skyward. “Um, Anne?” the more eagle-eyed among you quaver. “I hate to pick nits here, but how precisely do Millicent’s hands read anything? Wouldn’t it be her eyes?”

That question brings a tear to my weary eye, campers. If you caught that logical gaffe, you’re starting to read like a professional. And if you also noticed that in the video above, we never actually get to see our hero’s eyeballs — a trifle disturbing, I think, in a cartoon devoted to developing reading and writing skills — you may be on your way to becoming a Millicent.

Although, admittedly some of us are born that way. I distinctly recall that the first time Conjunction Junction popped onto our small black-and-white TV screen, I tossed my wee braids and shouted, “Mother! How can he read with no eyes?” Fortunately, my mother had been editing for years, so she had been taken aback, too.

In case I’m being too subtle here: those of us that read for a living notice everything in a submission or contest entry. It’s our job, and if nature was kind enough to outfit us with specialized eyes and brains in order to be good at it, well, that has some ramifications for writers.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those most perennially popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

This time, encouraged by positive reinforcement, legions of hands shoot into the air. Yes, newly-minted grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance, or or — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

Quite right, hand-raisers: when used properly, then isn’t a conjunction, strictly speaking. We live, however, in a world overrun by scofflaws. Metaphors are mixed; semicolons are routinely misused. Jaywalkers abound — unwisely, given how many drivers do not come to a full stop at stop signs. Owners of outdoor-ranging cats discover that their pets have discarded their collars, complete with city-issued license, and do not replace the tags immediately, while owners of dogs occasionally take them off-leash even outside the parks designated for such activity.

We may deplore all of this, but we ignore it at our peril. At least, that hefty majority of aspiring writers whose submissions and literary contest entries positively scream, “The leash laws do not apply to my dog!” do so at their own risks — but does that mean that your Auntie Anne, friend of the struggling scribbler, should refuse on general principle to talk about those mutts?

No, I haven’t the heart. Call me a softie, but enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent’s bloodshot peepers.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin any sentence with and, but, or then. Amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a folklorist of great repute) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I wrote him in elementary school, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “a conjunction may not begin a sentence, and a crayon is not an appropriate writing implement for correspondence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. I thought until I hit puberty that writing in the first person was a narrative cop-out, embraced by only those authors who could not handle suspense in any other way. (A fairly common editorial opinion well into the early 1980s, incidentally.) Toward the end of his long, colorful, and occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

And really, who could blame him?

Hey, I couldn’t resist. But why shouldn’t we slavishly adhere to his precepts? Well, time and the language have been marching merrily onward, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That thunder you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph. Like so:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Arbogast stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look a little something like this:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes, this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner, grammatically and visually. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a substantial difference in the rhythm.

Why? A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could legitimately be regarded as subtle narrative indicators of protagonist stress — a bit of authorial frippery, rather than a mistake. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living. We diagram sentences in our sleep.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my machete pen and remove a couple of classic Millicent-irritants. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, I shall challenge your revision skills by asking you to try to figure out why it reads better.

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

How did you do? Lift a nice, shiny gold star from the reward cabinet if you immediately cried, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Arbogast in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And award yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is conceptually unnecessary. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those observations muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is incredibly nit -picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation — perhaps best summed up as that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person — back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a boon to dialogue. Or to first-person narration, as it creates the illusion of echoing actual speech. That does not mean, however, that peppering third-person narrative prose with it will necessarily produce a flowing effect. Generally speaking, this structure works best in dialogue.

Not sure why? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. And particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed at all times. Lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Spencer, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, particularly when running (generally while identified only as she through wooded glens at the openings of novels, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingenue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed, lest some particularly timid reader find you even remotely threatening for even an instant. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, I’ll admit but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

And, let’s face it, Spencer’s lengthy speech as presented in the second version would be darned hard to say within the space of one breath. Go ahead and try it; I’ll wait.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party. (They’re coming back, I hear.)

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why that last trait is desirable.)

(2) Launch into a lengthy anecdote, preferably one devoid of point, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout your speech.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes at a stretch. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me. But then, I’m a professional; you might not want to attempt that high dive your first time out.

The difficulty inherent to interrupting a non-stop speaker, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why university professors, panhandlers, and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence. Run-on sentences discourage reply.

Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then. Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative.

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent!”

Those buts don’t leave much doubt about the source of the disagreement, do they? Those capital Bs are like a beacon to Millicent’ eye. While that can work just fine in dialogue, it’s visually distracting in narration.

But I couldn’t pay the rent, not today, not tomorrow, not even next week. But I must pay the rent! I knew that, both ethically and practically. But that did not mean I had the means to do it. I mean, where was I going to get the rent? I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that a handsome stranger would appear on my dastardly landlord’s doorstep and announce, “I’ll pay the rent.” But that seemed more likely than my coming up with the dosh myself.

Pop quiz: did the word repetition bug you as much as all of those capital Bs? I should hope so, by this late point in the series.

I know, I know: the writer may well have repeated those words deliberately, to make a point. (Indeed, I have it on fairly good authority that the writer in this instance believed it would have some comic value.) Do be aware, though, that this is a strategy is not a particularly unusual one. Virtually any Millicent will see it in at least one submission per day.

Why? Well, as we have discussed, many aspiring writers just like that repetitive rhythm — but it’s also one of the most popular means of establishing that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above. Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. A fairly common way to open a manuscript:

And I thought it could never happen to me. I had always thought it was just a cartoon cliché. But here it was, happening: me pinned to the ground, struggling. While a mustache-twirling villain tied me to the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks, no less, as if anyone took trains anymore. And with my luck, I’d end up lying here for days before a locomotive happened by.

“That will teach you,” my captor gloated, “not to pay the rent.”

And had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

Since false consecutiveness is stylistically ubiquitous, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency. Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially there? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. That presumption enables them to stop reading the instant they decide that the writing is weak.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over a thousand heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. Again, I’m happy to wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer — they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy at any point in a submission or contest entry. If you lean too hard on any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to any of my late relatives’ editorial rantings? “But Anne!” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thereby risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties. “Not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass.

Ready to exercise some authorial autonomy? Excellent. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out at least the first 5 pages of your submission. If you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute, for our purposes. Nor is simply doing a Word search for conjunctions. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a pen color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and a third for then. If you are prone to equivocation, you might want to designate a fourth for or.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance. Don’t fudge — the experiment will not be nearly so useful.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: some professional readers’ visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then borders on the physically painful.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text — and with good reason. In written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, then slid them onto the plate, and then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is entirely unnecessary here. In not entirely unrelated news, then is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latté at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute, Millie. To professional eyes, the percussive use of then is logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing unless the event described after them is a genuine surprise or occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face, scarring him for life.

Now that’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(6) Turn your attention now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest!”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however and yet logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. Yet many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next.

What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen, bottle of antihistamines, and seventeen homeopathic remedies were in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this passage. Each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, alas. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Josette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis is a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, it’s worth it, though: this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this narrative device. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked conjunctions.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. Honestly, those of us that write for the American market have no excuse. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, rejoining us after a coffee run, “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie. Varying word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

I wish more first-time submitters knew that, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: throughout their school years, teachers kept quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market.

For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice. To see why, we have only to glance at a genre- and character-inappropriate vocabulary shoved into the mouth of a protagonist — particularly common in memoir and autobiographical fiction, incidentally, in which the writer wishes to indicate, however subtly, that Our Hero is much, much smarter than everybody else in the story. To pile the pet peeves even higher, let’s make it a child that talks like an adult.

“Hey,” Mom shouted. “Did someone take the pie?”

“In the entirety of my five and a half years’ subsistence, situated upon this terrestrial sphere,” Babette murmured, “I have seldom been so incensed. Nay, apoplectic. That you, Mater, would indict me of having pilfered, purloined, and/or absconded with your irreplaceable peach pie, in lieu of interrogating my shifty-eyed sibling, flabbergasts me. I mandate an instantaneous act of contrition.”

“Yeah, you and what army?” Benjy sneered, kicking his high chair.

“Now, now,” Mom said. “Stop squabbling, children.”

Even if young Babette’s speaking like an 18th-century clergyman were somehow in character, it’s distracting that the text suddenly breaks out in SAT words. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for Millie, but there are few book categories in which the vocabulary level displayed above would be audience-appropriate.

Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome formulated for a less erudite audience not liable to galvanize a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have, he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this particular character would ever use — or that his otherwise estimable daughter could spell. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but as I may have mentioned earlier in this series, authorial affection is not always sufficient justification to include a pet word or phrase. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette, Josette, and Babette in today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: writers often harbor affection for similar names. But just as a skimming reader is likely to mix up those whose names begin with the same first letter — a real pity, as Joan, Jane, Joanne have virtually nothing in common otherwise — names with similar characteristics, or even ones that sound similar, may cause unnecessary confusion. Or don’t you believe that, Jon, Von, Van, and Alan?

Wow, we’ve covered a lot of ground today, have we not? But don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands.

Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: tracing the patterns of a life, or, just because something really happened doesn’t mean a writer is excused from making it dramatically appealing on the page

One of the great liabilities of editing for a living — or one of the great advantages, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — is that over time, the dedicated editor becomes decreasingly able to read anything without scrawling corrections in the margins. I’m not merely talking about manuscripts, synopses, and queries here, mind you, but all typed words on a page. The New York Times, for instance, once the standard of American prose, now seldom passes under my long-lashed eyes without picking up some entirely justified marginalia. Nor do any of my alumni magazines go unscathed: I’m looking at you, Radcliffe Quarterly. I routinely take a corrective pen to menus, fliers, and wedding programs. Last November, I had to be restrained bodily from correcting a grievous misprint on my ballot for a county election; the correction apparently would have confused the counting machine.

More confusing than asking the citizenry to select a superior court joge? I think not.

While in some walks of life this level of nit-pickiness would prove somewhat problematic, for professional readers like agents, editors, and contest judges (or, in this county, joges), it’s a positive boon. So what if in some benighted professions, it is neither expected nor considered particularly sane to look one’s coworker in the eye and say, “I like the content of you’re saying, Ziggy, but the fact that you uttered the word exciting fourteen times over the course of a six-minute speech, insisted — wrongly — that impact is a verb, and failed to define a good third of your basic terms detracted from its effectiveness,” without finding oneself cordially disinvited from all future meetings? Someone has to defend the language. And by gum, if that means rending our garments and wailing to the heavens, “You’ve used this metaphor twice in 137 pages! And phrased it almost identically each time, you…you?torturer,” well, we’re up to the task.

Oh, you thought I was kidding about that last one? Half the good professional readers I know would not only have become impatient at the metaphor repetition — they would have assumed that the writer did it on purpose. As opposed to, say, not recognizing the insight of today as the insight of three months, eight days, and sixteen hours ago.

How could you? You know how much such things upset Millicent the agency screener.

All of which is to say: I tried — really, I did — to devote this weekend’s post to the delightful task of critiquing and presenting two more reader-generated query letters, missives devoted to the promotion of what sound like some very interesting memoirs. In pondering the all-too-often misunderstood mysteries of memoir voice, however, and how to present it effectively in a letter as short as a single page, I found my text-addled mind drifting back to a novel-cum-memoir I had read, I kid you not, in junior high school. A pivotal scene in it, I felt, would provide such a glorious illustration of a common memoir querier’s mistake that I just had to drop everything and track down the book.

That’s how little girls with braids grow up to be editors, in case you had been wondering. Sometimes, even other editors are surprised at how well I remember text. A few years ago, when my own memoir was lumbering its way through the publication process, my acquiring editor scrawled in my margins, “Oh, yeah, right — you remember a biography of the Wright Brothers that you read in the third grade? Prove it!” I was able not only to give him a chapter breakdown of the book, but tell him the publisher and correctly identify the typeface.

Do I need to follow up with the story of what happened when one of my students at the University of Washington turned in the same term paper another of my students had submitted a scant five semesters before? I thought not. But the undergraduate disciplinary board couldn’t believe I caught the repetition, either.

So I had good reason to believe that my recollection of a fictionalized memoir ostensibly by a childhood friend of Joan of Arc was reasonably accurate. A lighthearted burrow through the roughly two thousand volumes I carted up from California after my mother moved from my childhood home, so she would have to take only the remaining eight thousand with her (long story), and voil? ! The author of the otherwise charming book had tumbled into a multitude of ubiquitous first-time memoirists’ traps. Including, of course, the one that had jumped up and down in my mind after so many years.

You know, the kind of thing that Millicent thinks so many of you writers of the real do on purpose, just to annoy her. Echoing the all-too-common verbal habit of using and as a substitute for a period in your first-person narration, for instance, in a misguided attempt to make the narrative voice sound more like everyday speech. (It works, but let’s face it, quite a bit of everyday speech is so repetitious that it would be stultifying transcribed directly to the printed page.) Or telling an anecdote on the page as one might do out loud at a cocktail party, with practically every sentence a summary statement. (Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is such a pervasive piece of editorial feedback.) Or, most common of all, not doing much character development for anyone but the protagonist.

Speaking of showing, not telling, here’s the scene that popped to mind. To render the parallels to what Millicent sees on a daily basis more obvious, I’m presenting it here in standard format for book manuscripts. (And if it’s news to you that such a thing exists, or that it differs from what is proper for submitting short stories, articles, or academic pieces, may I suggest a quick foray into the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right?) As always, my blogging program is a trifle hostile to page shots, so if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.



Come on, admit it — while you might have excused all of those ands if you had heard this told out loud, they’re a trifle eye-distracting on the page, are they not? Ditto with the word repetition — could this author possibly have crammed any more uses of to be, to get, or to see into these three pages? And don’t even get me started on concept repetition.

As a story on a page, it’s lacking quite a few elements. A sense of place, for one — is there a reason, the reader must wonder, not to give us some sense of what either the woods or the village were like? As so often happens in memoir, we’re just told that the action is happening here or there, with too little description to enable us to picture Joan and her young friends in a specific place. Nor are those friends fleshed out much, either in character or physically.

Heck, we don’t even get to see the frightening Benoist: instead, the memoirist merely tells us repeatedly that he and Joan were getting closer, without showing us what that might have looked like to a bystander. Like, say, the narrator.

Speaking of the narrator, do you get much of a sense of who he is as a person? How about what his relationship is to Joan? Are you even sure of their respective ages? Any idea what year it is? Heck, if you did not already know that the girl would grow up to be the patron saint of France — actually, one of four, but Joan of Arc is certainly the best known in this country — would anything but the children’s names tip you off about what part of the world these characters inhabit?

While I’m asking so many rhetorical questions in a row — another occupational hazard, I’m afraid — let me ask a more fundamental one: did you notice that while this passage is apparently about how the village’s children reacted to Joan, there’s practically no character development for her at all?

That’s at least marginally problematic, in a book entitled, wait for it, JOAN OF ARC. What, we are left to wonder, does she look like? Why doesn’t she stand up to her playmates (beyond, of course, the justification of being “so girlish and shrinking in all ways”) or, failing that, why doesn’t she simply walk away from the nasty little beasts? Most mysteriously, why can’t a kid brave enough to face down the village madman’s axe (or ax, depending upon where it falls in this passage; the error is in the hard copy in front of me), a rather interesting thing for a person to do, come up with more revealing answers to questions than a simple yes?

And would it be too much to ask the narrator to explain why the villagers left an axe lying anywhere near the madman’s cage in the first place? Might not the locals’ efforts be more productively expended making sure he can’t get out than chopping off his fingers?

More important to the story at large, if you did have more than an inkling of what the real-life Jeanne d’Arc achieved, wouldn’t you find it at least a trifle too pat that her playmates choose to picture her doing more or less what she grew up to do — and to laugh at her about it? If the girl had suggested this role herself, it might merely have been not-particularly-subtle foreshadowing, but honestly, can you think of any reason to include this at all except to make the reader feel cleverer than St. Joan’s playmates?

Millicent wouldn’t think of one. Neither would most professional readers; it’s our job to deplore this sort of narrative ham-handedness.

“Just how ill-informed would a reader have to be not to find that first bit clumsy?” we mutter into our much-beloved coffee mugs. “Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Joan of Arc would know that she lead an army and was burned at the stake, even if that reader knew nothing else about her? And if your garden-variety reader knows that much, isn’t it an insult to his intelligence to drop a giant sign reading Hey, dummy, this is foreshadowing?”

Was that mighty gust of wind that just whipped the cosmos the sound of half of the memoirists out there huffing with annoyance, or was it the first-person novelists sighing gustily? Do you have some insight into this phenomenon that you would like to share? “But Anne,” both groups think loudly in unison, rather like the remarkably collective-minded children in the anecdote above, “this is how I was taught to write first-person narration: it’s supposed to sound exactly like a real person’s speech. So why shouldn’t St. Joan’s childhood buddy sound like anybody telling anecdotes out loud?”

A couple of reasons, actually. Yes, good first-person narration takes into account the narrator’s speech patterns. It also typically reflects the narrator’s social status and education, personal prejudices, and what s/he could conceivably know. And then there are those pesky individual quirks and, yes, the century in which s/he lived.

So I ask you, first-person writers: just how does the narrative voice in this passage indicate that this particular anecdote took place, according to the narrative, not too long after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415? As opposed to, say, the 1890s, when this account was first published?

Operating on the assumption that internal monologues have both always sounded pretty much like modern speech and don’t vary much from individual to individual is as common a mistake in first-person narratives as having all teenage characters sigh and roll their eyes is in YA submissions. Yes, some people do think and talk that way, but must everybody? Should Helen of Troy formulate her innermost thoughts in the same way as, say, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott, or Confucius? (There’s a dinner party, eh?)

In case I’m being too subtle about it here: doesn’t it make for more interesting narration if your narrator’s speech bears at least some marks of time? And if she has some individual quirks of thought and expression?

Besides, if we are going to be true to the rules of first-person narration, shouldn’t we be objecting to how often our narrator here professes to read the other children’s minds — although, notably, not Joan’s? I don’t know about you, but I find that most of the time, my thoughts are located in my own head, not floating somewhere in the middle of a group of bystanders. So are we supposed to believe that our narrator in this instance is a mind-reader, or that the local children were too simple-minded to be able to form individual opinions about what is going on in front of them?

In fairness to the huffers and sighers above, however, it’s not beyond belief that they were taught to write first-person narration this way — in short stories in their high school English classes. In short bursts, run-on sentences do indeed come across as ordinary speech-like. In the professional examples of this type of narration that tend to turn up in class, it’s not all that unusual for the author’s voice and the first-person narrator’s voice to merge into colloquial harmony: Mark Twain tends to sound like Mark Twain, for instance, no matter whose perspective is dominating a particular story. That’s part of his branding as an author, right, a distinctive narrative voice?

As a strategy, adopting a chatty voice makes quite a bit of sense for narrative voice in memoir. The reader is going to have to like how the narrator/protagonist talks about her life well enough to want to follow the story for a few hundred pages, after all; we might as well get friendly. Yet in practice, the primary danger of relying on the repetitive phrasing, clich?s, and percussive and use to achieve realistic-sounding narrative cadence is precisely that it will put off the reader because as the pages pass, it can become, well, boring.

Think about it: even if a memoir were being told as a verbal anecdote, wouldn’t you rather listen to a storyteller with some individual flair for phrasing, instead of someone who just sounded like everyone else? No matter how inherently exciting a personal story is, a great telling can make it better reading. So can a narrative voice reflective of the time, place, and society in which that tale takes place.

But just try telling that to Mark Twain — who, as the sharper-eyed among you may already have noticed, wrote the scene above, in what he considered his best book. Although that retrospective assessment is a trifle hard to take seriously, in light of the fact that he published the book both under a pen and in serial form. Actually, he took it to even one more remove: he wrote a preface under a nom de plume, presenting himself as the translator of a memoir written by one of Joan’s contemporaries.

Why go to all that trouble? Because by all accounts, he felt that the poor sales of THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER were largely attributable to his established audience’s expecting anything published under the name of Mark Twain to be a comedy.

Take that, purists who would like to believe that writing with an eye toward market concerns is a product of an increasingly cynical publishing industry over the last twenty or thirty years. Twain and his publisher worked out that tactic in the 1890s.

But I digress. As a reader, how well do you think his narrative choices worked here, either as fiction narration or as the memoir narration it originally professed to be? In your opinion as a writer, how do you feel about those slips into the first person plural — is the reader carried along with the we perspective as a narrative choice, as we were in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, or does it read like a perspective slip?

Moving back to my earlier point, do you feel that the mostly distinctly modern narrative voice, coupled with the almost entirely uncritical view of Joan, was the best way to tell this tale? Critics in Twain’s time did not think so — they believed (and I must say I agreed with them back in junior high school) that a protagonist who never does anything wrong is a trifle on the dull side, as far as the reader is concerned. Twain’s Joan never sets a wee foot wrong; even in her earliest youth, he tells us, she raised her voice in anger only once, and even then it was to voice a patriotic thought.

A taciturnity unusual in a rabble-rouser, you must admit. Also an unusual characteristic for someone who challenged social norms enough for anyone to want to burn her at the stake: Twain’s narrator presents her as a quiet, universally beloved little girl. Butter, as folks used to say, would not melt in her mouth. No matter how outside-the-box her observations or actions are shown to be (or, as we saw above, summarized to be), in this narrative, nothing she did or said from birth to the age of fourteen so much as ruffled the composure of the inhabitants of a querulous small village in wartime. Surprising, to say the least, in a young lady who by her own account had been engaging in frequent heart-to-heart chats with a couple of your more illustrious virgin martyrs since the age of twelve.

Perhaps the querulous small village where I spent my formative years was atypical, but I’m inclined to think that had I gone around snatching murder weapons from local lunatics or holding confabs with ancient Roman maidens, the Old Lady Mafia might have had a thing or two to say about it. I’m also inclined to think that their observations would not have been entirely favorable, regardless of how winsome and girlish I might have been while disarming the maniac in question. It doesn’t strike me as the type of endeavor best undertaken in a party dress.

