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

leaving on a jet plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had better not bore her.

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

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

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

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

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

Am I hallucinating, or is the screen going wavy again?

oil spill on beach

Did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in yesterday’s post? Nobody left a comment about it, so I assume nobody noticed. Or perhaps those who did were merely too kind to point it out. Any guesses?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous cry of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad since first I read that otherwise excellent post. It was a post on conceptual redundancy that was itself conceptually redundant. You had already lectured us about the dangers of repeating salient plot points in a post the previous week. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener.

Or indeed, like most people who read manuscripts or contest entries on a regular basis. She and her ilk wouldn’t merely have noticed my conceptual redundancy over the course of a week; she would have been outraged by it.

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

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

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

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

Or, as I did yesterday, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is often a signal that some editing is needed.

You can feel your homework coming, can’t you?

Who am I to disappoint you? Here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(4) After you finish, go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on?

In answering that question, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.

(5) Go back and re-read the pink sections. Are all of them actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason.

Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips. Save something for the sequel.

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

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

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

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

Okay, that’s enough looking backward for today. Time to move ahead.

Of course, in order to do so, I’m going to need to backtrack a little first. In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut. Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

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

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

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

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

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

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

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

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

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

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

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

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, please, and keep up the good work!

Let’s hear it one more time! (Or maybe not.)

Nixon on peter pan ride

Did my odd mid-week hiatus leave you wondering if I had slipped off for some holiday merry-making? No such luck; just swamped with work. That, and being comatose with depression over some recent news, international, national, and personal. I doubt 2009 is a year I shall remember fondly.

Or that writers in general will: this was the year that advances plummeted, especially for first-time authors. I was reading only just today that in the UK, advances as low as £500 on debut novels are now considered acceptable, even from major publishing houses. Lest those of us on this side of the pond are tempted to feel superior, the average advance for first-timers has dropped between 30 and 50%, although advances to authors already on the bestseller lists continue to spiral upward.

As the old-timers used to say: don’t quit your day job until someone other than your mother is buying copies of your work. To which I would add the latter-day caveat: and that work is your fifth book.

Sorry to be the bearer of such awful news, but I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers with completely unrealistic expectations about what publishers are willing to pay for brilliant writing. Many sincerely believe that it’s routine for writers who have successfully sold a first book to quit their proverbial day jobs the next day, but honestly, it’s been true for a long time that advances, especially on first novels, tend to be more in the new car range than the retire-for-life range.

And recently, they’ve been in the used car range, unless the manuscript happens to be one of the few that sells at auction. That’s just what it says on the box: if more than one publisher is interested in a book — a logistical impossibility for novels agents choose to submit, as many do, to only one editor at a time — then they will bid against each other for the rights. If the competition is fierce, that price can go quite high, of course, but for a first-time author, that’s pretty rare.

Why? Well, think about it: publishers can make educated guesses about what readers will buy, but there’s no way to know for certain, short of hopping on a time machine, what’s going to be the hot book a couple of years from now, right? So given the choice of shelling out up front for a book by an author who already has an established readership and one whose work is brand-new to bookstores, they tend to opt for the former.

All the more so in the last couple of years, when authors are increasingly being held responsible for promoting their own books, something considerably easier for an established author to do. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, wait a minute — if advances are dropping like stones, where is the small-but-serious author to get the resources to promote her own book?” congratulations; you’re understanding the current dilemma of many an exceptionally talented published author.

Starting to see why most published authors don’t quit their day jobs? And why staring glumly at the Senate health care debate on C-SPAN might have seemed like the least depressing way to spend a few hours than blogging about writing?

So how do the authors making a living at it make a living at it? For fiction, usually by having a number of books out. And teaching. And promoting the heck out of their books. Or by writing in different book categories, up to and including nonfiction.

