The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVII: minimizing dialogue predictability, or, hot enough for you?

beach day

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m rather proud of this photograph, one of the best I’ve taken in an awfully long time. Over and above the fact that I like how it turned out (especially the wave details), I shot it while flat on my back (my injured back, to be specific) at an extremely crowded beach, yet it looks as though these two fine fellows were the only beachcombers for miles around.

It just goes to show you: whether you are taking a snapshot of friends or constructing a narrative, perspective choice is key. So is knowing what to cut out — in this case, the three surfers, arguing couple, and half a dozen assorted tanners lying around just outside this shot.

Ah, once the urge to edit creeps into the soul, it’s hard not to let it creep into every aspect of one’s life. Wouldn’t those of you caught in the heat wave currently sweeping the U.S., for instance, just love to have the ability to cut from reality iterations #2 – 742 of “Hot enough for ya?” you’ve heard within the last week?

Oh, you laugh now. But just see if you aren’t reaching mentally for the Liquid Erase the next time you hear someone say it.

On the page, of course, such conversational redundancy tends to make one reach for something else — a scissors, to cut the repetitive (and thus predictable) dialogue right out of the book. Of course, Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge don’t need to slice and dice dull dialogue literally; all they have to do is reject or disqualify it.

Not sure why characters echoing one another — which, after all, people do all the time in real life; there’s a reason most sitcoms lean so heavily on catchphrases for laughs — gets old fast on the page? Okay, let’s listen in on a representative sample:

Absent-mindedly, Barb wheeled her loaded grocery cart into the next aisle. “Oh, hi, Ellen.”

“Hello, Barb,” Ellen replied. “Hot enough for you?”

“Sure is. How are the kids?”

“Oh, fine. They grow up so fast, don’t they? How are yours?”

“Oh, I can’t complain. We sure could use some rain.”

“We sure could. Oh, here’s Ed. Hello, Ed.”

Ed was indeed slouching his way toward the canned goods. “Hi, Ellen. Hi, Barb. Hot enough for ya?”

“Hi, Ed,” said Barb. “It sure is. How’s the wife?”

“Oh, fine, fine. How’s yours?”

“Just fine,” Barb said.

“Mine, too,” Ellen added. “How are your twins doing, Ed?”

He shook his head ruefully. “They grow up so fast. Hey, here comes Jeremy. Hi, Jeremy! Hot enough for ya?”

Everyone laughed merrily. “It sure is,” Jeremy said, clutching a swiftly-melting carton of ice cream to his chest.

Had enough? They haven’t — but Millicent, I assure you, abandoned this page long ago. Why? Well, it’s just not very interesting, is it?

That made some of you drop your ice cream cones, didn’t it? “But Anne,” lovers of realism exclaim, mopping your dripping brows, “that’s how people talk in real life! You don’t seriously expect us to believe that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Actually, yes, I do. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on in a scene. Or not character- or situation-revealing. Or, as we’ve seen above, just not all that exciting.

To put it as Millicent might: is it the writer’s job to be a transcriptionist, furiously scribbling down everything a real person does or might say in a particular situation — or is the goal of writing well to improve upon reality, offering the reader not merely what s/he might hear on any street corner, but dialogue that exposes emotion, creates conflict,

That immense mouthful was a rhetorical question, by the way. From Millicent’s perspective, if any given line of dialogue doesn’t either advance the plot, reveal character, increase conflict, or add some new dimension to the scene, it should go.

Yes, even if people say it all the time in real life. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, and excu-u-u-se me!

(Note to readers under 30: that last bit would amuse readers who happened to be watching American TV in the late 1970s, just as “You look mahvaleous,” might still bring a grin to viewers who recall the mid-1980s. As you will note, the phrase that had ‘em rolling in the aisles then are not particularly amusing now, but people did in fact repeat them with astonishing frequency back then. You had to be there, I guess.)

Nothing dates a manuscript so fast as TV or movie catchphrases. (”I don’t know karate, but I do know car-azy.” Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) That may not sound like much of a problem for those of you planning to see your work in print imminently, but frankly, it’s likely to worry Millicent or Mehitabel.

Why, you ask? Because — long-time readers, feel free to sing along with me now — manuscripts take a while to make it into print. A catchphrase that’s sweeping the nation today may well be passé or even forgotten by the time a book containing it hits the shelves.

Let’s be practical for a moment, shall we? Even if a manuscript wins an agent’s heart tomorrow, the agent will probably request revisions before submitting it to agents at publishing houses. Editors’ desks are almost invariably piled high with a backlog of submissions, so again, even if it wows the first editor who reads it, she may not have time to read it for a few months. Few novel manuscripts sell on their first round of editorial submissions, so multiply the number of editors your agent wants to see it by even a couple of months, and the book may be circulating for a year or two. Then, once some lucky editor acquires it, even if he does not want revisions (which he probably will), it’s usually at least a year between contract signing and book release. Sometimes more.

For nonfiction, the timing’s even less predictable. Yes, it’s substantially less time-consuming to write a book proposal than an entire book, but once you have it in hand, all of the same time restrictions on agents and editors’ reading time still apply. And don’t forget to add in the time you will need to write the book itself after a publisher picks it up — publication contracts vary, but anywhere from six months to a year and a half is fairly standard. After that, the publisher will have to approve the manuscript (which may entail, you guessed it, more revision) before it can be placed in the print queue…and that’s not even taking into account the fact that certain types of books tend to be released at certain times of year…

Oh, and some of you are working on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, aren’t you? How long do you anticipate that will take?

Getting the picture? More importantly, are you still absolutely certain that the catchphrase that seemed so hip and trendy when you originally typed it last spring will still read as fresh when the first edition of your book first falls into grateful readers’ hands?

To compress all of this into a revision tip: unless your story is set in a specific period in the past, consider cutting current cultural references and colloquialisms. Believe it or not, the day will come — and it’s probably not all that far in the future — when teenagers will roll their eyes when adults-trying-to-be-cool say, “Whatever!”

That’s SO 2005, Grandpa.

Even if your chosen catchphrase is historically appropriate for the setting of your book (dig it, man!), keep an eye on how often it crops up in the text. Repetition is repetition, after all, and a character who repeats herself too often is, among other things, predictable.

It’s also very, very easy to go overboard with the cultural references; one too many, and your character may come across as a stereotype. It’s perfectly fine to differentiate between a pair of sisters by having one’s junior high crush be on David Cassidy, while her young sister later swooned over Shaun, for instance, but must the elder also continually hum John Denver tunes, creating macramé plant holders, and talking about Watergate while wearing her Laurie Partridge pantsuit over a burned bra as she sports a yin-yang ring to P.E. classes still unaffected by Title 9? And is it really necessary for the younger to toss her Farrah over her Leif Garrett albums while simultaneously watching the Muppets and mourning the demise of Sid Vicious?

Hands up, any of you who caught all of those cultural references. If you did, please turn to the blank-eyed person next to you and explain them. Don’t be deterred by their persistent yawns; I’m sure the young will be amused to learn what albums were.

And if your first instinct was to point out huffily that there was never actually an event where bras were burned (the cliché actually comes from the public burnings of Vietnam-era draft cards, transposed into a different social movement), or that a Leif Garrett fan would NEVER have been listening to the Sex Pistols, well, you’re right. But having a firm grip on historical realism does not give you carte blanche to start carting in cultural references by the wheelbarrow load.

I assure you, they are not indispensable. Whenever you find one in your text, ask yourself: is this detail meaningful enough to keep? Or could I convey an accurate feeling of the time and place through more unusual — and therefore less expected — means?

While you are scanning your text for redundant dialogue, catchphrases, and soon-to-be-dated cultural references, bear in mind that television and movies often shape day-to-day speech in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the standard first response upon hearing that someone has experienced bereavement: I’m so sorry for your loss.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with expressing sympathy that way, inherently, but think back a decade or two: did real people say this much before police officers on TV shows and in movies began spouting it every time they encountered a victim’s family?

Even if you want your characters to sound as though they’re playing bit parts on a Law & Order spin-off (because that’s not a cultural reference that will puzzle stumblers upon this post ten years hence), is parroting a standard impersonal phrase really the most character- or situation-revealing way those characters could respond to something as inherently dramatic as the news of a death? Isn’t saying precisely what anyone might say something of a waste of dialogue space?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: predictability is the enemy of snappy dialogue, and while the polite phrases that everybody uses are nice to encounter in real life, they can be deadly dull on the page. Compare, please, this series of events, ripped from real-life dialogue:

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thank you for telling me, Sergeant Jones.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The officer gave a sympathetic smile. “But I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Oh, of course, of course.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, Shane excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss,” Ted said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, nothing.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“That’s okay,” Shane said vaguely, wondering if thank you were actually the proper response.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” the desk clerk said. “You’ll find the forms you need over there.”

Eloquence did not come easily. Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

“Well, you can take it home and bring it in later.” The clerk smiled at him. “Don’t worry.”

“We’re sorry for your loss,” the receptionist called after him as he stalked out of the building.

As you may see, these characters are simply say what is socially acceptable these days. Again, people do this all the time in real life, but does it make for either exciting or character-revealing dialogue? Are at least some of these stock responses substitutes for some potentially interesting dialogue.

You be the judge — but before you decide, let me stack the deck with some evidence that this scene could have been handled to better effect.

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I suppose I should be grateful, Sergeant Jones.”

“Nobody likes hearing bad news.” The officer gave a sympathetic shrug. “Or what I have to say next: I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Of course,” Shane muttered. “It’s not as though I have to break the news to my great-grandmother or anything.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, her excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Well, I suppose we could have somebody else rearrange the cat food display.” Ted’s tone implied that the lack of Shane’s unique stacking savvy might well send Cats R Us into immediate bankruptcy. “But get here as soon as you can.”

No, thanks: there’s nothing you can do. I’m fine, really. “I appreciate it.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “I know it’s hard, but you’re doing a great job.”

“Thank you?,” Shane said vaguely.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, God, you’re the third walk-in today.” The desk clerk pointed to a cluttered table on the far side of the room. “You’ll find the forms you need over there. The deadline for tomorrow’s edition is in ten minutes, so chop-chop.”

Eloquence did not come easily to him under normal circumstances, but with the clerk helpfully counting down the minutes like some misplaced staffer from the NASA launch command center, he found it difficult even to spell Terry’s middle name correctly. Feeling like a failure, Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand and went sheepishly back to the front desk. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

The clerk sighed gustily. “Well, I didn’t know the guy.”

The obituary editor caught him just as he was in the act of slamming the office door. “You can take the form home and fill it out there, you know.” He produced a fresh copy. To Shane, its very blankness was a threat. “You can bring it back whenever you want. Or,” he lowered his voice, presumably so the clerk would not hear him, “mail it in.”

Just one of a multiplicity of possibilities, of course. Frequently, too-polite interactions stifle genuine human interaction. While manners ease social tensions, drama demands conflict.

So here’s a suggestion for revising polite chatter: make at least one of the parties less polite, and see what happens. Maybe it will be interesting.

Speaking of interesting reactions, I have been hearing faint howls of protest for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “that first version felt more real to me. Surely Millicent will be willing to put up with the occasional polite platitude in the interests of realism?”

Think of what you’re saying. Remember, in addition to being predictable, canned polite responses tend to be clichés. Why precisely would Millicent be inclined to skim over hackneyed phrases, except in the hope that something more original may ensue?

More importantly, why would a reader — especially if those predictable courtesies make up any or all of the dialogue on page 1? (Oh, it happens.)

Lest any of you be tempted to dismiss those questions as yet more evidence that marketing concerns are antithetical to art, let me provide you with a solid creative reason to excise the stock responses: real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as writers sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Gary.” Monique picked up the crumpled wad of paper before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the administrative assistant’s desk.

Celeste glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Monique stammered awkwardly. “I thought you had dropped it.”

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Celeste grew large in her seat, a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“But the recycling bin’s right under your desk!”


“I’ll save you a seat in the meeting,” Gary offered, embarrassed.

Celeste turned to him with exaggerated courtesy. “How kind of you, Mr. Coleman, and what a nice tie. It sure is hot out today, isn’t it?”

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Monique obediently took the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the hall. Her boss hated it when anyone missed his opening remarks.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Celeste is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Celeste ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Celeste’s response; fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

Nor does the scene achieve much than make Monique seem like the better person. But if Celeste is not important enough to the storyline to be fleshed out as a character, why should the reader care?

This, in short, is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty, because Celeste was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Celeste — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you attributed it to the fact that his memory of Celeste the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a great big popsicle. (Because it’s hot where you are, isn’t it?) In his mind, the character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Monique is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I was darned annoyed, now that you mention it. Yet because I am a good writer and most excellent human being (better than some I could name, at least), I have changed the names, the context, and several significant details to protect the guilty.

But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this tale of woe and uproar, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read AND it advances the plot.

I also might want to keep in mind, while I’m at it, that it’s both unnecessary and annoying to keep reminding the person visibly baking in front of you that it is in fact a hot day. Or humid night, as it is right now. Excuse me while I go drink 17 glasses of ice water, 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 XIV: lookee, lookee! Or, could you possibly stand yet another post on redundancy?

new world map detail

I’ve got show-and-tell on my mind today, campers, and not only because this lengthy series on Frankenstein manuscripts — works that have been written and rewritten so often and/or over such a long period of time that they read like the stitched-together remnants of several authors’ voices — has been quite heavy on practical examples of late. No, I’ve been thinking about concept illustration because the author reading I attended yesterday was provided such a glorious pragmatic illustration of a point I brought up last time, 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.

To recap for the benefit for those of you who missed it: I suggested, albeit gently, that if the action on the page is confusing to a reader — say, our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener — 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.

So what is her usual response to prose that leaves her guessing? Chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series faithfully: “Next!”

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.

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.

Why, you may be wondering, was I pondering this necessity at an author reading? For the same reason that I often find myself musing about how easy it is for a writer to get stuck thinking about his text from only a writerly perspective: 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.

A great pity, because actually, the scene she chose to read was well-written, beautifully paced, and contained some genuinely surprising 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.

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 — which is why, incidentally, 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 to pull off the very first time we try, after all.

Like so many other skills required of a professional writer, public reading 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.

Sounds familiar, right? It should: 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 send Millicent’s hand groping 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 her story, right?

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

If the writing on that page is clear, her intended meaning may well be obvious; if not, her 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, right?

I couldn’t help but notice that not all of you immediately shouted, “Right, by Jove!” Does it seem 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:

Fritz 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 clearly taken the reader’s perspective into account sufficiently to clarify all of the relevant issues of the page, skillfully using a plethora of telling details to convey to the reader a complex reality and consistent enough in tone that you can discern, however faintly, an individual authorial voice.

Fritz 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 much of the time, style 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? And have I given you strong enough evidence that withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense is darned annoying?

Actually, one forward-thinking reader was apparently thinking about it before I even started building up the false suspense, for she brought it up in the comments just the other day. Quoth Elizabeth — not the same one with the excellent pronoun question from last time, as it happens, but another frequent bringer-up of thought-provoking points:

I did buts and thens and I’m working on ands right now.

I had a lot of “looked” in there, too, I noticed, after my first revision. That’s a very hard word to avoid.

Elizabeth is quite right that looked is ubiquitous. Aspiring writers rely upon it, and upon vision-related verb phrases in general, quite heavily, and not always because most human beings glean most of their information about the world around them through their eyes.

Often, characters — particularly protagonists — will look things as a means of introducing those things into the narrative. This is particularly common in first-person or tight third-person narratives, as a means of reminding the reader from whose perspective she’s seeing. As in:

I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the hopeful buds on the green trees; they made me sad.

That’s one way to alert the reader to the existence of the buds on the trees and the beauty of the sky — which is, we are told explicitly, blue, as opposed to all of those other colors beautiful skies are always sporting — but it’s not the only narrative possibility, and usually not the most imaginative one. Think about it: what’s more interesting, the fact that the trees are budding hopefully, or the fact that our narrator saw the buds?

Even if the image hitting the narrator’s cornea actually were the most important part of this particular sentence, in most storylines, the point of the protagonist’s looking at things is not the action itself, but to alert the reader that the objects being seen exist. Unless this device is used — wait for it — very sparingly, though most readers will tire pretty quickly of being told over and over again that the protagonist is seeing or noticing everything around her. To them, it’s self-evident: the object is present in the environment, so naturally, the protagonist sees it. So?

Millicent’s reaction, as usual, is quite a bit less forgiving. “Stop telling me over and over that the protagonist is seeing things!” she will mutter, reaching for her third latte of the afternoon. “You don’t need to keep reminding me of the narrative perspective!”

So what’s a reviser to do with this type of Millicent-annoying look? Cut ‘em without mercy. With a little careful planning, it’s almost always possible simply to have stimuli external to the protagonist just show up, without reminding the reader that the players in the scene have seen them or having the protagonist acknowledge their existence.