I’m not saying that Twain is necessarily factually incorrect about all this; naturally, his best guess is as good as ours on a lot of these points. The lady lived rather a long time ago, so the issue here is less historical accuracy than dramatic plausibility. Still, just because something really happened does not mean it will necessarily come across as plausible on the page; as agents like to say, it all depends on the writing.

As an editor, I think it was the writer’s job to make me believe his take on this. Presuming you agree with me — speak now or forever hold your peace — I ask you: was this narrative choice the best fit for the story?

Literary taste is, of course, to a very great extent individual, so only you can answer that question to your own satisfaction. Am I correct in presuming, however, that you are at least a tiny bit curious about how an editor currently holding down the literary fort in the U.S. publishing world might respond to this particular set of narrative choices? Glad you asked.



What am I hoping you will take from this, you ask, eyes wide with horror? Not merely that being a brilliant writer does not necessarily preclude turning out a clunker of a first draft from time to time — although that’s not a bad thing for aspiring writers to bear in mind. The popular conception of true literary talent’s consisting of perfect creative phrasing dripping from the fingertips directly onto the page, with no further polishing necessary, does not match up particularly well with reality. As any experienced editor could tell you, most of the books people regard as productions of pure inspiration have actually been worked, reworked, and run past half a dozen critical readers.

Remember that, please, the next time you’re struggling with a scene that just doesn’t seem to want to hit the page gracefully — or with much specificity. In moments like that, it can be very tempting to embrace the tack Twain did above, to write up the scene in summary form as quickly as possible, with few vivid details, just to get the darned thing committed to paper.

What makes me think that this was written quickly? Editorial instinct, mostly: I find it hard to believe that a humorist as gifted at reading out loud as I know Twain to have been would have killed the comedy — or bored the reader — with this much word repetition unless he was writing on a deadline. Had he taken the time to revisit this scene and iron out its wrinkles, I don’t think there would have been quite so many references to eyes — and I don’t think that he would have had his narrator faint at the climax of the scene.

Certainly saved the author the trouble of having to figure out how the girl convinced the wild man to give up the axe, though, didn’t it? Trust me on this one: experienced editors — and Millicents — see this type of narrative shortcut often enough to recognize it for what it is.

So what should a savvy writer do when faced with this sort of first-draft dilemma? Go ahead: give in to temptation; there is value in getting a full scene on paper. Just make sure to set aside time later in the writing process to return to that scene and flesh it out. Unless you would prefer to have your future editor bark at you, “This is lazy writing, Ambrose. Didn’t anybody ever tell you to show, don’t tell?”

Just in case nobody has yet snarled that in the general direction of your manuscript: show, don’t tell. Immerse your reader in sufficient details for her to be able to feel as though she is part of the scene, rather than leaving her to fill in the specifics for herself.

Oh, you don’t think that’s what Twain is doing here? Okay, rise from your chair, grab the nearest willing partner, and try to act out this interaction between young Joan and Benoist, based solely upon the choreography the narrator above chose to provide us:

She stood up and faced the man, and remained so. As we reached the wood that borders the grassy clearing and jumped into its shelter, two or three of us glanced back to see if Benoist was gaining on us, and this is what we saw — Joan standing, and the maniac gliding stealthily toward her with his axe lifted. The sight was sickening. We stood where we were, trembling and not able to move. I did not want to see murder done, and yet I could not take my eyes away. Now I saw Joan step forward to meet the man, though I believed my eyes must be deceiving me. Then I saw him stop. He threatened her with his ax, as if to warn her not to come further, but went steadily on, until she was right in front of him — right under his axe. Then she stopped, and seemed to begin to talk with him. It made me sick, yes, giddy, and everything swam around me, and I could not see anything for a time — whether long or brief I do not know. When this passed and I looked again, Joan was walking by the man’s side toward the village, holding him by his hand. The axe was in her other hand.

Not much practical guidance for the actors there, eh? Other than all of that seeing, the actual movements mentioned here are pretty routine: one party standing still, the other moving toward her. The mover threatens, but we are not told how. Admittedly, a lifted axe doesn’t have to move much to seem threatening, but see how pretty much all of the sense of danger is conveyed via the narrator’s dread, rather than through showing the reader vivid, terrifying specifics? And how virtually all of that dread is summarized, rather than shown in any detail?

That lack of specificity distances the reader from what should have been a thrilling scene: by leaving the reader to fill in the details, the narrator abdicates his proper role here. Yes, he grounds us in his experience by telling us repeatedly that he is seeing this or that, and that these sights made him feel sick (and ultimately pass out), but great heavens, man, if you’re going to narrate a story like this, isn’t it your job to at least ask a bystander what happened, so you could share that information with the reader?

Don’t tell me that once you’ve seen one axe-wielding madman, you’ve seen ‘em all. As both a reader and an editor, I want to know what this particular madman looked, sounded, moved, smelled, and felt like. I want to know precisely what our heroine did that gave Benoist pause; I want to be shown how he crept up on her stealthily while apparently walking straight into her line of vision. And gosh darn it, I want to know how an axe of 1415 differed from one I might buy at the corner hardware store today.

Without those details, and phrased in fairly ordinary terms, this is indeed like everyday speech, despite the inherently exciting subject matter. Substitute a memo-wielding boss for the axe-bearing madman, and this could have been an anecdote overheard in a coffee house after work.

Distancing the reader from the action in this manner is an unfortunately common tactic in memoirs and first-person fictional narratives alike. Instead of showing the reader what happened through a fully realized scene, the narrator simply summarizes; rather than demonstrating relationship dynamics through dialogue or action, the narrator just sums up what was said. And by describing subsequent actions in the same words or in hackneyed terms (I believed my eyes must be deceiving me? Really, Mark?), the action may move forward, but the reader’s understanding of what’s going on does not.

Joan stood; Benoist glided. Then Joan stood while Benoist glided. Then she stopped — odd as the narrative had not shown her going forward. Then the narrator conveniently blacks out so we cannot see what is going on. Then the problem is solved. The end.

Seldom is this the most interesting way to convey a story, in my experience. Like having characters answer yes-or-no questions with yes or no, as opposed to more detailed (and thus more character-revealing) responses, the summary route closes off story possibilities. And by definition, repeated phrasing adds nothing new to the scene.

Neither, incidentally, do all of those thens: in a story in which events are being presented in chronological order, the occurrences in Sentence 1 are presumed to have happened before those in Sentence 2, which in turn came before what’s described in Sentence 3. Thens, then, as we have seen them used in that last example, are logically redundant; most editors would advise you to reserve them for moments when what happens next is genuinely unexpected.

Joan stood; Benoist glided toward her with an axe. Then the Wright Brothers and their sister, Katherine, swooped through an opening in the forest canopy in a motorized glider to snatch the weapon away.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last twist coming, did you?

Remember, there’s more to telling a story than simply listing its events in chronological order — or racing from its beginning to its end. You want the journey to be both memorable and enjoyable for the reader, do you not? And if the narrative can manage either to surprise the reader with an unanticipated turn of events, delight her with astonishing imagery, or intrigue her with beautiful phrasing — ideally, all three — all the better.

Before I release you to ponder the challenges of expanding a first-person narrative from the anecdotal level into a completely inhabited scene, I want to talk about another common faux pas: the further distancing effect of the narrative’s reminding us repeatedly that the narrator is seeing this or that. Obviously — at least from a professional reader’s perspective — if an action or object is depicted in a first-person narrative, the narrator perceived it; otherwise, she could not legitimately bring it up, right? So when Twain’s narrator tells us repeatedly that he saw Joan do this or Benoist do that, it’s logically redundant.

Of course, he saw it: he was standing right there. Why bother to remind the reader of that self-evident fact? Or, to put it as a garment-rending professional reader might, does the author think the reader is too brain-dead to remember who the narrator is and that he is present?

Oh, you don’t want the pros to take every word you commit to the page that seriously?

Again: if it’s on the page and the writer appears to possess even the slightest vestige of talent, Millicent is going to assume that it’s there on purpose. She’s also going to assume, with good reason, that if a writer has set up rules for how the story is to be told — in this case, from the point of view of a childhood friend of Joan’s, and only from his perspective — the narrative will follow those rules consistently.

This, too, trips up quite a lot of memoirists and other first-person narrator-wranglers. Once a narrative is committed to a single perspective, it cannot report anything outside of it without shattering the illusion of a limited point of view. Thus, when the narrator slips into the first person plural, informing us that we saw this or thought that, it’s jarring to the reader’s sensibilities.

And when, like Twain’s narrator, he professes to know what we all are thinking…well, let’s just say that maybe Joan isn’t the only one who needs to be worrying about going on trial for dabbling in the supernatural. Unless the narrative establishes some means by which a first-person narrator could possibly have reliable insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, he should really stick to his own. If his thoughts and feelings are somehow different from every Tom, Dick, and Benoist’s who might be hanging around in the same place at the same time, great; if he can manage to express them in language evocative, memorable, and tailored to his individual worldview, even better.

Which is not a bad definition of memoir voice, if you think about it: a narrator with a strong personality and specific worldview recounting situations of significance to an overall dramatic story arc in language and from a perspective unique to the teller. If every sentence of your memoir — and, to bring this back to our series-in-progress, every sentence of your query’s book description — does not rise to that level, you might want to think about revising it. Millicent will thank you. So will your readers.

So Mark, darling, as much as I admire your writing in general and short stories in particular, if I were your editor — oh, you thought that editors don’t hope this type of activity would be the first, best use of a time machine? — I would insist that you sat down and revised these three pages. Actually, I would do it because I admire your writing: your narrative voice, even in this rather serious book, is better than what we’re seeing here.

And that axe you keep telling us you’re seeing, narrator? That’s your editor, chopping away all of that phrasing and conceptual redundancy. Trust your reader’s intelligence a bit more, please.

I know, I know: this is a heck of a lot to absorb for a single post. Fear not; I shall be revisiting many of these issues after I polish off the last of the reader-volunteered queries. For that limited purpose — that is, for your edification prior to my next post — just bear in mind that not only does Millicent expect a memoir to have a well-defined voice and story arc; she presumes that by the time that memoirist sends her boss a query, the projected voice and story will be so clear in the writer’s mind that both can be adequately (nay, compellingly) conveyed in a paragraph or two.

Piece o’ cake, right? Well, no, but we can give it the old college try.

Just don’t turn in a term paper I’ve clapped eyes upon before, okay? Keep up the good work!

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXII, and Structural Repetition, part IX: who is that handsome devil in the mirror, and why shouldn’t I consider him the sole arbiter of clarity?

Before I launch into what we all devoutly hope will be my next-to-last post on structural repetition (for the nonce, at least), a recommendation for all of you who write YA: because it’s always a good idea to familiarize oneself with the roots of one’s chosen book category, I would highly recommend that you take a gander at this quite interesting interview with YA grande dame Beverly Cleary. Actually, any writer planning to be a legend in her own time might want to take a peek at it. It’s both fascinating and falls into an interview trap that’s become surprisingly common of late — when asked what books she reads in her own category, Cleary, said that she doesn’t read any. Not too long ago, Philip Roth told a reporter essentially the same thing: readers should continue to pick up his novels, but he no longer reads fiction.

“I wised up,” he said.

I have to say, this strikes me as a trifle tone-deaf, given the difficulties the literary market has been facing of late. If writers don’t read (and buy) books in their own categories, who will? And how is a writer to know how his type of book — and his type of reader — is growing and changing unless he keeps an eye on what’s come out recently?

To be fair, it used to be considered rather chic for authors to pretend that they never thought about their readerships’ tastes while constructing what turned out to be bestsellers. No, art was art and commerce was commerce, and ne’er the twain shall meet: the only thing on the author’s mind, we were given to understand, was the inspiration descending from on high and his own fine sense of what would work on the page literary.

This, like the still-pervasive interview implication that what ends up on the page is first draft, is not a reflection of the realities of authorial life; it’s spin. And it’s unfortunate spin, because statements like these give aspiring writers everywhere the false impression that being a successful author has nothing to do with pleasing one’s readership, or even bothering to learn anything about their tastes. No, this argument goes, a truly gifted writer never seeks to please anyone on the page but himself.

It sounds tempting at first blush, doesn’t it? Art for art’s sake has always appealed to artists. But as a reader — as the overwhelming majority of good writers are, bless your hearts — doesn’t it strike you as a trifle insulting to be told what to like? Especially if the person telling you to like his work one moment is telling you the next moment that he doesn’t read anyone else’s work, and thus cannot provide a well-informed comparative assessment?

I leave the answers to those salient questions to further debate between you and your muse. For our purposes today, let’s take away three things. First, interview styles are as subject to change over time as writing styles; what sounded cool in 1963 may produce a significantly different impression now. It’s not a bad idea, then, for a first-time author to invest some time in reading and listening to recent author interviews, to see what works now and what seems like an idea whose time has passed.

Second, while established authors can sometimes afford to be cavalier about how their writing will strike their readers (although I suspect that you’d be hard-pressed to find a publishing house that would be thrilled about one of its authors doing so in public), those seeking to break into the biz cannot. It’s just not smart marketing to avoid thinking about who your target reader is, why your book will appeal to him or her, and how your book will satisfy an already-existing group of book-buyers’ literary tastes and/or interests in a manner that nothing else on the market currently does.

Obviously, in order to answer those questions, a writer is going to have to learn something about who is reading books like hers already and why. Sensing a pattern here?

Third, and most important for revision purposes, it’s vital to recognize that what the writer takes away from any given scene or paragraph might not be what a reader takes away – or what a reader who does not know the writer personally would glean from it. If the action on the page is confusing to a reader — especially if that reader happens to be an agent, editor, or contest judge — it’s the writer’s responsibility to clarify the writing, not the reader’s to figure out what is going on. Especially if that would mean going back and re-reading the sentences in question; Millicent simply doesn’t have time to do that.

I feel an editing axiom coming on: if a reader finds a passage unclear, it does not matter that the writer can explain glibly what’s going on; the reader can judge only what’s actually on the page.

This is especially important precept to bear in mind if you are editing for humor. All too often, aspiring humorists proceed upon the assumptions that

(a) anything that makes them laugh is inherently funny,

(b) anything that makes their kith and kin laugh is funny,

(c) any anecdote they have ever told out loud and elicited a chuckle is funny, and/or

(d) any reader will find writing based on assumptions (a)-(c) funny.

All of these are palpably untrue, as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, and she should know: humor that doesn’t quite work on the page shows up in submissions so often that it has become one of her pet peeves. It’s also untrue that

(e) having a character laugh at something either he or another character has just said will render it funny to a reader.

That’s likely to come as a surprise to all of those submitters who tried to convince Millicent that their protagonist was the next Hawkeye Pierce by depicting bystanders roaring with laughter at his antics and quips. This exceedingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve tends to run a little something like this:

Bored with the lesson, Chuck glanced out the window, searching for amusement. He leap to his feet. “Look, Miss McStraightlacedson! A tiger’s escaped from the zoo!”

Half the class ran to the window while he leaned back in his chair, grinning while his classmates searched for a beast that existed only in his imagination. His friends leaned forward on their desks, cracking up at how gullible the others were.

The teacher alone had not budged. “Back to your seats, everyone. I’m afraid Mr. Hilariouskid has been putting us on again.”

Several boys slapped him on the back as they regained their seats. “That was a good one, Chuckles!” Mopey Wanabefunny cried.

A professional reader’s response to this subtle giggle-prompting tactic is seldom laughter, I’m sorry to report, but eye-rolling. Most often, accompanied by, “Next!”

In other words, it might make Millicent laugh, but not for the right reasons.

While we’re talking about editing for humor, did you catch the other problem with this passage? Hint: the writer probably thought this made this scene’s hilarity clearer, but from the reader’s perspective, it watered down the joke.

If you immediately leapt out of your chair, yelling, “I know the answer, Miss McStraightlacedson! The narrative over-sold the joke,” allow me to hand you the Milton Berle Award; feel free to hang onto it for a while. While the old writing truism that brevity is the soul of wit is not always accurate (as anyone who has ever enjoyed a shaggy dog story can attest), explaining to the reader after the fact why something is humorous almost always renders it less amusing.

As we discussed earlier in this series, this kind of overkill also has another side effect: to a professional reader like Millicent, it indicates some doubt in the writer’s mind that the situation itself is funny enough to prompt laughter without the explanation, which in itself raises a question about its humor value. Basically, it’s a sign that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to get it.

In my experience, though, most of the writers who fall into this trap do so not because they are thinking poorly of their audience’s reading comprehension skills, but because they are not thinking of the reader at all. Something strikes the writer as amusing — so it must be so to the reader, right?

Frequently, no. If it isn’t, the text’s going on to tell the reader why something that hasn’t been shown to be funny should make her laugh is not going to help.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is that scene again, with the laughter prompts excised, as well as the explanation; while I’m at it, I’m going to change the too-obvious character names as well. Judge for yourself whether the humor doesn’t stand up better.

Bored with the lesson, Charles glanced out the window. He leap to his feet. “Look, Miss Bates! A tiger’s escaped from the zoo!”

Half the class ran to the window. Only a pellucidly blue sky and well-kept lawns greeted them.

The teacher alone had not budged. “Back to your seats, everyone. And you, Mr. Spencer, will report for detention after…Mr. Spencer? Where are you?”

Even the kids who hadn’t rushed to see the tiger screamed. All that remained of Charles was a red-stained tennis shoe occupying his chair.

While his classmates wept and Miss Bates dashed to the principal’s office, Charles walked whistling down the path to the river. Fishing was a much better use of a sunny day than learning about how Hannibal crossed the Alps.

Come on, admit it — you weren’t expecting one new plot twist, were you, much less two? The unexpected is often funny on the page. So much so that if I were editing this piece, I might recommend that the last paragraph be beefed up with another surprise.

While his classmates wept and Miss Bates dashed to the principal’s office, Charles walked whistling down the path to the river. Fishing was a much better use of a sunny day than learning about how Hannibal crossed the Alps. As he slipped through the hedge and off school grounds, he heard a low growl behind him, the faint sound of padded feet.

Whether the pursuer turns out to be a tiger or Miss Bates teaching him a lesson, you must admit, the revised version is quite a bit more amusing than the original. In the second, the writer trusts the reader to be able to follow what’s going on AND to have a sense of the absurd.

Should the writer have explained that Charles reddened his shoe with the ketchup packets he always kept concealed in his desk? Possibly, but not necessarily. If the reader already knew from an earlier scene that the boy believed in being prepared in case any stray hot dogs might find their way to his desk, smuggled from the lunchroom (oh, that rapscallion!), the joke would fly just fine without it. Ditto if we’d already seen him brandishing a red Magic Marker or dabbing a cut with iodine.

There is, in short, no single, hard-and-fast editing rule dictating the right amount of set-up for humor. It all depends on the situation — and the target audience.

Why bring any of this up while either author interviews or revision are on our collective mind? Simple: not taking your reader’s likely response into account renders pulling off either well quite a bit more difficult. A writer who thinks only of his own reaction to what’s on the page tends to overlook clarity problems, logical leaps, redundancy, and anything else that didn’t strike him as important when he composed the passage.

He also is inclined not to consider the reader’s enjoyment — and that’s a real drawback, as far as Millicent is concerned. As we’ve seen in this series on structural repetition, it’s not nearly as much fun to read prose that’s repetitive in sentence structure or vocabulary as writing that’s more varied.

Because writing is a solitary art — yes, even after one lands an agent and sells one’s book to an editor — it’s astonishingly easy to lose sight of the end reader, particularly in the revision stage. When we writers are up on our high horses, we tend to talk about our artistic visions and the importance of being true to our voices, but while we’re being down-to-earth about it, we have to admit that if we can’t (or won’t) take the time to make those visions and voices accessible to the reader AND at least somewhat pleasant to read, we aren’t completing our mission successfully.

Does that mean dumbing down complex concepts or compromising original voices? No, not if revision is performed intelligently. It does mean, however, that the writer of a Frankenstein manuscript owes it to any complex concept that might be lingering with in it, as well as to her own narrative voice, to try to read the text as a reader might.

An author reading I attended last year provided a glorious pragmatic illustration of the necessity for a good reviser (or good writer, for that matter) to consider not only his own point of view when deciding whether a passage of text was clear, but also a reader’s. As is lamentably often the case at such readings, the author read excerpts from her book in a monotone, without once lifting her eyes from the page to connect with her audience.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that her gorgeous prose fell flat. The characters blurred together; the dramatic arc of the scene was lost; the quite amusing punch line failed to invoke even a single smile in an audience member. A great and preventable pity, because the scene she chose to read was well-written, beautifully paced, and contained some genuinely astonishing plot twists.

As if the muses had gone out of their way to demonstrate to this author just how much she was underselling her own excellent prose stylings, the venue had booked a second author to read at the same event, one whose obviously well-rehearsed, excitingly voiced reading, punctuated by frequent merry glances up at her fans, kept the crowd enthralled. Guess which author sold more books?

Now, I have nothing but sympathy for the shy; I happen to enjoy public speaking, but I know that it positively terrifies many. Reading one’s own work in public is hard, so I would STRENUOUSLY recommend that any and all of you who intend to see your work in print some day start practicing reading it in front of others as soon as humanly possible. Reading well out loud is something that few of us manage the very first time we try, after all.

Like so many other skills required of a professional writer, giving good public readings is a learned skill, one that requires practice to perfect. It also requires — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — the writer to take the time to consider what that passage of perfect prose might sound like to someone who, unlike herself, might not have read it before.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: a writer’s ability to step outside his own head and consider what’s actually on the page, rather than what he thinks is on the page, is crucial to good revision.

Case in point: the question we have been discussing over the last couple of posts, the delicate balance between referring to characters by name often enough for clarity, but not so much that all of those capital letters distract the reader’s eye and prompt Millicent to grope for the form-letter rejection stack. This is a problem that’s not likely to trouble the sleep of a writer who doesn’t think much about what her readers might be taking away from any particular page of his story, right?