For nonfiction, the picture is a trifle less grim, and remains so. That’s largely because (a) historically, it’s been easier to sell nonfiction than fiction, except for memoir, (b) a nonfiction writer doesn’t have to write the entire book before selling it, and thus can potentially market proposals for several different books in any given year, and (c) unlike fiction, which is typically sold on a finished manuscript, nonfiction writers are often paid to write the book before they’ve written the book (see point b). Yet even there, publishers are becoming increasingly cautions, even to the point of canceling long-established book contracts — especially the later books covered by multi-book contracts — if they’re not absolutely positive that the books in question will sell well.

See earlier comment about advances rising for bestselling authors. We writers often forget just how much greater a gamble taking a chance on a new writer actually is.

I mention all this not because misery loves company, but because writing a novel is so many day-job-having writers’ plan B. And plan Bs — and Cs and Ds and Qs — tend to get trotted out in a slow economy. Which, perversely, means that there’s simply more competition for the increasingly few publishing slots in any given year, both at the publishing house and agency level.

Translation: it’s been harder than usual to find an agent or sell a manuscript this year in the English-speaking world. Significantly harder. Just ask all of those published authors toiling away at their day jobs.

So please, as the year and the decade wind down, don’t fall into the trap of judging your writing purely by the yardstick of whether an agent fell in love with it, or an editor was able to move an editorial committee to cough up a couple of thousand dollars for the rights. Plenty of good books, plenty of brilliant books, even, got rejected this year.

Keep your chin up, literarily speaking, and remember: there will be other years. Recessions don’t last forever.

So what does a savvy-but-depressed writer do while waiting for advances to rise again? Why, the same thing one does during the annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s publishing world slow-down: work on one’s craft. And revise, revise, revise, so one’s manuscript’s chances are even better in the year to come.

Let’s hear some enthusiasm, people. I, for one, am raring to go.

Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. The screen goes wavy, and I see it all before me: I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all brown eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. Not that I was particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story, even then; the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean. Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives remained dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride; it was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. And the longer we stood in line, the less enthused I became.

Why, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!” After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions.

By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth; it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, walk into a popular café during a midwinter cold snap and count the variations on, “Wow, I’m cold?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

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

My all-time favorite example of this came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to incessant repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

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

All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up and excise all of that ambient redundancy.

Okay, not really. But it does make Millicent the agency screener mutter into her too-hot latte, “I KNOW that. Move on!” more than the average submitter might like.

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

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

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

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

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

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a depression-avoidance project for a rainy winter day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

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

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

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

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

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

The barbarians at the gate, the elephant in the room, and other reasons not to set at naught the rules of standard format and punctuation

Hannibal on an elephant

Here’s one more piece of evidence, if you needed it, for the Literary Times, They Are A-changin’ file: THE NEW YORKER has announced that it will not be running its second fiction issue of the year in favor of a “World Changers” special edition. Because it’s not as though any other magazine covers people who affect the world stage.

The magazine will continue to publish individual short fiction pieces weekly, of course. But I doubt that’s going to warm the foreboding chill in the hearts of short story writers everywhere at this policy change at one of the few magazines where their work was still received with open arms.

While I’ve already got you depressed into a stupor, allow me to make a quick foray back into my recent discussion of writerly tricks that send agency screeners’ hackles sky-high: hands up if you noticed the Millicent-baiting submission faux pas I made in the first paragraph. It’s a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve; I’ve seldom met a contest judge who did not complain about how common it is in entries.

Not seeing it? Well, here’s a hint: the second time it occurs within the first sentence of this post, it’s arguably justifiable.

If you immediately shouted, “Hey, Anne, there are a bunch of non-proper nouns that are nonetheless capitalized,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Capitalization for emphasis, much like quotation marks around words no one actually said, tends to rankle professional readers, and for good reason: technically, it’s not correct.

This may seem like a nit-picky concern, since headlines and advertising have dulled all of our senses of the oddity of a word’s being capitalized when it shouldn’t be — not to mention giving us a false sense that a capitalized word is more important than one whose first letter is in lowercase. But since that’s not actually true in English, gratuitous capitalization is simply distracting.