Once a reviser accepts that principle, it’s usually quite a bit easier to winnow out most of those looks. Fringe benefit: because this approach encourages the things in question to be more active, the result is often a more vibrant narrative. Lookee:

The sun shone in a cloudless sky, sending a caressing warmth to encourage the hopeful buds on the green trees. Their very exuberance made me sad.

Another extremely common use of looked is as a substitute for other reactions or emotions. Frequently, characters look at one another instead of evincing a more revealing response to something that has just happened.

All of a sudden, the wind chime over Vanessa’s left shoulder began ringing violently; Gerry’s chair seemed to be slipping sideways beneath him. They looked at each other.

“What’s happening?” Imogene cried.

Doesn’t add all that much to the scene, does it? That’s because from the reader’s perspective, the mere fact that Vanessa and Gerry chose that moment to look at each other isn’t all that illuminating. Described this flatly, it’s such a generic act that mentioning it doesn’t either advance the plot or reveal character. As you are revising a passage like this, ask yourself: how did they look at each other? Why did they look at each other?

Or, better still: is there something that one or both of them could do or say here that would do a better job of advancing the plot and/or revealing what these people are thinking or feeling in this particular moment?

Be on the lookout, so to speak, for versions of she looked away, a sentence widely used as shorthand for a character’s conscious attempt to avoid conveying emotion to another character. While flesh-and-blood people do actually look away from one another from time to time, and for that very reason, this phrasing, too, can start to feel pretty redundant if characters do it very often.

Besides, looking away is also not usually the most interesting reaction a character can have to a stressful situation. Frequently, this action is a drama-killer, a means of allowing a character to avoid a direct confrontation. That may be desirable in real life, but since Millicent likes to see conflict on every single page of a novel or memoir, do you really want to squander a golden opportunity for injecting more of it into your story?

In short, you’re going to want to take a close look at all of those looks, evaluating on a case-by-case basis. Each time it appears, ask yourself: is this an effective way to convey the meaning I want to the reader, or is this just shorthand? Would the plot or characterization would benefit from a different kind of sentence?

What you should NOT do, however, is simply do a search for the word and cut every use indiscriminately. You’re going to want to exercise your judgment — always bearing in mind, of course, that the reader cannot read your mind, and thus may not interpret shorthand in quite the way you intended. You can’t blame her for that: since all she knows about the story you are telling is what the narrative shows and tells her, if you don’t fill in the details, she has to rely upon her imagination.

Don’t believe that little old look could do quite so much damage all on its own? Oh, but it is used in so many context to mean so many things. To sharpen your eye to the sneaky little verbs many tricks, let’s take a gander at few frolicking in their natural habitat.

He looked at me passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

Quickly, I looked down at the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, George.

“Go?” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

I looked up. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Taken individually, each of these uses of look is perfectly legitimate, right? But the problem here isn’t just the word repetition — it’s that looking is acting as a stand-in for a whole lot of potentially interesting human interaction.

Don’t look away — we already know what do in this situation, right? When confronted with characters merely looking in response to stimuli, we ask: could they have more character-revealing (or situation-revealing) responses?

The possibilities are endless, of course — which is precisely why I’m a big fan of this particular revision strategy; it can open a simple scene up in some fascinating ways. For instance:

He kissed my hand passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

I abruptly became absorbed in studying the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, George.

“Go?” His tone implied that I’d just asked him to leap off a fifty-foot cliff. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

So much for sparing his feelings. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Is everyone comfortable with the prospect of tackling all of those looks in context, retaining some, and coming up with interesting and creative substitutes for others? Good. Now that you’ve started thinking about revising with your reader’s reaction in mind, let’s go back and apply the principles we’ve been discussing to the problem of proper noun repetition in a manuscript.

Oh, did you think we were through with that? Not a chance — over the past few posts, we have established a method for dealing with word repetition, right? Now that we have added the last tool, placing ourselves behind the reader’s spectacles in order to figure out whether the over-used word in question is serving the narrative well, to our writer’s tool belt, aren’t you just dying to trot out the whole set of wrenches?

I’m going to take that look you’re all giving me as a yes.

Suppose for a moment that in mid-revision, you have suddenly become overwhelmed with doubt: have you been over-using proper names? Rather than panic in the face of such a dreadful possibility, you know precisely what to do: first, ascertain just how many of the darned things there are in your manuscript, so you may see just how serious the problem is — and where to begin to attack it.

So you, wise soul, print up a hard copy of your manuscript, pull out your trusty highlighter pens, and mark every time a character’s name appears, dedicating one color to each character. After highlighting up a storm for a chapter or two, you go back and flip through the pages. If a single color appears more than a couple of times on a page, you know that you might want to see where you could trim.

This test, which can be used to diagnose any suspected repetitive pattern in a manuscript, will reveal the most about Millicent’s probable reaction if you begin marking on page 1, of course, rather than at some random point in Chapter 12. If you can only find time to do a few pages, though, you might not want to start marking on page 1. A good, quick check on your name-usage habits is to highlight a two-person dialogue between major characters from the middle of the manuscript.

Why a two-character scene, you ask? See if this pattern seems at all familiar:

”I’ve never seen that giant centipede before,” Tyrone lied. “It just crawled into the house, Mom.”

Angela placed her fists upon her ample hips. “I suppose it opened the back door by itself?”

“It certainly has enough legs to do it,” Tyrone said, examining it. “Or it could have crawled through the keyhole.”

“Next you’ll be telling me that the cat is the one who has been opening the kitchen cabinets,” Angela retorted.

“I’ve seen her do it!” Tyrone insisted.

Angela placed her hand upon his head. “Tyrone, I hate to break it to you, but cats don’t have opposable thumbs. Neither do centipedes. So unless you’re harboring a chimpanzee I don’t know about, I’m going to assume that human hands did all these things.”

The boy cast a nervous glance at his closet door; did Mom know about Archie? “If you say so.”

Did you catch the problems here? If you immediately said, “By gum, a skimming reader’s eye might mix up Angela and Archie, since they both start with the letter A,” give yourself a gold star for being able to remember that far back in this series. Take another star out of petty cash if you also murmured, “This writer is identifying speakers far, far more often than necessary. I wonder if the same pattern persists throughout the manuscript?”

In this excerpt, the pattern is clear, right? In case those baleful looks you’re giving me mean no, let me ask a follow-up question: how do we know that this scene doesn’t really require this many tag lines?

After the first set of exchanges, there really isn’t any doubt about who is speaking when, is there? So why does the reader need to be reminded so frequently who is who, when the speeches are alternating in a predictable rhythm?

The over-use of tag lines is quite pervasive in submissions, and for good reason: like over-abundant proper names, aspiring writers often believe that they reduce confusion. But to professional eyes, the author of the example above has apparently invented unnecessary opportunities for repeating her characters’ names.

Be on the lookout, too, for frequent use of relational terms as substitutes for names: her mother, my brother, her boss. Often, writers who lean heavily upon name usage will pepper their manuscripts with these, too — and again, physically marking them in the text is generally the best way to figure out if there’s too much pepper in your manuscript.

Okay, so that was a bad joke, but it was intended to soften a hard reality: until repetitions of these phrases are actually highlighted in a text, it’s well-nigh impossible for most aspiring writers to understand fully why this particular type of repetition drives the pros mad. Relationship repetition may seem merely descriptive or innocuous to a casual reader, but it leaves professional readers apoplectic; they read it as the writer’s insecurity about the reader’s caring enough – or not being smart enough — to remember how these people are related.

Speaking of over-reactions: “Criminy,” Millicent has been known to mutter. “Is there a REASON you feel the need to tell me three times per page that Roger is Yvette’s son?” Do you think I have no memory at all?”

Sound at all familiar?

In this instance, I think Millicent has some justification for feeling that the writer is talking down to the reader. Unless you are writing a story that will be published in serial form, as so many of Dickens’ works were, it’s not necessary, and can be downright annoying, to keep referring to a character by her relationship to the protagonist.

Especially when, as often happens, the reader is presented with the relationship from several different perspectives. As in:

Brenda looked up at her mother. “Are you sure he’s dead? Couldn’t it be another false alarm?”

Mona cradled her husband’s blue-tinted face in her wrinkled but bejeweled hands. “You’re thinking of my last husband, Martin, the swimmer. Bert’s not capable of holding his breath this long.”

“I didn’t say he was faking it.” Brenda lifted her stepfather’s lifeless arm, dropped it. “I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between comatose and dead.”

“Fine.” Mona kicked her purse at her daughter. “Root through there until you find my compact, and hold the mirror under his nose. If he’s alive, it’ll fog up.”

“For heaven’s sake!” Millicent will be crying by this point in the manuscript, startling fellow screeners in adjacent cubicles. “If Mona is the mother, OF COURSE Brenda is the daughter! What do you think, I’m an idiot?”

Generally speaking, the formal relationship between two characters, particularly if one of those characters is the protagonist, needs to be mentioned to the reader only once in a chapter, at most. If it’s a significant relationship, it may well need to be brought up only once in the book, unless there honestly are issues of mistaken identity involved.

Otherwise, try giving the reminders a bit of a rest.

While you have your marking pens out, it’s not a bad idea to check your submission pages for other instances of phrase repetition as well. I’m not talking about pet phrases here — come on, admit it: every writer has a few phrases and words he likes enough to reuse with some frequency — but overworked nouns and descriptive phrases. Those have a nasty habit of offending the professional eye, too.

You’d be astonished at how much the repetition of even a single verb in two consecutive sentences, for instance, can make a manuscript seem less interesting. Especially — and this is almost impossible to catch when editing on screen, but genuinely irksome to see on a printed page — if the same word or phrase begins or ends two or more sentences in a row.

If you are clever and professional-minded enough to scan your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD (gee, where have I heard THAT advice before?), it will immediately become clear why: it reads as though the point of the paragraph is to get through the information within it as quickly as possible, rather than to write about it as beautifully as possible.

In a race run amongst the stylish, my friends, even a couple of lines that fall down on the job can cost you a head start. You’re in this to express yourself marvelously: try to be consistent about it, but use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

That’s such a pretty thought that I am going to sign off here for the day. Keep your reader in mind as you revise, campers — and keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part IV: there’s life beyond page one. Honest, Millicent, there is.

willie wonka screaming

Willy Wonka: Don’t you know what this is?
Violet Beauregarde: By gum, it’s gum.
Willy Wonka: [happily, but sarcastically] Wrong! It’s the most amazing, fabulous, sensational gum in the whole world.
Violet Beauregarde: What’s so fab about it?
Willy Wonka: This little piece of gum is a three-course dinner.
Mr. Salt: Bull.
Willy Wonka: No, roast beef. But I haven’t got it quite right yet.

After my last post in this series, I pondered starting on a new topic altogether. After all, I reasoned, most submissions get rejected on page 1; why pursue our practical example beyond that? Surely, there’s value in realism.

Then, after a couple of days, the writerly part of my brain began to rebel against the limitation. Realism, shmealism, my creative psyche cried: let’s go ahead and turn the page, already.

Besides, there’s a line on page 2 of our real-life example that would not only cause Millicent the agency screener to burn her lip on her too-hot latte; she would choke, gag, and have to be pounded on the back by the screener in the next cubicle. Here are the first two pages of our sample submission; see if you can spot the choke line. (If the type is too small for you to read, try holding down the command key while hitting the + key to increase the magnification.)

page 1 example wrong
page 2 example

Remember, we’re talking a real coffee-down-the-windpipe-inducer here, not just merely the normal Millicent pet peeves. But now that you’ve brought up the more common pet peeves — you just couldn’t resist, could you? — let’s quickly run over the Millicent-distracters on page 2, just to get them out of our field of vision, so to speak. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The incorrectly-formatted slug line, with the page number on the wrong location on the page

Yes, I wrote this up as several infractions last time — but as you already know about them now, I thought I’d skim over them quickly.

Except to say: I’ve been seeing quite a few manuscripts lately with inappropriate spaces between the elements in the slug line. Just to make absolutely certain that everyone’s aware of the proper format, a slug line should not contain any spaces between the slashes and the words. So in our example above, the slug line should read: Wantabe/Wannabe Novel/2, not Wantabe/ Wannabe Novel/ 2.

Everybody clear on that? Good. Let’s press on.

2. An incorrectly-formatted ellipsis on line 2…and again on the last line of the page.

I’m kind of glad to see this one crop up here (twice!), because it’s quite a common punctuation gaffe. When an ellipsis appears in the middle of a sentence, there should not be spaces at either end. Thus, the rather funny line

Emma did not have more money than God … but she could call that loan in any day now.

should instead read:

Emma did not have more money than God…but she could call that loan in any day now.

Naturally, this is not the only context in which a writer might choose to use an ellipsis. For a run-down on how to employ them properly, please see this recent post on the subject.

3. A misspelled word in line 5, and another in line 11.

Oh, you may shrug, but most Millicents will stop reading at the first misspelling; the rest will stop reading at the second. The same basic rule applies to graduate school applications, by the way. College application essays tend to be read a bit more leniently: their screeners often will not stop reading until the fourth or fifth misspelling.

Yes, seriously.

The moral: NEVER submit ANY writing to a professional reader without proofreading it — preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. While you’re at it, it never hurts to run a computer spell-check.

It especially never hurts to re-run a spell-check after you’ve made revisions in a scene. As we shall be discussing later in the week, even writers with sterling spelling and grammatical skills often end up with errors in their submissions simply because they forgot to proofread between Revision A and Revision B.

“Oh, I’ve already submitted an earlier draft of this scene to another agent,” revisers murmur blithely to themselves. “I’m quite positive that I spell-checked before I submitted. Since all I’ve made is a minor tweak or two to the scene, I don’t really need to proof it again…”

Bite your tongue, revisers: you most certainly do need to proof it again before you submit. Half-finished revisions are very, very common in submissions, as are misspelled words. Diligent re-checking is the only means of preventing this type of completely preventable error.

4. Single-sentence paragraphs in paragraphs 4 and 6.

This one has been on the rise, too, so I’m quite pleased to have the excuse to talk about it: in English, at least two sentences are technically required to form a narrative paragraph. In a paragraph of dialogue, only one is required. So while

“You don’t say!” Edgar exclaimed.

is a perfectly acceptable paragraph, one that would not give Millicent a microsecond’s worth of pause,

Going through grade school as “Casey Jones” was also that trainwreck-kind-of-interesting.

usually would. While this rule is not as closely observed as some others, when coupled with quotation marks around words that are not actually attributable to anyone (more on that later) and two words stuck together as one (trainwreck instead of train wreck), even a fairly tolerant Millicent might start to frown.

Some of you have been jumping up and down, hollering, trying to get my attention for this entire section, haven’t you? “But Anne,” single-line paragraph lovers everywhere pant breathlessly, “I see single-line paragraphs in published books all the time, and you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without being positively overwhelmed with them. So isn’t it safe to assume that this rule is, you know, obsolete?”

In a word, no — at least, not if you happen to write literary fiction, high-end women’s fiction, or aspire to the more literary end of most fiction categories, where the better-educated agents and editors dwell. Lest we forget, even people on the business side of publishing tend to go into it because they love good writing; scratch a Millicent at a prominent agency, and you’re very likely to find a former honors English major from a minor Ivy League school.

So you might want to ask yourself: is the impact of any given a single-sentence paragraph worth the risk of Millicent’s disapproving of my having broken the rule? Or, still worse, of her concluding that I simply am not aware of the rule, and thus every subsequent syllable in my manuscript should be scrutinized with unusual intensity, lest I run grammatically amok again?

While you’re pondering that one, I should concede: in AP format (you know, the standard for newspapers and magazines), single-sentence paragraphs are considered quite acceptable these days — which is why, in case you had been wondering, you will see even highly literate nonfiction authors dropping the occasional single-line paragraph into their books. Since journalists write so many books, journalism’s standards have (unfortunately, according to some) bled very heavily into the nonfiction literary market.

We could all sit around and blame Joan Didion, but I, for one, have better things to do with my time.

Some of you single-line lovers are flailing about again, are you not? “But Anne, I’ve seen it in fiction, too. What do you have to say about that, huh? Huh?”

Well, for starters, I sincerely hope that those authors’ old English teachers don’t know what liberties they’ve been taking with the language. It might kill anyone who got her teacher training prior to 1950. Second, and more seriously for our purposes, it has become (begrudgingly) increasingly acceptable for fiction writers to use the OCCASIONAL single-sentence paragraph for emphasis.

You know, when the information revealed in it is genuinely going to surprise the reader. As in:

The town certainly knew how to throw a good funeral; nobody, not even the grim Sisters Katzenberg, denied that. For even the poorest departed citizens, the locals would throw a potluck of the Stone Soup variety: everyone brought what she happened to have in her pantry, and somehow, out of that chaos was born a meal for several hundred grieving souls.