In fact, the very question might strike him as just a little bit stupid. “Why, I should have thought that was obvious,” he would huff.

If the writing on that page is clear, his intended meaning may well be obvious. If not, his submission could well end up confusing Millicent — or, still worse, expecting her to fill in gaps in logic, background scenery, character motivation…

You know, all of those thrilling, character- and plot-revealing details that we talk about so much here at Author! Author! as the hallmark of expressive prose. Millicent’s on the lookout for style, recall, not just a gripping story. If she — or any reader, for that matter — has to devote even a few seconds of her scant time with your submission to sorting out confusing logistics, unclear character motivations, or just plain trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s a few less seconds she is spending noticing how likable your protagonist is and how gracefully you describe cloud patterns.

I couldn’t help but notice that not all of you immediately shouted, “Right, by Jove!” Does it strike you as a trifle hostile to literature that our Millie tends to concentrate far more on a submission’s faults than its beauties? Okay, let’s step into in her practical two-inch heels for a moment, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the kinds of manuscripts we’ve been discussing.

Got your Millicent cap firmly pulled down around your ears? Excellent. Picture four manuscripts before you, each written by a talented writer eager for a break. Which one will you decide to show to your boss, the bigwig agent, and which three will you reject?

Your choices are (1) a narrative that assumes you will put in extra effort to sort out what is going on in certain confusing passages, like so:

He woke up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways. Trees swayed outside the unfamiliar window, giving him no clue of his whereabouts. Ow — his knee! He pulled on his boots.

(2) A submission that just summarizes the story, leaving you to fill in most of the details, rather than providing interesting and surprising specifics from which you might derive your own impression of what’s going on, thus:

Bart woke up dazed, disoriented, under what seemed to be a pouf of somebody else’s hair. There was a girl next to him; for the life of him, he could not remember her name, nor did the trees swaying outside the window give him any clue about where he was. His knee hurt, as if something had smashed against it recently. He had to get out of there. He crept out of bed, pulled on his boots, and left.

(3) the most extreme form of Frankenstein manuscript, one so rife with spelling, grammar, perspective, and consistency problems that even its author appears not to have taken the time to read it all the way through:

But, I wake up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways, pearing at the unshaven face near to her foot. No help there so quite as a mouse, I syruptitiously looked at the trees outside the window, but they didn’t tell me where I had managed to get myself to. Something had cracked against his knee. Where had those darned boots gotten to, and who was this girl anyway?

(That one was genuinely hard for me to write, by the way; I kept having to undo my instinctive corrections.)

(4) A manuscript where the writer has taken the reader’s perspective into account sufficiently to clarify all of the relevant issues of the page, skillfully using a plethora of vivid details to convey to the reader a complex reality and consistent enough in tone that you can discern, however faintly, an individual authorial voice:

Bart woke up gasping for breath. Was he being smothered under a fuzzy scarlet blanket, or had his bangs grown down to his mouth, choking him with a lamb-like pouf of curly hair? Wait — his hair hadn’t been curly since he had been the spelling champion of Mrs. Chellini’s third-grade class. His dim memories of her classroom seemed like Technicolor spectaculars, compared to his recollection of last night.

He yanked a particularly wavy red lock from the corner of his mouth, following it gingerly — better not move too much, head — across the rough Navaho blanket to its source. The mascara-streaked face wasn’t familiar, but the Hooters t-shirt was. Tammy, maybe? Tina? And was that blood on his bare knee? No wonder it hurt: that gash would need stitches.

Tell me, Millicent-for-a-day: which would you choose to pass on to your boss, and which would you reject?

There’s nothing wrong with expecting your reader to draw conclusions from what you say on the page, but as some well-meaning English teacher may have pointed out to you once or twice in the past, style often lies in the essential difference between showing and telling. If the writer chooses to beguile the reader with enough details about a situation that he walks away from the scene with the mental image the author intended, that’s showing. If, on the other hand, the writer elects to tell her tale in generalities, or to spell all of the necessary conclusions for the reader instead of allowing the reader to draw them for himself, that’s telling.

Of course, to write a complex tale, you’re probably going to have to do both. Let’s face it, telling can be quite useful from time to time, particularly in a fast-paced action scene or a chunk of narrative that needs to cover a hefty chunk of passing time. More often than not, however, writers use summary statements as a kind of shorthand writers to get past activities that are necessary to the plot, but just don’t interest them that much.

Which brings me, conveniently enough, to one of the most commonly over-used verbs in manuscript submissions — and, not entirely coincidentally, to one of Millicent’s lesser-known pet peeves. Contest judges complain vociferously about it, too, so I could not in good conscience polish off our discussion of textual redundancy without talking about it. Not that I mind: this particular phenomenon is a favorite bugbear of mine as well, because its astonishingly pervasive use tends, in my experience, to flatten description and characterization.

Have I piqued your curiosity sufficiently yet? Too bad — you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow’s post to find out what this classic Millicent-annoyer is. I know what I’m talking about here, and that’s enough for now.

See how frustrating it is when the writer considers only what she needs to get out of the words on the page, rather than her readers’ desire to know what’s going on? And have I given you strong enough evidence of the point I made yesterday, that false suspense — withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense — is darned annoying?

My work is done here for the day, clearly. Tune in next time for a few last concrete examples of Millicent-irritants before Pitchingpalooza begins on Wednesday. In the meantime, remember your readers, and keep up the good work!

As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than authorial choices, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can be hard to tell apart on the page. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or most writers’ preferred method, after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: name your people so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another species of naming conducive to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said texts.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already established. In fact, leaving identification entirely to pronouns is a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious he (or, more often, she) of the opening paragraphs could possibly be.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused by what’s in front of her on the page is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, the pros typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one, period. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s an abdication of authorial responsibility: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the necessary details; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Certainly, many, many aspiring writers are prone to take them as such. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th truism Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice, but it’s not particularly helpful, is it? I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (you might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have, too.

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past ten paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

Okay, so he was talking about something else, but obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (And before anybody asks, the rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative from having to indulge in pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed because they have cooties. Behold the predictable result.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Susan,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Susan said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” she snapped.

“Why ever not?” she asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

She played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about him?”

“Of course it’s about him,” she huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Her eyes stung for a moment. She always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” she said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Fortunately, those two options aren’t the only tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? The goat and I think not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read.

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

And how could I round off a series on Millicent’s pet peeves (part XXX) or one on Structural Repetition (part VII) without bringing up this little number?


Before I launch into today’s magnum opus, allow me to present you with a challenge: what do all of the men above have in common? Other than being, you know, men?

While you are pondering the possibilities, this seems like a good time to mention that beginning next week, I shall begin my much-anticipated Pitchingpalooza series. Because getting through that before my local pitch-centric writers’ conference will require daily posting — in the finest ‘palooza tradition — I will be warming up by tackling a few more pet peeves over the weekend. That will give you time, if you are so inclined, to leave any pitch-related questions, concerns, or special requests in the comments section of this post. The more I know about what you hope and fear in a verbal pitch, the better I can gear Pitchingpalooza to be truly helpful.

Back to today’s business. Have you given up on the brain-teaser above?

Here’s a hint: these are pictures (from left to right and top to bottom) of Man in Black Johnny Cash, John Bunyan (author of a book those of you who grew up loving LITTLE WOMEN may know indirectly, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS), a post-Beatle John Lennon, President John Quincy Adams (in a beefcake portrait, obviously painted prior to his mutton-chops phase), the Great Profile himself, John Barrymore, and John Smythe Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola. Sensing a pattern here?

I should hope so, now that you’ve been sharpening your eye throughout this series on spotting Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves. But are you as talented at spotting the problem in its native environment?

name repetition example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught it in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a redundancy-weary Millicent at the end of a long day of screening manuscript submissions, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

But let me ask you: did the 5 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

If you’re like 99.99% of the reading public, the repetition of Pauline’s name probably didn’t strike you as at all unusual, but to that other .01% — a demographic that includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges — it might well have been distracting. Amongst Millicents, submissions (and first drafts in general) are positively notorious for this type of redundancy.

As is so often the case with Millie’s pet peeves, name repetition drives her nuts precisely because it so common — and it’s so common because most aspiring writers don’t notice it in their own work at all. You’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

While I’m on the subject of ways to drive Millicent to madness without even trying, let’s talk about a pet peeve shared by practically all of us who read for a living, at least in the U.S.: the radical overuse of the character name John.

Although John is only the second most popular male name in the United States (James has been #1 for a while now), writers can’t get enough of our pal John. Next to him, poor old Jim, as well as lonely old Robert (#3), bereft Michael (#4), and left-at-loose-ends William (#5) lead lives undocumented by the creative pen. As a group, we also have a practically unbounded affection for Jon and Jack. And don’t even get me started on how many Johnnies there are running around YA landscapes, taunting our heroines with their bad-boy ways.

On some days, Millicent’s desk so overfloweth with J-men that he can seem to be stalking her from manuscript to manuscript. “Leave me alone!” she moans, and who can blame her? “And bring me a character named Leopold!”

Of course, even as unusual a name choice as Leopold could become annoying if it appears too often on a single page — but let’s face it, Leo is infinitely less likely to have been popping out at Millie all day as John. L is also not nearly as often the first letter of a proper noun as J, and thus less susceptible to confusing a skimming eye.

Oh, you weren’t aware that many a reader-in-haste would read no farther into a proper noun than its first letter? That fact alone should lead those of you fond of John, John, and Jack to avoid christening any of your other characters Jim, Jason, or Jeremy. For abundant proof why, stand up now, take a few steps back from your computer, and try reading the following as fast as you can:

John jerked Jeremy’s arm sharply. Jostled, Jeremy joked, “Jason, are you going to let John jumble our chess pieces?”

“Jeez, Jason,” John jeered. “You can’t take jesting anywhere near as well as Jared, Jimmy, or Jamal.”

Jared jutted his head from behind the jerry-rigged doorjamb. “Did you call me, John?”

“Just joshing, Jared.” John just missed Jeremy’s playful shove, sending him sprawling into Jason. “Jeremy here can’t take a joke.”

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to avoid giving any other character a name that begins with the same first letter as your protagonist’s. If John had been the only J rambling across the passage above, his too-common moniker might still have irritated Millicent a trifle, but it certainly would have been easier for her to keep track of who was doing what when. Take a gander:

John jerked Harry’s arm sharply. Jostled, Harry joked, “Arnold, are you going to let John jumble our chess pieces?”

“Jeez, Harry,” John jeered. “You can’t take jesting anywhere near as well as Bertrand, Georgie, or Douglas.”

Bertrand jutted his head from behind the jerry-rigged doorjamb. “Did you call me, John?”

“Just joshing, Bertie.” John just missed Harry’s playful shove, sending him sprawling into Arnold. “Harry here can’t take a joke.”

Better already, isn’t it? Still, that’s a lot of capital Hs, Js, and Bs on the page.

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your garden-variety Millicent than repetition of other nouns. Why? Repetition across submission, of course, as well as within them. Too-frequent reminders of who the characters are and the space on the map they happen to occupy makes the average editor rend her garments and the middle-of-the-road agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to the itsy-bitsy computer screens that writers were working upon back in the 80s– remember the early Macs, with those postcard-sized screens? They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a laptop, you can usually have a view of half a page, at least, at full size. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I doubt I shall so choose. But it’s nice to have the option, I suppose.

“So why,” Millicent demands, shuddering at the sight of her co-workers’ disheveled wardrobes, “given how much easier it is to see words on a screen than in days of yore, do submitting writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a printed page? Is it merely that writers christen their major characters with their favorite names — like, say, the dreaded John — and want to see them in print again and again?”

A good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason. Partially, it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. So does re-reading the same scene for the 157th time. But mostly, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Particularly the opening pages, because if Millicent has a problem with those, she’s not going to read beyond them.”

I MAY have mentioned this two or three thousand times before. I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little rule of thumb unconsciously in their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, just after saying, “I do,” to their no doubt adorable spouses, on their deathbeds…

So yes, I admit it: I’m a broken record on this subject. But for some very, very good reasons, I assure you.

To name but the two most relevant for our purposes today: first, reading in hard copy makes patterns in the text far more apparent to the reading eye than scanning text on a computer screen. Hard copy is also how most editors, a hefty proportion of agents, and practically every contest judge currently deciding between finalists will be seeing your submissions.

Yes, even in this advanced electronic age. Many agencies still don’t accept e-mailed submissions; neither do most editors at publishing houses. (Some do, of course, so it’s worth your while to download your manuscript to an electronic reader — my agent uses a Kindle — to see how your pages look on it.) The major literary contests for aspiring writers have been quite slow to switch over to purely electronic entries, probably because regular mail submissions are very handy for sending the admission fee.

But enough theory. Let’s apply some of this to a practical example. As always, if you’re having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

a-sample-page

See how your eye tries to leap from one J to the next? Sing along with me now, campers: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters in a text.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. (When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks to indicate that those words are somehow “special” — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve.) It’s almost always grammatically incorrect, but it definitely does the job of eliciting attention.

That’s not always a good thing, as far as Millicent is concerned. I can show you why in 14 words.

The West Wind whipped through the screen door as if it were not there.

Clearly, the writer intends the reader to respond to this statement with a comment like, “My, but that’s a forceful wind.” An ordinarily critical reader might ask, “Um, isn’t the whole point of a screen door that it allows air to travel through it unobstructed?” Every Millicent currently treading the earth’s surface, however, would produce precisely the same response.

“Why,” they will demand, “is west windcapitalized? Is it someone’s name?”

The practice is, in short, distracting. As a general rule of thumb, anything that causes Millicent to wonder why the writer chose to include it — rather than, say, why the protagonist did or what’s going to happen next — is worth removing from a submission.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s in your best interest to avoid capitalized words altogether. Due to proper nouns’ completely legitimate use of capitals, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the major characters. The reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

Not in most manuscripts, no. Since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, it isn’t precisely necessary to keep calling attention to the protagonist by referring to him by name. Constantly.

Or is it, John? John? Are you listening, John?

Frequent repetition of the protagonist’s name is seldom necessary, especially in scenes where only he appears — and it can become downright irritating over the course the dialogue of a two-character scene. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, it’s generally assumed that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue.

“So why,” Millicent wants to know, “do so many writers keep labeling the participants every few lines, even in scenes where there’s little probability of confusing the reader by reverting entirely to pronouns?”

An excellent question, Millie. That’s why professional editors so often excise tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker ever time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth: with only two possible speakers and alternating dialogue, any reasonably intelligent reader may safely be relied upon to follow which lines of dialogue are being spoken by which character. And, let’s face it, this:

John peered through the grimy window. “Is that you, Arlene?”

“Who else would it be?” She pushed the door open with her hip. “Mind helping me with these grocery bags?”

“Oh, of course.”

“Thanks.” As soon as she dropped her burden on the counter, she tossed her car keys in his general direction. “There are twelve more in the trunk.”

moves a heck of a lot faster on the page than this:

“Is that you, Arlene?” John asked, peering through the grimy window.

“Who else would it be?” Arlene asked rhetorically, pushing the door open with her hip. “Mind helping me with these grocery bags?” Arlene added.

“Oh, of course,” John replied.

“Thanks,” Arlene said. As soon as she dropped her burden on the counter, Arlene tossed her car keys in his general direction. “There are twelve more in the trunk,” Arlene said.

Rather pedantic by comparison, no? In published writing, it’s actually considered a trifle insulting to the reader’s intelligence to keep reminding her that the guy who was speaking two lines ago is speaking again now.

What was his name again? Could it possibly have been John?

That reasonably intelligent reader we were discussing a while ago is also more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin, once the narrative has established proper names. But you’d never know that by the number of times some manuscripts have their discussants call one another by name — and how often the narrative refers to them by name.

John doesn’t think it’s in John’s best interest to do that. John would like to believe that Millicent would remember who he is for more than a sentence or paragraph at a time, even if the narrative did not keep barking his name like a trained seal: “John! John! John!”

In many manuscripts, simply reducing the number of tag lines in a dialogue scene will cut out a startlingly high percentage of the name repetition. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear. Let’s take a gander at a slightly less obvious example.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Susan,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Susan said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but — feel free to sing along; you know the words by now — like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

And that’s more than a little puzzling to professional readers. “Why,” Millicent wonders, hastily taking a sip of her too-hot latte, “would a writer go to such lengths to label people the reader already knows?”

Even when both characters share the same sex, and thus the same personal pronoun, constant name repetition is rarely necessary for maintaining clarity. Yet over-labeling is so common that after reading a few hundred — or a few thousand — manuscripts, Millicent would have to be pretty darned unobservant not to have begun to suspect that many writers simply harbor a prejudice against the innocent-but-effectual pronouns he and she.

Seriously, a lot of submitters seem to go out of their way to eschew pronouns, even in narrative paragraphs. To take not an unusually proper noun-ridden example:

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Tanya!”

Quietly, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Tanya. May I have another?”

Come on, admit it — that was kind of annoying to read, wasn’t it? Until you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, it seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader, but as we’ve just observed, it can be, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name makes it stand out more, however.

Of course, if for some reason the writer of that last piece of sterling prose wanted for some reason best known to himself to render it infinitely more annoying to Millicent, we already know how he might manage that, don’t we? All he needs to do is rechristen Eve and Tanya with names beginning with the same capital letter.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Edna was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Edna did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Edna. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” Eve bellowed. “Edna!”

Quietly, Edna retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at Edna with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night. As you would know if you had been paying attention, Edna. May I have another?”

Remarkable how much more difficult that was to read, isn’t it? To get an even better sense of how repetitious it would seem on a printed page, take a few steps back from your computer (if you can manage that logistically) and take a gander at the pattern all of those capital Es make in the text.

Now, admittedly, the writer of this exceptional excerpt may merely have been trying to clarify matters by repeating the names so often: there are in fact two women in this scene. If both were only called she every time, naturally, the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you have any doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie she’s just seen.)

However, like many proper name-heavy manuscripts, the writer here (who was me, obviously, so I guess it’s not all that productive to speculate about her motivation) has constructed the narrative to make opportunities for name repetition where it isn’t logically necessary. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the necessity of naming the players:

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen. “Service!” she bellowed.

Quietly, Tanya retrieved the now-airborne glass before it could crash to the floor. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. “I’ve been drinking Perrier all night, as you would have known had you been paying attention. May I have another?”

Anybody confused? I thought not. As you may see, proper nouns were not necessary very often in this passage.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to figure out when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, that was not a very time-consuming revision. All it really required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it’s distracting to the eye, and therefore a detriment to the reader’s enjoyment of the text. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence — or, heaven help us — within a single line of text — is almost always a sign that sentence is in need of serious revision.

Ready to accept the general principle, but unsure how you might apply it to your manuscript? Never fear — next time, I shall run you through so many practical examples that you’ll be excising proper nouns in your sleep. You might enjoy some variation from the IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD song.

Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIV, structural repetition, part II, or, are these concurrent series starting to get out of hand?

No, that image isn’t doctored — that’s a quick snapshot I took today of my garden’s first summer poppy. Eat your heart out, Georgia O’Keeffe.

I wasn’t playing hooky in the garden, honest; I was prowling my flowerbeds for bright, arresting color to illustrate our topic du jour. What, after all, would remind a self-editing writer more of structural repetition — the phenomenon of a writer’s falling in love with a certain kind of sentence and consequently over-using it throughout a manuscript — than a flower that might attract a passing motorist’s attention from half a block away?

“But Anne,” metaphor enthusiasts throughout the writing world protest, “I don’t get it. How are these two apparently unrelated things akin?”

That’s a perfectly legitimate question from a writerly point of view, metaphor-huggers, but from an editorial perspective, the connection is self-evident: both seem to leap out at the observer. To most of us who read manuscripts for a living, a manuscript that keeps recycling sentence structures, pet phrases, or even individual words might as well be covered with flashing neon signs.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a page stuffed to the gills with one of the more common types of repetition, the over-use of proper nouns in general and character names in particular. I’ve made the image a trifle larger than usual, to render the pattern easier to spot.

In fact, you don’t even have to read the text to notice it: stand up, back away from your computer until you can’t make out individual words, then walk slowly toward the screen. Ready, set — observe!

All of those Js and Ps were the first thing you saw on your return trip, were they not? A sharp-eyed pro like Millicent the agency screener would have that reaction scanning the page at a normal reading distance.

Now let’s take a gander at how the visual problem is exacerbated if the sentence structure is also repetitious. To render this tortured page even more likely to annoy our Millie, I’ve selected a common construction in the passive voice.

Quite a bit less amusing to read, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be at all astonished if you were tempted not to read it all the way to the end — although the page was not in fact made up entirely of it was X and it was as though sentences, it certainly began to feel like it by halfway down the page, didn’t it?

A trained eye would be drawn immediately toward those repeated patterns — and thus away from other aspects of the text a savvy writer might want a professional reader like our old pal Millicent to notice instead, such as the compelling storyline, the interesting characters, and/or the overall beauty of the writing. Because repetition in general and structural repetition in particular are so very common in submissions, Millicent and her ilk not only find it distracting; they tend to regard it a symptom of both a small authorial vocabulary and — you’re sitting down, I hope? — weak writing.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: you might want to think twice about incorporating much repetition into your preferred authorial voice. Especially in your opening pages — which, lest we forget, folks who screen manuscripts for a living are prone to regard, rightly or not, as representative of the writing in the rest of the manuscript.

To put it rather less gently: if the sentence structure and vocabulary on page 1 don’t show much variation, Millicent’s unlikely to keep reading until page 50 to find out whether these traits are consistent features of the author’s chosen voice. Heck, she probably won’t turn to page 2 to confirm that suspicion.

It’s hard to blame her, given the provocation. As we saw in the second example, even when the word choices vary enough to keep things moderately interesting, it’s simply more tiring to read the same kind of sentence over and over than to read text where the form varies more.