How distracting, you ask? Here’s how Millicent would read that first sentence:

Here’s one more piece of evidence for the Literary Times, They Are A-changin’ file: THE NEW YORKER has announced that it will not be running its second fiction issue of the year in favor of a “World Changers” special edition.

Not a pretty picture, is it? To be fair, all deviations from standard punctuation, grammar, and format tend to leap out at professional readers with this kind of intensity, but as this particular one is literally never necessary, it is more likely to be judged harshly, even to the point of being regarded as a symptom of creeping illiteracy.

It’s just not worth the risk of rejection– particularly in this case, where the joke doesn’t need the capitalization to work. Besides, with all of those words shouting for her attention, which is a Millicent intent upon making it through the stack of manuscripts and/or query letters on her desk more likely to concentrate upon, the underlying meaning of the sentence, or the fact that instead of using clever writing to make the point, the author (in this case, yours truly) simply chose to pretend that the important parts were a title?

I’m sensing some uncomfortable squirming in chairs amongst the capitalization- and quotation mark-lovers out there. “But Anne,” these dramatic souls cry, “I just love emphasis. Are you telling me that Millicent is going to look down her nose at my submission if I emphasize anything on the page?”

No, of course not — although I would be lying to you if I didn’t concede that there are plenty of professional readers out there who do feel pretty strongly that the writing itself, and not the punctuation, should let the reader know what is of paramount importance in a sentence. If a writer can’t convey importance in words, this stripe of Millicent believes, what is he doing writing books? Perhaps interpretive dance would be a more appropriate means of communication.

For every other professional reader, though, there is a recognized means of picking out emphasized words. In standard manuscript format (if you don’t know what that is, or if it’s news to you that such a thing exists, hie ye hence to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page), the method of choice is italics:

“Hands off.” Artemis’ voice was quiet, yet the undercurrent of menace was clear. “That trout is mine.”

Makes the point, doesn’t it? And while we’re talking about making points, did anyone catch the correct use of another piece of punctuation we often see done wrong in print these days? No? Well, here’s that paragraph again, this time with Millicent’s pet peeve intact:

“Hands off.” Artemis’s voice was quiet, yet the undercurrent of menace was clear. “That trout is mine.”

Notice it that time? So would Millicent, and I assure you, it would set her teeth a-grinding. In English, a possessive apostrophe on a noun that ends in an s does not take a second s afterword.

And no, I have absolutely no idea why so many newspaper editors have decided otherwise in recent years; the strictures of proper grammar have not changed, after all. What has changed, I suspect, is the rise of the use of computerized spellcheckers that cannot tell the difference between Bob Harris’ coat and the Harrises’ family car. Or maybe we’ve all just seen the grammatically bizarre use of apostrophes to create plurals — as far as I know, the only noun in North America for which this is correct is the Oakland A’s, and that only because the mistake is in the actual proper name — that it no longer shocks us.

But trust me on this one: incorrectly used apostrophes, like gratuitously capitalized words, still shock Millicent the agency screener. And Maury the editorial assistant. And Mehitabel the contest judge. So much so that it’s not entirely unheard-of for the shock to kill off a submission or entry’s chances entirely.

Yes, proper grammar can matter that much in a submission. See why I keep urging all of you to read your manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before send them in?

A few hands have been patiently waving in the air for quite some time now. “But Anne,” these polite questioners ask, rubbing circulation back into their numb arms, “I’ve seen other sources state that italicization is wrong in manuscript submissions. Instead, they recommend underlining. Where do you get off, confusing me by implying that they are wrong?”

Wrong is perhaps too harsh a word for this advice. Seriously outdated and/or not applicable to book manuscripts or proposals would be closer to the mark, because underlining has not been the norm for the book-length submissions since the rise of the personal computer. (Since italics required a special kind of typewriter, underlining was the next-best substitute back when everyone was working with carbon paper.)