Or it had, until the time the grizzly bear family decided to drop by and pay its respects.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? Breaking off that sentence into its own paragraph emphasizes the twist. Not only does that format imply a pause both before and after the sentence, setting it off from the rest of the narrative, but it is also significantly more likely to be caught by a skimming eye.

That’s the most reasonable use of the single-sentence paragraph: rarely, and only when introducing a legitimate surprise.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of writers radically over-use it, incorporating it for rhythm’s sake when the actual content of the sentence doesn’t justify it. All too often, it’s simply used automatically for a punch line, as in today’s example:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore.

Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: a joke needs to be pretty uproarious in order not to be deflated by having its punch line offset like this. Especially to Millicent, who sees hundreds of offset punch lines in any given screening day, there’s no apparent reason that the narrative should not run like this:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore. Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Hasn’t really lost anything by being made grammatically correct, has it? Save the dramatic paragraph breaks for moments that are actually dramatic; the device will have a greater impact that way.

5. Use of the passive voice in paragraph 7, line 2.

Before anyone starts to panic at the invocation of the passive voice, let me hasten to point out that generally speaking, a narrative usually needs to have many sentences in the passive voice on a single page in order to ruffle Millicent’s nerves. Admittedly, if more than a couple should appear on page 1, some Millicents might become antsy.

And then there are the Miliicents who will automatically stop reading upon encountering a single such a sentence. Suffice it to say that no type of sentence annoys a broader array of Millicents in a broader variety of ways than one in which things apparently happen all by themselves — or at any rate, by actors relegated to subordinate clauses:

The coat was brown.
Traffic prevented Trevor from keeping his appointment with Maurice.
The candle floated around the room, carried by unseen hands.
Karen was stunned into silence.

You may have stopped jumping out of sheer shocked depression, oh hand-wavers, but I can tell that you still have a question to ask. “Seriously? There’s a type of sentence so toxic that Millicent won’t read it at all? In heaven’s name, why is she so afraid of the passive voice?”

For one exceedingly simple reason: she has been taught to regard it as style-free writing, at least in fiction. Nor are screeners the only ones who harbor such opinions: ask any ten agents, editors, contest judges, or even writing teachers for the shortest possible definition of lazy writing, and five of them will instantly spout, “The passive voice.”

You must admit, they have a point: writing a sentence in the passive voice is seldom the most interesting way to convey information. Most of the time, it’s relatively easy to work the information into a more complex sentence, particularly if those details previously appeared in the dreaded X was Y) structure.

Unseen hands carried the candle from tabletop to mantelpiece, pausing in the dead center of the room. Stunned into silence, Karen hugged her brown coat around her shoulders. Dimly, she could hear the normal sounds of ordinary life passing by the window: birds chirping, pedestrians chatting, traffic whizzing toward a collective destination. Fleetingly, she wondered if Trevor had been able to fight his way through the rush-hour crowds to keep his appointment with Maurice.

Okay, so I took a few creative liberties in that revision, but isn’t it more interesting now? With that qualitative shift in mind, let’s revisit the use of the passive voice in page 2 of today’s example. Actually, let’s take a gander at this whole section. If you were Millicent, would it give you pause?

Emma was in there. She wanted to talk. This was frightening.

I’m not going to second-guess our generous example-provider by reworking this, but I’m quite confident that there’s a more interesting way to express Casey’s thoughts and fears in this moment. The emotion here feels real, but it’s not fleshed out: the reader is told how Casey feels and what she fears, rather than showing those thoughts and fears in action.

Actually, that’s a pretty good revision rule of thumb: if an emotionally important moment summarizes the protagonist’s feelings (This was frightening.), ask yourself: is the narrative telling, not showing here? Is there a way I could convey that my protagonist is frightened, instead of just stating it in the passive voice?

6. Use of a cliché in paragraph 7.

Remember the ten professional readers we asked to define lazy writing? The five who didn’t immediately mention the passive voice instantly thought of clichés.

Agents, editors, and contest judges will not pick up your manuscript expecting to read other people’s voice — they are hoping to be wowed by yours. By definition, clichéd phraseology is not going to achieve that goal: phrases that everyone uses are, after all, not original.

Which is precisely why they roll so easily off the narrative tongue, right? They seem so natural — which is why a writer can occasionally (VERY occasionally) get away with incorporating them into dialogue. But think about it: in a narrative paragraph, what are the chances that Millicent is going to read a stock phrase like world enough and time and think, “Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Roughly nil, I’m afraid. Avoid clichés like the plague; keep an eagle eye out for them while revising, and always let your conscience be your guide. Remember, a stitch in time saves nine.

Annoying, isn’t it? Multiply that by a few hundred per day, and you’ll see why even the hint of a cliché will set an experienced Millicent’s teeth on edge.

7. Placing words within quotation marks that are not in fact quotes.

This one is such a common professional readers’ pet peeve that I remain perpetually astonished that agents and editors don’t run screaming into writers’ conferences, bellowing, “Don’t stick quotation marks around those words unless someone is actually speaking them!” at the top of their lungs. In a submission, the mere sight of misused quotations (particularly the odious advertising practice of placing words within quotes simply to emphasize them) is usually enough to make even the most hardened Millicent turn green.

Reserve quotation marks for when people are actually speaking. In a pinch, you can sometimes get away with the common use of quotation marks to indicate so-called (“What do you think of this “Louis XIV” table, Gerald?”), but as with any other tone in dialogue, it’s unwise to rely upon punctuation to convey every possible conversational nuance.

Generally speaking, italics are the safest way either to indicate verbal emphasis or to set off words from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate the difference using in the last paragraph of today’s example, this is likely to annoy virtually any Millicent:

If you looked up “hole in the wall” and cross-checked it with “Corpus Christi, Texas” you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

But what about this version?

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

Actually, that was a trick question: one spelling mistake and two punctuation errors still remain. Did you catch them, or could you use a bit more proofreading practice?

To help sharpen your eye, here is a version that Millicents everywhere would approve:

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas, you might find a photograph of a little yellow restaurant named the Halyard.

8. And then there’s the conceptual stuff.

All of those little points aside, the second page of this example exhibits one very common structural reason that submissions get rejected — and one very specific content problem that writers occasionally include innocently. They don’t mean to fluster anyone, but pop goes the envelope, and before you know it, Millicent’s latte is all over her nice ivory-colored blouse.

Let’s take the structural reason first. Go back to the section break on page 1, then read on. Notice anything about the pacing?

If you instantly shot your hand into the air and shouted, “By gum, the plot seemed to stop cold while the narrative gave us backstory!” give yourself a gold star for the day. First novels — and memoirs, too — are notorious amongst Millicents for establishing conflict in an opening scene (or part of a scene), then setting the conflict on the proverbial back burner while the narrative tells about what has gone on before, what the participants are like, how they got their names…

That’s a whole lot of telling, rather than showing, isn’t it? Little does Millicent know that the original version of many of these stop-and-go novels featured seven pages of backstory before the plot even began; that opening half-scene prior to the three-page digression was just a teaser, added because somebody told the writer that Millicent likes to see conflict on page 1.

News flash: she likes to see conflict on EVERY page. So does her boss — and so do editors and contest judges. Keeping that opening momentum going is a great way to win friends and influence people at agencies.

Unfortunately, even very promising manuscripts often start with a bang, then peter out almost immediately. Partially, this problem may be traced to how introductory writing teachers push hooks. Most fledgling writers learn about opening with a hook — a grabber that draws the reader into the story at the top of page 1 — without learning that in order to sell a book, a writer has to keep the reader hooked for a long time. Digressing from the story for paragraphs or even pages at a time in Chapter 1 is seldom the most effective means of keeping the tension high.

The good news: if the opening scene is compelling and character-revealing enough, including backstory usually isn’t necessary at all. Instead, save it, then reveal it in increments, later in the book.

Stop shaking your head — or at least try writing an opening scene unencumbered by backstory before you insist that it’s not possible. Concentrate on the conflict; keep your characters focused on what they want in the scene and how they are going to overcome the obstacles to getting it.

I could go on for days and day about the ubiquitous early tension-sagging phenomenon (and probably shall, in the weeks to come), but I’m already running long for today. Before I sign off, though, I should ask: did anybody catch the line of text that would have sent Millicent’s coffee flying?

No? Try this on for size:

She worked as a literary agent. God knew why. Casey certainly didn’t.

Didn’t jump off the page at you, did it? It would to Millicent, for the same reason that an orchestra conductor’s eyes light up when someone she meets at a party suddenly starts talking about piccolos: this story is apparently set in the world she knows. And because it does include types of characters she knows intimately in real life — in this case, an author and an agent — she’s going to increase her scrutiny a thousandfold, eager to catch lapses in realism.

Were this submission a meticulously-researched exposé of conditions in the publishing industry, that hyper-intense gaze might prove helpful to the writer: if he got everything right, no reader is going to appreciate that more that Millicent. But had I mentioned yet that this book is a fantasy?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that the writer in this instance has done all of the necessary research to present an agent and her client believably to those who know them best. Take another look at the paragraph where Emma’s vocation is revealed — can you spot any reason Millicent might take umbrage at it?

Here’s a very good reason: not only is the Emma character presented as unreasonable (and, to some readers, unlikable) in these opening pages, but this paragraph implies either that (a) Emma is entirely unsuited to being an agent, for reasons not divulged to the readers, or — and this is the one most likely to occur to Millicent — (b) the narrative is implying that no one in her right mind would want to pursue that line of work.

See the problem, when submitting to people who have chosen to devote their lives to that line of work? Who are, in fact, sensitive human beings, longing to be treated with respect, like everyone else? Whose feelings might conceivably get a trifle bruised by an insensitive portrayal of someone like themselves?

You hadn’t thought of Millicent as someone whose feelings could be hurt by a submission, had you? Sort of changes how you think of the submission process, doesn’t it?

Don’t be disappointed, if you didn’t catch the negative implication. Many, if not most, writers who have not yet had the pleasure of working with an agent probably would not have caught it — or did not think that it might have ruffled Millicent’s feathers. It may even have struck some of you at first glance as humorous.

To someone working within the publishing industry, though, that paragraph of text would have come as something of a shock. Over-sensitive? Perhaps, but in a way that it’s certainly possible to predict and plan a way around, no?

Next time, I shall begin talking about a completely different set of submission perils, pitfalls into which even the most conscientious of self-editors often tumble. Keep plowing forward with those revisions, everybody, and keep up the good work!

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

woman tied to a train tracklion and tamertommygun1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, standard format is standard for a reason.

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

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

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

page 1 example wrong

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

page 1 edit 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

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

Congratulations, Shaun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juggling multiple protagonists, part II: sometimes, what we have here is a failure to communicate

juggling statuejuggling statue2juggling statue3

Oh, what a long day it’s been, campers — actually, a long few days. There’s something in the air that’s making all of us just a trifle slow on the uptake. Or something in the water. I include myself as one of the victims of this invidious plague, you see. I must be — how else could I possibly explain the fact that I spent a full half an hour today explaining to an incredulous optician that as hard as he might find it to believe, I did indeed expect to be able to see though my new glasses?

Surely, were I on the top of my communicative game, I would have been able to communicate this admittedly radical and abstruse philosophical concept in half the time. I think my problem was that I waited until twenty minutes in to resort to mime.

“But the frames look so good on you,” he kept saying, as if I has simply misunderstood the primary function of eyewear.

Apparently, ambient blurriness is the appropriate price to pay for fashion. Or so I surmise from the fact that he was not at all amused when I mentioned that if he would prefer that I wore the frames without lenses, I would have to wear my contact lenses at the same time, more or less defeating the purpose of glasses.

That last quip was magical in mime, you’ll be happy to hear. Marcel Marceau would have wept openly, but the optician remained befuddled.

As you may well imagine, carrying on such an argument is quite a strain on both parties. At one point, I briefly considered switching to another language — French, perhaps, or Italian — to see if this native English speaker would understand me better. I’m fairly positive that at least once, I broke into interpretive dance to illustrate a point.

In a week or two, if I’m very good indeed, the capricious optometry gods may see fit to provide me with workable glasses. So I’m sitting here, peering through contact lenses I have worn far too long for one day.

Let’s get right to work, then, before my eyeballs turn from mauve to magenta.

Last time, I was waxing poetic on the many benefits of writing a novel inhabited by multiple protagonists. I could, of course, rhapsodize equally long and loudly about the joys of the first person, or omniscient narrator, or distant third person, etc. All of these are perfectly legitimate narrative choices.

No matter what the Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) like to claim. They would like you to write solely about single protagonists, please, in the tight third person or in the first person; all other choices, they say, are confusing, if not downright unprofessional. And omniscience is so 19th century.

As I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now, there’s not much you can do if your multiple-protagonist project happens to fall upon the desk of a POVN screener or contest judge. The same generally holds true if you happen to hand your writing to POVN members of even a very good critique group or first reader — which is quite easy to do by accident, since POVNs seldom think to wear a t-shirt reading More than one perspective? Madness! to social gatherings. And don’t even get started arguing with a POVN in an online forum.

Just smile, nod — and get your work into some other reader’s hands as soon as humanly possible. No matter how much or how demonstrably your narrative benefits from incorporating multiple perspectives, you’re simply not going to win this argument. Move on to pastures new.

Must the retreat be that total, you cry in horror? Well, I would recommend it, to minimize the carnage: if you stick around, any further exchange can only end in tears, probably yours.

What distinguishes the POVN from other advocates of particular writing styles is vehemence, typically: once a critic has pronounced that no writing that differs from the two chosen (and not entirely coincidentally, the two of the most common) narrative voices is acceptable, what else is there to discuss?

You have one vision of your book, and your critic another. As the parable of the monomaniacal optician abundantly illustrated, in order to have a fruitful discussion, both parties must agree on at least a few underlying principles of reality.

Move on, I beg you — but before you do, see if you can learn anything from the POVN’s feedback. (Beyond his personal literary preferences, that is.) Because chances are, you can indeed learn something from his monomania.

Why am I so sure about that? There is one lesson that every multiple protagonist user can learn from any POVN: if the reader is ever confused about whose perspective is whose on the page, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to re-read, scratching his head, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the writer’s job to make the perspective switches easy to follow.

From this, we can derive the first principle of utilizing multiple protagonists successfully: clarity, clarity, clarity. (Which wouldn’t make a bad first principle of optometry, either, in my humble opinion.)

What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, not switching perspectives without warning, for one thing — a surprisingly common lapse in multiple protagonist manuscripts. Once you have established a perspective, stick to it until it’s time for a well-marked perspective switch — or just take the full leap into omniscient narration for the entire book.

In other words: commit. (Commit, commit. Just to keep things symmetrical. Or maybe I’m just seeing double, as the optician suggested.) Otherwise, Millicent the agency screener and other professional readers are all too apt to mistake your genuinely intricate and well-justified perspective choices for mere head-hopping.

“Did the writer just forget that we’re seeing this from Janet’s perspective?” the Millicents of the world mutter over their scalding lattes. “Or is this scene also from Robert’s? And why on earth doesn’t he have any lenses in his glasses?”

Unfortunately for the self-editing writer, commitment slips are often very subtle. So much so that they generally appear to be unintentional to a non-professional reader, making it hard for most first readers to point them out. If your eye isn’t specifically looking for them, they’re even — brace yourself — easy to miss when you read a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Hey, if I don’t mention that tip every few posts, I’m likely to start having headaches. Or so my optician tells me.

You want to see for yourself just how hard perspective slips are to catch, don’t you? Take, for example, this paragraph from a book about the aforementioned Janet and Robert, where Janet has so far been the designated protagonist for the scene:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school. Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now.

Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

Did it jump out at you? Believe me, it would have made Millicent scream: the narrative was coming from inside Janet’s head all throughout the first paragraph — yet in paragraph 2, the reader is suddenly seeing something she could not possibly see without a mirror. Once again, Millicent is left to wonder, has the perspective suddenly switched to Robert’s, and the author just didn’t bother to tell us? Or is the narration now omniscient?

Trust me, these are not questions that Millie likes to answer for herself. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

The first step to perspective clarity is to make it magnificently clear when perspective shifts occur — and it’s often easier than the average reviser assumes, or at least less word-consuming. No need for a lengthy explanation; just give the reader a simple heads-up when you’re taking them into another head.

That’s an easy enough axiom to remember, isn’t it? Heck, you can even embrace it as an opportunity to enrich the scene. Take another gander at J and R:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school.

Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

He gripped the arms of his leather chair, startled by her transformation. Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire.

Simple change, wasn’t it? Yet now it’s perfectly obvious that the reader is hearing about Janet’s external characteristics because Robert is observing them.

But you’re no longer thinking about Janet and Robert, I’m sensing. You’re so alert to the nuances of foreshadowing that you are already steeling yourself to receive your homework assignment.