That’s true, incidentally, regardless of the subject matter: even an inherently fascinating topic can quickly be rendered stultifying by the simple expedient of writing about it in structurally similar sentences. Repetitive phraseology can render even the most exciting, conflict-ridden scene quite a bit less nail-biting than its activity level should dictate. That’s true, surprisingly, even if the chosen structure is quite complex.

Did my reuse of the that’s true + adverb structure bug you more in that last paragraph, or the recycling of even? By this point, I would hope that neither escaped your attention.

Back to the principle at hand: let’s observe the soporific effect of a more complicated repeated structure in action. So I don’t plunge all of you into a deep, refreshing slumber, I shan’t subject you to an entire page of it.

Obviously, no one plans to crash a motorcycle into the side of a cross-town bus, but that is precisely what Barnaby did. Fortunately, he was wearing his inflatable jumpsuit, saving him from significant injury, but clearly, his morning was not going to be a smooth one. Resignedly, he collected his scattered belongings, including the small thermonuclear device he later planned to smuggle into the state dinner, but he could not resist cursing under his breath.

Something tells me that a scene with stakes this high could have been written about in a slightly more compelling manner. There’s more to good storytelling, after all, than just getting all of the facts down on the page. To see why this is true, we need look no farther than the early reader books of our youth.

You know the type, right? See Spot run. See Spot bite Dick. See Dick shiv Jane. Stab, Dick, stab.

Dull, from an adult perspective, weren’t they? But dull with a purpose: part of their point was to encourage new readers to recognize letter patterns as particular words. Varying the sentence structure enough to render the insipid story interesting to more advanced readers would merely have distracted from the task at hand.

So we were treated to the same sentence structure for what seemed like the entire book. I have a distinct memory of taking my kindergarten copy of FROG FUN home from school (Hop, frog, hop. Hop, hop, hop: hardly Thackeray), reading a two pages of it to my father, and both of us deciding simultaneously that no self-respecting human being would keep slogging through that much narrative repetition. He wrote a very amusing little note to my teacher about it.

Suffice it to say that my teacher quickly learned to send me to the library for alternate reading material. And stopped teaching kindergarten shortly thereafter. I’m told that she still winces whenever she sees a frog.

It’s even easier to make Millicent wince — at any given moment, her to-read pile overfloweth with submissions that, if not as word-repetitious as FROG FUN, have fairly obviously not been carefully revised with an eye to sentence variation. That’s a pity, because when a professional reader sees a manuscript that uses the same sentence structure or the same few verbs use over and over, the specters of Dick, Jane, and Spot seem to rise from the page, moaning, “This is not very sophisticated writing!”

Why? Well, when one’s eye is trained to note detail, it’s doesn’t take much redundancy to trigger a negative reaction.

In fact, a good professional reader will often catch a repetition the first time it recurs — as in the second time something is mentioned in the text. It’s not unheard-of for an editorial memo to contain an angry paragraph about the vital necessity to curb “your inordinate fondness for” phrase X when phrase X shows up only three or four times in the entire manuscript.

As in over the course of 382 pages. Had I mentioned that we pros are trained to be extremely sensitive to redundancy?

Imagine, then, how much more annoying they find it when every third sentence begins with a structure like, Blinking, Sheila backed away or George was…” or the ever-popular, As she was doing X, Y happened.

That last one caught you a bit off guard, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised: if an alien from the planet Targ were to base its understanding of human life solely upon the frequency with which protagonists in first novels do something while something else occurs, it would be forced to conclude that humanity is doomed to perpetual multitasking. Either that, or it would surmise that the space-time continuum is somehow compressed by the mere fact of someone’s writing about it.

Oh, you laugh, but how else could the poor visitor to our solar system possibly interpret a passage like this?

As Monique turned the corner, she spotted Clarence. He dodged as she came up to him. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Aiming, she cleared her throat. “The jig’s up, Clarence.”

That’s quite a bit of activity happening simultaneously — and quite a few logically similar sentence structures shouldering one another for prominence. But contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that two things occurred at the same time is not particularly interesting to most readers. Unless the simultaneity of the motions in question is crucial to the reader’s understanding what’s going on, as and while can be awfully easy to overuse.

How so? Well, let me put it this way: if our imaginative little run-in with the Targian had not tipped you off in advance, would you have noticed that there were two things going on contemporaneously in every sentence in that last example?

If so, you’re certainly not alone: most aspiring writers — i.e., the folks who have not yet had the professional opportunity to hear an editor go on a tirade about it — would not see a problem with that excerpt. Millicent, however, would, and that’s likely to spark some rather unpleasant consequences at submission time.

So how might a savvy reviser rearrange that passage so as to leave her eyebrows mercifully unraised? Vary the sentence structure — and cut out any extraneous activity. While you’re at it, reserve as for those relatively rare occasions when it’s imperative that the reader be made aware that things happened at the same time. The result might look a little bit like this:

Monique strode around the corner, surprising Clarence so much that he dropped his bullwhip. While he was looking for someplace convenient to hide, she calmly unearthed a crossbow from her purse.

Carefully, she took aim at his Adam’s apple. “The jig’s up, my friend.”

The contrast between this version and the previous one is pretty stark, is it not? To repetition-sensitive eyes, a page filled with structural and word repetition is like badly-done CGI in movies, where battle scenes between thousands of characters are created by filming 50 extras flailing at one another, copying that image, and plastering it seventeen times across the scene, perhaps alternated with two or three other images of the same actors in different positions. Honestly, to those of us who count patterns for a living, that level of repetition can be downright migraine-inducing.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne!” I hear some conscientious revisers exclaiming. “English grammar only permits so many ways of arranging sentences properly. Isn’t any manuscript going to exhibit a certain amount of pattern repetition, necessarily?”

Yes, of course — but that does not give writers carte blanche to use the same structures back-to-back, or to utilize a favorite complex sentence form twice per page. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not as though your garden-variety writer is repeating herself on purpose: in the vast majority of instances, the writer simply likes a kind of sentence or a particular verb enough to use it often.

You lucky souls, however, are going to be one up on that kind of writer come revision time, because we’re about to take a run at spotting the phenomenon in its natural habitat. Since last post’s foray into A TALE OF TWO CITIES was so obvious, let’s try a comparatively subtle one on for size.

Rubbing his sides for warmth, Stephen glanced unhappily at his fellow cheerleaders. Waving his pom-poms in a wan impression of good sportsmanship, he reminded himself never to be stupid enough to accept one of his sister’s bets again. Pulling up his flesh-colored tights –- oh, why hadn’t he listened to Brian, who had told him to wear nylons under them on this near-freezing night? – he wondered if Tammy would be vicious enough to demand the performance of the promised splits before the game ended. Sighing, he figured she would.

How did you do? Individually, there is nothing wrong with any given sentence in this paragraph, right? Yet taken communally — as sentences in submissions invariably are — the repetition of the same kind of opening each time starts to ring like a drumbeat in Millicent’s head, distracting her from the actual subject matter, the quality of the writing — and, alas, even the blistering pace you worked so hard to achieve on the page.

That’s not just a voice problem — it’s a marketing problem.

Why? Well, think about it: very, very few agents and editors can afford to work with specialists in a single type of sentence. And don’t start waving random pages ripped from Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre at me, either: present-day readers expect a narrative with a broad array of sentence structures.

The sad thing is, most of the time, writers don’t even realize that they’re repeating patterns, because unless the repetition bug has really bitten them, the redundancy isn’t in every sentence. Or if it is, the repetition often lies in words or phrases that are similar, but not identical, so the writer does not think of them as the same word. Consider:

Arnold began sweating, sweating as though his sweat glands were going on strike tomorrow. Should he go to the window and throw it open, beginning the cooling-down process? Or should he go downstairs, into the basement, to the cool of the pickle cellar? Or should he wait for the seller on the cooler porch?

Subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes, the structures a writer favors may be common enough in themselves that she would need to read her pages IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch the problem. As in:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted, “because I had no reason.”

“But you did take it,” Edmund shot back, “because you needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Claire’s eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, since you don’t know her.”

These three lines of dialogue feature different words, of course, but they sport identical structures. This may not seem like a serious problem on any given page, but once a professional reader notices a manuscript exhibiting this kind of repetition a couple of times, she will simply assume — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — that the pattern will recur throughout the manuscript.

How does s/he know, you ask? Experience, my dears, experience. How many horror films did you have to see before you realized that the monster/killer/Creature from the Black Lagoon wasn’t really dead the first time it appeared to be?

Go back and re-read that last example out loud: did you notice how similar those three paragraphs sound in the mouth — almost as though they were not the words of two different speakers? The repetitive structure here makes Claire and Edmund speak in essentially the same rhythm, as though they were echoes of the same voice. (Which, from an authorial point of view, they are.)

When two characters speak in the same rhythm, it mutes the conflict between them a little — not to mention making it harder for the reader to follow the dialogue. Check out how varying the sentence structure ramps up the tension between them, even in an excerpt this short:

“But I didn’t steal the payroll,” Claire insisted. “I had no conceivable reason.”

“You lie,” Edmond shot back. “You needed the money for your sainted mother’s operation.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You leave my sainted mother out of it, me bucko, since you don’t know her.”

“Aha! I knew you were concealing a pirate past!”

“I ought to keel-haul you.” Sullenly, she removed her eye patch. “What gave me away, the parrot?”

Nifty, eh? That, in case you were wondering, is the kind of character development benefit a writer is likely to derive from reading her work OUT LOUD. I just mention.

But a writer need not only pay attention to how many times he’s using the same words or similar sentence structures in back-to-back sentences, but also on any given page, or even over the course of a scene. Let’s take a look at how non-consecutive repetition might play out in practice.

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

My, but our examples are violent today. To most self-editors, this paragraph would not seem especially problematic. However, to a professional reader, it contains two of the most commonly-repeated structures, our old friends, the While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was Z…. Standing alone as individual sentences, either form is perfectly valid; the problem arises when either appears too frequently on the page. To a professional reader, this is how the paragraph above would scan:

As the car door opened, Beatrice swallowed a horrified gasp. It was Harold’s severed hand, dragging itself around the latch mechanism, one grisly fingertip at a time. As she reached for the gun, her intestines palpitated, but she forced her arm to remain steady. While she loaded the bullets into the chamber, she thought about how much she had loved Harold, back when his constituent parts were all still interconnected as a human’s should be. It was a shame, really, to have to keep blowing him to bits. But blow him to bits she would continue to do, as often as necessary.

See how even spread-out repetition jumps off the page, once you’re sensitized to it? Millicent (and her boss, and the editors at the publishing house across the street, and even the average contest judge after reading the first handful of entries) is so attuned to it that she might not even have made it as far as the end of the paragraph.

To use the most overworked word in her vocabulary: “Next!”

Of course, you may strike lucky: your submission may be read by a screener who hasn’t been at it very long, a contest judge brand-new to the game, or an agent whose tolerance for pattern repetition is unusually high. Heck, your work may even land on the desk of that rara avis, the saint who is willing to overlook some minor problems in a manuscript if the writer seems to have promising flair. In any of these cases, you may be able to put off winnowing out pattern repetition until after the book is sold to an editor — who is most unlikely to be so forgiving.

Do you honestly want to gamble on Millicent’s possible saintliness at the submission stage?

Because editorial response to this kind of repetition tends to be so strong — I wasn’t kidding about those migraines — you would be well advised to check your first chapter, especially your opening page, for inadvertent pattern repetitions. (Actually, since quick-skimming pros tend to concentrate upon the openings of sentences, you can get away with just checking the first few words after every period, in a pinch. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

The most straightforward way to do this is to sit down with five or ten pages of your manuscript and a number of different colored pens. Highlighters are dandy for this purpose. Mark each kind of sentence in its own color; reserve a special color for nouns and verbs that turn up more than once per page. You probably already know what your favorite kinds of sentence are, but it would be an excellent idea to pre-designate colors for not only the ever-popular While X was Happening, Y was Occurring and the It Was… sentences, but also for the X happened and then Y happened and Gerund Adverb Comma (as in Sitting silently, Hortense felt like a spy.) forms as well.

After you have finished coloring your pages, arrange all of the marked-up pages along some bare and visually uncomplicated surface — against the back of a couch, along a kitchen counter, diagonally across your bed — and take three steps backward. (Sorry, kitty; didn’t mean to step on your tail.)

Does one color predominate? If you notice one color turning up many times per page — or two or three times per paragraph – you might want to think about reworking your structures a little.

If this all seems terribly nit-picky to you, well, it is. But the more you can vary the structure and rhythm of your writing, the more interesting it will be for the reader – and, from a professional perspective, the more it will appeal to educated readers.

Think about it: good literary fiction very seldom relies heavily upon a single sentence structure throughout an entire text, does it?

You know what kinds of books use the same types of sentences over and over? The ones marketed to consumers with less-developed reading skills. If that is your target readership, great — run with the repetitive structure. (Run, Jane, run! Don’t let Dick stab, stab, stab.) But for most adult markets, the industry assumes at least a 10th-grade reading level.

In my high school, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was assigned in the 9th grade. If you catch my drift.

Then, too, agency screeners and editorial assistants typically hold liberal arts degrees from pretty good colleges. That’s a long, long way from the reading level that was contented to watch Dick and Jane running all over the place with Spot and frogs having fun hop, hop, hopping.

Let your structural choices be as exciting as the writing contained within them — and let your voice emerge as more than a repetitive collection of your favorite words and sentences. Incorporate your pet structures and phrases, by all means, but have them appear rarely enough that they will seem like revelations, not just narrative-as-usual.

Above all, keep mixing up those sentence structures. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much interest merely preventing a sentence from reading like the one before it can produce. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIV: am I talking to myself, or is this guy not holding up his end of the conversation?

“A man of genius can hardly be sociable, for what dialogues could indeed be so intelligent and entertaining as his own monologues?” – Schopenhauer

Last time, I went on a rampage about one type of dialogue that tends to get professional readers’ proverbial goats: the astonishingly common practice of constructing tag lines centered upon verbs that do not imply speech. This one’s a goat-napper for good reason: since the whole point of the he said part of a dialogue paragraph is presumably to alert the reader to who is speaking those words encased within quotation marks, it’s both illogical and rather annoying when the text chooses to shoehorn a non-speaking activity into the sentence. As in:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Since neither scooped nor contemplated are speaking verbs, they cannot reasonably be expected to form the basis of a tag line, right? What the writer actually meant was this:

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Now, that first comma makes sense: Hamlet said is the tag line completing the dialogue sentence. If a reviser were looking to minimize the number of tag lines in a scene — advisable in most types of adult fiction or memoir, to avoid a Jane, see Dick chase Spot feel to the text — that comma could be replaced by a period, and the original pseudo tag line transformed into an ordinary narrative sentence.

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

After raising this issue and suggesting a couple of viable solutions, I was all set to go merrily on my way — then, as so often happens, some thoughtful readers took issue with one of the fixes. The quite interesting debate in the comments centered around the question of whether the actual speech in a sentence like

“My uncle may be a murderer,” Hamlet said, carelessly scooping a nearby scull off the ground and contemplating it, “but you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

meant something different than

“My uncle may be a murderer.” Hamlet carelessly scooped a nearby scull off the ground and contemplated it. “But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

The literal meaning is the same, of course; the question here is a matter of rhythm. In the first version, the speeches before and after the tag line are presented as a single sentence: “My uncle may be a murderer, but you can’t fault his taste in wine.” The comma implies only a minimal pause in between the two halves. In the second version, the period indicates a longer pause: “My uncle may be a murderer. But you can’t fault his taste in wine.”

Unquestionably, there is a difference, but would it really matter to most readers? Probably not, unless Hamlet were in the last stages of emphysema, rendering the utterance of a sentence of the length of the first too great a strain on his lung capacity to be plausible. Even Millicent, our favorite long-suffering screener of submissions to agencies, would regard both versions as acceptable, unless the text had already established a speech pattern for Hamlet that rendered either length of pause uncharacteristic.

Was that giant collective gasp I just heard an indicator that some of you had not been carefully constructing individual speech patterns for your major characters? Or did half of you just realize that a professional reader might well be paying attention to how and whether the dialogue permits those characters to breathe?

If you’re like most aspiring novelists, it was probably a little of both. Writers new to dialogue usually concentrate almost exclusively upon the content of what their characters are saying, rather than how they are saying it: it’s no accident that in most submissions, any given line of dialogue could come as easily out of one mouth as another. The vocabulary or grammar might vary a little, but essentially, all of the characters are speaking in the same voice.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “So am I.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“That would work for me. We could also swing by that all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re crazy,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “I don’t like tacos enough to die for them.”

In short bursts, this type of dialogue can work very well. It’s not particularly character-revealing, but it gets the job done.

It’s a lost opportunity for character development, though. Look what a difference simply giving one of the characters a different cadence and larger vocabulary makes to this perfectly straightforward scene.

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “I believe it. It’s been an utterly exhausting day.”

“Are you hungry? We could grab some cheeseburgers on the way home.”

“If you that sounds tasty to you. We could also swing by that delightfully greasy all-night taco stand.”

Hamlet turned the wheel so the truck veered across three lanes. “I like tacos. Let’s do that.”

“You’re insane,” Ophelia said, clutching the armrest for dear life. “No taco in the world is worth spattering our brains on the pavement.”

The literal meaning is quite similar, but now, a reader could tell simply by the cadence and vocabulary who is speaking when. There’s also more tension in this version: because most readers assume that complexity of speech is an indicator (although not an infallible one) of complexity of thought, the differential in vocabulary could hints at the potential for underlying conflict. Does she want him to talk more, so she is being wordier — and does that attempt annoy him sufficiently that he wants to scare her by driving dangerously? Was he fired that day, and he’s working up nerve to tell her that their days of going out to fancy restaurants are gone for the foreseeable future? Or has he simply been angry with her for the entire exchange, and was expressing it by being terse with her?

Quite a bit of bang for the revision buck, is it not?

The individuated speech patterns also could reflect what occurred just before this exchange, or ongoing conflict. Her lines would take more breath to say than his simple declarative sentences, as well as more effort: is he conserving his energy because he is dog-tired, or is he the strong, silent type? Did he perceive her statement about the greasiness of the food at the taco stand as a dig about his eating habits, something she has been nagging him about for the entire book? Or do these two people suffer under a chronic failure to communicate, and so they take refuge in discussing only mundane topics like whether they would prefer cheeseburgers or tacos?

Seem like a lot to read into an ostensibly ordinary exchange? Professional readers tend to like dialogue that operates simultaneously on several different levels, not only dealing with what is happening in the moment, but with ongoing dynamics. Such exchanges are not only about what is said, but what is left unsaid.

The pros even have a name for this kind of scene, albeit a rather cumbersome one: there’s more happening than is happening. One also hears it as there’s more going on than is going on, but you get the point. Instead of using the dialogue as a blunt instrument to move the plot along, reserving character development for the narrative sections, complex exchanges move the plot along while revealing character, conflict roiling under a seemingly placid surface, long-concealed resentments, etc.

That’s a nifty trick, one that requires a sophisticated understanding of the characters and the story to pull off. It also requires an acceptance of the notion that the point of dialogue is not merely to reproduce how people speak in real life. Just as not every real-world action is worth depicting on the page, the bare fact that someone might actually say something does not necessarily render it entertaining dialogue. A novelist is not, after all, just a transcriptionist: a writer’s job is to improve upon reality, to embroider upon it, to show it to the reader in new and unanticipated ways.

Which is why, should anyone out there have been wondering, Millicent tends to get bored pretty by conversations that don’t seem to be going anywhere, even if the actual exchange is, as they say, ripped directly from real life. It’s hard to blame her, either, when so much of the dialogue she sees runs rather like this:

“Have a hard day?” Ophelia asked.

“Yes.”

“I did, too.” She glanced at the clouds swiftly gathering over the moat. “Looks like rain.”

“Sure does. Did you bring the cat in?”

“Of course. You might want to bring the car into the garage, in case it hails.”

“It’s certainly been cold enough,” Hamlet agreed, “especially at night.”

“Um-hmm. Could you take the recycling to the curb on your way out?”

“Of course, hon.”

Yawn. We’ve all heard a million conversations like this, but since they are not particularly interesting to bystanders in real life, why would we buy a book to see them reproduced on the page? Or, to recast this in revision terms, if a discussion neither advances the plot nor reveals some heretofore-unseen aspect of character, why keep it?

Perhaps I’m an unusually demanding reader — I hope so; it’s my day job — but if dialogue is not entertaining or informative, I’m just not interested. If a character is spouting things that anyone might say, those stock phrases tell me nothing about who she is as an individual. All that standard chit-chat tells me is that the author has conflated realistic dialogue — i.e., speech that sounds as though a real human being might actually have said it — with real dialogue, actual speech transcribed on the page.

Learning to tell the difference is an essential skill for a novelist (and it’s pretty helpful for a memoirist as well). Why? To a professional reader, every line of dialogue has to earn its place on the page.

I heard all of you slice-of-life lovers gasp and mutter, but honestly, you would be hard-pressed to find even a single professional reader who would agree that any given line of dialogue has a right to appear on a manuscript page just because an actual person said it. Selectivity is the soul of good writing, after all. Realism is fine, in moderation, but after one has read a few thousand manuscripts in which characters say scads of not-very-interesting things simply because people talk that way, dialogue that is merely realistic can lose a lot of its charm.

Hey, didn’t someone mention something about the desirability of dialogue that serves more than one narrative purpose? Or did I dream that?

Exchanges that rely solely upon sounding like actual speech can seem especially trying if the one in front of Millicent happens to be the 10th or 20th of the day’s crop of manuscripts that features dialogue-only scenes. Why are they so common in submissions? Because an astonishingly high percentage of aspiring writers believe that dialogue in a novel is supposed to read like an excerpt from a play.