Or, in some cases, blithely unaware that magazine publishers and book publishers have different expectations, as short stories are in fact formatted differently from book manuscripts. Yet mysteriously few lists of formatting tips mention that salient fact, tumbling two (or more) sets of rules together indiscriminately.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: before applying any set of rules to a manuscript, check very carefully whether those rules are actually appropriate to your type of manuscript at this point in literary history.

Trust me on this one: if you are submitting material to those involved in book publishing in North America, italicize for emphasis (and to indicate non-English words, so Millicent won’t mistake them for misspellings). Underlining will merely make Millicent mutter, “Well, here’s another one who’s stuck in 1950.”

A different set of hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” these protestors-come-lately point out, “those aren’t the only legitimate uses for italics, are they? I thought that thought was always italicized in manuscripts.”

In a word, no. Thought is sometimes italicized in manuscripts — although, again, it would be remiss of me not to point out that many a Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel out there feels that a writer gifted enough to deserve assistance into print or a blue ribbon should have the technical skills to be able to let the reader know that thought is occurring without resorting to formatting tricks. As in:

A likely story, Henrietta thought. How dare Frederick treat her like an idiot? For only an idiot would actually believe his absurd claim that he was late for dinner because a band of marauding third-century Huns had slipped loose from the space-time continuum and sacked his homecoming El train.

Still, what was the point of fighting about it? “Well, don’t let it happen again. Wash your hands; your dinner’s getting cold.”

That’s a section of text unlikely to disturb the sensibilities of even the most rejection-happy Millicent. Let’s take a gander at the same excerpt, formatted according to the thought-is-better-italicized school:

A likely story. How dare Frederick treat me like an idiot? For only an idiot would actually believe his absurd claim that he was late for dinner because a band of marauding third-century Huns had slipped loose from the space-time continuum and sacked his homecoming El train. Still, what was the point of fighting about it?

“Well, don’t let it happen again. Wash your hands; your dinner’s getting cold.”

Doesn’t really add much to the scene, does it? En masse, the italics are just kind of distracting — which is precisely why a Millicent who dislikes italicized thought (see tirade about what a talented writer should be able to do with wordplay, above) would automatically judge this passage more harshly.

But if your submission or contest entry happened to land on the desk of a Millicent who thought italicized thought was fine (or who worked for an agent who habitually represented books in genres where italicized thought was common), chances are that the funky type wouldn’t affect her perception of the paragraph at all, as long as the device were applied consistently throughout the submission.

How can an aspiring writer know in advance which kind of Millicent will be screening his submission? Good question; 99% of the time, the writer will have no idea.

Personally, I always advise my clients to err on the safe side, reserving italics for emphasis and foreign words, but a good rule of thumb is to follow the norms for one’s chosen book category — with which, lest we forget, any agent worth his commission is going to expect a marketable client to be intimately familiar. There’s just no substitute for reading up.

Generally speaking, though, the more literary the book category (i.e., the more highly educated its presumed readership), the less likely authors are to italicize thought automatically. Also, context matters: if a shift into italics is likely to jar the reader out of the ongoing action or argument, you might want to think about eschewing it.

Whichever italics route you select, make sure to apply it absolutely consistently — and logically — so it appears to be a deliberate authorial choice. Here’s the same paragraph in a format that would send even the most italics-tolerant Millicent reaching for the form-letter rejection pile:

A likely story, Henrietta thought. How dare Frederick treat me like an idiot? For only an idiot would actually believe his absurd claim that he was late for dinner because a band of marauding third-century Huns had slipped loose from the space-time continuum and sacked his homecoming El train. Still, what was the point of fighting about it? “Well, don’t let it happen again. Wash your hands; your dinner’s getting cold.”

See the problem — or rather the problems? First, if italics = thought in this manuscript,

A likely story, Henrietta thought.

is redundant, isn’t it? Why tell the reader twice that Henrietta is thinking?

Second, since all of the text in this section is presumably going on within Henrietta’s head, why is some of it italicized, and some not? Is the non-italicized sentence an explanatory footnote on what she is thinking?