It’s worth making a sweep through your manuscript to make sure that the protagonist of the moment can actually perceive anything you report her to perceive. People seldom see the backs of their own heads, for instance, without the aid of several cleverly-rigged mirrors. Similarly, their hearing from far away and sightlines around corners is often imperfect, as is their ability to reproduce entire conversations taking place in Moscow when they are in prison camps in Siberia.

I’m looking at you, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Also, not all that many people are psychic, at least not to the extent one encounters in manuscripts. Or perhaps these are instances of another common perspective lapse, when a tight third person narrative uses projection in order to get into another character’s head without officially switching perspectives.

Not entirely certain what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a lovely example. So far, the book has been mostly from Henry’s perspective:

Henry felt Blanche looking at him hard, passionately, as if she had never seen a man before and the sheer nearness of him had induced the onset of puberty on the spot. Odd behavior, in someone he’d just met. He must remind her of some hunk in one of those old movies that had always seemed to be playing at her grandmother’s house throughout her childhood, black-and-white images on a small black-and-white screen. Maybe she didn’t even know that they made films in color now. Maybe she didn’t even know what a man looked like naked, and was dying to find out.

Never mind that you want to keep reading, to find out what happens next. Tell me: what part of this is from Blanche’s perspective?

Offhand, I’d say none of it. Upon close examination, it’s clearly from Henry’s — but if so, how on earth does he know so much about her childhood? So is what the reader learning about Blanche here fact to be relied upon for the rest of the book, or merely a projection of Henry’s over-sexed imagination?

Oh, you wanted to add something, Millicent? Put down that latte and join the conversation, by all means. Give your eyes a rest.

“Does the she in the next-to-last sentence,” Millicent asks, and not without reason, “refer to Blanche or her grandmother? The last sentence implies that it’s Blanche, but like every other reader on the planet, I seldom read all the way to the end of a paragraph before forming a mental image of what occurred in the middle of it. Of course, it makes me grumpy to have to re-read so much as a single word, but when I don’t even know who is who, I just stop reading. Oh, great — now I’ve thought about it so much that I’ve been pulled out of the story. Next!”

Thanks for sharing that, Millicent: from the reader’s side of the page, clarity is indeed 100% the writer’s problem, not yours. Remember that when you are revising, my friends. It may seem a bit restrictive, but within the context of a particular protagonist’s section of text, edit like a POVN.

Yes, you read that correctly. The writer gets to set up the rules of narration, but once they are established, professional readers — even those who are not POVNs — will regard any deviation from those rules as accidental.

And if you thought Millicent came down hard on accidental typos and logic problems, wait ‘til you see her lay into an accidental perspective switch. Even if she is not a card-carrying POVN — which, as I mentioned last week, she is significantly less likely to be than her counterpart of a decade ago — she probably had an English professor who was. Or a boss at the agency. She’s not going to let a thing like this pass, nor is her cousin Maury, who is an editorial assistant at the big publishing house just around the corner.

The best way to avoid their ire is to edit for perspective consistency — and send a strong signal whenever the perspective switches, in order to illustrate that the change is not accidental. Before anyone tenses up at the potential enormity of that task, I hasten to add that there are many good strategies for achieving these laudable goals.

1. Formal breaks in the narrative. Structural means are the simplest signposts, and among the most popular. As we have discussed, you could switch chapters each time you want to change perspectives. Heck, you could even title the chapters with the protagonist-du-jour’s name, to avoid even the remotest possibility of confusion.

2. Just start a new scene. Usually, this involves inserting a section break, then starting a fresh section. This technique, like the chapter trick, works best if the first sentence or two contains a pretty broad indication of whose perspective is on deck now. (If you’re tempted even for a moment to assume Millicent will enjoy guessing, please go back six paragraphs and re-read her observation on Henry’s narrative skills.)

3. Hitting the RETURN key. In other words, try to limit yourself to a single perspective per paragraph.

The space bar can provide quite a bit of clarity, if you will let it help you. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve written in margins, “I cut the paragraph here, to keep the two perspectives distinct.”

Why does this simple trick work so well? To skimming eyes, it’s just too easy to miss the indicators that might make clear that the perspective has changed within a single paragraph; he and she, for instance, don’t look all that different on the page.

I know; the implications of this are a bit depressing. Hey, if I ran the universe, every agency screener and editorial assistant would read every syllable of every writer’s submission with reverent care before pronouncing judgment. Opticians everywhere would strive to maximize their customers’ visual acuity, and friendly cows would roam the streets, giving chocolate milk to every hungry child in the world.

But I don’t — and they don’t, alas.

The primary drawback to all three strategies lies, as drawbacks so often do, in the first pages that you will be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest judge. If a book begins with one protagonist, then switches to another too quickly, one of three professionally unpleasant things may happen.

First, plenty of agents and editors feel cheated if they’ve come to accept one character as a protagonist, only to learn a few pages later that they didn’t need to care about this character much at all. (Yes, really.)

The way around this is — hold on to your hats, boys — clarity: the narrative can make it plain that both the initial protagonist and the next are in fact both critical to the story. A good way to do this: if you’re introducing your protagonists in separate chapters or sections, show each initially in a situation where the stakes are very high for him/her.

Which isn’t a bad way to establish sympathy for a character, either. I just mention.

Second, the initial protagonist may be introduced too briefly to make an emotional impression upon the reader, and so may not appear to the skimming eye to be a true protagonist at all. We’ve all seen enough movies where the identity of the guy shot in the opening scene isn’t clear until the very end of the story, right?

Well, think like Millicent for a moment, and picture that storyline on the page: she began reading that scene assuming, not unreasonably, that the entire book is going to be either about that guy or his assassin. So imagine her surprise (and umbrage) to see her pal weltering in a pool of his own blood by the bottom of page two.

I have a really, really cynical fix for this one, so brace yourself: for the submission version of your book (as distinct from the final, published form), make sure that the most attractive — in whatever sense you choose — protagonist is on stage for at least the first five pages. You can always switch it later, and five pages is plenty of time to make Millicent fall in love with Bill thoroughly enough to be sanguine about meeting co-protagonist Bob on page 6.

I told you it was cynical. I’m all for art, but I’m also all about getting art past the gatekeepers so the public will eventually be able to see it.

Danger #3 is the opposite of #2: the reader may like the first protagonist so much that she will become annoyed when the second emerges. “I was just getting into the story of that coal miner,” she will grumble. “Why am I suddenly reading about a debutante?”

This reaction is especially likely in novels where the connection between the protagonists is not apparent until very late in the story. We writers LOVE this kind of revelation, don’t we? I think we tend to overestimate its surprise value: after all, the reader is aware that all of these people are occupying the same book; the presumption, then, is that they are going to be connected somehow.

And a professional reader has an even greater advantage: if she becomes curious about who is who, all she has to do is flip to the back of the submission and take a gander at the synopsis.

This inherent expectation of connection a good thing to bear in mind while revising. Take a hard look at the first time each of your protagonists appears qua protagonist in the book — if it is not clear how protagonist #2, #3, and so on to the proverbial cast of thousands are connected to the story you are telling in the first protagonist’s first appearance, what specific benefit is the book deriving from maintaining the secret?

If you’re not positive what is being gained (other than the coolness of later revelation which, as I said, is probably not going to come as a jaw-dropping surprise to Millicent), consider letting the reader in on the connection a bit — at least for the submission draft.

Or at least in a subtle manner. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you added a hint or two about possible connections? What about if you had Protagonist #1 make a walk-on in this introductory scene — or if Protagonist #2 make a cameo in Protagonist #1’s chapter, so the reader would already know who he is?

It may not always be desirable — or even possible — to use this tactic in every story, of course. But do consider it: readers love to try to figure things out from subtle hints; it makes them feel smart. And no one loves to feel smart more than Millicent and Maury.

Call it a family failing. Try not to hold it against them.

Vision-correction conditions permitting, I shall take more next time about nifty strategies for keeping perspectives distinct. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Plot flares, or, what have you got in that bag, and why is it meowing?

candles at Lourdes

I meant to post yesterday; honestly, I did. Then I got sucked into a conversation that a lot of us affiliated with the publishing industry have found ourselves having over the last year and a half: a debate about the presumed imminent demise of traditional publishing with people who frankly wouldn’t be all that sorry to see it go.

Specifically, in this case, with people who did not grow up cherishing the hope that sometime, someday, if they worked really, really hard at their craft, they might actually get PAID for their writing. (Hey, my SO has friends, too.) To the gleeful consumers of e-books who invaded my living room last night, the question of how — or even whether — the author of the story they’re enjoying so much will be remunerated was simply not all that interesting. They were too busy licking their chops at a vision of a world where they would never have to pay $25.00 for a hardcover again.

How could I tell that they weren’t particularly sympathetic to the authors’ plight? Well, let me put it this way: if I had one piece of bread for every time one of my guests airily voiced some dismissive iteration of, “Oh, the really good books will make money for their authors” (presumably through some magical process overseen by the Tooth Fairy’s older and more organizationally-minded sister), I’d make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for every writer I know. And I go to a lot of writers’ conferences.

To those of us who’ve been listening to the blithe declaration, “Oh, good writing will always find a home at an agency or publishing house!” for any length of time, this argument is eerily familiar, isn’t it? Most people’s faith in the inevitable discovery of every single talented writer who has ever lived borders on the intensity of a five-year-old’s confidence that Santa Claus is coming down that chimney to deliver presents, not to filch goodies from under the tree.

The possibility of disappointment just doesn’t occur to them.

The inevitability argument always makes me cringe, because its flip side is so harmful to aspiring writers. It runs a little something like this: if every good manuscript will necessarily be snapped up by the publishing industry (or an admiring web-browsing public, in my guests’ worldview), then by logical extension, if a writer’s having trouble getting a book published or finding an agent, the book couldn’t possibly be good.

It’s just not true. But writers hear this theory so often from the lips of non-writers — and even from other writers — that they can come to believe that if they were really talented, they wouldn’t have to struggle at all. So why keep pressing forward, if the Tooth Fairy’s older sister has already passed judgment on their books and found them wanting?

But try explaining that to a roomful of non-writers. Suffice it to say that after an hour and a half, I thought it might not be the world’s best idea to inflict my mood upon all of you, dear readers.

I’m more chipper tonight, though. Let’s get back to work.

Last time, I suggested — and none too gently — that while a writer is reading through his manuscript (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD) with an eye toward making his protagonist more active, it might behoove him to consider revising scenes where secondary characters are either passive or mirror the protagonist’s reactions. Not to mention looking to vary those characters’ reactions, so they do not become too predictable.

I’m bringing it up again, because most writers’ instinct is to cultivate reaction repetition, not to minimize it. All too often, writers proceed on the assumption that consistency is the way to make a character believable. The result? Generally speaking, the less complex the character, the more predictable he will become over the course of a book, because the writer keeps showing the reader the same reactions over and over again.

Why is this so common? Authorial fear, mostly, I suspect: fearing that readers may not recall important plot points or characteristics, many aspiring writers repeat such information throughout the book.

How common is this practice? Well, let’s just say that most of us who read for a living see the first repetition of a trait or plot point and say immediately, “Oh, okay — THAT little tidbit is going to be crucial to the climax.”

I like to call those tidbits plot flares, significant repetitions and emphatic little asides that the writer inserts early in the story so that the eventual plot twists won’t come entirely out of the blue. In your English classes, the teacher probably called it foreshadowing.

Plot flares can be a huge problem in a submission or contest entry, far more than most eager foreshadowers suspect. Millicent the agency screener is a pretty savvy reader, after all; like her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, she’s trained to pick up on foreshadowing. And when someone whose hint-discovery skills have been honed on page after page of similarly-themed manuscripts for years on end — as is almost invariably the case for an experienced agency screener or contest judge, since both agents and contests tend to specialize in certain book categories — encounters a less-than-subtle hint of what’s to come, she’s likely to draw conclusions about the rest of the book.

Which is not necessarily a drawback, if those conclusions are favorable. But if those conclusions include a sense that she’s read a similar foreshadowed twist recently, or that now that she knows what’s to come, she’s less inclined to keep turning those pages, we all know what her next decision is likely to be, right? “Next!”

Now, I have nothing against a little light foreshadowing — far from it. As a reader, I find it very satisfying if the villain’s main henchman’s nervous breakdown in Chapter 11 was suggested by a bevy of neuroses introduced with ever-increasing intensity in Chapters 2, 7, and 10, or if the protagonist’s long-lost father, known to the reader as the proprietor of the local haberdashery, evinces the occasional slightly-too-intense burst of emotion when the protagonist purchases a hat. That’s just good story construction.

Foreshadowing can devolve into plot flares when the narrative repeats same reaction, character trait, or even factual statement so that the reader is more likely to notice it. Instead of providing a subtle build-up for what’s to come, plot flares blare it.

Like so many manuscript megaproblems, the over-use of plot flares is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies and television shows: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. If the heroine is going to have to shoot the villain at the climax as her Own True Love lies bleeding and weapon-free, for instance, she will almost invariably make a statement about her (a) loathing for guns, (b) aversion to violence, and/or (c) having witnessed some incredibly graphic murder during her formative years during the first act.

Ostensibly so we poor viewers can understand why anyone might have an aversion to, say, picking up a gun and shooting someone in cold blood, or some other hard-to-grasp concept like that.

In novels, creative nonfiction, and memoirs, foreshadowing of the denouement often happens within the first 50 pages — or even the first chapter. Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for an actual SCENE from the climax to open the book as a prologue, with the plot jumping backward in time immediately thereafter to figure out how our hero ended up there.

Or, to put it in cinematic terms: “Rosebud.”

From the author’s perspective, these hints may seem quite subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t awfully subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it.

And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

There are, of course, the classics common to both the silver screen and the printed page. If the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy about to be called to action, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless.

Pathos, pathos. And at this point in storytelling history, predictability, predictability.

It’s not just lowbrow entertainment that embraces this strategy, either. These cliche’s transcend genre or even writing quality: that last example about the dead wife and child was the backstory for both half the action films Charles Bronson ever made and the Sidney Poitier character in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (courtesy of a car crash), as well as for the Antonio Banderas character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list of such common plot flares is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more to hire to play the part than the other actors?) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Christopher Walken, and/or a well-known British character actor in a US-made action picture — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re supposed to think did it, so the twist can be that somebody else did.

Wait — the Alan Rickman character doesn’t have an evil, dark secret in his past? Who saw that coming?

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry can continue to produce scripts featuring plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a completely forgettable thriller where one of the actors had, unfortunately, shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the final plot twist.

When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, your humble narrator), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer “had a tough childhood.” The screenwriter might as well have erected a neon sign with a big arrow that read “psychopath here.”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed, straight-faced.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film from the all-too-deserved charge of predictability. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack.

However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges are extremely unlikely to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

And that’s a problem, because, as I mentioned above, so many aspiring writers just love foreshadowing. They think it’s clever — so clever that they often fall prey to the temptation to repeat the clue. They wouldn’t want a skimming reader to miss it or anything.

If you feel you must foreshadow, keep it low-key. If you don’t trust the reader to remember the salient information later on, try introducing it in a different manner the second or third time.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, if it’s vital to the plot that the reader know before Chapter 15 that the protagonist’s best friend, a florist with a heart of gold, is prone to sudden violent bouts of allergy-induced twitching, you could show one — one! — incident early on in the book, say in Chapter 5. Or have a couple of different characters tease her about it in Chapter 8. Or have the protagonist reflect on an earlier allergic attack in Chapter 3, then have the florist rush into Marcie’s wedding late in Chapter 11, bright red from head to toe, muttering about her recent trip to the hospital after an inadvertent brush with a freesia.

What you should NOT do, that unless you’re writing fairly broad comedy, is having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.”

Not only is this brick-through-a-window foreshadowing, but the presentation doesn’t render this statement particularly memorable — not exactly the goal of foreshadowing, no? And can anyone out there give me even one good reason that a professional reader like me shouldn’t regard that statement about Harry as a glaring instance of telling, rather than showing?

Because it is, to my eye: the author has chosen to tell the reader point-blank that Harry has the qualities that would lead one to expect him to be president, rather than showing him exhibiting the individual characteristics through action.

Once again, Harry’s creator doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony…or the pathos, or the twist to come. (Harry’s going to enter politics? Who saw that coming?) Instead, it’s usually more effective to allow the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp aloud.

If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance. If s/he keeps turning the pages long enough to find out.

To avoid engendering the dreaded oh, I saw that coming a MILE away reaction, try to introduce the relevant facts or characteristics in such a vivid way the first time around — showing them, perhaps, instead of simply telling the reader about them — that you have no need to repeat them. If the initial scene is memorable, the reader may be safely trusted to recall 300 pages hence that the protagonist’s sister is allergic to the beets that are going to kill her on p. 423.