We’ve all read dialogue-only scenes, right? These exchanges that take the classic writing advice to make the dialogue itself, not an adverb in the tag line, say everything that needs to be said. After establishing who the two (seldom more) discussants are, the speeches alternate, sometimes for pages on end. Due to the subsequent absence of tag lines, descriptions of tone, mental asides, etc., the writer necessarily relies upon the reader to keep track of who is speaking when.

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

“You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

“You’re not always the one.”

“Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

“Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

This isn’t terrible dialogue, but you must admit, there’s nothing much happening here except what’s happening. Because of the presentation style, all the reader sees is what is on the surface. That’s not entirely coincidental: such exchanges are usually predicated on the assumption that human beings say precisely what is on their minds 100% of the time.

“So much for subtext,” Millicent mutters. “When I bicker, I like to think that my jibes connect on a variety of complex levels.”

I’m with you, Millie: I seldom find long dialogue-only scenes especially realistic, even if the speeches themselves ring true. Why? Well, the import of face-to-face human interactions seldom lies entirely in the words spoken. Tone, body language, nervous tics, grandiose gestures — all of these play into how one party interprets another’s intended meaning. By presenting the dialogue only, the writer is leaving the reader to fill in all of these potentially important details herself.

Then, too, at the risk of shocking you, it’s been my experience that few people say precisely what they mean every time they open their mouths. No one is perfectly articulate at all times, and frankly, who would want to be? Good manners alone dictate that not everything one thinks should come hopping out of one’s mouth.

Ask your mother. She’s with me on this one.

Speaking of not speaking out of turn, I’ve been sensing those of you who favor dialogue-only scenes squirming in your chairs for quite some time now. “But Anne,” tone-eschewers everywhere point out, “my high school English teacher told me that really good dialogue doesn’t need additional narrative text. If the dialogue genuinely fits the character and the situation, all of that body language stuff is merely window-dressing.”

I mean no disrespect to your sainted English teacher, squirmers, but that’s ridiculous. Admittedly, it was a very common type of ridiculousness in high school classrooms for about 40 years — specifically, the years when it was fashionable to try to teach every freshman to write like Ernest Hemingway. In recent years, adjectives and adverbs have come back into style.

The fact that there was a period in 20th-century American literature when they went out of style is why your English teacher encouraged you to minimize their use in tag lines, by the way. S/he was trying to discourage you from engaging in 19th century-style tag lines, known for their heavy reliance upon adverbs to add meaning to speech. Basically, s/he didn’t want you to write like this:

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet observed laconically, “that is the question.”

“No, it isn’t,” Ophelia retorted with some asperity. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die,” he said morosely.

“You don’t want anything of the sort,” she replied irritatedly. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

“If you had grown up with my mother,” he pointed out angrily, “the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother,” she said understandingly, “I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

A little of this style of tag line goes a long way, doesn’t it? Your teacher had a point: if the narrative relies upon how a character said something to convey the primary meaning of the speech, rather than the content or word choice, the dialogue plays a less important role in the scene. The practice discourages packing the maximum meaning into every line of dialogue.

What those of us for whom English class is but a far-off memory tend to forget, however, is that having students write dialogue-only scenes was an exercise intended to break the habit of leaning on tag lines, not a prescription for good dialogue. To extend that exercise and pretend that play-like exchanges are the only way to write dialogue well is to ignore the fact that most of the good novels of the last century have not embraced dialogue-only scenes as the norm.

In fact, acknowledging that human beings sometimes experience mixed motivations and respond to stimuli not in words or thoughts, but with their bodies has been a hallmark of literary and women’s fiction for several decades now. Or, as editors like to put it, “Could we get out of the protagonist’s head and into her body every so often, please?”

That’s not to say, of course, that dialogue-only scenes are never effective on the page — but like so many other high school English teacher-endorsed narrative tricks, it’s radically overused, and often applied to scenes where a fuller presentation of character, motivation, and non-verbal clues about what is going on would provide the reader with a better reading experience.

How so? Well, isn’t one of the primary benefits of a close third-person or first-person narrative the ability to show the reader what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head, torso, legs, and psyche? Dialogue-only scenes take that advantage and throw it out the window.

And with it often flies the sense that more is going on that meets the eye. Take a gander at how easy it is to add complexity to Hamlet and Ophelia’s philosophical debate by allowing for the possibility that the protagonist in this tight third-person scene has mixed motivations — and that her discussant is sending her non-verbal clues as to his mood.

Hamlet hung up the phone with a bang. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Oh, God, he was at it again. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“But I want to die.”

Ophelia hauled out her standard soothing argument and dusted it off for reuse. “You don’t want anything of the sort. You just don’t want to tell your mother that you accidentally smashed the vase she gave us as an engagement present.”

He slumped in his chair like a schoolboy waiting outside the principal’s office. “If you had grown up with my mother, the sweet embrace of death would seem like the preferable option here.”

“If I had grown up with your mother, I would have stopped speaking to her by the age of ten and a half.”

He picked at his nails, even though he knew it annoyed her. “Easy for you to say.”

Her jaw ached with the strain of not nagging him to stop. “And it’s easy for you to avoid telling her the truth. I’m tired of being the one who always has to break bad news to her.”

His face lit up; was he enjoying this? “You’re not always the one.”

She pictured him wrapping the lamp cord around his neck, jumping off the nearest bridge, sticking his pinkie into the light socket, but her tone remained sympathetic. “Who told her last year that our dog had dug up her prize begonias?”

“I was the one who broke it to her that we were getting married.”

Yeah, well, you’ve turned out to be no bargain, either, sweetheart. “Along the broad spectrum of global disasters, that ranks pretty low.”

“Again, we clearly grew up with very different mothers. Whatever affects mine is a global disaster, by definition.”

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? Not a syllable of dialogue is changed from the previous two examples, but now that we can see Hamlet’s behavior and hear Ophelia’s thoughts, the scene is infused with an adrenaline burst of conflict. On the surface, it’s not a fight, but few readers would not catch the underlying tension between these two characters.

To put it bluntly, that makes this a more interesting scene. Why? It operates on more than one level.

“But Anne,” those of you who shrink from depicting conflict on the page pipe up gently, “this makes Ophelia seem really hostile. If she were my protagonist, I would worry that readers would find her completely unlikable.”

That’s a completely legitimate concern, sweetness-mongers, but remember, in that last example, she’s not saying any of those things out loud. In fact, she is making a substantial effort not to be aggressive. She’s merely disagreeing with him.

And that would tend to render her a more interesting protagonist, from Millicent’s perspective; her inbox is perennially stuffed to the gills with books about people too nice (or too shy) to disagree with anyone, ever. Interpersonal harmony may be quite nice on the page, but it can make for some pretty stultifying dialogue.

Not sure why unvarying sugar and spice might get a tad tedious? Here is a representative sample of the kind of conflict-avoiding dialogue super-nice protagonists tend to utter.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning.”

“That’s awful.”

“After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard.”

“That’s so unfair.”

“I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

“You’re only one person. You can’t do everything.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“Really?”

Had enough yet? Millicent has. If you’re not sure why, allow me to ask you: what precisely do Ophelia’s lines add to this scene, other than a vague undercurrent of supportiveness?

On the fence about that one? Okay, let’s apply a standard editorial test for whether a section of dialogue has slipped into the realm of monologue. Here it is again, with all but Ophelia’s first line excised.

Ophelia ran to meet Hamlet at the door. “You look exhausted, sweetheart. A bad day?”

“The worst.” He collapsed onto the couch without taking off his dust-covered jacket. “First, my stupid uncle yelled at me for being thirty seconds late to court this morning. “After starting off on that delightful note, he then proceeded to lecture me for half an hour about how it was my responsibility to bring Laertes’ sword skills up to standard. I mean, why can’t he hire his own fencing tutor? It’s not as though I don’t have anything else to do. Dad keeps me up half the night, roaming the battlements, and Fortinbras is just waiting for my uncle to do something diplomatically stupid, so he would have an excuse to invade.”

He covered his face with his hand. “Sometimes, I just want to end it all.”

Pretty much the same, isn’t it? By lobbing softball questions that do little more than prompt Hamlet to continue, Ophelia is not a full participant in this scene — she’s a bystander.

Surprisingly, while this kind of monologue-enabling behavior can seem quite supportive in real life — who doesn’t like someone to make sympathetic noises while pouring out one’s woes? — it usually does not render a protagonist more likable on the page. Why not? Well, think about it: is Ophelia helping move the plot along in the last set of examples? Or is she slowing it down by contributing dialogue that doesn’t add anything substantial to the exchange?

To be fair, a single scene of harmonious agreement is probably not going to lead the average reader to begin muttering, “Get on with it, plot.” That sort of response tends to greet the habitually non-confrontational protagonist.

But Millicent is not the average reader, is she? Particularly in dialogue gracing the opening pages of a manuscript, she wants to see not only conflict — external or internal — but dialogue that reveals character. Beyond the fact that Ophelia is generally supportive of Hamlet, what does her dialogue in that last example reveal?

So if the protagonist seems passive and not prone to complex reactions on page 1, would you keep reading just because she seems like a human being who might be nice to know in real life? Or would you shout, “Next!” and move on to the next submission in the hope of discovering a protagonist more likely to do something to move the plot along or surprise you with unexpected depth?

Don’t worry; I shan’t make you give your answer out loud. It might make you seem less likable to other writers.

Softball questions like “Really?” and “How so?” are one means of disguising monologue as dialogue. Another is to have one of the participants in a discussion go on far longer than most real-life hearers would tolerate. In everyday life, people can’t wait to give their opinions: they interrupt, ask questions, contradict, offer anecdotes from their own experience.

On the manuscript page, however, characters are all too given to waiting in tranquil silence while another character lectures them. Often, such speeches devolve into Hollywood narration, permitting the writer to wedge information that both parties already know into the dialogue, so the reader can learn about it, too.

Go ahead and pitch that softball, Ophelia, so Hamlet can take a swing at it.

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden. You see, Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without Dad’s noticing. He was a sitting duck. You know how loudly he snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Uncle Claudius must have seen his chance to hold onto the throne — which, as you may recall, he had been occupying while Dad was off at war. Now that Dad was back, he was in line for a serious demotion.”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder. This seems completely far-fetched to me.”

“That’s because you aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing. He’s been after her for years, and while she’s done nothing but encourage him in public, she’s been sending him awfully mixed messages. Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest? You thought she was only trying to prevent us from winning, or to push me to pop the question, but I’m positive that she was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

“I did think that at the time, I’ll admit. But you still could be imagining most of this.”

Given how strongly Ophelia disagrees with what Hamlet is saying, it’s rather surprising that she lets him go on at such length before she even attempts to chime in, isn’t it? If this were a real-world argument, she would have jumped in every time he paused for breath.

How might a reviser know when that might be? You probably saw this one coming: by reading the scene IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD. Unless Hamlet has the lung capacity of an Olympic swimmer, he’s not going to be able to get the extensive arguments above out of his mouth in single breaths. The exchange would probably be closer to this:

“But I don’t understand,” Ophelia said. “You think your uncle did what?”

Hamlet took a deep breath, as if he were about to deliver a monologue in front of a packed house. “He poured poison into Dad’s ear while he slept in the garden.”

She hated it when he stopped taking his medication. “Where anyone might have seen him do it?”

“But the garden was empty. Dad was still exhausted from battle; Uncle Claudius always did know how to keep refilling a wine glass without his noticing.”

“Claudius was wearing body armor that night. He couldn’t have budged without waking every bird in the garden.”

“You know how loudly Dad snored; an elephant could have lumbered across the lawn, and he wouldn’t have been able to hear it.”

She changed tactics. Maybe humoring his fantasy would calm him down. “Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it was possible. Why would your uncle want to kill his own brother?”

He looked at her as though he thought she’d tumbled off her rocker. “Because he didn’t want to give up the throne, of course. Now that Dad was back from the war…”

She shrugged impatiently. “Other people manage to adjust to a workplace organization without resorting to murder.”

“You aren’t taking into account Uncle Claudius’ feelings for my mother. You’ve seen how he looks at her during banquets, after the mead gets flowing.”

Not that old court gossip again. “Do you honestly believe that he has a chance? He’s her brother-in-law, for heaven’s sake.”

“Remember that time he nearly knocked Dad’s block off when Mom said only married or engaged couples could compete in the limbo contest?”

Darned right she remembered: Gertrude had never been light-handed with her hints about their getting married. “She just didn’t want us to win. I could limbo circles around her.”

He leaned close, whispering conspiratorially. “She was making sure no one would catch on about her secret limbo sessions with Uncle Claudius.”

Reads more like an argument, doesn’t it? That’s not only the effect of editing out the Hollywood narration: by breaking up Hamlet’s soliloquies into reasonable bursts of breath expenditure, the rhythm of the scene increases markedly.

Speaking of energy expenditure, that’s quite a few examples for a single post. Rather than lecture you further, I shall save my breath for future posts. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part III: wait — was that gigantic edifice there a moment ago? Someone signal for help!

Before we begin today, I have some delightful news to announce about a member of the Author! Author! community: Emily Breunig has just signed with fab agent Lindsay Edgecombe of Levine Greenberg! Congratulations, Emily, and welcome to the ranks of agented writers!

Her novel sounds like a hoot, too. Here’s how she described it in her query:

Will does not believe in an afterlife. Unfortunately, the afterlife seems to be fairly preoccupied with him. Shortly after his father’s death, Will moves to Shanghai to leave his old life behind. Two months into his new teaching job, Katherine Turner, his high school classmate, shows up. The only unusual thing is that she’s been dead for five years. She exists in a parallel Shanghai, a way station for wandering ghosts, and she wants Will’s help. He’d be ready to call the whole thing a hallucination, but she is eerily good at giving him accurate information about his family back home. That, and she’s seen his father. With this, Will steps into an alternate world that exists alongside the constantly changing cosmopolitan cacophony that is modern Shanghai. He is desperate to find his father, but ghosts like Katherine don’t allow the living into their space without exacting a price. A GHOST AT THE EDGE OF THE SEA is a portrait of a young expatriate trying to find his feet in a tumultuous city, in spite of his own tumultuous past.

I must admit, she had me at a parallel Shanghai. Well done, Emily, and I’m looking forward to announcing that your new agent has sold your book!

Back to the matter at hand. Have you been enjoying our foray into the niggling little manuscript elements that tend to irritate professional readers? We writing gurus tend to focus upon larger submission problems, the type of thing that might well get requested materials rejected on the spot. However, it doesn’t always take a single big mistake to trigger rejection: a series of tiny missteps can work just as well.

Especially if, like the gaffes I’ve been discussing in this series, they pop up so often in manuscripts that Millicent the agency screener wants to scream. Or at any rate, to read less charitably. Since the faux pas in this series are exceedingly common, the very sight of one of them — or, more commonly, many of them; like wolves, manuscript gaffes often travel in packs — might well be the final straw that sends her reaching for the form-letter rejection and shouting, “Next!”

Seem like an over-reaction? Not if it’s the 30th submission Millicent has seen in the last two hours that missteps within the same footprint. As much as each of us writers likes to think of our prose stylings as unique, certain catchphrases, clichés, and descriptive phrases turn up in almost everybody’s early drafts. So much so that it’s a shame, really, that so few aspiring writers have an opportunity to read other writer’s submissions; there’s nothing like reading the same phrase 75 times in a day to make one never want to read — or write — it again.

Why is that a problem in an otherwise well-written narrative? An over-reliance upon these phrases can water down individual authorial voice until it is practically inaudible.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take another gander at what the pervasive reliance upon clichés and overused actions looks like in action. To render the example even more true to life, I’ll toss in a few other common gaffes as well. See if you can spot them.

“Yeah? I could care less.” Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes, she held up a finger at him. “Can you hold on a sec? I have to take this call.”

Pablo sighed, but he nodded. What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. His time was valuable; he had things to do, places to go, people to meet.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently and drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the clock. “I’ve got to get going.”

She nodded her head absently. Her loyal staff exchanged glances and smiled.

Resigned, he took a seat, shaking his head ruefully. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought.

Now, there’s nothing technically wrong with any of these sentences, right? Admittedly, nodded her head and waved his hand are logically redundant, as nodding and waving generally involve the use of the head and the hand, respectively, but otherwise, there’s nothing that would necessarily strike an everyday reader as poorly written. It’s clear enough what’s going on, merely predicable and not that exciting.

It takes more than clarity to impress a professional reader, however. As we’ve seen in the last couple of posts, though, the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living — such as our old pals, Millicent the hardworking agency screener, Maury the literature-loving editorial assistant, and Mehitabel, the dedicated volunteer contest judge — read a whole lot more closely than other people. They also tend to make up their minds far more rapidly than other readers about whether a text has merit: if the first line on the page is well-written, they will move on to the second; if the second passes muster, then it’s on to the third. And so forth until either the story draws them in completely or they have already invested so much time in reading the manuscript that they start to look for reasons to accept it, rather than excuses to reject it.

Even if our example above had fallen late in a manuscript, it’s hard to imagine Millicent’s being able to come up with many reasons to be pleased. It’s stuffed to the gills with common actions and hackneyed phrases. None of them sufficient to trigger a “Next!” on its own, perhaps, but cumulatively, they smother the scene.

At minimum, they are distractions. Instead of being able to concentrate on the story or the characters, Millicent’s psyche is busy snapping out annoyed commentary. Let’s eavesdrop on her thoughts.

“Yeah? I could care less.” {She means she couldn’t care less, and this is a cliché.} Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes {Overused action.}, she held up a finger at him {Whose finger — her maid’s? Albert Einstein’s? A time-traveler from the year 4075? If it’s her finger, why not just say so?}. “Can you hold on a sec? {Stock phrase.} I have to take this call.” {And another.}

Pablo sighed {Overused action.}, but he nodded. {Ditto.} What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. {Not a bad thought, but in the passive voice.}His time was valuable {Cliché.}; he had things to do {Cliché.}, places to go, people to meet. {And the third time’s a charm.}

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently {One of the two standard actions to indicate impatience}, and drumming his fingers {And here’s the other.}, on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. {Overused action — and what would he be waving, other than his hand?}, “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the grandfather clock. {A weak way to indicate that it’s in the room},”I’ve got to get going.” {Stock phrase.},

She nodded her head {As opposed to, say, nodding her Achilles tendon.} absently. Her loyal staff exchanged glances {Overused action.} and smiled. {And another. And heaven forfend that the narrative should not make me guess what the content of the thoughts these completely generic actions conveyed were…}

Resigned, he took a seat {Stock phrasing}, shaking his head {Overused action.} ruefully. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought. {Kind of clever, but expressed in the passive voice.}

Ouch. Especially that comment in paragraph 3 about gesturing toward the grandfather clock being a weak way to show the reader that such an object is in the room. This is an editor-annoying tactic from way back: much as an inexperienced actor will point to physical objects on the set as he names them, writers new to the game will often depict their characters gesturing toward people or items in mid-dialogue.

Why is that problematic? Well, unless the object or person magically appeared second before the description, it’s seldom the most graceful way to work the information into the narrative. Nor is it particularly realistic. Generally speaking, people notice large objects when they first spot them, not at some undefined point later on.

Yet, as Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel would be only to happy to tell you, scenes are often written as though even the most monumental portions of the scenery came panting up to the characters at the last possible moment, hastily flinging themselves into position just in time for a speaker to notice them. On the page, this phenomenon tends to look a little something like this:

“But Gisèle,” Trevor whined, “we can’t turn back now. We’re almost there.”

She tossed her tempestuous red curls. “Where is there?”

He pointed to the Empire State Building, rising up out of the concrete before them. “Right here.”

Whoa — where did that gigantic edifice come from? Did Trevor tap the sidewalk with a magic wand while the reader wasn’t looking? Did he grow it from enchanted public monument beans?

Or — and this is what Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel will simply assume is the case — did it simply not occur to the writer to show the building to the reader before it was absolutely necessary to the conversation to do so? Like, say, when it would have first come into view from the characters’ perspectives?

What might that look like on the page? Glad you asked. While I’m at it, I’m going to excise all of that long, red hair — buy Millicent a drink sometime and ask her to fill you in on just how high a percentage of novel heroines in submissions are tossing around long red or blonde hair.

Gisèle’s four-inch heels were making each block seem like a marathon course. Was that the Empire State Building she saw looming ahead, or was she beginning to hallucinate?

She stopped dead before a seedy sidewalk café. The slanted writing on the chalkboard out front implied that the writer had lost the will to live in the middle of describing the day’s specials. “I have to stop. Let’s have some coffee.”

“But Gisèle,” Trevor whined, “we’re almost there.”

See how much more natural that is? Not to mention establishing a better sense of place. In fact, I’m going to state this as a general narrative axiom: if it’s important to the scene that an object is in the general vicinity, why not just show it to the reader directly, rather than refer to it obliquely?

Actually, Millicent and Co. would have a pretty good idea why the writer didn’t choose to do that in the first version: like so many other fledgling writers, Trevor’s creator decided to have a character gesture at something big and obvious as an excuse to add a sentence indicating who was speaking. In today’s original example, if you’ll recall, the writer just went all-out and incorporated the object-identifying action into the tag line.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently and drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the clock. “I’ve got to get going.”

If the reader already knows that the clock is in the room, that clumsy gesture becomes completely unnecessary. Actually, so does the tag line.

The gold-faced grandfather clock chimed six times. Fifteen minutes later, when it emitted a single ping, he was still drawing abstract shapes on the marble tabletop with his fingertip. “Babs? I’ve got to get going.”

Makes the point, doesn’t it, and in many fewer lines? This draft also helps establish the opulence of Babette’s home through the use of specific descriptive details: the gold on the clock, the marble on the table.

Relieved that our micro-revision is over? “Whew,” I hear some of you first draft-huggers murmuring, ” that was a whole lot of work for very few lines of dialogue. Still, I’m glad to know what the worst of Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel’s wrath looks like.”

The worst, you say? Au contraire, revision-eschewers. Our original example above didn’t even come close to hitting the top of Millicent’s annoyance meter.