Or — and this is more likely to be Millicent’s conclusion, I’m afraid — does the author merely not understand the difference between thought, which is often amorphous, and thinking words? If so, does the selectively italicizing writer believe that italicized thought is the same thing as a quote, just not spoken out loud, and different in some way from paraphrased thought? Is all of this fancy formatting extraneous to the story, or some kind of subtle code that the reader is expected to crack? If it’s the latter, is this storyline or argument really worth the effort of cracking it?

See how many question marks a submission or contest entry avoids if it doesn’t embrace the convention of italicizing thought? Wouldn’t you rather that Millicent got swept up into your compelling premise, your engaging plotline, and/or your magnificent writing, instead of worrying her pretty little head with extra-textual issues like this?

No, that isn’t a trick question. It’s a trick situation, of the what-color-am-I-thinking variety. All Millicent wants is for submitters to give her precisely what she wants to see.

If only she, the other Millicents, all of their collective bosses, every single Maury and all of their bosses, and all of the Mehitabels could agree upon what that is. Until they do — and I wouldn’t advise any aspiring writer to hold his breath — the best tactic is to polish one’s manuscript as much as humanly possible and keep submitting until one finds a Millicent who shares one’s idea of what a well-written manuscript is.

Not very inspirational, I know. But much, much more helpful a strategy in the long run than wasting one’s energies trying desperately to discover that mythical single writing formula that everyone currently working in the biz will instantly recognize as brilliant. Or driving oneself crazy, trying to reconcile all of the wildly contradictory writing and submission advice out there.

I can only repeat: learn the norms of your book category, do your homework about standard format, find what makes sense to you, and apply it consistently.

Wow, I really went to town there, didn’t I? I had planned for my point about italics to be merely the opening act for today’s installment on self-editing for pace, but as I see there’s still a great big elephant waiting in the wings, I might as well devote the rest of this post to putting it through its paces.

And what’s the elephant in the room, you ask? Let’s ask the surging masses who have had their hands up since I first mentioned italics: “But Anne,” they shout as one, “I constantly see entire sections of books in italics. I think that looks cool. But if I reproduce that style in my manuscript, will it send Millicent’s internal question-generator into overdrive?”

In a word, yes. In several words, yes, but not in the manner you might think.

Before I explain how and why, let’s make it clear what the surging masses are talking about, shall we? Here’s an example of what lovers of extensive italicized sections typically send across Millicent’s desk:

italicized opening

We’ve all seen this type of opening in published books, right? So what problem could Millicent possibly have with a first page that looked like this?

Problems, actually. In the first place, such an opening is likely to strike her as unprofessional — Millicent knows enough about how publishing works to be aware that few those published books that open with hunks of italicized text would have looked like that at the manuscript stage. The editor, not the author, decides how a book’s text will appear on the printed page.

But that’s not the reason 9 out of 10 Millicents encountering a submission like this will simply skip the italicized part and start reading on line 1 of the normal text. They’ll not read the italics because they know from experience that the story’s not starting there — the bit in italics is probably from another part of the plotline, or in a different voice than the rest of the opening chapter. It might even be a quote from another writer, and thus not particularly likely to give her any help in deciding whether the manuscript in front of her is worth passing on to her boss.

In short, the italicized part might as well not be there. Sorry to be the one to break it to all of you italics-huggers, but presented as it might be in a published book, it’s a waste of page space.

While your hearts are already broken, is this a good time to mention that Mehitabel the contest judge’s reaction to this type of page is likely to be even worse? I once saw an excellent entry actually disqualified because its two different voices were presented on the page differently — one in italics, one in plain text.

Was this outcome the knee-jerk reaction of the kind of italics-hating Mehitabel I mentioned above? No, because I happened to be the judge in question, and I don’t particularly mind italics, as long as they are used correctly. I had no choice, you see: the contest’s rules forbade boldfacing or italics.