Tell me honestly: were you more or less surprised by that last sentence, given that I’d mentioned allergic reactions no fewer than five times earlier in this post?

Did that sudden stabbing sensation in my mid-back mean that some of you found that last observation a trifle harsh, or do I merely owe my chiropractor a visit? “But Anne,” the repetition-fond point out, “readers honestly do forget details — my first reader/writing group/my agent/my editor keeps writing in the margin, ‘Who is this?’ when I reintroduce characters toward the end of the book, or even, ‘Whoa — this came out of nowhere!’ when I’d thought I’d laid the groundwork in the first third of the manuscript. I’m just adding the repetition to address these concerns, because, frankly, unless the reader has that information, the conflict loses some of its oomph.”

You could do that, repetition-mongers, but I would translate this feedback differently. If your first readers are not recalling certain salient facts introduced early in the book by the time they reach the closing chapters, isn’t it possible that the earlier introduction is at fault? Rush back to the first mention of the information in question to see if it is presented in a memorable manner. Or if the reader is presented with so much information that the important bits got buried.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go back and double-check anytime you notice yourself repeating information. Is there a reason that you’re assuming that the reader won’t remember it if it’s mentioned only once?

Yes, that would require going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, now that you mention it — and an excellent idea that is. I’ve noticed that writers are very frequently unaware of just how much their manuscripts DO repeat themselves. There’s a very good reason for that, of course: 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, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well. Most of us become inured through years of, yes, 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, Richard — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist with a summa cum laude from MIT, Evelyn, 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!”)

I’m sensing some squirming in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear some consistency-mongers protest, “doesn’t the fact that we are all accustomed to being spoon-fed the information we need when we need it mean that we writers should be assuming that our readers will have some memory problems? Especially somebody like Millicent, who might read the first 50 pages of my novel, request the rest, then continue reading a month or two later? Surely, I should be including some reminders for her, right?”

Good question, squirmers. But it may not be the same Millicent who picks up your full a few months hence, and even if it is, she’s likely to begin at page 1. She may jump ahead if she remembers your earlier submission vividly, but don’t count on it; she reads so many manuscripts that she may just have a vague feeling that she’s read this story before.

Why might she feel that way, even if six months have passed between readings? Because people who read manuscripts for a living are substantially more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Pop quiz for those of you who were with me throughout the GETTING A BOOK PUBLISHED BASICS series earlier this year: just how much control does the average submitting writer have over the other manuscripts Millicent might have already scanned that day before getting to hers??

That’s right: absolutely none. So while following the cultural norm for repetitive storytelling might not annoy a reader who curls up in a comfy chair with only your manuscript, if your tale repeats twice something similar to what the submission before yours saw fit to convey 37 times in 22 pages…

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 clichés entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a project for a rainy 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.


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.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s lifting lines doesn’t mean that Millicent won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

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 inadvertently from time to time. 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 told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance, something they apparently didn’t do before the 1930s.

But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting — or not come across as hackneyed — translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. It’s not only a great way to render your manuscript more original; it’s a fabulous means of minimizing plot flares. If you don’t allow yourself to repeat a character trait or relevant outright, you’re going to need to find another way to make sure the reader is aware of it before that crucial scene in Chapter 27, aren’t you?

However you decide to work that information in, keep those advance hints subtle. If there’s a cat in that bag, you’re going to generate far more suspense by keeping it there until it’s startling for it to pop out.

There’s no need to have it meowing constantly for a few hours first. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part IX: oh, and I forgot to tell you that I won’t be speaking to you for the next 34 pages

duck and geese

Yes, yes, I know: I thought we were done with this topic for the nonce, too. Yet just when I thought I’d said all I had to say on the all-too-seldom-discussed issue of passive protagonists, life once again intervened to provide me with a perfectly dandy example of how inactive and/or endlessly self-pitying characters can frustrate a reader.

Or in this case, viewer. For the past few months, my fiancé has developed a positive passion for toting home DVDs containing entire seasons of TV series and insisting that we watch them. This would be a trifle less odd if I habitually watched of my own accord anything except news, comedy news shows, and Project Runway (I admit it: I like a nice gown), but as anyone who has navigated a long-term relationship could probably tell you, compromise is the key to happy cohabitation. (That, and negotiating very, very clear rules about who does what housekeeping chore.) As day-to-day trade-offs go, my spending a few weekends locked up with whatever horde of mostly unsavory characters he might have happened to stumble upon at the video store while he brings snacks to my writing studio during the week isn’t bad at all.

I was very patient with the first season of the most recent show, I really was. Which says something for my general level of tolerance, given that Rick had decided he wanted to watch it based upon a recommendation from a friend of his who…well, let’s just say that at the Halloween party where I first met him, the friend stormed up to argue with me about what he considered the disturbing political implications of my costume.

In case you were wondering, I was dressed as a suffragette, wearing a banner that read VOTES FOR WOMEN. So I wasn’t precisely expecting very robust female characters in a show he strongly recommended, if you catch my drift.

Actually, since we were watching the first season during my passive protagonist series, I should have been grateful. Breaking Bad‘s protagonist, Walt, vacillates between feeling sorry for himself more or less constantly and trying to remedy his situation by making and selling drugs. Not that he isn’t entitled to a spot of self-pity: the show’s creators have loaded poor Walt with a plethora of problems that would have made Job turn pale: he is battling probably terminal cancer, his teenage son walks with crutches, and as the show opens, he and his wife are expecting an unplanned-for child.

Which is a strategy straight out of the make-your-protagonist-more-likable playbook, right? The more significant the barriers are to the protagonist’s achieving his goal, the more likely the reader is to root for him while he is pursuing it.

Normally, It’s also not a bad technique for rendering a protagonist more active — and to be fair, the vast majority of Walt’s plot-altering behavior in the first season did in fact come in direct response to his confluence of dreadful luck. However (and my apologies to both those of you who may love this series and those who are planning to view it anytime soon; the latter may wish to stop reading at this juncture), this potentially engaging premise also contains a plot conceit that virtually guarantees that most of the other characters in the piece will be primarily reactive: like a million other strong, silent men in a thousand other films and TV shows, Walt doesn’t like to share his problems with anyone he loves. Or anyone else, that matter.

Among the simply enormous problems he spends the first season not telling his wife or any members of his immediate family: his diagnosis and the fact that he’s started dealing drugs to make money to care for all of them after he’s gone (although his logic on this point remains a trifle fuzzy until well into season 2).

Sound familiar? It should: the Problem I Can’t Tell Anyone About (TPICTAA, for our purposes today) is an extremely common plot device. Essentially, it’s a means of increasing the difficulty of the barriers the protagonist must overcome; by definition, he cannot rely upon his ordinary support system, because then they’d know. Admittedly, it’s often a trifle mechanical in action, producing rather predictable plot twists — oh, if my parents find out that I’m secretly training for the Olympics before I win the gold medal, all will be lost…but wait, who is that in the reviewing stands, cheering me on? — but handled well, TPICTAA can be a very effective means of raising the stakes for the protagonist, creating additional sources of conflict, building suspense, increasing plot tension, etc.

The trouble is, at this point in dramatic and literary history, most audience members are already pretty familiar with the standard twists provided by this particular plot device; as a result, it’s awfully easy for a TPICTAA-wielding writer to tumble headlong into cliché territory. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw a protagonist’s belief that his loved ones wouldn’t understand his dilemma or what he felt he needed to do to solve it justified by a story’s denouement? How often does the wife/husband/sweetheart/mother/father/grandparent/child/best friend/dog not shake her/his/its furry head ruefully upon learning the PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET, simultaneously holding back tears and chuckling, and demand, “Why didn’t you tell me? Don’t you know that I love you, honey/Mom/Dad/Grandpa/Muffin/Bud/woof?”

Okay, so the dog really knew all along. No real suspense there; Fido’s the forgiving type.

Unfortunately, because this plot device is in such wide use, particularly in movies and TV shows, it’s become significantly less effective as a suspense-building technique. Think about it: if the reader already knows that revelation and reconciliation is the inevitable conclusion of all of the protagonist’s frantic secret-keeping, it can be hard to maintain — or even enlist — the reader’s sympathy. Particularly, as often happens, if the 90% of the central problem of the book could be solved if the protagonist simply walked up to the person he most fears will discover his secret and blurts it out in Chapter 2.

Instead of making precisely the same revelation in Chapter 26 of a 27-chapter book.

This is why, in case you’d been wondering, strong, silent men (or women, for that matter) so often make passive protagonists: the vast majority of their energies are going toward keeping that PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET the reader’s heard about in Chapter Three, but figures the SSM isn’t going to reveal formally until the aforementioned Chapter 26. A popular variation on this plotline, especially those featuring Protagonists With a Past: the reader doesn’t find out the content of the secret until Chapter 26, either.

Is that glint in the noonday sun an indication that some of you SSM-lovers out there are quick on the draw? “But Anne, I’ve read/seen plenty of stories with SSM protagonists, and they’re positively stuffed to the gills with action. Why, SSMs are constantly shooting back at bad guys, rescuing damsels and children in distress, and combing nighttime cityscapes to clear their good names!”

You’re quite right, pardners — an active SSM or SSW protagonist does indeed frequently perform many of these feats. But again, the writing challenge is to show him or her continually being active in pursuit of all of that name-clearing in a way that will genuinely surprise the reader: can you honestly say that it’s a great big surprise, for instance, when the protagonist first confronts the villain who smeared his good name — and the villain just laughs? Or when the SSM and the guy who slaughtered the SSM’s family as far as it can be traced have a showdown at the end of the story — and the SSM wins?

Predictability is, after all, the universal solvent of suspense. And let’s face it, not all SSMs or SSWs spring into action the nanosecond their good names are besmirched.

In fact, the primarily passive SSM or SSW’s reaction is the more common in manuscript submissions: yes, SS+ (I got tired of typing all of the ors) will rumble into movement occasionally, but usually, someone else instigates it. The bad guy butchers the SS+’s loved ones, so the retired gunman comes out of hiding — reluctantly, always reluctantly. Or the SS+ knows that an angry mob with pitchforks is coming to get her and that adorable moppet of a 9-year-old she’s picked up along the way (dare we hope that the child’s winning ways have melted the SS+’s notoriously inflammable heart?), so she holes up in the cabin where EVERYONE CONCERNED KNOWS SHE LIVES, waiting with bated breath for the mob to arrive and set fire to it. Or, most popular of all, the SS+ has very good reason to believe that conflict is inevitable, but instead of heading out to meet it, has a really long talk about it with his/her best friend — or him/herself.

I see those six-shooters waving in my general direction again. “Okay, Anne, I can see how other characters might be moving the plot along more than the SS+ — but is that potentially problematic? As long as there is conflict on every page, or at any rate in every scene, why does it matter if my SS+ is primarily reactive between Chapters 3 and 26? I’ve read many great books where the protagonist was buffeted about by forces beyond his control.”

As have I, of course, but as we’ve discussed many, many times in this forum, what will work for readers who pick up a book in a bookstore or library will not necessarily fly in a manuscript submission. Why? Because Millicent the agency screener, like pretty much every professional reader, assesses manuscripts one line at a time, not based upon entire chapters or the whole book.

In other words, her assessment of whether a protagonist is passive or not is not going to be based on the plot as a whole, but rather upon how s/he acts — and reacts — on page 1. Then on page 2. Then in the second scene. And so forth.

Those of you writing about protagonists who start out meek and learn over the course of the story to assert themselves just went pale, didn’t you? I can’t say as I blame you: the meek may well inherit the earth, but they tend to annoy Millicent in the early pages of a manuscript.

To put it a bit more bluntly: if your protagonist’s first plot-altering action doesn’t occur until later in the story, it may not matter for submission purposes.

But as we discussed earlier in this series, this need not mean that the only acceptable protagonist is one who goes through life bullying people. A shy person who struggles desperately against her feelings in order to pursue her heart’s desire can be a very active protagonist indeed. So can a depressed character fighting to regain interest in the world around him, or a basically peaceful person who has tried everything in his power to resist that bad guy before forcing a showdown with him in Chapter 26.

Okay, I’ll be blunt again: is it really the best strategy to have that gunfight at high noon be the first time in the book the SSM stands up for himself? And if your answer to that was a resounding yes, could the protagonist be fighting other forces or problems throughout the 23 chapters where he’s working up his nerve for that showdown?

Yes, there should be conflict on every page, but it needn’t always be the same conflict, need it?

The same basic principle applies, naturally, to TPICTAA-driven plots. All too often, a passive protagonist’s primary (or even only) motivation for action is keeping that PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET, well, secret. No matter how strong that impulse to prevent any possibility of the most emotionally important characters in the book from experiencing productive conflict on the subject prior to the terminal chapter (oh, dear — was I channeling Millicent again?) shield himself from rejection and/or other consequences may be, it’s awfully hard to keep coming up with new and fascinating evasive tactics for an entire book.

At least ones that don’t make the people from whom he’s trying to keep the PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET come across as dim-witted. Like any single-problem plot, TPICTAAs often run the risk of becoming one-note.

Seriously, the parents saw their physically slight son disappear for weeks at a time, returning with a physique that would have made Hercules sob with envy, and they had no idea that he might be engaging in some sort of training? Really? The incident when he accidentally ripped the front door off its hinges didn’t give them an inkling?

So how can a writer add more potential for conflict to a TPICTAA storyline? Give that secret-hider a disparate array of problems. After all, it’s a rare real-life person who faces only one difficulty in life, and the more different kinds of barrier the protagonist must struggle against, the wider the range of possibilities for interesting conflict.

You can also give the characters trying to figure out the protagonist’s secret — they’re not just sitting around passively, waiting for her to reveal it, are they? — more clues. I’m not necessarily talking about merely the antagonists here; consider the dramatic possibilities of one of the protagonist’s allies launching an independent secret-ferreting mission. Try giving that character more incentive to figure out what’s really going on. Or just plain make her smarter.

Specialized knowledge is always a nice, complication-generating touch. Who would be more difficult for our Olympic hopeful to fool, parents who never tear their eyes away from their computer or TV screens, or a mother who took the bronze in the shot put in 1976 and a father who lost an eye in that ill-fated world fencing championship in 1979?

While you’re going though your secondary characters, trying to decide which to beef up — look at me, already blithely assuming that you’re going to take that VERY GOOD piece of revision advice — start with the ones who don’t have strong, well-defined personal goals independent of the protagonist’s. The protagonist’s love object or best friend, for instance, often is saddled with nebulous desires like wanting the best for our family, just trying to be a team player, or even the dreaded I only want to see you happy.

Not that these aren’t perfectly lovely and plausible explanations — they are. However, allies motivated solely by their concern for the protagonist (or anybody else, for that matter) tend to give the protagonist an easier time of it than characters who have their own agendas. Particularly if those agendas are somehow at odds with the protagonist’s, knowingly or not.

Hey, you try making life plans while your wife/husband/sweetheart/mother/father/grandparent/child/best friend/dog is harboring a PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET from you. How are you to know that your dream of becoming the world’s first water-skiing lion tamer would throw obstacles in the way of your loved one’s hidden goal of moving to the middle of the Mojave desert to raise lop-eared bunnies?

The complication-generating part of your brain has already begun whirring, hasn’t it?

As tempting as it might be at this juncture simply to draw up a list of your book’s major characters, assign each a burning secret passion, and let the conflict flow, do bear in mind that any one-note character, protagonist or not, can start to get on Millicent’s nerves after a while. (What was that I mentioned earlier about predictability being the natural enemy of sustained suspense?) A few questions you might productively ask yourself about any character you’re looking to deepen — and all of these are equally fine questions to apply to a protagonist, by the way:

What does this person want most in the world?

What’s preventing her from getting it?

What’s she willing to do in order to get it?

What would she NEVER be willing to do in order to get it? Is there something close to that line that she could do in this story?

What or whom does this person love most?

What does this person fear most?

What’s this person’s good luck charm? What’s her pet superstition?

How does this person want others to view her?

How has this person settled for less than she could have achieved? Could she challenge herself more, and in a way that would make the story richer?

Don’t be afraid to give any character in your book mixed motivations or a lack of certainty about his desires. Real people are a welter of internal contradictions, after all — why not spice things up for your protagonist by having a secondary character act out of character every once in a while?

Oh, you wouldn’t have been surprised if your mild-mannered third-grade teacher had abruptly decided to engage in commando training? (A pursuit that might actually have softened my third-grade teacher’s personality, come to think of it. I still have nightmares about her classroom.)

I’m sensing a bit of restlessness out there, and unless I miss my guess, it’s not entirely the result of trying to picture one’s third-grade teacher leaping out of a helicopter, guns blazing. “Okay, Anne, I can easily see how this would be fantastic advice for a writer just starting a book, or even engaging in a first revision. But I’ve been over my manuscript over and over again; frankly, I’m trying to make it shorter. Won’t all of this complexity-mongering just, you know, add pages?”