Just think of how much less she would have liked this excerpt had all of it been written in the passive voice, for instance, or, as is fairly common, if those overused actions had been happening closer together. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the sight of the former, but I can’t resist treating you to a sample of the latter. While I’m at it, I’m going to toss in some gratuitous word repetition and stir.

The phone rang. Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, she held up a finger at him. “Can you hold on a sec? I have to take this call. Won’t take a second.”

What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. Pablo sighed, arching an eyebrow at her rudeness, but he nodded, shrugging, to indicate that he was willing to hold on while she took the call.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently, drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop, glancing repeatedly at his watch, and humming the theme to The Bridge over the River Kwai to pass the time. Still no sign that she was getting off the phone anytime soon.

Sighing, he waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered.

She nodded absently, arching her brows at him. “Yes?”

He resisted an urge to roll his eyes. He glanced at his watch, tapping its face with his finger as he grimaced. “I’ve got to get going.”

Her brow furrowed, but she nodded her head absently and shrugged. Her loyal staff exchanged glances, rolling their eyes at one another as they smiled at his discomfiture.

Resigned, he pulled up a chair, took a seat, and sat down, shaking his head ruefully and rolling his eyes. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought.

Quite a bit more annoying, if I do say so myself. A good two-thirds of that verbiage could go, with no cost to the reader’s sense of what is going on.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that if any of us saw a real-life Babette or Pablo engage in so much simultaneous eye-rolling, eyebrow-wiggling, head-bouncing, shoulder-shrugging, and glancing pointedly at things, we’d assume that the poor soul was suffering from a severe neurological disorder. In the quotidian world, most people don’t stop their interactions dead while they grimace and gesticulate.

To be fair, infecting the characters with St. Vitus’ dance was probably not the writer’s intent here. Most aspiring writers who depict such nervous-faced and (-torsoed) characters are simply trying to convey emotion non-verbally. But by piling on so many tics and gestures — ones that sometimes replicate the dialogue, rather than adding to it — the seemingly natural actions come across as unnatural levels of activity.

Which is the most serious problem here, right? Over-writing, over-explaining, and word and phrase redundancy are secondary irritants in this version. The primary problem is all of that frenetic movement. This is a scene about waiting, yet it’s hard to imagine more physical activity had all of the dialogue been conveyed with semaphore flags. Or via interpretive dance.

Not seeing the problem — or, more likely, are you so distracted by the hackneyed phrasing and word repetition that it’s hard to focus upon it? Millicent and her ilk would sympathize. Here’s that same passage again, winnowed down to just the actual movements.

The phone rang. Babette snatched the phone. She rolled her eyes. She shook her head. She held up a finger.

Pablo sighed. He arched an eyebrow. He nodded. He shrugged.

He tapped his foot impatiently (and continuously). He drummed his fingers on the table. He glanced repeatedly at his watch. He hummed.

He sighed. He waved. He whispered.

She nodded (immediately before saying, “Yes,” a bit of redundancy bound to annoy our Millie). She arched her brows.

He glanced at his watch. He tapped its face. He grimaced.

She furrowed her brow. She nodded. She shrugged. Her staff exchanged glances. They rolled their eyes. They smiled.

He pulled up a chair. He took a seat. He sat down. He shook his head. He rolled his eyes.

Quite a lot of activity for an ostensibly quiet scene, isn’t it? Most of these actions occur more than once, too. Yet all by themselves, how much of the core conflict of this scene do these actions actually demonstrate?

Not very much. Nor do these actions reveal much about Babette and Pablo’s personalities — as the fact that they both do some of the same things implies, these activities are not unusual. They appear in the text simply because they are things that a real person might do in this situation. Apparently, the writer is laboring under the pervasive misconception that the goal of an interactive scene is to list everything that the characters did, not to limit the narration and dialogue to only what will advance the plot, reveal character, or add conflict.

In fact, I can easily conceive of a version of this scene that contained none of these actions, and yet remained true to the original spirit of the exchange. Perhaps if I imagine it hard enough, it will appear on the screen below.

Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” After a moment’s hard listening, she mouthed at Pablo: “Don’t move.”

What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. Irritably, he grabbed a random book from the leather-bound many gracing the glassed-in shelves: Tolstoy. The gold-faced grandfather clock chimed the hour, then the quarter hour.

Still no sign that she was getting off the phone anytime soon. Unless he was planning on finishing War and Peace, he needed to assert himself. “Babs?” he whispered. “I’ve got to get going.”

She tossed him a smile over her shoulder without interrupting her conversation. The parlormaid refilled his teacup, in recompense.

Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had been accustomed to think. He tried to immerse himself in the tribulations of the Russian nobility.

Gets the job done, doesn’t it? Of course, this is only one of endless possibilities — which only underscores Millicent’s essential objection to hackneyed phrasing and the overuse of a few everyday actions. It’s not merely that seeing the same actions and phrasing over and over again across many, many manuscript pages is rather boring. She’s also likely to be disappointed that the writer is not embracing the opportunity to use that valuable page space to demonstrate how his writing style, eye for telling details, and storytelling skills are different from every other writer’s who might care to submit to her boss.

Seriously, we professional readers are saddened by the sight of an original voice diluted by the mundane. Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, genuinely want to fall in love with a new writer’s voice, characters, and story, so when yet another manuscript appears on her desk where the writer’s voice is peppered with stock phrases, the characters do and say things that don’t demonstrate to the reader who they are, and dialogue and activity that appear simply because someone might conceivably say or do those things in that situation.

It’s the writer’s job not only to depict the world of the book believably, but enjoyably for the reader. Surprising the pros with original phrasing, unpredictable dialogue, and an appropriate level of activity for each scene is a far better means of achieving those laudable goals than just envisioning an interaction like a movie and providing a list of each motion, sound, and word the audience might see.

A simple waiting scene doesn’t need to be War and Peace, you know. As Mark Twain pointed out, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Be selective, and show Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel how your voice and worldview are unique.

They are, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVII: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this 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 plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull 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.

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

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 or end up crushing the last two or three into a single sentence at the bottom of the page, 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?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses.

I really do mean it this time, honest. Tune in tomorrow, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XI: an all-time high for the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index, or, time to haul out those highlighting pens again!

Is everybody comfortable? Would you like to grab yourself a cup of tea, a cookie or two, perhaps a nice sandwich? Before we resume our ongoing discussion of synopsis troubleshooting, I need to talk to you about something serious, so you might want to have sustenance readily to hand, to fortify you.

Before any of you start to panic, let me hasten to add: please note that I didn’t send you to the liquor cabinet to pour yourself a stiff one, or the medicine cabinet to dig out your heart medication. The last thing I want to do is to add to the general air of gloom pervading pretty much every source of information in the continental U.S. at the moment, but I’d like to put a bug or two in your ear — who ever came up with that revolting expression, I wonder, and why did anyone think to perpetuate it? — about what hard economic times tend to do to the publishing industry.

Don’t worry, though: I come not to bury the industry, but to praise it, at least indirectly.

As pretty much everyone who has heard a Manhattan-based agent or editor speak within the last couple of years is already aware, the mainstream publishers have been rather nervous about the economy for quite some time now. Rumor has it that it’s rendered some already risk-averse people even more risk-averse. What does that mean translated out of economic-speak? It’s harder than ever to convince an editorial committee to take a chance on an unusual book — or an untried author.

Not that it’s ever been a particularly easy sell, of course. But one does hear a great deal of sighing these days, accompanied by exclamations of, “Oh, I could have sold that five years ago.”

What’s the rationale behind this increased difficulty, you ask? Well, when the average Joe (he of the much-vaunted six-pack, presumably) faces economic uncertainty — or, for that matter, the certainty of a lost job — he tends to slow his purchase of non-necessities. Apparently, to those benighted souls not hopelessly enslaved to the power of the written word, books fall into the non-essential category.

I know; weird. But there’s no accounting for taste.

What does sell well to ol’ Joe in uncertain times? In the U.S., peanut butter and jelly, cereal, ramen, and other inexpensive comfort foods. In fact, PB & J sales are such a good indicator of consumers’ feelings about the economy that trend-watchers keep an eye on ‘em.

Seriously — it’s called the Peanut Butter Index. (One also hears about it as the PB&J Index, the Oreo Index, or the Mac & Cheese Index, but these terms all refer to the same basic trend.) It may sound a bit silly, but I assure you, folks in the publishing industry take it very seriously: when the PBI is high, the prevailing wisdom goes, new book sales tend to be low.

Library card usage, interestingly, tends to rise. (Hey, readers are smart. And good sandwich-makers, apparently.)

What does a high PBI mean for the average aspiring writer, you ask? Well, typically, the difficulty of landing an agent increases, especially for writers of books that do not easily fit into the traditional big-sales categories. This has absolutely nothing to do with anyone concerned wanting to be mean to the aspiring: agents, bless their ever-picky hearts, don’t like to take on books that they aren’t relatively certain they can sell in the current literary market.

The second reason may surprise you a little: submissions to agencies and publishing houses have historically rises fairly dramatically in tough economic times. (You didn’t think the Great Depression’s literary richness was a coincidence, did you?)

Why? Well, as you may have noticed in chatting at cocktail parties with people who say they want to write but produce a million and twelve reasons why they haven’t been able to finish a book/screenplay/that e-mail they’ve been meaning to respond to for months, authorship is not an uncommon Plan B for people who don’t write habitually. And, let’s face it, as hobbies go, writing is a relatively inexpensive one, at least until one starts to query and submit.

Human nature in all of its hopeful glory: when ambient circumstances block the road leading toward one dream, the intrepid soul often seeks out another. Kind of sweet, isn’t it?

Yes, but it can also be problematic for the habitual writer, because I can tell you now, in the months to come, agencies and small publishers are going to see an upsurge in queries and submissions. Which means, unfortunately, that Millicent the agency screener is almost certainly going to find even higher piles of reading material on her desk.

Those of you who have been visiting Author! Author! for a while are probably already cringing, aren’t you? Let’s let the whole class in on why: when Millicent has more to read, she must perforce scan each query and/or submission faster. Her rejection rates may be expected to rise accordingly.

Why? Time, my dears, time. It’s not as though time expands when she has more to read each day — or as if her agency is likely to increase the number of writers it intends to sign this year just because the absolute number of queries rises.

I’m telling you this not to depress you — honest! — but so that you may adjust your expectations and plans accordingly. In the months to come, it’s probably reasonable to expect Millicent’s critical eye to be just a little sharper than normal, her boss to be just a little less eager to fall in love with a new author, and turn-around times in general to be just a little bit lengthier.

None of which will have anything to do with you personally, the quality of your manuscript, or your potential as a writer. Remind yourself of that early and often, please. I would also strenuously suggest that those of you who were considering sending out a raft of queries anytime in the near future (or have been tinkering with a promised submission in an effort to get it perfect) to plan on mailing them out sooner rather than later.

I know — it may seem like poor timing to submit during a sharp stock market decline, but if the PBI remains high for the rest of the year, the always heavy post-New Year query and submission avalanche will probably be of epic proportions. (It certainly was last year.) Not to send you into a flurry of panic, but if you could manage to get those queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’ll probably be even better off. The publishing industry tends to slow to a crawl during the winter holidays, anyway, so why not beat the proverbial Christmas rush?

There’s something else you can do to improve your chances of being one of the lucky few who will manage to get their books published within the next couple of years: even in the face of grim economic news, don’t stop buying books in your book category.

Ideally, books that share some significant characteristics with what you write so well. Written by first-time authors, if you can manage it, or at least penned by those who are still walking amongst the living. And no, checking them out from the library will not do, alas.

This advice may sound flippant, but listen: agents and editors are smart, too; they keep a close eye on trends. We’ve also seen how even a single bestseller in a previously lax category can suddenly send the pros scrambling to find similar manuscripts — think about what COLD MOUNTAIN did for historical fiction, for instance, or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY for chick lit.

By the same token, when new sales decline in any book category, everyone who writes that type of book suffers.

It’s sort of a domino effect. When a certain type of book stops selling well — or never sold well in the first place — denizens of publishing houses start muttering amongst themselves, “Well, I guess, I won’t be acquiring any more of those books anytime soon.”

When editors begin so muttering, agents who make their livings by selling that sort of book turn pale — and tell their Millicents that they’re really not looking to pick up clients in that category just now. And guess what that does to her rejection rates?

What’s the best way to change their collective minds about how marketable a particular book category is? Increasing sales in it, that’s how. Industry types tend to be very sensitive to even minor upsurges in sales.

So I repeat: this would be a very, very good time to continue — or get into — the habit of purchasing the kind of book that you write, especially books published within the last 5 years (the industry’s definition of the current market). Think of it as market research, a way to keep up with what the industry is interested in seeing these days. Heck, I know many authors who routinely claim buying competitors’ books as income tax deductions — although I since neither they nor I are tax experts, you should talk to someone who is familiar with taxes for artists before you start filling out those forms.

I hear some incredulous huffing out there. “Yeah, right,” some cynics will sneer. “My buying a single book is going to reverse a major economic trend. While I’m at it, I think I’ll juggle the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

In a way, you’re right, oh cynics: naturally, no single book sale will alter conditions for aspiring writers everywhere. But if you get into the habit of buying books in your chosen category and encourage all of your kith and kin to do the same, it’s a start. If aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world embraced the same laudable practice, editorial minds could indeed be changed — and where editors’ minds go, good agents’ are never slow to follow.

Yes, even when the PBI is at an all-time high.

Okay, that’s enough economic theory for one day; let’s get back to the business at hand, learning how to craft a winning synopsis.

Mirabile dictu, yesterday’s nagging feeling that I was about to produce a checklist of common synopsis mistakes to avoid was 100% accurate. Kind of predictable, actually, as I am addicted to such lists and synopses vary so much that there honestly is no single reliable formula for producing the perfect one. But you can steer clear of the problems agents and their screeners see every day, right?

Let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. While we’re at it, let’s be even more optimistic and further assume that you have launched upon the synopsis-creating process long enough before you need one that you have time for an editing phase.

So where should you start? Print out your synopsis, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? And why does that question make my long-time readers chuckle?

I freely admit it: this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is infinitely easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text, and it will make rhythm problems leap off the page at you.

Please don’t kid yourself that you can approximate the hard-copy reading experience from just reading your synopsis out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text roughly 70% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think for an instant that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity — it’s the one with a word missing here or there.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words, ungraceful phrases, and stuff that you don’t quite remember why you wanted to include in the first place, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

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

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Why? Well, if you’ve been following Synopsispalooza, you should be chanting the reason in your sleep by now, but allow me to repeat it: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are.

Which means what, readers who have been following this series? Chant it with me now: you need to make sure it demonstrates clearly that you have writing talent.

Not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because in these days of steeply-rising PBI, agents and editors will be hearing from tens of thousands of people who have done that, but that you have a gift with words and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line or image of the book does not make a guest appearance in the synopsis, whyever not?

(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?

This is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it holds up as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.

If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap, that is.

(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?

This is where most synopses stumble, frankly, because it is hard for a writer to notice about his own work: many synopses summarize plot or argument adequately, but in the rush to fit everything in, the telling becomes a bit dry. The goal here is not merely to provide a laundry list of major plot points, after all, but to give an overview of the dramatic arc of the book.

And yes, that is significantly harder to pull off in a 1-page synopsis than a 5-page one. Here’s a revision strategy that will work with either.

(a) Hand your synopsis to someone who has NOT been around you while you have been writing the book (trust me, you’ve been talking about your plot or argument, if only in your sleep). Ask her to read it over a couple of times.

(b) Chat with her about something else entirely for half an hour.

(c) Ask her to tell you the plot of the book — WITHOUT looking at the synopsis again. Don’t comment while she does it.

(d) Make notes on the points that fell out of her account.

(e) After you have thanked this kind soul profusely and sent her on her way, glowing with virtue, sit down with the hard copy and highlight the missed points on the synopsis pages.

(f) Read through the synopsis, omitting the highlighted bits: does the story hold together without them?

If so, are those bits really necessary?

(g) If the storyline suffers from the omissions, go back over the individual sentences that depict those plot points. Are those sentences representative of your best writing?

9 times out of 10, they won’t be. Chances are, your reader found these points unmemorable because they were summarized, rather than enlivened with specific details — or because they concerned subplots that aren’t strictly necessary to understanding the central storyline.

Does all of that pitiful whimpering out there in the ether indicate that some of you are reluctant to treat your synopsis with the respect due to all of your writing? “But Anne,” some whimperers point out, “my story IS my plot. How can I cut any of it from the synopsis?”

May I suggest that perhaps you are focusing on the trees, rather than the forest? Usually, when hopeful synopsizers don’t think they can trim their account, they’re trying to cram too much of the plot into just a couple of pages. Obviously, you’re going to want to include the major plot twists, but a this happened, then this happened, then that happened… account is less interesting to Millicent than, well, just being told the story. Not every detail is relevant to the central story, is it?

So what is the central story of your book? Try telling that in your synopsis, rather than including the various subplots. Even better…

(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?

You wouldn’t believe — at least, I hope you’re far, far too good a storyteller to believe it readily — what a high percentage of the fiction synopses Millicent sees consist simply of X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened. Yes, a synopsis is short, but this is not the most effective way to tell even a truncated story, is it?

Fortunately, to a professional eye, there are a couple of pretty good structural indicators that a synopsis has fallen into laundry-list mode. Once again, your trusty highlighting pen is your friend here.

(a) Firmly grasp said highlighter.

(b) Go through the synopsis and mark every use of the word AND and THEN.

(c) While you’re at is, mark every sentence written in the passive voice.

(d) After you’ve finished, revisit each marked sentence with an eye to revision. Again, do those sentences represent your best writing — or are they just laundry lists of happenings, tossed together in a hasty attempt to get through the most important plot points as quickly as humanly possible?

Why hunt for AND, THEN, and the passive voice in particular? All of these phenomena tend to be symptomatic of rushed storytelling.

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that a writer trying to crush an 80,000 word story or argument into three pages might conceivably feel a mite rushed. But trust me on this one: that is not the primary impression you want to give an agency screener.

Another good indicator of a tendency toward laundry-listing is…

(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?

Including a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, is an extremely common first novel phenomenon. Mentioning too many of them in a synopsis is another.

Why is a too-large cast problematic? Well, lest we forget, Millicent tends to scan synopses awfully darned quickly — that’s why it’s a good idea to capitalize each character’s name the first time it appears in the synopsis, right? If too many character names show up too close together in the synopsis, she’s not necessarily going to keep all of them straight in her mind.

Don’t be too hard on her about this, please: remember, she won’t just have your 27 characters tumbling about in her head, but also the 15 characters in the synopsis she read immediately before yours, the 38 from the one before that, and the 183 from that novel she was scanning on the subway.

She’s a Tolstoy fan, apparently.

How many is too many, you ask? The hand-the-pages-to-a-relative-stranger trick is dandy for determining this.

(a) Ask a kind soul to read the synopsis. Ideally, someone who had not previously read a syllable of your writing, but has at some point in the recent past purchased and read a similar book.

(b) Chat about other things for ten minutes.

(c) Have him tell the story back to you. Unless your characters’ names are unusually wacky, chances are good that the teller will remember only the names that are most active in the plot.

If you’re too shy or too rushed to attempt this test, trot out your highlighter pens and get to work on a fresh copy of your synopsis.

(a) Mark all of the names the first time they appear in the synopsis. This should be easy, in theory, if you have embraced the convention of presenting each character’s name in all caps (MARTA, 32) the first time around, to alert a skimming Millicent to the advent of a new character.

(b) Arrange the pages along a table, countertop, or even along the floor, so you may simultaneously see each page in its entirety.

(c) Go do something else for twenty minutes. Move the laundry from the washer to the dryer, for instance, or take a nice, brisk walk around the block.

You spend too much time sitting in front of your computer screen, you know. I worry about you.

(d) When you return, stand a couple of feet away from the pages, admiring the proportion of highlighted to non-highlighted text.

In most professional synopses, the highlighting will be heaviest in the first couple of paragraphs, with occasional swipes every paragraph or two later on. If, on the other hand, your pages look as though they fell into an unusually vivid inkwell, you might want to consider reducing the number of characters you mention.

More of the synopsis-troubleshooting checklist follows next time, of course. Keep munching those PB&Js, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part IV: sins of excess, prose that flushes purple (or at least mauve), and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities

St Therese at Albi 2St Therese at Albi 3

I think that revisiting some of our well-beloved (and much-hated) list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 is being very fruitful, but it’s a mite depressing, isn’t it? I’m re-posting only selected ones, moving through the dialogue-relevant ones, as swiftly as I can, but still, it feels a bit like wading through mud. Thick mud, the kind that doesn’t come off easily in the wash.

Not to nag, but I suspect it feels that way in part because folks have been chiming in less than usual in the comments. That could mean one of three things: you don’t have anything to say, you’re all off madly pulling together queries and submissions in anticipation of the annual Return of the Literary to New York-based agencies and publishing houses after Labor Day , or even this limited dip back into the dreaded rejection list has stunned and shocked half of you into a coma.

Present-day Anne here: the comments on this post the first time I ran it indicated that the coma option was the most popular response, followed closely by manuscript-shredding despair. As honest and incisive reader Reba pointed out:

Having spent the afternoon reading this entire series, I am struggling to not permanently trunk everything I’ve ever written. Fortunately, that whinging reaction triggered my stubborn streak and I have come to accept that what is necessary is a good, hard look at what I’ve written and, I shudder to say, an enormous amount of actual WORK before I subject the poor Millicents of the world to my prose.

I find this attitude very healthy, truth be known. Naturally, it’s annoying to hear that professional standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit higher — as well as quite a bit more specific — than the average aspiring writer has been lead to believe, or even than what that same writer may have seen done in books published ten years ago or by already-established authors. Those of you who have poured your heart, time, and intellect into producing a manuscript have every right to find that news irritating. Have a good, old-fashioned tantrum about it, then do what Reba did: take a critical look at your own work and move on.