That’s not all that unusual, you know. Most serious literary contests have very strict formatting rules; quadruple-check typeface requirements before entering.

So how would a savvy submitter present an opening like this in a manuscript or contest entry? By assuming that any professional reader would be intelligent enough to figure out the two different timeframes without the visual cue of italicization. Happily, standard format has a perfectly good tool for alerting a professional reader to a section break, the skipped line:

italicized opening 2

Not all that confusing, is it? The skipped double-spaced line makes it perfectly clear that the second paragraph is not a continuation of the first, but the beginning of a new section.

The moral of the story: italics tend to be radically overused in submissions. Try giving ‘em a rest, and relying instead upon your good writing and the simple tools provided by standard format to save the reader from confusion.

Next time, I’ll harder to stick to our ongoing topic, I promise. Keep up the good work!

What was that again? Or, I did not know it then, but a Gila monster was about to come of a clear blue sky and change my life forever


I passed through two different airports today, my friends — more travel on behalf of the Grumpy Relative, who continues to ail, alas — so I can state with authority that metal detectors in at least two states are cranked up farm far past normal levels of scrutiny. How do I know? Because in both airports, rows of busty women were being re-scanned while those with dinner plate-sized belt buckles were waltzing through security.

That’s right, folks: underwires are setting off metal detectors again. I tremble for democracy.

Back to business, now that I’m home again. For the past week or so, I have been talking about ways to self-edit your work in order to pick up the pace. In pursuit of that estimable goal, I went on a tear yesterday about redundancy, particularly word and phrase repetition. And you, bless your persistent souls, bore with me through it.

Today, I shall shift gears a little, to focus on another pet peeve that makes Millicent the agency screener poke her pen through the page where it appears because she just can’t help herself: concept repetition.

Again and again (and again in manuscripts, good narratives get sidetracked by a compulsion to explain what has just occurred, even if the original telling was quite clear, as though the author did not believe that the specifics of an incident, exchange, or character revelation could possibly have conveyed his intention for the scene. Like so:

Herman blanched. “You can’t possibly mean that, Susan. You wouldn’t go to the police.”

“Yeah?” Susan drew herself up to her full seven and a half feet. “Just watch me, Bozo.”

Herman was frightened — really frightened, even more than the time when his ex-wife had threatened to season his veal stew with liberal dashes of arsenic if he repeated that joke about the guy who walked into a bar with a duck on his head just one more time. What if Susan really meant it this time? What would he do? What would he tell the police? More seriously, would the police arrest him on Susan’s word alone? Strange, how the mere fact that she was glaring down at him left him even more frightened.


See the problem here — or rather, the problems? This excerpt utilizes yesterday’s faux pas, word repetition (Herman’s sure frightened a lot, isn’t he? And how many ways does the reader need to be informed that Susan is freakishly tall?). It also, from Millicent’s perspective, adds conceptual insult to literal redundancy by devoting a paragraph to explaining an emotional response that was already clear from blanched in line 1: Herman was scared.

From an editing perspective, that means almost half of the verbiage here could be cut without affecting the meaning of the passage at all. More than half, if the person doing the editing trusted the reader enough to assume that the mere mention of telling the police something implies the possibility of subsequent arrest:

Herman blanched. “You can’t possibly mean that, Susan. You wouldn’t go to the police.”

“Yeah?” Susan drew herself up to her full seven and a half feet. “Just watch me, Bozo.”

What if she really meant it this time? Would the police take her word over his?


Not as much fun as the original version, perhaps, but you must admit that it gets the job done, plot-wise. In a scant 47 words, rather than 126.

Out of context, that may not seem like a significant reclamation of page space, but to an aspiring writer whose magnum opus is 401 pages when his brand-new agent insists that she cannot possibly sell the book if it breaks the infamous 100,000 word barrier (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman in standard format), a several-line cut this easy to achieve is going to seem like manna from heaven.