Yes, probably, but think about it this way: for every unexpected, complex character-revealing interaction you add, you may well be able to cut a more expected one — or possibly more than one. How many times, for instance, does the reader need to see the protagonist kiss his wife good-bye as she leaves for work? Wouldn’t that nifty new scene where she comes out of their bedroom wearing a gas mask because she’s become obsessed with the idea of carbon monoxide poisoning make a dandy substitute?

Getting the picture? Most Millicents would be far happier reading even an extended scene about the difficulties of kissing someone wearing a gas mask than even a short exchange of predictable pleasantries of the Have a nice day, dear. You, too, honey variety.

Lest those of you writing about ordinary life begin to feel left out, I should hastily add that this sort of revision can be even more effective for your manuscripts than for ones that would happily support wackier plot twists. Real people are pretty interesting, on the whole, particularly once a writer makes a point of examining their hopes, dreams, and fears, rather than defining them primarily by their roles in the protagonist’s life.

Yes, yes, presenting a character AS his role is sometimes unavoidable and even desirable on the page, particularly for characters that are seen once and never turn up again. The ER doctor treating the protagonist’s daughter in Chapter 5, for instance, need not necessarily be fleshed out as a person, in addition to being a medical provider. But trust me, Millicent sees enough purely altruistic doctors, self-sacrificing mothers, emotionally distant fathers, bratty little sisters, sullen teenagers, men who never really grew up, and prim librarians in any given week to populate a small city.

I like to call it Cliché Falls. The fewer of its citizens you recruit to traipse past Millicent’s weary eyes, the happier she will be.

In the course of ramping up the complexity, do try to avoid giving more than one major character a similar problem — or a similar way of dealing with it. If every character in the book responds to imminent conflict by changing the subject, for instance, that’s going to become predictable pretty fast. Ditto if more than one character responds to the challenge of discovering the TPICTAA by getting upset with the protagonist for not spilling the beans.

I know: people do tend to respond this way in real life. But the goal here is not merely to hold the mirror up to nature, but to tell an entertaining story, right?

Let Millicent answer that one for you: “Great heavens, yes!”

Which brings me back to why I’ve summarily banned Breaking Bad from our household, even at the cost of foregoing warm baked goods, fruit, and tea appearing on my writing desk at gratifying intervals throughout my work day. A few episodes into the second season, I abruptly transformed into Millicent in the middle of a scene where the protagonist was actually being pretty active.

And let me tell you, donning the Millicent mask is seldom pretty. “I’m done with this series,” I snapped, shutting off the DVD player while the protagonist was in mid-sentence. “I could take the mostly passive protagonist, his purely reactive wife, and his completely inarticulate drug-making partner — who are, I should like to point out three of the six main characters in the series. I’ve made a monumental effort not to be annoyed by just how many of the protagonist’s problems would have been solved by a single line of dialogue spoken to the right character. I’ve even been tolerant of the show’s propensity to bolster his Strong, Silent Man credentials by offering him a perfectly plausible way out of his primary dilemma — an escape hatch that he refused because he’s unwilling to accept help from anyone. But in this particular episode, all three of the primary characters are using precisely the same coping mechanism. It’s predictable, it’s boring, and if I could walk into any of these scenes with a megaphone, I could stop 80% of the conflict by speaking less than ten consecutive words!”

I suppose I could have completed the Millicent impression by shouting, “Next!” but that seemed like overkill.

What had the show done to make me stop reading, essentially, in the middle of a line? See if you can detect the subtle repetitive pattern here: the partner gets evicted from his house; rather than telling anyone — like, say, the protagonist — why he needs a place to stay and/or money to pay for a place to stay, he keeps it to himself, only to end up surprised and frustrated when no one in his life takes his need seriously. The wife believes that her husband is lying to her, but rather than confront the protagonist about her suspicions, she just starts leaving the house for hours at a time. Even when he confronts her, she simply remains silent, only to end up surprised and frustrated when he doesn’t take her need to know (and her need for him to guess what she thinks she needs to know) seriously. The protagonist then takes his frustration out on the partner, who not unnaturally hits him up for a loan. Because neither party will actually divulge any of the relevant details that would enable the other to understand what each wants, both end up surprised and frustrated that the other does not take his need seriously.

Enough, already. Mutual emotional inarticulateness, desperately kept secrets that ten minutes of investigation would have revealed, and the silent treatment are all too common manuscript features for a professional reader to derive much enjoyment from them in yet another story. Yes, people do indeed engage in all of these behaviors in real life, but if I wanted to spy on real people, I’d invest in a pair of binoculars and read up on stalking law, wouldn’t I?

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t. But as devoted as I am to realism, I reserve the right not to be fascinated by a storyline so exclusively dependent upon not revealing TPICTAA that it’s evidently forced to strike its three main characters mute in order to prevent the most logical questions from being asked. As someone who sorts out complex plots for a living, I can’t help but believe that allowing at least one of these characters to be articulate and active would have resulted in a more interesting story arc.

So would giving any one of those characters even a single serious outside interest. Or a hobby.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad test of character development. If a protagonist — or any other major character — would be rendered significantly more complex by becoming even a fairly lackadaisical stamp collector, s/he could probably use some beefing up across the board. Or combining with another one-note character, to create a composite two-note character. Or even — dare I say it? — being cut entirely.

Does that mean that I think it’s impossible for two characters not speaking to each other, or not able to articulate their emotions, to provide the foundation of an effective, satisfyingly conflictual scene? Of course not; writers have performed miracles with wordless interactions, revealing astonishing and unexpected nuances of human relationships. But that kind of literary magic trick is awfully hard to pull off unless at least one of the characters is acting, speaking, or even thinking in a manner that will come as a surprise to the reader, isn’t it?

Like, say, restarting a blog series that we all thought was finished last week. Tune in next time for my return to multiple perspective-wrangling, and keep up the good work!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, of the book. Sound at all familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait — where have I heard that before?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purging the plague of passivity, part V: the subtle difference between a passive protagonist and wallpaper

bird in a tree

You’re expecting me to open today’s post with a bait-and-switch, are you not? It’s a conditioned response around this time of year — a good 80% of daily and weekly columnists, regardless of their habitual subject matter, may reasonably be expected to open their April 1 posts with an apparently straight-faced telling of an improbable tale, only — surprise! — it turns out not to be true. Har de har har — April fool!

Is anyone over the age of 10 still caught off-guard by this strategy at this point of the calendar? I find it hard to believe, yet much like young men whistling and catcalling after women in the street in order to attract them, I guess we have to assume that it must have worked at least once in human history. Otherwise, it would just be silly to keep doing the same obvious thing over and over again, wouldn’t it?

Why, yes, that does relate to our topic du jour, now that you mention it. How clever of you to notice.

Last time, I began telling you the story of Passive Paul, inert protagonist extraordinaire. Doubtless a charming fellow in real life, Paul is problematic as the center of a book’s interest because his devotion to constant courtesy, never taking even the slightest risk, however trivial, avoiding confrontation of every sort, and extensive internal monologuing render his entrance into virtually any scene of his own book a signal to the reader to start yawning now.

Or, to put it a touch more generously, a reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent the agency screener — might like him to do a bit more and ponder a bit less.

What tends to end up on the page, in short, is a great deal of what we here on the West Coast call processing: lengthy examination of self, loved ones, and/or a situation in order to wring every last drop of psychological import from Paul’s life.

So I repeat my rather disturbing question from last time: why does a character like Paul deserve to have an entire book devoted to him?

This question is infinitely harder to answer in the case of a passive protagonist than an active one. After all, the Pauls of this world almost never cause the central problems of a plot — far from it. He’s usually the guy who tries to get everyone to calm down. Passive Paul has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.”

Paul just doesn’t want to get involved, you know?

Oh, he says he does, and certainly thinks he does, often in pages upon pages of unsaid response to what’s going on around him. But deep down, he’s a voyeur — a very specific kind of voyeur who likes to watch the world through a magnifying glass at a safe distance.

Like a bird perched on a tree, peering down at the accident on the street below him, Paul’s basically an observer of the plot, at best. At worst, he’s part of the scenery.

Even when the plot thickens enough to make his life exciting, all he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away. As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV. Oh, he may comment vociferously upon what’s going on, especially if he happens to be the narrator, but he seldom takes on the responsibility of making something new happen.

Yes, plenty of people feel that way in real life. We all have our moments of adolescent yearning when we long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around us, in order to get us what we want. But as appealing and universal as that fantasy may be, it is very, very hard to turn into an exciting plot.

But oh, do aspiring writers ever try! Thus the perennial popularity of Ordinary Joes who are unwittingly drawn into Conspiracies Beyond their Ken as protagonists. Yet if Joe simply wanders from scene to scene, observing what’s going on, he runs the risk of becoming set decoration, rather than the primary mover and shaker of the plot.

Do I spot some active hand-waving out there? “But Anne,” creators of sedentary protagonists everywhere exclaim, “surely it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, either a strong and silent John Wayne type muscling his way from conflict to conflict or a Marcel Proust character lingering in bed for several hundred pages at a time, mentally reviewing his life. If I don’t show my protagonist thinking through his options, I’m afraid he’ll come across as, well, a trifle dim-witted. And my book’s conflicts are too complicated to be resolved without fairly involved thought.”

I’m not sure that there was actually a question in there — passive protagonists are noted for their ability to avoid direct questions, which might be considered confrontational; it’s not called passive-aggressive questioning for nothing — but you’re quite right that protagonists are seldom all active or entirely passive.

What I’m really talking about here is a habitual tendency to slow down a plot and/or minimize conflict by stopping the action cold while the protagonist processes. The danger, from the reader’s perspective, is if he remains still enough for too long at a stretch, the book no longer seems to be about him; it’s about his environment. He might as well be wallpaper on the walls of his life.

Worse than wallpaper, in some cases: while wallpaper is usually pretty innocuous (although admittedly, the 1960s and 70s did produce some aggressively eye-searing patterns), seldom actually interfering with what humans are doing in the room it decorates, Passive Paul does have an effect upon the plot. It’s a negative one: he’s the guy standing in the way of the reader finding out what happens next.

Yes, really. Unlike your average strip of wallpaper, the fact that Passive Paul could make a move to affect the world around him, but apparently chooses not to act to do so, renders him merely obstructive to the reader. However, if he obstructs her view of an interesting plot or characters long enough — or, still more common, if his primary contributions to conflict-ridden scenes are to try to avoid or end the conflict — she may eventually find him downright annoying.

Annoy her enough, and she may find herself pulled entirely out of the story — and once that’s happened, it’s hard for most readers to get back into it. The average Millicent, of course, doesn’t even try: “Next!”

Having trouble picturing how nice, friendly Passive Paul provoked such extreme reactions? Okay, let’s place him in a — sacre bleu! — conflictual situation, to see how he tends to respond to it.

Say, for the sake of argument, that Paul encounters a thorny problem, one that would require him to

(a) make a decision,

(b) take some action that will disrupt the status quo of his life, and frequently

(c) learn an important lesson about himself/love/commitment/life with a capital L in the process.

How does he handle it? Simple: he dons his proverbial thinking cap…

(Insert Musak or other appropriate hold music here. Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.)

…and two pages later, he’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting.

Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred within the context of the plot. Instead, they tend to be summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown, but analyzed to the last drop.

Did that set off warning bells for anyone but me? On about 45 levels, most of which would involve Millicent the agency screener muttering, “Show, don’t tell,” under her breath while perusing a manuscript submission?

“But Anne,” lovers of sedentary protagonists point out, “you’re presenting me with a narrative difficulty. Real-life people are acted upon by forces beyond their control all the time; we don’t need to be in the middle of an economic downturn to notice the difference between being laid off because your company is downsizing and quitting a job the employee never liked very much in the first place. (Possibly because it interfered with his writing time.) Heck, you’re constantly telling us that the best path to writerly happiness is to learn what parts of the querying and submission process are and are not within the writer’s control. So how am I supposed to reflect reality in my writing without depicting my protagonist as caught in the throes of forces beyond her control — or by showing her mulling through what’s going on until she figures out what those forces are?”

Excellent compound question, processing aficionados. Allow me to respond by telling you the story of my all-time least-favorite April fool’s joke, with a passive protagonist in a first-person narrative. Take it away, Paul!

Because the economy wasn’t exactly clamoring for those of us with liberal arts degrees in the mid-1980s — although when has it ever? — half the people with whom I went to college were forced to take up temping after graduation. It was just placeholder employment, we told ourselves, until something better came along. Or until we got admitted to graduate school, whichever came first.

After seven or eight months of only occasional temp assignments and practically no job interviews, I was beginning to doubt that I was employable at all. My girlfriend hadn’t graduated yet, so I was camping out in her dorm room, much to her roommate’s chagrin. So when the lady from Sudden Help called to offer me a one-day job at the aquarium, I snapped it up immediately.

“The regular receptionist refuses to work on April first,” the manager told me, leading me to the telephone bank I was supposed to man until five p.m. “I think you’ll figure out why.”

Scarcely had I seated myself when the phone rang. “New England Aquarium,” I sang out, determined to be chipper at all costs.

“Mr. Fish, please. I’m returning his call.”

I searched through the directory. “I’m sorry, but there’s no Mr. Fish here. Could you tell me which department…”

“Oh, God,” my caller interrupted, beginning to chortle. “Did you say this is the aquarium? I’m going to get Mandy back for this.”

She hung up before I caught onto the joke: Mandy, whoever that was, had left her a message to call not a person, but a fish. And where do you call if you you want to reach a fish? Not bad. I’d have to file that one away for future April Fooling.

I was still giggling when I answered the next call. “New England Aquarium. How may I direct your call?”

“A. Shark, please.”

Oh, dear — was this going to go on all day? It hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be a one-time affair. If I every other call was going to be the same joke, I’d better come up with a way to break it to people gently. “I’m afraid you’ve been the victim of a prank, sir. I’m sure we have sharks, but I can’t connect you to them.”

“Why not? I’ve got a message here to call A. Shark.”

Clearly, the guy wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. I waited for him to get the joke. “This is the New England Aquarium. Get it?”

“Now, look, Buster…”

“Please lower your voice. I’m just trying to explain…”

“Put my call through, or I’m gonna complain to your manager!”

By the time I had calmed him down, I not only understood how wise the receptionist had been to take the day off annually, but was no longer certain I was coming back after lunch. 725 calls later, I could barely make it to the subway stop at the end of the day.

Okay, how did Paul slow this story down with his passivity? Let me count the ways.

If you said that he spent too many lines explaining what was going on to the reader, give yourself a gold star for the day. First-person narration — and really, tight third-person that lingers to much in the protagonist’s head — is notorious for over-explanation. It tends to slow down the narrative.

Here, it also watered down what could have been quite a funny running bit, had Paul gotten out of its way. The dialogue alone could have made the joke abundantly clear.

Also, Paul was not the character to figure out the joke — the first caller did, right? — that, too, might be construed as being an obstacle to the conflict at hand. Chock up another star if you caught that one. Third, as is so often the case with passive protagonists, his response was redundant, repeating information the reader already knew.

“Yes, yes, we get it,” Millicent mutters. “Fish at an aquarium. Move on with it!”

What’s the problem with conceptual repetition, long-term readers? It’s predictable — as are most passive protagonists, when you come to think about it. (And believe me, Millicent does think about it. All the time.) An unfailingly polite character may be relied upon to be courteous, right? A habitual conflict-avoider will constantly eschew conflict. Someone who never talks back to his boss in pages 1-175 will probably continue to be reticent until the last chapter of the book — and perhaps will keep his trap shut even then.

And so forth. Wouldn’t a more changeable character’s responses surprise readers more?

Award yourself three extra stars if you caught the slightly subtler way that Paul slowed down the narrative here: he’s presented himself as the victim of every external force within this scene. His employment problems are shared by millions, but does he try a different solution than the undifferentiated masses? He even lumps himself in with them, referring to everyone concerned in the first person plural. Outside forces even drove him to say yes to the job in the anecdote — and rather than asking intelligent follow-up questions once he gets there, he plays straight man until the first caller clues him in on what’s happening. And even though he’s not the butt of the joke the second time around, Paul thinks only of how the misunderstanding might affect himself.

That self-centerness isn’t precisely a surprise in a passive protagonist, is it? Characters who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to thought-ridden passivity. Life happens to Paul, and he reacts to it.

Does he ever! Oh, how lucidly he resents the forces that act upon him, as he sits around and waits for those forces to strike at him again! How little does the external pressure affect his basic niceness as he mulls over the problems of his life! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which he is stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, professional readers measure their time waiting for conflict in lines of text, not pages. To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat: true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you pretty badly hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that Paul could not be written about well, or even that a novel or memoir in which he was the protagonist would necessarily be unmarketable, even in the current super-tight, oh-my-God-when-will-this-recession-end? literary market.