Why am I bringing this up just before we launch into today’s blast from the archived past, you ask nervously? Well, I’m hoping to be winding up out trip down memory lane fairly soon — before Labor Day, we’ve got contest-winning first pages to discuss at length and a truly exciting guest blog (more on that later). In this interval, I also hope many of you are busily preparing your entries for the Author! Author!/Hard Time Words Across the Water literary contest; deadline for entries is midnight (in whatever time zone you happen to be occupying) on September 6.

Why the rush to get through all of that before Labor Day? Well, that’s when the NYC publishing world’s annual exodus ends. While it might be a bit much to expect dancing in the streets, it will once again make sense to send queries and submissions in Manhattanite agents’ general direction.

Not entirely coincidentally, I like to mark the occasion with an intense discussion of what does and does not make a good query letter. Heck, we’re close enough to this exciting time of the year that I have punched up today’s revisited post, to alter its original January-specific submission advice to some that’s more applicable to this time of year.

So why are we sitting around gabbing? We have a lot to do this hot August evening. As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

One caveat about the post to come: although some of the points below are not directly related to the construction and the revision of dialogue per se, all of them could be applied to dialogue scenes. In their rush toward reproducing dialogue realistically, aspiring writers often overlook opportunities to use dialogue for character development. But shouldn’t interesting characters say interesting things?

Worth pondering, at least. Enjoy!

Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to prep those queries and long-requested submissions with an eye to popping those materials into the mail in a couple of weeks? If so, good thinking: early to mid-September is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably planning to labor toward that laudable goal during the upcoming (and aptly-named) Labor Day weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the just-back-from-vacation backlog.

Why avoid weekend e-submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

So tell me: if you were she, would you be more or less likely than usual to shout “Next!” over the first submission or query that happened to run afoul of one of your pet peeves?

On a not entirely unrelated note, shall we get on with the many, many reasons Millicent is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can continue prepping to send out those submissions? As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read-prior-to-rejection, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

Why might that in and of itself raise a raise flag for Millicent? Well, as we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all. Rather ironic, considering that same agent may well ask the producer of that 1-in-10,000 camera-ready manuscript for some fairly hefty revisions after signing her, but hey, the pros reason, an aspiring writer capable of producing a clean, compelling draft might reasonably be expected to produce a clean, compelling revision, too.

The reverse expectation applies as well, of course — and that can be most unfortunate for a Frankenstein manuscript that needs only one more solid revision pass to be market-ready. While the writer might well ( and with good reason) regard such a manuscript as close enough to perfect that it’s worth starting to submit, it can be pretty hard for a swiftly-scanning Millicent to differentiate between a voice that’s uneven because the writer was in a hurry to get it out the door and a voice that’s uneven because the writer has not found the proper narrative voice for the book yet.

Why might that difficulty be problematic for a submitter? Because Millicent’s boss would have to invest a great deal more time and energy in giving guidance to the writer still experimenting with voice; by contrast, all the agent would have to do for the writer who just hasn’t ironed out the kinks yet is make a few generalized revision requests. By the same token, when faced with writing that’s not polished, our Millie is left to guess whether the writer just hasn’t had a chance to go back and buff it up a bit (and thus might be relied upon to do so without much coaching) or if — heaven forfend — the writer simply isn’t experienced enough to be able to tell which sentences flow well and which do not.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up will often find itself in the rejection pile. Millicent does not want to risk running into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “Here’s one that you’ll really like — but fair warning, the writer doesn’t seem to realize that the book doesn’t start until page 17. You don’t mind explaining that to her, do you?”

Chances are that he will mind. Quite a lot, actually.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have been tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect to time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens, say, mid-argument.

The same principle applies to a dialogue scene that dwells on the same argumentative point for too long — or, even more common, consists entirely of people being polite and pleasant to one another. Remember, the point of good dialogue is not to hold a tape recorder up to actual speech; it’s a tool to show interpersonal conflict, develop character, and move the plot along.

What should a reviser do when confronted with dialogue that does none of these things? Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it warms up my editing shears wonderfully to imagine Millicent muttering, “Get ON with it!”

I know; it’s limiting to have to think in these terms. But being aware of the pacing imperative prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print — and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Yes, even to make it through dialogue scenes. When a reader sees as much dialogue as our Millie does, it’s genuinely rare that a character says something that simultaneously makes sense for the ongoing scene, adds to character development, AND surprises her.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Especially on page 1.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially prolix first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

Again, in case you’re wondering: that’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format

If you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right. If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly

Actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter or title page.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.

(4) Consider editing for length.

If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

Like taking too long to come to the point, #59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the uncharitable conclusion screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question. What is that conclusion, you ask? The writer doesn’t think this story or these characters are interesting enough to retain a reader’s attention, and thus relies on punctuation and/or writing tricks to compensate.

Hey, I warned you that it was uncharitable.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish. In much the same way that an insecure comedy writer will depict characters rocking with laughter in order to convey that a situation or speaker is supposed to be funny, a barrage of exclamation points reads like an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation.

Since these particular prejudices are shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class. Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (professional readers often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft, because — wait for it — such writers are more time-consuming clients.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

That made some of you dialogue-revisers sit up and take notice, didn’t it? Generally speaking, exclamation points are far more comfortable in dialogue than in narrative paragraphs — but even then, take care not to go overboard. Punctuation is not really designed to take the place of description, after all; if a character is excited, there are a million ways to show it over and above simultaneously hitting the SHIFT and 1 keys.

If you suspect that your dialogue is exclamation point-heavy, try this experiment: select a chapter and circle all of the exclamation points. Then pick up a highlighting pen (you knew I wouldn’t let you keep ‘em in the drawer for long, didn’t you?) and mark every non-dialogue sentence that ends in one of the pesky things. Take another color and highlight every piece of dialogue spoken by the protagonist that ends in an exclamation point. Using different colors for each speaker, repeat.

Now flip back through the chapter. What color predominates? How many pages between highlighting? How many paragraphs? How many lines?

Once you have identified patterns, you can begin to make strategic choices. If you find, for instance, that exclamation points tend to congregate in scenes between particular characters, ask yourself: am I using punctuation as a substitute for character or relationship development here? If you are using the exclamation points primarily for younger characters (a rather common unconscious authorial choice, by the way), are there speech patterns or vocabulary choices that would make the same point? What would happen if you picked the most exclamation point-using character, and removed the exclamation points from other characters’ speech, to make the emphasis a character trait?

And so forth. There is no formula for how much exclamation point use is too much, but as with semicolons, norms vary from book category to book category. For most adult fiction and memoir, though, you should seriously consider removing most or all of the exclamation points from narrative sentences.

While over-use of exclamation points is often a mark of inexperience, #61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading. An amazingly high percentage of first pages are feature narration positively peppered with as if, as though, and our old friend like. While all of these analogy-introducers are perfectly acceptable in moderation, a too-heavy reliance upon them is one of the classic birthmarks of a first manuscript.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic scene considerably — and can weigh down an opening so much that it can’t get off the ground. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail of streets that is Nob Hill as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s apartment, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes. Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole.

There are far too many stock phrases to list here, of course, but the agents on the panel specifically singled out She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of those see storms. However, that doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers rolling their eyes, protagonists sighing as the sole indicator of disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more another time) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, it’s not all that uncommon for any given agent or editor to perceive him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell my work as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They simply don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails just after Labor Day.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision…

speechgraphic

“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

What a week, campers! Again, I’ll spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say that I shall probably soon be writing comic scenes about medical practitioners who can’t remember which leg is the injured one (hint: could it be the one encased from ankle to hipbone in a brace?), physical therapists incapable of describing any of the activities of the human body without resorting to impenetrable medical jargon, and the intricacies of sweeping out of a treatment room with dignity while on crutches. Adding to the hilarity: the physical therapy facility did not have ADA-compliant doors, so leaving (or coming in, for that matter) required yanking open two thirty-pound glass doors.

How fortunate that the facility never had any visitors with leg or arm problems, eh?

Speaking of characters who evidently have trouble expressing themselves, I’m going to spend the next few days re-running dialogue-related posts from my extremely popular 2009 series on agency screeners’ pet peeves, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk. Actually, I’m going to run two today, albeit in a tricky manner: to save all of you brave and intrepid souls who worked through our recent Frankenstein manuscript series a bit of repetition, I’m smashing the relevant (and non-repetitive) bits together into great, big, Friday-worthy post.

That’s appropriate for Frankenstein manuscript-hardened readers, isn’t it? Enjoy!

I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons on the Idol first-page rejection list related to dialogue. (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.)

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1, plucked from the Idol list:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking a few days ago about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling of rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. (Can you tell that I would really, really like it if any of you who happened to miss that earlier discussion chose to go back and read it?)

However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this is legitimate to discuss as a dialogue problem. While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing.

And that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s just not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, perhaps there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story to follow.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: that’s quite a few questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing while she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context.

But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: {book released 5+ years ago} began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation. In the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall I pause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself, when that tends to annoy Millicent on page 1, too?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none.

Not one iota. It is devoid of any scintilla of character development. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 to find out whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines? Or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count. There is no such thing as a throw-away line on page 1 of a submission.

So let your dialogue reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

Opening dialogue that lives up to that hope is rarer than you might think. Don’t believe me? May I remind you that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol first-page rejection reasons were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect?

Be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, some agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly standard objection to dialogue scenes. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a relatively average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed, irritated and annoyed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most professional readers this kind of tag line use just seems repetitive — or, to phrase it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit more by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo.

Those two telling details made you reconsider your view of Joanna’s tardiness, didn’t they? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation. Make every line of dialogue count, campers, and keep up the good work!

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

American Splendor poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My date came down with the flu.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“Is it something we need to worry about?”

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, you get the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north! Way to combine those provinces and keep them together!

At the risk of sounding trite, my most memorable Canadian experience actually was Mountie-related. I was leaving an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts in a museum in Victoria, I thought the sudden transition to bright sunlight had done something terrible to my eyes: everywhere I looked, I saw blaring red. Every square foot of public space was filled with Mounties in uniform — scarlet jacket, shiny black boots, the works — chatting with friends and relatives. Hundreds, at least, a veritable red sea.

The sight was, I need hardly say, staggering. I felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a recruitment poster.

Back to business. In the roughly 24 hours since I wrote my last post on name selection, I have sensed a certain amount of reader bewilderment. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) At least a few hands, I suspect, are still raised from Wednesday. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I have been writing all week about how to avoid confusing readers.

For the last couple of posts, I have waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon, manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3. “Who,” the befuddled reader cries helpfully, “are Ernest, James, and Algernon, and what are their respective relationships to Delilah, the character I have been caring about for the last hundred pages? Have they been mentioned earlier in the book, and I have simply forgotten them, or is this their first appearance?

Don’t dismiss this cri de coeur as the just punishment of an inattentive reader, my friends — from a reader’s perspective, manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming pretty fast. Especially, as we have discussed, if the COT members have similar names, either beginning with the same capital letter (to which the skimming eye is automatically drawn, right?), ones that replicate letter patterns and sounds, or — and we have not yet talked about this much — are too like the other proper names in the book.

Still in doubt about the eye-distracting effect of all of those capitals? I wouldn’t want you to have to take my word for something like that — cast your gaze over this sterling piece of prose.

Names first letters

See the problem? No? Okay, get up from your desk chair, take two giant steps backward, and look at it again. Notice where your eye is drawn first?

Even when the names don’t look anything alike, introducing too many of them in one fell swoop can prove equally frustrating to the reader. Again, take a gander:

Names in abundance

An avalanche of characters on page 1, in particular, before the narrative has established a context in which they might be understood, tends to have a character-blurring effect.

“Who are all these people?” the reader muses. “And why are they all dressed in the quite striking uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?”

Either variety of confusion, it pains me to say, causes readers to cast otherwise well-written books aside, it pains me to report. If that’s not a strong enough reason for a writer self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript to say, “Hmm, perhaps I should devote a few hours of my precious revision time to weeding out some of the extras lurking in the corners of my story,” here’s another: our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tends to become impatient when characters pile up.

As, indeed, do editorial assistants, contest judges, and other professional readers; just because it’s their job does not mean that they possess a magical ability to absorb 23 names in a single page without mixing them up. “How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled manuscript wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Is this writer planning to market this book with a program, or perhaps dress the background characters in numbered jerseys, so the reader can possibly tell the individual members of this mob apart?”

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

Ooh, the notion of the pros not putting in the necessary effort to keep track of all of your characters ruffles a few writerly feathers, doesn’t it? “Wait just a minute” I hear some of you murmuring indignantly. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but Millicent does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis first in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers to see submissions packaged that order. Why is it in your interest to pay attention to such minor niceties? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging.

And please trust a frequent literary contest judge (hey, I don’t spend all of my scant leisure time wandering around Canadian museums) when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too. Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Professional readers tend to harbor great affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of every publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count in requested materials; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him.

Ditto with contest rules, incidentally. General submission or entry guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.)

Which is to say: if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters. If she asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because she’s the one who is going to be deciding whether she wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with her truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you said you wanted to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: she will. So will her Millicent and any contest judge you might see fit to treat in a similar fashion.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Writers brand-new to the biz make this mistake all the time, learning only through hard experience that such extrapolations seldom pay off. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, 1 agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Bear that in mind, please, the next time you find yourself confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, that synopsis you slaved to make short enough is not always considered at the submission stage. Reading the synopsis is often not necessary to determining whether to ask to see the rest of the book — and why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis of a manuscript she has just finished reading in its entirety?

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend. There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage, presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it. The only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens after the last page of the submission.

Try not to waste any energy being annoyed about this. If Ernest, James, and Algernon appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that they wouldn’t have shown up in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, this ubiquitous rule means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming himself can be a genuine chore. Novelists attached to their characters’ names should be sympathetic to that: if it’s trying to track down and change every mention of Monique to Madge when she’s your creation, imagine the emotional difficulties involved when Monique has to rechristen herself.

That’s not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying renaming may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but either your first or your last appearing alone as well.

That may seem like rather redundant advice — every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests he enters, right? — but this is the single most common way memoir entries get themselves disqualified. For a memoir entry, you should never just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in; check the rules very carefully and apply them to your pages first.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one you believe would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both your first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why take that extra precaution, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible not refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely here: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name. See me practicing what I’ve been preaching?)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because I suspect that there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entrants apparently doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s even your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. It would behoove you, then, to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, quite rightly pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch. “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character other than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

Remember, as I pointed out above, self-references to either your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she printed it up, would she not?

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself these days), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way, at least since I was partially blinded by a Mountie convention. Keep up the good work!

Naming names, part II: wait, wait, don’t tell me — the protagonist is the guy with the torch, right?

Spartacus crowd scene

Last time, as some of you may recall, I broached the tender subject of character names. I did so with some trepidation, naturally: writers, especially those in the throes of completing their first novels, are often very protective of their Muse-given right to name characters precisely as they see fit. Never mind that a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look alike — or sound alike; Oliver, Olivia, and their cat Vetiver are going to their literary graves with those monikers, thank you very much, as are Justin, Jason, and Augustine.

Don’t tense up, similar name-lovers: I shan’t be trying to convince you that Clarence and Terence might not be the best conceivable names for the protagonist and antagonist of an adult novel. (Although I would love to see their adventures in a picture book.) I’ve given you enough concrete examples, both in my last post and in the depths of the Frankenstein manuscript series, for you to make up your own mind about whether Becky and Betsy are in fact the most reader-friendly names you could give your protagonist’s identical twin love interests. You’re intelligent people; it’s your choice.

Whatever you decide, however, and perhaps even before you decide, may I proffer a minor suggestion? Prior to making any changes to the names in your manuscript, read through it (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course) and create a list of characters, along with notations of where they appear throughout the text.

Why did I duck under the nearest table immediately after having brought up that possibility, you ask? Well, the last time I suggested that if one’s novel is thick with named characters, it might be a good idea to make a list of who appears when, so the savvy reviser can see where to cull and who may be combined with whom, cries of “Madness! Madness!” filled the land.

“Are you crazed, Anne?” angry mobs of revisers cried, waving their pitchforks menacingly. “I barely have time to write as it is — are you seriously suggesting that I devote hours and hours to noting on which pages every character in the book might be found?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Stop dipping those torches in pitch long enough to hear why.

In the first place, should you decide down the line that you do indeed want to change one or more characters’ names, that list will be positively invaluable. From past experience, I can tell you that if a writer does not have such a list in hand when she decides to change her protagonist’s name from Georgine to Georgette, she’s almost certainly going to miss a Georgine or two.

Leading, of course, to the classic irate editor’s comment: “Who is Georgine? And is it really a good idea to have two characters with names as close Georgine and Georgette? The scan too similarly; readers are likely to mix them up.”

Hey, the hypothetical editor said it; I didn’t. Go wave your torches angrily elsewhere.

The second reason a savvy reviser might want to produce a character list is that, frankly, most aspiring writers harbor rather fuzzy notions of how many named characters populate their books. If you have been adding scenes — and, let’s face it, most self-editors do; thus the Frankenstein nature of much-revised manuscripts — you might easily have ended up with 25 more characters than you intended in Chapter 1.

See where I’m going with this?

Character multiplication is usually inadvertent, after all. I’ve read manuscripts where the minor characters not only could easily have staged their own production of WAR & PEACE without double-casting any extras; occasionally, I see texts whose citizenry could have formed its own representative government.

Yet without exception, the authors of such heavily-populated tomes say the same thing: “Oh, there aren’t that many. A reader who was paying attention would have no problem keeping them straight.”

If you’ll pardon my saying so, that’s not the kind of statement a writer should be making if she doesn’t know for sure how many characters are strolling across the pages of the most current draft of her manuscript. If you actually list each and every character, you may be astonished at just how many of them there are.

Don’t shrug — seriously, since most writers do not keep running tallies of the characters in their books, it’s not all that hard to end up with 50 or 100 named characters without realizing it Especially if they are introduced many at a time, without much character development for any given one, it isn’t precisely reasonable to expect the reader to keep track of them all, is it?

The third reason — oh, I have not yet begun to run out of arguments yet — is that such a list will help you see not only where you might want to begin culling the herd of bodies in the background, but also enable you to see who could potentially be consolidated with whom — and who absolutely could not. If you keep track of how often and where a particular character appears, you will be able to tell when a character who appeared once on page 15 carrying a load of firewood turns up again on page 310 entering the diner…and thus could not possibly be across town on page 312, assisting a gang of thugs in smothering the mayor.

Think of it as trying to cast a production of Spartacus with a very small troupe of actors: you probably won’t be able to foist many more duties upon the leads, but the bit players could certainly play multiple roles, right?

Fourth, knowing who the players are and in what scenes they appear can also alert you to patterns in where characters tend to pile up in your work in general. If you’re the kind of writer who, for instance, leans toward naming every single soul attending any given party, from the canapé-servers right down to the couple necking in the corner, you will want to be aware of that predilection before you write your next party scene, won’t you?

Won’t you? (Please lie to me, if not. My back is still hurting enough that I am composing this in bed; I could use some cheerful thoughts wafted my way.)

If, on the other hand, you tend to emphasize your protagonist’s loneliness by having other characters engage in banter around him, seeing that pattern manifest on a list may lead you to question whether it needs to happen quite so often in the book to make your point — or with quite so many different characters providing contrast. Or cause you to question whether a reader might conclude that your protagonist is either an unemployed mime or not an actor in his own story.

Constructing a character list can, in short, alert you to both point overkill and the dreaded Passive Protagonist Syndrome. Just between us, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, would be overjoyed if you were to ferret out both of those tendencies before she saw you submission, rather than after.

Wait — does all of that shifting in chairs, rolling of eyes, and martyred sighing indicate that that not all of you are completely convinced that taking the time to tote up your characters is worth your while? Do you think that it might be a grand idea for some benighted aspiring writers, but you have too clear a conception of your manuscript to render it useful to you?

Okay, those of you with complete command of your manuscripts, let me ask you: how many characters are there on page 37? More to the point for submission purposes, how many appear on page 1?

Did those questions catch some of you by surprise? No wonder: so far, in discussing how to keep your characters from blurring together in the minds of swiftly-scanning agents and editors, I’ve concentrated on the scene and paragraph levels. Now, I’m raising the discussion to the book level.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’ve refined your opening scene (and chapter) so that characters are introduced in discrete, memorable groupings, as I advised in the my last post. Let’s also say for the sake of argument that you’ve minimized the possibility of name confusion by christening your characters as differently as possible — Selma and Thelma are now Selma and Marie. All that being done, you may now sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that each of your characters is distinctly memorable, right?

Not necessarily. You might still have too many named characters in the book.

And yes, in answer to what some of you just screamed, you should care about that. If you have a cast of thousands, it’s going to be much, much harder for any reader — let alone a professional one like our friend Millicent, the agency screener — to care about individual characters. When attention is spread thin, affection starts to waver. Still worse, when a reader has to keep track of 77 different names, it can become a trifle difficult for him to tell which characters he’s supposed to be following.

It would, I suppose, be handy if the Great Gods of Literature (or even someone like yours truly) laid down the law about how many is too many, decreeing that four is the maximum for this kind of scene and eight for that. As I mentioned last time, though as far as I am aware, there is no strict standard for recognizing character overpopulation.

What works best varies from book to book. The only widely-used criterion I know is whether the reader starts to have trouble telling them apart — which, lest anyone forget, if bound to happen faster if the names are too similar. Characters whose names sound similar or begin with the same letter are prime candidates for blurrage. (Yes, I know – it isn’t a word. But it should be.)

A good test of whether your novel is overstaffed: hand a hard copy of it to a reader who does not know you very well (and thus has no incentive to lie to keep you happy), and ask him to stop reading when the number of characters becomes bewildering. Have him mark where he threw in the towel by folding that page in half.