Pop quiz: did you catch the other type of conceptual redundancy that sets professional readers’ teeth on edge in that last paragraph? No? Well, perhaps Millicent’s reaction will help you find it: “Oh, for Pete’s sake! Where ELSE does manna come from?”

Yes, professional readers’ hackles often are that easily raised; remember, these people are trained to read CLOSELY. And since it’s Millicent’s job to narrow down the potential client pool from amongst the many, many submissions her agency receives to a small handful, it’s not uncommon for even a single flash of annoyance to be enough to knock a submission out of the running.

While you’re hyperventilating over that last one, I might as well add: the same holds true of contest entries. If anything, contest judges tend to take umbrage a trifle more quickly than Millicent.

Why the hair-trigger rejection impulse? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and join in our perennial chorus: because any well-respected literary contest, like any well-established agency, will receive enough perfectly-formatted, well-written manuscripts free of typos, logic problems, and redundancy that those screening them can afford to read with an unforgiving eye. Seldom, if ever, are contest judges, agents, or editors looking for fixer-upper manuscripts; they want something already in excellent shape.

Depressing? Heck, yes — so why am I risking ruining your day by bringing it up? Because an aspiring writer who walks into contest entry prep or submission to an agency aware of these facts is far more likely to succeed than one who does not. If s/he acts upon that information in the revision process, at least.

Everyone with me so far? I’m going to assume that all of that hyperventilating out there indicates a yes.

Which renders this a dandy time to bring up a less common but still worth mentioning type of conceptual redundancy, summarizing what is about to happen BEFORE the scene occurs, often in the dramatic-sounding historical future tense: Little did I know that this was my last day of work or What was to come was still worse, and similar transitional sentiments.

Why is beginning a scene or story with this kind of sentence problematic in a submission? It’s jarring to the editorial eye, because it’s telling the story backwards: conclusion first, followed by how one gets there. It’s hard to build suspense if the reader already knows the outcome, after all. Do it too many times in a row, and the narrative risks yanking the reader out of the story altogether.

Memoirists are particularly fond of this sort of foreshadowing. As in this sterling example:

I had no way of knowing that the events of the next day would shatter my childish innocence forever. When I got up in the morning, the sun seemed to be shining upon me beneficently.

I ambled downstairs to the breakfast nook, as usual, blithely unaware of the horror that was going to befall me before I finished my bowl of cornflakes decorated with fresh strawberries hand-sliced by the kindly soul I knew at the time as Mom. Or was she?

I was soon to find out. “Sit down, Georgie,” she said, pouring milk over my breakfast. “I have something particularly shocking to tell you.”


Enough, already: by now, no reader on the face of God’s green earth is going to find what comes next surprising. The build-up has been too great.

And frankly, totally unnecessary, from an editorial perspective. Like most professional readers, I like to be surprised when childish innocence is shattered — don’t warn me in advance.

And is there really a reader out there who needs to be told that a character got up in the morning to have breakfast? Tell me if it’s the dead of night or 5 pm, but if it’s not, trust me to be able to put two and two together and not come up with the square root of 2,367.

How might a savvy self-editor streamline in this passage to avoid letting the proverbial cat out of the bag about the genuine surprise while not over-explaining the obvious? Hint: virtually any revelation is more startling, not less, if it comes out of a relatively clear blue sky:

When I got up, the sun was shining upon me beneficently. I ambled downstairs to the breakfast nook.

As usual, Mom was decorating my bowl of cornflakes with hand-sliced fresh strawberries. “Sit down, Georgie,” she said, pouring milk over my breakfast. “I have something particularly shocking to tell you. I’m not your mother; in fact, I’m not even human. I’m a Gila monster that attained the ability to speak English through the freak radioactivity accident that claimed the life of your real mother.”


Come on, admit it: you didn’t see that coming, did you?

See a pattern developing in the before versions vs. the after versions? At base, unnecessary narrative summary, before or after the fact, are indicative of writerly insecurity. How so? Well, to a professional reader’s eye, they demonstrate that the writer is having a hard time believing that his target reader can follow the prevailing logic.