What I am saying is that Paul’s creator would have to work awfully hard to make his story exciting. Just as a reader may guess a passive protagonist’s probable responses half a page away, a pure observer’s storyline tends to be, among other things, predictable.

Yes, yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for entire chapters at a time. But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists (or memoirists, for that matter) who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many books of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?

Come up with many? Okay, how many of the ones you have in mind were written by first-time novelists or memoirists?

Okay, how about ones not first published in the British Isles or ghostwritten for celebrities?

Think up even one? If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Paul’s creator has a book that might interest ‘em. In the current very tight literary market, there aren’t many North American agents who harbor this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists.

And no, beautiful writing alone usually isn’t enough to get Millicent to pass a submission featuring a passive protagonist on to her boss. Professional readers see beautiful writing about inert characters more than you might think. Especially if they represent literary fiction or memoir.

Why? Well, unfortunately, there seems to be a sizable and actively writing portion of the aspiring author community that proceeds on the assumption that literary fiction shouldn’t be about anything in particular — except characterization, of course. A plot distracts from the glory of those stellar sentences, I guess. Or if it is about something, it should be about the kinds of moments that work so well in short stories: exquisitely rendered instants fraught with significance.

You know, the type of hyper-examined human interaction that is really, really hard to sustain for longer than 20 pages or so. Partially — and see if this sounds at all familiar — because all of that observation and reaction tends to keep the narrative, if not mostly within the protagonist’s head, then at least within his body, for most of the piece.

Just in case anyone doesn’t already know this, literary fiction refers to the writing style, experimental use of language, and/or the expectation of a college-educated readership, not the plotline. Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-literary recent hit THE ROAD is a reworking of a premise long familiar to any SF/fantasy reader, after all; it’s the writing that makes it literary fiction.

So yes, Virginia, literary fiction can have a plot. It can even move the reader through that plot swiftly.

Memoir submissions often suffer from a similar reluctance to step outside the protagonist’s head into a full and complex world. But while literary fiction submissions tend to hold the magnifying glass up to nature (mostly the nature inside the protagonist’s head, admittedly, but still, nature), memoir manuscripts are frequently collections of loosely-drawn anecdotes.

Why is this problematic, you ask? Well, by definition, most anecdotes are told, rather than shown. Many, many memoir submissions rely so heavily upon the anecdotal style (which seems chattier than a more robust narrative) that they don’t include any fully-realized scenes or fleshed-out characters other than the protagonist.

Which can present a considerable storytelling problem: by definition, anecdotes are one remove away from the reader than a directly-observed scene, right?

Many, if not most, first-time memoirists forget that. In fact, the protagonist’s thoughts tend to be so central to the author’s conception of a memoir that memoirists often act rather puzzled when someone asks them the perfectly reasonable question, “So, what’s your book about?”

“It’s about ME,” they’ll say, astonished that anyone would feel the need to verify anything so obvious. “What else would my memoir be about?”

In a way, they’re right, but in another way, they’re wrong: a good memoir is always about something other than the narrator’s life, at least in part. People don’t grow up in a vacuum, typically, and even anecdotally, most of us will tell the story of our own lives within a context. Which means, in practice, that the memoir can either present the narrator as a mover and shaker within that context, or as a passive (but likeable!) observer of it.

Guess which most memoir submitters pick?

“But wait!” I hear some of you shouting. “Now I’m so paranoid about Passive Paul and his lethargic brethren and sistern that I’m terrified that my book will be rejected every time my protagonist pauses for breath! I’m no longer sure what’s being nice and what’s being passive!”

Never fear, my friends. When you are in doubt about a scene, ask yourself the following series of questions about it, to reveal whether your protagonist is taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands. If you find yourself answering no to one or more…well, we’ll talk.

These questions work equally well, incidentally, whether the manuscript in question is a novel or a memoir. (You’re welcome.)

(1) Is it clear why the events being described here are happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else? (Hint: “Because the book’s about Paul!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book? If it doesn’t, could it? Would having Paul act a little out of character here make the scene more revealing — or more surprising for the reader?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, is my protagonist causing some of the conflict? A golden oldie from previous self-editing question lists, admittedly, but always worth asking.

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Does this scene change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? Is either the plot or an important interrelationship between the characters somehow different after the scene than before it? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary to keep?

(6) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here? Is the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it? (Another oldie but goodie.)

(7) If the scene contains dialogue, is my protagonist an active conversational partner? (Hint: if Paul’s linguistic contributions consist of “What?” “What do you mean?” “How is that possible?” and/or “Really?” you should consider tossing out his lines and writing him some new ones.)

(8) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he honestly care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

#8 may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it: to the eye of someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on.

Or, to translate this into the language of the industry: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, when Millicent asks herself this question, it may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, a rude and pushy Paul can start to seem rather refreshing.

Yes, these are a lot of questions to ask yourself about every questionably-paced scene in the book — but if you don’t plan to implement them right away, there are always those sweltering, sleepless summer nights ahead.

It’s a great alternative to counting sheep, after all, or even birds lingering in the treetops: Passive Paul would never consider using his pondering time to such useful effect. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part III: the many, many different translations of aloha

palm tree, shadow2palm tree, shadow3
palm tree, shadow5palm tree, shadow
palm tree, shadow4palm tree, shadow6

Can you believe it, campers? I took an entire weekend off. Well, not off, precisely — I edited copy for two wildly different websites, walked a new author through the mysteries of blogging, and threw a gala dinner party — but the point is, I didn’t blog. Not even a little.

Except for very late last night, when I discovered that an apparently well-disposed Russian blogger had tried to leave a comment here. To be specific, I discovered it in my about-to-be-deleted spam. (What, you thought I wouldn’t log on to see if my spam-blocking program hadn’t committed some unanticipated mayhem while I was looking the other way, just because I wasn’t posting? Even when I’m on vacation, I often check in to answer readers’ questions.) Unfortunately, I don’t read Russian, but a friend who does said that it was an interesting comment. Even more unfortunately, neither my blogging program nor I is in a position to provide translation services for the fine folks who read this blog in translation. Which means, I’m afraid, that I can only post comments in English, even on the rare occasion that my spam-screening program allows me to see those in foreign languages.

All of which I felt compelled to mention late last night. What I neglected to mention was (a) the fact that my blogging program requires me to approve every first-time commenter’s post (which is why, in case some of you first-timers had been wondering, your comments may not have appeared on the blog right away) and (b) the reason that this level of scrutiny is necessary. Spamming advertisers often try to post links to their products’ websites as comments on blogs; if I did not employ my dual-level screening system, you would constantly be regaled with 40 or 50 ads, many of which for products and services that do not bear mention on a family-friendly site. (Since it’s important to me that those of you reading on computers with parental controls and/or public computers and/or work computers have unfettered access to the Author! Author! community, I actually do check links.)

So in case I haven’t said it recently: please, keep the conversation G-rated, keep it in the language of the site, and I’ll make a sincere effort to keep my spam screener from eating your thoughts. And if you’re even considering posting a link in my comments, please review the rules for posting comments before tossing ‘em up there.

Thanks tons. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last week, I gave you a heads-up about a bugbear that haunts many a novel and memoir submission, the passive protagonist problem. The dreaded PPP, for those of you who missed my last couple of posts, arises when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it — or (dare I say it?) causing it.

As I intimated last time (and the week before, and a year ago, and…), passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers. While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, at any given moment, thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks feature protagonists who do precisely that.

Often for pages and chapters at a time. It’s not necessarily that there’s no action occurring on the page; the protagonist merely seems to be an observer. Unlike the assumed other observer of the plot — the reader — the protagonist is a spectator enjoying the considerable twin advantages of being personally involved in the outcome of the struggle-in-progress and having the capacity to comment upon goings-on for the reader’s benefit. (In the language of the prevailing narrative, presumably.)

Yes, yes, I know: the latter practice is a necessity in a first-person narrative. The nature of the beast, really — when the narrator and the protagonist are one and the same, it’s pretty hard to keep the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings out of the narrative. (Although you’d be surprised at how many memoir submissions seem devoted to the losing battle of trying to keep the narrative impersonal. Just the facts, ma’am.) And in a close third-person narrative, the reader if often treated to glimpses of the protagonist’s internal mutterings.

All of that’s perfectly appropriate, of course — although as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, the proper proportion of internal monologue to external activity varies wildly by genre. An unusually chatty protagonist of a Western would be practically silent by the standards of most science fiction subcategories, for instance, and even a relatively reticent memoir narrator would strike the average thriller’s protagonist as living almost entirely inside his own head.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: there’s just no substitute for being conversant with the norms of your chosen book category. And there’s just no other way of becoming conversant with the current market than sitting down and reading books like yours that have been released within the past few years.

Category-appropriate levels of internal monologue is not what I mean by a passive protagonist problem, though. I’m talking about the kind of protagonist who watches intently what is going on around him — sometimes letting the reader in on his thoughts on the subject, sometimes not — but does not speak or act in a way that is in any way likely to change what’s going on.

The plot just carries him along, a leaf tossed into a river.

Nothing against a little quiet contemplation, but if you were screening 50 manuscripts a day, and 30 of them featured passive protagonists, it would start to annoy you eventually, too. (And in response to what half of you just thought: no, that’s not an exaggeration; if anything, the 30 out of 50 estimate is on the low side. Just ask any experienced contest judge.)

Given the extreme popularity of the passive protagonist, perhaps it’s understandable that the average Millicent’s reaction to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle, well, negative, almost to the point of being reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from blister-inducing surfaces, after all.

Already, I see a forest of raised hands. “But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” some of you call out, and with excellent reason, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?'”

Excellent point, thought-huggers: that would indeed be a spectacularly good plan. However, as is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, many agents and editors are under the impression that they do tell aspiring writers about it — in fact, even form-letter rejections tend to contain some reference to the phenomenon, but not in so many words. Usually, it’s cast in terms that you’d have to read many manuscripts a week to translate accurately.

I couldn’t identify with the main character, for instance, is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome.

Was that giant thump I just heard a thousand jaws hitting the floor? Let me guess: you thought you were the only submitter who had ever heard gotten this response, right?

Would you be surprised to learn that variations on this sentiment are the most common pieces of rejection feedback writers receive? So I would imagine that quite a few of you — at least, the ones who have been querying and submitting diligently, bless your intrepid hears — have seen at least one iteration of this little number in at least one rejection letter.

Let’s take a little informal poll to see how effective this common form-rejection phraseology has been at making its point. Hands up, anyone who received such a response and instantly thought, “Oh, I’d better make my protagonist more active, by gum.”

Anyone? Anyone?

To be fair, there are other a million reasons a screener (who is usually the one weeding out submissions at a big agency, by the way, rather than the agent) might not have identified with a protagonist other than passivity. But it is one of the more common. Other rejection-speak that might translate as an appeal for more activity: I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book, There isn’t enough conflict here, and the ever-popular I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book.

Since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, however, it’s often difficult to translate exactly. I have seen it mean everything from, The first paragraph bored me to I hate books about brunettes. You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of writing problem.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you slice-of-lifers fume, “this is grossly unfair! Surely, this is not a reaction that every reader would have to a slightly lackadaisical character — and in case you haven’t noticed, the world is stuffed to the gills with people who do not rush headlong into conflict at the slightest provocation. Haven’t any of you professional readers ever heard of REALISM?”

Oh, I think that this problem is all about realism — I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists far, far more than other readers do. (And just to give you a heads-up, imaginary protestors: professional readers generally HATE it when aspiring writers accuse them of having invented the marketing reality that certain books are harder to sell than others. Really.)

There’s good reason that writers tend to root for the quiet types, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before. Small wonder, then, that writers often think of people who do this as likeable, charming, interesting people, well worth knowing — and certainly lovable enough to warrant following all the way to the end of a book, thank you very much, Millicent..

So it often comes as a great shock to these writers that the average fiction or memoir agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion. Nor does the average editor of same; even those who publish books by journalists — who are, after all, trained to be primarily observers — want the subjects of those stories to be active.

For one simple reason: because such stories are, by and large, infinitely easier to sell to readers.

Yes, really — remember, we writers are far from normal readers. We buy a disproportionate share of any year’s crop of literary fiction, for instance, as well as much of the short story collections and masses of poetry. We pore over books in our chosen book category — at least I hope you do; I certainly recommend it often enough — following our favorite authors’ careers with a loyalty and intensity that others reserve for sports stars.

We are, in fact, an extremely specific niche market of book purchasers. It would be interesting to try to make the case that a particular piece of literary fiction could be marketed successfully to writers-who-read, specifically on the grounds that its protagonist does think like a writer: observing, observing, observing.

However, if you are writing in most of the established book categories, I can virtually guarantee that writers will not be your primary target audience.

And that’s something of a pity, because from a writer’s point of view, one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character.

Writers who read LOVE that.

Which is fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book. Since in the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist, this propensity sometimes results in a book centered on someone who is too busy observing others to have a life of his or her own.

Yes, you did just draw the correct conclusion there: on the page, being purely reactive seldom comes across as all that fascinating a life.

That sentiment just stirred up some pretty intense reactions out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some reactivity-lovers cry, “my protagonist enjoys a rich and full emotional life by responding to stimuli around him. His mental activity is prodigious. If that was good enough for Mr. Henry James, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?”

Well, for starters, have you taken a gander at some of Mr. Henry James’ sentences lately? Some of them are two pages long, for heaven’s sake; even Dickens would have blushed at that.

More to the point, from a regular reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is not automatically dramatic. To compound that blasphemy, allow me to add: thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading.

In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic, you ask? Because whilst the mind is churning, the entirety of protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota. At the risk of sounding like a constructor of form-letter rejections, it’s substantially more difficult to identify with a protagonist who diagnoses the problems around her with pinpoint accuracy, yet does not act upon these insights in order to rectify the situation, than one who jumps into the conversation or does something to disturb the status quo.

I’ll go even farther than that: the character who speaks up in the face of what she perceives to be injustice, even if it’s very quietly, or who takes a concrete step to gain what she wants, even if it’s a very tiny or largely symbolic one, is usually more likable than one who remains inert and resents. And before any of you creators of anti-heroes scoff at the very concept of protagonist likability, let me whip out yet another of the great form-letter euphemisms: I didn’t care enough about the character to keep turning the pages.

Harsh? You bet, but not entirely unjustified, from Millicent’s point of view. Here’s how the passive protagonist phenomenon generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

(1) The protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, so she worries about for pages at a time before doing anything about it (If, indeed, she elects to do anything about it at all.)

(2) If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters. (Or entire volumes of a trilogy, in an 18th-century novel.)

(3) When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses. Should the mean person be her love interest, she must never, ever ask him to explain himself; much better to mull his possible motivations mentally, and proceed upon those assumptions.

(4) At some point, she will probably talk it all over with her best friend(s)/lover(s)/people who can give her information about the situation before selecting a course of action. (See parenthetical disclaimer in #1.)

(5) If she is confronted with a mystery, she will methodically collect every piece of evidence before drawing any conclusions that might require action. Frequently, this requires tracking down interested parties, asking a single question, and listening passively while those parties provide her with the necessary clues.

(6) However, if the problem to be confronted is relationship-based, she must on no account simply ask any of the parties involved how they view the situation, or reveal her own feelings on the subject to them. Avoidable guesswork may in this manner frequently supply suspense.

(7) Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, she takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; she is not the type to leave her date in the lurch just because she’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

(8) When she has assembled all the facts and/or figured out what she should do (often prompted by an outside event that makes her THINK), she takes swift action, and the conflict is resolved.

Is it me, or is this progression of events just a tad passive-aggressive? Especially in plotlines that turn on misunderstandings, wouldn’t it make more sense if the protagonist spoke directly to the person with whom she’s in conflict at some point?

Gee, one might almost be tempted to conclude that writers as a group are confrontation-avoiders. Maybe we should all retreat into our individual corners and mull that one over.

Up those hands go again. “But Anne, I’m worried about the opposite problem: if I send my protagonist barreling into every available conflict, won’t that make readers dislike her, too? Not to mention getting her into all kinds of trouble — if she said out loud precisely what she thought of the people around her, they’d bludgeon her to a pulp within fifteen minutes.”

I’m glad you brought this up, hand-raisers: often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. The logic behind this choice at first glance seems solid: in real life, very aggressive people don’t tend to work and play as well with others as gentle, tolerant, accommodating sorts.

But as we’ve discussed before, what’s true in real life isn’t necessarily true on the page. An inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally less likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because, as I MAY have mentioned before, conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

More to the point, lack of conflict can slow a narrative practically to a standstill. So can conflict in which the character the reader is supposed to care most about is not integrally involved, or conflict where the outcome doesn’t matter much to the protagonist — because if the protagonist doesn’t care enough to get involved, why should the reader?