Ideally, you will get the manuscript back with every page pristine, naturally, but if that folded page falls within your first fifty pages — i.e., in the part of the book that an agent would be likely to ask to see first — you should consider making some major cast cuts. If the folded page falls within the first chapter, I would suggest going back and reading my last few posts, because in all likelihood, there are too many characters up front.

If you are too shy to recruit help, you can do a version of this test on your own, by sitting down with your manuscript and a highlighting pen and marking every proper name. Even better, you could go for broke and make an actual list of characters.

Wait — where have I heard that excellent advice before? There must be an echo in here.

The easiest way to generate such a list is by using the FIND function in your word processing program and noting each page number. I like to keep the results in a spreadsheet, so I can sort it by character name, chapter, page number, and what the character is doing at the time. (Yes, that US an insanely meticulous thing to do, but then, I’m an editor by trade. My clients pay me good money to read their work with a magnifying glass.)

Why keep track of the extra data? To make it clearer which groups of minor characters could be consolidated into just one or two. If, for instance, my spreadsheet tells me that five different characters shoe horses throughout the book, and if the story does not involve a trip on horseback of several thousand miles between smithies, I would be tempted to make all five the same character.

Noting where each character appears — in addition to making it SUBSTANTIALLY simpler to go back and find those four extraneous blacksmiths and put them to death, literarily speaking — also makes it apparent which named characters appear in only a single scene. In my experience, character-heavy books tend to feature a LOT of one-off cameos; generating a list will help you go through all of the one-timers to check who is actually necessary to keep.

And if the idea of doing away with these folks makes you sad, remember: Characters are notoriously recyclable. If you become a career writer, this is not the only book you will ever write. You may well find that Blacksmith Bob of today can be very happily recast as Soda Jerk Bob tomorrow.

I sense some of you shifting uncomfortably in your chairs again. “But Anne,” some of you protest, glancing at your watches, “I realize that what you’re suggesting is something I could conceivably be doing while I am sitting down and reading my manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before I even consider submitting it — and in an ideal world, I would follow your advice to the letter. But frankly, I can barely find time to write, query, and/or submit as it is. You wouldn’t happen to know any short cuts for ferreting out extraneous characters, would you?”

As a matter of fact, I do, but I’m hesitant to roll ‘em out, lest that discourage any of you from going over your manuscripts with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. I can’t even begin to tote up how many writers, aspiring and established both, I’ve heard wail, “Oh, if only I’d caught that simple, easily-corrected error before I sent out my manuscript! Now that terrific agent/dreamy editor/stern contest judge will think I’m a bonehead!”

Bu if you will all promise not to use the tricks as a substitute for reading your IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sealing that submission envelope, I’ll go ahead and talk about them now.

My favorite technique is one that occurs more or less automatically to professional readers at about the 10,000th scene mark: becoming aware what kinds of scenes tend to invite minor character lurkage en masse. Including, but not limited to…

1. Any scene featuring a congregation.
If hell is other people, as Sartre suggests, then wedding and funeral scenes in novels almost invariably reek of brimstone. These events are notorious amongst professional readers for introducing entire churchfuls of extraneous characters.

Even when all of the masses are not named individually (although you’d be astonished how often a dozen or so are), it doesn’t take many lines of physical description or multi-party banter to convey the impression that a small, intimate wedding has a guest list to rival that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s nuptials.

Allow me to suggest: if behinds are in pews, it might be a good place to start trimming.

2. Any scene that takes place where strangers tend to gather.
Pay close attention to scenes set in coffee shops, bars, class reunions, Ellis Island, airplanes/-ports, trains, buses, workplaces, and party scenes in general. All of these venues seem to attract single-appearance characters as surely as a red carpet attracts celebrity gawkers.

Was that massive sucking noise I just heard a collective gasp of indignation? “But Anne,” cast-of-thousands-mongers cry, “you’re asking me to disembowel the collective identity of modern urban life! How can I describe the complexity of the human environment without enumerating the individuals who are part of it?”

Describe away — and if you’re into enumerating, I’m not going to stop you, although your agent and/or editor may well. All I’m suggesting here is that you not insist on introducing each of the bystanders to the hapless reader as if she were the mother of the bride in a receiving line.

Not every minor character deserves to be identified, does he? Not only does pointing everyone out tend to get a mite tedious and slow the pace of the narrative to the proverbial crawl, to a professional reader, a group scene where everyone is named down to the last poodle and great-grandfather reads as though it were simply an account of something that actually happened to the author. When the guest lists are long and specific, the jaded reader will think, “Great — when do we get back to the fiction?”

Or the memoir, or the historical account, as the case may be. Which brings me to:

3. Any group scene depicting an actual event — or based upon one.
Of course, suspecting scenes ripped from real life is not always fair, but when writers lift scenes from real life into their novels, they do tend to include direct one-to-one correlations between the actual people and the fictional ones. Often, but not always, they do this just in case the people in question should ever pick up the book.

“Oh,” they say, pointing at the page. “That’s me — I’m the one brandishing the flaming torch.”

The names may change, but if Aunt Bessie, Aunt Cassie, and odd Cousin George appear in the text so fleetingly that they don’t make an impression upon the reader, that’s a pretty good tip-off to someone who reads a lot of manuscripts that the author is blessed with two aunts and a cousin who might reasonably be expected to buy the book when it is published. While this practice tends to delight the kith and kin mentioned (and create grudges in those not mentioned — another good reason to eschew the temptation), it’s not harmless. Both professional and casual readers alike are likely to find it problematic.

Why? Well, such references can be very amusing for readers familiar with the fine folks mentioned in the book, as well as their kith and kin. Generally speaking, though, unless a minor character plays an actual role in the plot — as in contributing some action or information that moves the story along — he will not be memorable to readers who do not already know the correlates in question.

You indignant gaspers are getting restive again, aren’t you? “Yes, yes,” you mutter impatiently, and who could blame you? “It’s not the most efficient means of storytelling; I already know that. But I fully intend to rectify that by making Aunt Bessie the gas station attendant in Chapter 47, Aunt Cassie the librarian in Chapter 12, and Cousin George Massey the second corpse who rises from the dead on the honeymoon. Happy now?”

Not necessarily. Even if the characters in a crowd scene do appear elsewhere in the book, it can still be pretty tedious for the reader if the narrative engages in a full roll-call. Or even a partial one.

Come closer, and I shall divulge a cherished secret of the editing trade to you: lists tend not to make for very interesting reading. (And yes, you do have my permission to quote me — with attribution, of course — the next time your boss insists that you sit through yet another PowerPoint presentation.)

Mentioning characters just for the sake of mentioning them is seldom very interesting to the reader, at least when the characters in question are not integral to the action. Bystanders are not, by and large, memorable to the average reader. Especially in the opening of a book — where, all too frequently, it’s not clear which of the cast of thousands in a scene is the one (or dozen) that the reader is supposed to remember.

If, indeed, it’s important to the plot to remember any individuals among them at all. Even in a memoir, it often isn’t, from a pure storytelling perspective.

I know, I know: you’re not going to be able to convince anyone who participated in the real-life events that s/he was not integral to the action. But just as not every detail within a physical space is either necessary to mention in order for a reader to be able to picture a place or interesting if you do, not every character in a real-world situation belongs in the written account of it.

Aspiring writers tend to forget that, as Millicent would be only too happy to tell you — not just that everyone who appears in our mental image of a crowd scene (or in our recollections or photographs of it, if we’re writing memoir) is going to be integral to the action, in storytelling terms, but that every new character name is something else for the reader to remember. That saps energy that would be better utilized getting involved in the story itself.

Or, to put it another way, every time a reader, professional or otherwise, mutters, “Wait, who’s Gerald?” s/he has been pulled out of the story. A top-flight storyteller — which all of us want to be, right? — tries to eliminate such jarring moments entirely from her readers’ experience.

One way to minimize such exclamations is to bear in mind that just-mentioned-in-passing characters are rarely memorable from a reader’s perspective. Every editor in the biz has at one time or another been confronted by an author angrily waving a manuscript in her face and shouting, “What do you mean, where did this character come from? Alice was the third bridesmaid at Ben’s wedding in Chapter Two, for heaven’s sake!”

Invariably, the irate author is factually correct on points like these. The character will indeed have been mentioned by name in passing, as in:

The bridesmaids, Greta, Elaine, and Alice, were dressed in an eye-searing chartreuse that left Ben wondering just what these old friends had done to his bride back in junior high school to make her hate them so much.

200 pages later, out of those three never-again-mentioned bridesmaids, the author expects the reader to remember Alice — and apparently only Alice. At the risk of seeming impertinent, why should he?

Unless he happens to be blessed with an unusually retentive memory, he won’t — and even Millicents, who often do have such excellent memories, tend to resent being expected to use them to keep 157 characters straight. At the submission stage, unless a character is central enough to what’s going on in a scene to warrant development, you might want to consider whisking her out of Millicent’s sight, at least for the time being.

“For the time being?” I hear some ambitious character-generators out there piping hopefully. “Does that mean I can bring Aunt Cassie back after I’ve landed an agent and/or editor for this book?”

Sure — just because you take a few (or a few hundred) characters out of your submission draft of a novel doesn’t mean that you can’t reinsert them later in the publication process. There is no law that says that an author can’t offer a stripped-down, swiftly-moving version of her novel to agents and editors — and then, after the ink is dry on the relevant contracts, say to your editor, “You know, I’ve always thought that there should be more bridesmaids in Chapter 2. Like, say, fifteen. How would you feel about Alice’s being one of them?”

Remember, no manuscript is set in stone until it’s actually in print between covers; no matter how often or how well you polish yours before submission, expect to be asked for revisions. Especially these days, when it’s not at all uncommon at the large U.S. publishing houses for the editor who acquires a book not still to be on the job — or at any rate, in the same job — by the time that book comes up in the print queue. I don’t want to horrify anyone, but within the last couple of months, I’ve talked to authors who are on their fourth and fifth editors.

Think each of those editors has shared exactly the same vision of the book, or wants the same changes? And what’s the probability that at least one of them will hate the name Georgette, and want you to change it to, say, Georgine?

Now more than ever, it behooves writers to keep their creative options open. The better-organized you are, the happier you will be at last-minute revision time. Go ahead and keep copies of every major revision of your manuscript, so you can revisit the Alice and Georgine/ette issues again down the road. Hang on to that character list, too; someday, possibly between revisions 6 and 7 after you’ve signed with the agent of your dreams, it may come in awfully handy.

Now that I’ve frightened all of you into wide-eyed insomnia, I’m talking my aching back off to bed. Cast your stories carefully, my friends, and keep up the good work!

A brief digression on names, featuring some lighthearted admonitions on being careful how you label people

Helen Burns' shame

Since I have been hammering so hard on the perils of word, phrase, and concept repetition in my recent Frankenstein manuscript series, I thought it might be nice to take a break for a couple of days, if only to stop the more conscientious revisers among you from waking up in the dead of night, screaming, “No! Please! I shall cut the number of eye-distracting conjunctions in my manuscript by half! Just take away the thumbscrews!” After those few days had passed without revision-related screaming abating much, I decided that I was going to take a few baby steps away from the much-stared-at manuscript page and talk about a related topic near and dear to most novelists’ hearts: character naming.

Then, after I have lulled you into a nice, complacent creative reverie, I shall leap right back into the burning issues of revision. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before I launch into the meat of today’s post, however, I’d like to note the passing of someone I have never met personally, but has been gracing Author! Author! at least once per year as the wry star of one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. Those of you who have been hanging out here at A! A! for a while may remember the late gentleman (may he rest in perpetual peace) who taught us that it’s never, ever safe to assume that one’s audience will share one’s prejudices.

Once upon a time, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at a Washington, D.C.-area law school for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was a bit lonely: he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge.

So, one day, determined to make friends, he walked into that room full of strangers, sat down next to the least intimidating-looking law professor, and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, way back in the early 1980s, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

Much to his astonishment, his new friend broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the professor had just said the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so hard that other faculty members turned around to stare.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused at this response. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact. She’s on the Supreme Court.”

The Harvard professor had, of course, been talking for the last half an hour to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin. The latter, a fellow of infinite jest, apparently dined out on that story for years.

May you spend eternity telling that one at the dinner parties of the afterlife, Martin. And may all of us down here remember that when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say — and especially how you label people — because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

Why is that lesson an important one for aspiring writers to embrace, you ask? Well, all too often, especially in nonfiction, aspiring writers assume that what is funny — or shocking, or ordinary — to them will automatically strike our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, in precisely the same way, resulting in more guffaws and huffs of displeasure over submissions and contest entries than anyone would care to admit. To avoid subjecting your writing to this dreadful fate, bear in mind: no matter how deeply our own kith and kin might share our personal, political, social, etc. views of the world, we can never be sure that the agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge to whom we submit our writing will share that worldview.

There endeth today’s parable. Let’s get back to work.

We writers, as I mentioned before the impulse to eulogize sidetracked me, tend to take great pride in our characters’ names. Even when we have simply borrowed our local postmaster’s name for a minor character, combined a freshman roommate’s first name with our least-favorite high school teacher for another, and lifted a period name for a protagonist from an old census list, we are not only pleased with ourselves — we will tell anyone who will listen just how we came up with a name as nifty as Thisbe Holt.

Don’t believe that impulse to be universal? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into any author reading, anywhere in the world, and ask the novelist signing books how he ever thought of those incredibly evocative character names in his novel.

I can tell you now that there is not an author on earth who will laugh and say, “Evocative? What’s evocative about Mary Smith?” Instead, you will be treated to a bright, toothy smile and an intensely detailed ten-minute description of just where and when the author dreamed up those names.

It’s true; it’s written on the sand in words of flame. Oh, and congratulations for having made that author’s day.

There are, of course, many, many excellent sources of apt character names — for an amazingly rich source of inspiration and guidance on the subject, run, don’t walk to Askhari Johnson Hodari’s guest post on naming — but I am not going to talk about any of them today. (Which is requiring some restraint on my part, as I went all the way from nursery school through high school graduation with a classmate named Glee Burrow, a name I have been longing for decades to immortalize.) Nor, as all of you weary-eyed revisionists will no doubt be delighted to hear, am I going to repeat my caution about over-using character names in a text.

No, today, I shall be talking about naming your characters in such a way that your readers are likely to remember them — and be able to tell them apart in a book with a whole lot of characters. That may not sound especially difficult (how likely is even a reader slow on the uptake to confuse a fisherman named Paul and a jeweler named Ermintrude, right?), but in a manuscript where fifteen characters are introduced within the first two pages, the task can be a lulu.

Especially, as I mentioned last week, if too many of the names begin with the same letter, encouraging the eye to skip wildly between capitals. Take a gander:

Too many names example

Quite a large cast to reveal in the first moments of the first scene, isn’t it? Let’s face it, no matter how beautifully-drawn and exquisitely differentiated any subsequent character development for Jeremy, Jason, Jennifer, and Jemima might be, a skimming reader — like, say, Millicent (whose name means, appropriately enough, strong in work) — is likely to get ‘em confused on page 1.

I’m sensing some resistance from those of you writing about irresistible triplets named John, Jeffrey, and Jacobim. “But those are my characters’ names,” you protest, and who could blame you? “The names are integral to the characters! I can’t change them now! Besides, the example above wouldn’t really confuse any reader who was paying attention.”

Oh, you can complain all you like that since the narrative explained quite clearly who Bertrand, Benjamin, and Bertha were, as well as the interrelationships between Armand, Aspasia, Antoinette, Annabelle, and Angelica, not to mention the monarchy’s likely effect on the character whom we are left to guess is probably the protagonist, but if you pepper your page 1 with so many names that a reasonably intelligent reader might legitimately become confused, those clear explanations might not matter enough to encourage her to keep reading.

Especially if the her in question is a Millicent who has fifty submissions to read before lunchtime. Remember, agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

What can a humble writer do to avoid walking into that dreadful fate? Actually, you already know: as I mentioned earlier in the Frankenstein manuscript series, a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look or sound alike, so it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another. Now we can build upon that excellent rule of thumb with what we learned from the example above: readers are also prone to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember.

That last bit is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians: it’s as important for your manuscript as for a novel for Millicent to know who and what your book is about before she loses interest. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Make sure she doesn’t need a program to tell who is who in your opening pages. Yes, even if that means banishing the entire alto and tenor sections to a scene later in the book.

Ditto with a synopsis: if it’s not clear who the protagonist is, consider ousting some of the character names. And please, whatever you do, don’t blow off this advice if your opening page or synopsis introduces only a handful of characters; what may seem like a reasonably intimate crowd to you, who have read the page 475 times, may well seem like a mob to a skimmer who is reading page 1 for the first time.

Allow me to add hastily, before any rules-lawyer out there begins demanding a maximum number of names that can appear on page 1: no such standard exists. Clarity is the goal here, and good storytelling. A lot depends upon what else is going on in the scene.

You don’t want Millicent to be so busy concentrating on names that she misses the absolutely crucial yet subtly-phrased aside from your protagonist on line 16, do you?

The same holds true for a synopsis, by the way. If your plot is crammed with action, you might want to limit how many character and place names you toss at Millicent per paragraph, so she can zero in on the essential conflicts.

To show you just how hard it is to keep characters straight in an action-packed storyline, let me trot out another of my all-time favorite examples: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625. On the remote chance that some of the details of the plot may have slipped your minds, here’s a quick synopsis of just a few of the twists and turns that might leave an audience member drop-jawed:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

As is my wont, I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a little? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene. Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is almost invariably more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. But if you are worried about the efficacy of your manuscript’s interview scenes, I would strongly advise taking a gander at the posts under the INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK category on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

I think I’ve distracted you enough. Time for a pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do? I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is extremely common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. No wonder, then, that in manuscripts where there are so many people lurching around that it reads like a zombie convention in downtown Manhattan, Millicent cannot tell for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers. More than enough to cast the necessary extras for a zombie scene in downtown Manhattan hundreds of thousands of times over.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your strategic interest to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. And no, as much as any literal-minded reader out there might prefer that I provide a chart specifying how many is too many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, every writer is going to have to use her own best judgment to figure out how many zombies should be lurching altos should be singing characters should appear on page 1.

But you didn’t think I would leave all of you to make that determination without any guidelines did you? Here are a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about just how big the opening scene’s cast should be.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
If you are not sure — and the author is often not the best person to answer this particular question — try applying a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above:

(a) Hand the first page of your book to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.)

(b) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible.

(c) As soon as she’s finished, ask her to put down the paper. Talk about something else for a couple of minutes.

(d) Have her tell you who the main character is and what the book is about. If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you have too many; if she can’t tell you anything about the plot, consider opening with a different scene, one that more accurately represents the crux of the book.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: speed is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
Again, you may want to seek outside assistance for this one. This test is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across,

(a) Hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning.

(b) Take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

(c) In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

(d) After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live, and that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing Millicent’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart, thus rendering the ones you reveal early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of background in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

Don’t believe me? Okay, who was with Jeremy, and what were the names of the princesses he was trying to save?

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves. I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

Doubtless, there are families where such naming patterns are normal, but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys your book. Opt for clarity at the submission stage.

And never, under any circumstances, christen your characters with names beginning with the same first letters as other proper nouns prominent in your text. When the same letter is used repeatedly, swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment on Trent Road this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but you should be thinking ahead.) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time.

As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past five years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood bookstore browser. Not out of any hatred of the written word, but out of sheer self-defense.

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors early on, not the big ones in the middle, that get submissions rejected.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems in your opening pages with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

More thoughts on character names follow — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Diversify your character names, everyone, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t borrow Glee’s name, please, at least not in its entirety; I have big plans for it.

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIII: as different as grains of sand on a…wow, quite a few of those grains are awfully similar, aren’t they?

sand on a beach

Last time, I went on at some length about the yawn-inducing effect of over-use of major characters’ names in a narrative. As I tried to show, the repetitive force of all those capitals can be somewhat hypnotic, or at any rate distracting from the story itself. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to work with the text a little to try to reduce their frequency.

It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s — or, if we going to be honest about it, any writer who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Think about it: the more worked-over a Frankenstein manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed, right?

Even in a never-before-revised manuscript, though, it’s likely to behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, the reading eye can leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than the narrative, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent the agency screener for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it should be easy to keep track? Okay, skim over this sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can:

similar name page 1

Quick, sit down and draw a family tree for Cheryl from memory. No fair referring back to page 1. Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, today there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part — or, as is more often the case, a lot of between-draft revision of a Frankenstein manuscript. As we saw yesterday, since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? I assure you, Millicent is.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can produce a similar effect. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: change ‘em so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another kind of naming choice that commonly leads to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already well-established. In fact, it’s a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious she of the opening paragraphs could possibly be. A specimen of the breed:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

Again, you may laugh, but actually, for the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating. Overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of, “Who is this broad?” or “What on earth is going on here?”

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who and what is going on is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Unless there is a very, very good reason for withholding information as basic as a character’s name from the reader — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name on the page, rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she. Yes, there was a time when the latter strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles, but really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

Actually, even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes. Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test of clarity, I will resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, Millie and her ilk will typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s a Frankenstein manuscript: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to bridge that gap; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

She is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears in the opening of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan I hear mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? Afraid that once you start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to your Frankenstein manuscript, you’ll almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition?

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up for all of you in a comment on a recent post:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

I’m glad you brought this up, Elizabeth: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as you point out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it?

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. Never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance.

Why? Well, plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th advice Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice. I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (You might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance, I assure you. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past nine paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

You’re laughing again, aren’t you? Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above.

The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule. Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense.

Moderation is key. Obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (The rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, though, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed. Behold the predictable result.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

As I believe I observed last time, that’s quite a lot of proper names for a short scene, isn’t it? Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would be confusing.

Fortunately, those aren’t all of the tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just him since the seventh grade, hasn’t it?”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hanged our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say.” She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “Darlene should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? I thought not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read. Keep up the good work!