In other words, the writer just doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence, so he explains more than once what is going on, just to be sure. As in:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. It offended her sensibilities as a civilized person. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.


I may be leaping to unwarranted conclusions here, but I would assume that the number of potential readers whose sensibilities would NOT be offended by the sight of a human sacrifice is small enough that a contemporary writer might safely regard their critique as negligible. Personally, I am apt to assume that my readers are not given to sacrificing human, goat, or anything else that wiggles, so I would trim this passage accordingly:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.


Has the passage genuinely lost meaning through this edit? I think not — but it has lost a line of text. And on the day when your agent calls you up and tells you, “The editor says she’ll take the book if you can make it 5,000 words shorter!” you’ll be grateful for every single expendable line.

Sometimes, the author’s mistrust of the reader’s level of comprehension is so severe that she goes so far as to recap a particular set of facts’ importance as if the paragraph in question were in the synopsis, rather than in the text. For example:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew,” Doris said, wiping her nose for the tenth time. She was prone to allergies that stuffed up her nose and rendered her vision blurry; moving here with her husband, Tad, her two adorable children, Newt (6) and Stephanie (8), and their pet ocelot Rex into a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers, then, had probably been a poor idea.


While such a paragraph might work very well in a synopsis, serving as an agent or editor’s first introduction to Doris and her family, but in a manuscript, it reads awkwardly. (Don’t believe me? Try reading it out loud.) Since so much information is crammed into so few lines, it does not flow very well, so this passage would be a poor choice for the opening of a novel, or even the beginning lines of a chapter.

Yet if it appeared later in the text, wouldn’t the reader already know that Doris was married, had two children and an ocelot, and had moved recently? Wouldn’t this information be redundant, in fact? And if that weren’t reason enough to do some serious trimming here, as any comedian can tell you, nothing kills a good joke so quickly as too much explanation.

Such global statements pop up in mid-text more often than you might think in submissions, though. To be fair, there’s a reason you probably wouldn’t think it, if you read a fair amount: editors at publishing houses tend to leap upon this particular species of redundancy with all the vim of Rex pouncing upon a nice piece of red meat; as a result, one doesn’t see it much in published books.

All the more reason to excise similar passages from your submissions, I say. Look how much snappier poor Doris’ plight is with the background trimmed:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew.” Doris wiped her nose for the tenth time, ruing the day she had bought a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers. It doesn’t matter if the scenery is magnificent when your eyes are too blurry to discern either distant mountains or your own driveway.


Partially, I think, reiterative over-explanation turns up in manuscripts because our ears have been trained by movies and TV to expect a certain amount of conceptual redundancy. Almost any important clue in a screenplay will be repeated at least once, and often more, just in case some poor slob in the audience missed it the first time.

There is a long theatrical tradition of this stripe of redundancy, of course: in ancient Greek drama, a chorus provided frequent recaps of what had happened so far in the play. My college classics professor opined that this handy service, a sort of 5th century BC Cliff Notes, made it easier for spectators to nip out to have compact affairs with temple dancers and their neighbors’ wives; they could always catch up on the plot when they returned.

It’s amazing what one retains from long-ago lectures, isn’t it? You should have heard what he thought those figures cavorting on the sides of vases were doing.

But readers have an important advantages over the audience of a play — or at least they did before TiVo and rewind-able videotapes: books these days are cleverly designed so you may turn pages forward OR backward. Thus, if a reader has forgotten a major fact already mentioned in the text, she can flip back and look for it.

The moral: trusting in your reader’s intelligence — or at any rate her ability to figure out where to find information revealed earlier, even if she cannot recall it in detail — is an important step in becoming an effective self-editor. If your plot requires additional explanation here or there because you’ve moved too swiftly, believe me, an agent or editor will be happy point it out to you.

More tips on weeding out invidious pace-slowers and Millicent-annoyers follow in posts to come. Assume an intelligent and easily-miffed readership for your submissions, folks, and keep up the good work!