“But Anne,” the hand-raisers protest, “my protagonist cares deeply about what’s going on; that’s why she thinks about it all so much, Besides, my villains are based upon people who are just awful in real life, so it’s impossible that the reader won’t automatically root against them, no matter whether my protagonist leaps into the fray or not. So what’s wrong with letting her sit back while the bad guys expose their true colors?”

Ooh, that’s a tough one. Not the question, necessarily, but pulling off plopping characters ripped from real life into a narrative where a comparatively virtuous protagonist stands back and observes their bad behavior. While pitting kindly and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page.

Why? Well, the reader’s sense of dramatic fitness, for one thing: while it may be realistic to show a character confronting the same intractable problem or awful co-worker day after day, the mere fact of bringing the problem up generates an expectation that something will happen to change that status quo, doesn’t it? If the narrative violates that expectation, not only is the reader likely to become impatient — he’s likely to get bored.

It’s difficult to keep a reader interested indefinitely in a repeating pattern of events, no matter how beautifully they may be described. Then, too, sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying from time to time, does it?

Come on — ‘fess up; we all do it. We writers are notorious for taking revenge on the page, Rare is the creative writer who does not blow off the occasional real-world resentment, angst, or just plain annoyed helplessness by having his protagonist think pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to Millicent’s heart), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

Yes, people mutter to themselves constantly in real life; few of us actually tell of the boss in the way s/he deserves. However, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, just because something actually occurs does not necessarily mean that it will make good fiction.

What does make good fiction is conflict. Lots of it. On every page, if possible.

This is not to say, of course, that every protagonist should be a sword-wielding hero, smiting his enemies right and left — far from it. But even the mousiest character is capable of acting out from time to time.

And yes, I am about to give you another homework assignment. How clever of you to see it coming.

Whip out those Post-It notes and highlighting pens and start running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, only in thought, or simply as an observer.

Depending upon what you find in each instance, here are some possible next steps. (Fair warning: some of these are going to sound a wee bit familiar from last week’s assignment, as we’re talking about fixing the same phenomenon.)

(1) If there’s not conflict on the page in front of you, ask yourself: how could I add some? Or, if you’re trying to avoid adding length to the manuscript, are there elements slowing down the scene that you could cut? Does this interaction add enough to the plot or character development that it actually needs to be there?

(2) If your protagonist is active, pat yourself on the back. Then ask yourself anyway: is there something even more interesting s/he could do here? Something less predictable? A way that her reaction could surprise the reader a little more, perhaps? Small twists go a long way toward keeping a reader involved.

(3) If your protagonist is merely thinking her response, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand? Or — and it’s astonishing how infrequently this solution seems to occur to most aspiring writers — could she say some of the things she’s thinking OUT LOUD?

(4) If your protagonist is a pure observer in the scene, sit down and figure out what precisely the observed interaction adds to the book. Are there ways that you could achieve the same goals in scenes where your protagonist is a stronger player? If not, could there be more than one conflict in the scene, so your protagonist could be involved in the lesser one?

If you find yourself worrying that these textual tweaks may cumulatively transform your protagonist a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity into a seething mass of interpersonal problem generation, consider this: many agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. In fact, this whole argument may well seem glib and market-minded to some of you, and frankly, from an artistic perspective, that’s completely understandable.

That’s not the only perspective that’s relevant here, though, even for the artist. Remember, a submitted manuscript does not need to speak only to its author, or even to other writers: its appeal needs to translate into other mindsets. It’s the writer’s job to make sure that the manuscript can speak to both the business side of the publishing world and the artistic side.

Before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones built into your plot; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

So while you’re revising, ask yourself: how can I coax my protagonist out of his head, and into his story? How can his actions or words alter this particular moment in the plotline, if only a little?

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends; we can, however, usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought under those swaying palms, people — but not too much. Keep up the good work!

Spicing up your plot, or, that’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles

fortune side onefortune side two

These, believe it or not, are the two sides of the single fortune I found tucked into my end-of-the-meal cookie last night: a tactfully-phrased prediction of my future happiness — by mail, no less! — accompanied by a terse statement about my general standing in the world. Had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I rearranged vegetables and yogurt containers in preparation for fitting my leftover asparagus in black bean sauce and Hunan pork into my overstuffed refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the Constitutional obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, in a real-life fortune cookie-consumption situation, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Miranda warnings printed on Mars bars, for easy distribution at crime scenes? The First Amendment immortalized in marzipan, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly whilst purchasing fresh macaroons?) Had the protagonist in a novel or memoir stumbled upon this chatty piece of paper, however — and let’s face it, less probable things turn up on the manuscript page all the time — it would have seemed pretty significant, wouldn’t it?

Any thoughts on why that might be the case? Could it be that this bizarre means of communication is one of those telling details I keep urging all of you to work into the opening pages of your manuscripts, as well as the descriptive paragraph in your queries, synopses, verbal pitches, and contest entries? Could the paragraphs above be crammed with the kind of fresh, unexpected little tidbits intended to make Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge suddenly sit bolt upright, exclaiming, “My word — I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Hint: since I’m opening our foray into craft with it, chances are pretty good that I’m showing you some telling details. Or, to put it in terms the whole English class can understand, choosing to incorporate that wacky fortune cookie into the narrative shows, rather than tells, something about the situation and character.

How can a savvy self-editing writer tell whether a detail is, in fact, telling? Here’s a pretty reliable test: if the same anecdote were told without that particular detail, or with it described in (ugh) general terms, would the story would be inherently less interesting?

Don’t believe that so simple a change could have such a dramatic subjective effect? Okay, let me tell that story again with the telling details minimized. To make it a fair test, I’m going to keep the subject matter of the fortunes the same.

These, believe it or not, are the two sides of the single fortune I found inside a fortune cookie last night: a prediction of my happiness, accompanied by a statement about my standing in the world. Had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I worked my Chinese food leftovers into my refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the legal obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Police advising the arrested of their rights by given them candy? The First Amendment immortalized in baked goods, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly?)

It’s not as funny, is it, or as interesting? I haven’t made very deep cuts here — mostly, I’ve trimmed the adjectives — and the voice is still essentially the same. But I ask you: is the story as memorable without those telling details? I think not.

Some of you are still not convinced, I can tell. Okay, let’s take a more radical approach to cutting text, something more like what most aspiring writers do to the descriptive paragraphs in their query letters, the story overviews in their verbal pitches, and/or the entirety of their synopses, to make them fit within the required quite short parameters. Take a gander at the same tale, told in the generic terms that writers adopt in the interests of brevity:

Last night, I cracked open a fortune cookie at the end of my meal and discovered something I had never encountered before: a two-sided fortune, one side predicting I’d receive something good in the mail, the other reminding me that it was important that everyone be counted for the census. Since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was happy that I’d already filled it out.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet done so — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my form. As I rearranged food containers in my refrigerator, so I could fit my leftovers inside, I would have kept wondering: is the census the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand what the census is for, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?” Admittedly, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder)

Not nearly as much of a grabber as the original version, is it? Or the second, for that matter. No one could dispute that it’s a shorter version of the same story, but notice how in this rendition, the narrator seems to assume that the reader will either picture the incident so clearly that no details are necessary — or, even more common in memoir manuscripts and comic scenes in novels, presume that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the details, not the writer’s.

If you ever plan to submit your writing to Millicent or Mehitabel, there’s something you need to know: as far as professional readers are concerned, it’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the story in a way that provokes the intended reaction in the reader, not the reader’s to guess what the writer meant.

In other words, a professional reading is seldom anywhere near as charitable as the average submitter or contest entrant hopes it will be. Blame it on the intensity of competition created by literally millions of aspiring writers seeking to get published: Millicent knows that if the well-written submission in front of her does not provide her with the reading experience her boss the agent believes will sell right now, chances are good that one of the next thousand submissions will.

According to her, then, it’s your job to draw her into your story so completely that she forgets about all of that. It’s your job to wow her with your storytelling, regardless of the category of your book.

As some of you may already have suspected, I am not bringing this up at the beginning of our discussion of craft by accident: being aware of the imperative to tell the story well, rather than merely present it in a series of well-written sentences, gives an aspiring writer a significant advantage in preparing a submission or a contest entry. Heck, I’ll go even further: one of the best rules of thumb an aspiring writer can adopt is construct and revise your manuscript assuming a critical reader who wishes to be entertained, rather than an indulgent reader who is looking for writing potential.

This is particularly good advice — and I suspect that this will come as a surprise to some of you — if you happen either to be writing memoir or a novel with scenes based upon your personal experience. All too often, reality-based narrators rely upon the fact that something really happened to render it interesting to a reader, regardless of how skillfully that story may be told. All that’s really necessary is a clear telling, right? Or that the kind of terse narrative that works so well in a verbal anecdote will inspire the same reaction if reproduced verbatim on the page.

How well do either of these extremely common theories work out in practice? Well, let me ask you: did you prefer the first version of the fortune cookie story, the second, or the third?

More importantly for submission purposes, which do you think would grab Millicent the most as the opening of a manuscript? Or Mehitabel as the first few paragraphs of a contest entry?

Uh-huh. As we’ve seen, the difference between those three renditions was not the voice (although a case could be made that part of the voice of the first was created through the selection of the details) or even the writing quality (although the last version did get a mite word-repetitive), but the narrative’s willingness to include telling details — and unusual ones at that.

Allow me to suggest a radical interpretation of these facts: what if the entertainment differential between the three lay not in an authorial failure of imagination in composing the last version, but in a failure to recognize that the point of including this anecdote is presumably to entertain and inform the reader? In telling the story as quickly as possible, can a writer sometimes defeat the purpose of including it at all?

Ponder those questions for a moment, novelists who make things up from whole cloth. I’m going to take a moment to address the billows of anxiety wafting from those who write the real.

“But Anne!” memoirists and reality-based novelists protest nervously. “The things I write about actually happened — I can’t just make up pithy little details, can I? I have to stick to what happened!”

True enough, anxious truth-tellers: if you are writing the real, you cannot control the facts. What you can control, what any writer must control, is how you present them to the reader. No matter what you write, the success of your narrative is going to depend largely upon your storytelling skills — they’re what separates your account of a particular incident from anybody else’s, right?

Frankly, this isn’t an easy task, even if dear self doesn’t happen to be the protagonist; it’s hard to represent the real world well on the page. And let’s face it, reality is sometimes a lousy storyteller.

Oh, your life has never been trite or obvious or just plain perplexing, even for a minute? Okay, all of you English and Literature majors, tell me, please, how the following 100% true anecdote rates on the symbolism front.

A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to give a eulogy for a dead friend of mine — a writer of great promise, as the pros used to say — at our college reunion. Because several of my classmates had, unfortunately, passed away since our last get-together, eight of us were to give our eulogies at the same event. Because I am, for better of worse, known to my long-time acquaintances as a teller of jokes, I was under substantial pressure to…how shall I put this?…clean up the narrative of my late friend’s life a little. Or at least tell a version that might not offend the folks who didn’t happen to know him.

No, that’s not the symbolic part; that’s all backstory. Here’s the symbolism: my throat was annoyingly, scratchily sore for the entire week that I was editing the eulogy.

Now, if I saw a parallel that obvious in a novel I was editing, I would probably advise cutting it. “No need to hit the reader over the head with it,” I’d scrawl in the margins. “Yes, it’s showing, not telling, but please. Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?”

(And yes, now that you mention it, I am known for the length of my marginalia. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but explanation is often the soul of clarity.)

Now, if my life were a short story written for a high school English class, the voice loss in that anecdote might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: outsiders move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel or memoir, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced, or even trite. Certainly, it’s unlikely to make Millicent drop her latte and scream, “Wow, I never saw that coming!”

As I believe I may have mentioned, oh, four or five hundred times before in this very forum, just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction. My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo.

Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over the years since my friend’s death, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, in storytelling terms, if our protagonist had dealt with all the different input with aplomb, not coming down with strep throat until scant minutes before she was to speak? That way, in fine melodramatic style, she would have to croak her way through her speech, while her doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make the writerly heart swoon, don’t they?

Just think how long it would extend a funeral scene if a eulogizer were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the deceased’s secret admirer creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words.

Heck, just think of the dramatic impact of any high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist IS silenced. That’s just so…literal.

Besides, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if our protagonist had been not spoken about her friend since he passed away (which, in a sense, is quite true: I was unable to make it across the country for his memorial service — that could be transformed into an interesting flashback), then she would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now. Or if he and she had shared deep, dark secrets she had sworn never to reveal (no comment), how telling a slight sore throat might be on the eve of spilling the proverbial beans, eh?

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Taken too far, it might even make the protagonist seem like a wimp.

Readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long — at least, not if his problems rise to the level of requiring action to fix. Simply put, most readers would rather see a protagonist at least make an attempt to solve his problems than spend 50 pages resenting them.

I can feel authors of novels and memoirs where characters sit around and think about their troubles for chapters on end blanching, can’t I?

Frankly, you should, at least if you intend to write for the U.S. market. Domestic agents and editors these days expect first-time author’s plot to move along at a pretty good clip — and few characteristics slow a plot down like a protagonist’s tendency to mull. Especially in a first-person narrative, where by definition, the reader must stay within the worldview of the narrator.

Some of you blanching souls have your hands raised, I see. “But Anne,” these pale folks exclaim, “I’ve always heard that the real key to keeping a reader’s interest is to introduce conflict on every page. Well, most of my protagonist’s conflict is internal — she can’t make up her mind where to turn. Surely,” the pallor deepens, “a professional reader like Millicent wouldn’t dismiss this kind of thinking as whining, right?”

That’s a good question, blanchers, and one that fully deserves an answer. The short one is that it all depends on how long the equivocation goes on, how repetitive the mulling ends up being — and whether the protagonist (or the plot, for that matter) is doing anything ELSE whilst the wheels in her brain churn.

The long answer, of course, is that in order to formulate a really good answer to that particular question, you would need to go out and read a hefty proportion of the tomes released in your book category within the last couple of years. Not EVERY book, mind you: those by first-time authors, because the already-established have to impress fewer people to get a new book into print.

In recent years, most fiction categories have moved pretty firmly toward the action end of the continuum. As opposed to, say, virtually any novel written in English prior to 1900, most of which hugged the other, pages-of-mulling end of the continuum.

This preference isn’t limited to the literary realm, either — we often see this philosophy in movies, too. Don’t believe me? Okay, think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair.

No examples springing to mind? Okay, how about if the protagonist is the victim of gratuitous discrimination, or even just simple bad luck? I’m talking about serious drawbacks here, not just everyday annoyances, of course. ( For some reason, whining about trivial problems — “But I don’t have the right shoes to wear with a mauve bridesmaid’s dress!” — seems to be tolerated better by most readers and audience members, provided that the whine-producer doesn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt until she finds those shoes.)

Got a film firmly in mind? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes:

(a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled/unemployed/otherwise unhappy protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself,

(b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist (job counselor/spouse/friend) telling the protagonist that the REAL reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso/total lack of resources/loss of the love of his life, but his lousy ATTITUDE, and/or

(c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life?

In fact, don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers of books, too — routinely expect their characters to become better, stronger people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? Generally speaking, pain does not make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns.

Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky. Yet dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance.

Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is later seen to be crying so hard over the stain that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief.

Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.

So where does that leave us on the telling detail front — or the storytelling front, for that matter? Should we all shy away from giving our protagonists big problems, in favor of more easily-presented small ones?

Well, I’m not going to lie to you: there are plenty of writing gurus out there who would advise you to do precisely that. Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register. How trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

So why, you may be wondering, am I about to advise you not only to depict your protagonists (fictional and real both) with many and varied problems, as well as significant, realistic barriers to achieving their goals? Have I merely gone telling detail-mad?

Not by a long shot. I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. In conference presentation after conference presentation, they’ve been advising that writers should give their protagonists more quirks.

It’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable, after all — and it enables the inclusion of lots and lots of luscious telling details. Give ’em backstory. If you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy.

Provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal. Interesting delay creates dramatic conflict; resignation in the face of an insuperable barrier, however, is hard to make entertaining for very long.

In other words, feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems. Just make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems — or show her coming up with clever ways to make those liabilities work for her.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking writing that people read for pleasure here. We’re talking drama.

We’re talking, to put it bluntly, about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Erica, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your father’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Erica buried her beloved father only a couple of weeks before.

While a sympathetic soul might reasonably ask, “Um, why should she have gotten over it already, if she’s not completely heartless?”, strategically, even the deepest mourning should not cause the plot to stop moving altogether.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that professional readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings. They just see far, far too much wallowing in submissions and contest entries.

Why is that a problem, you ask? Well, in a short story or novel or screenplay, people who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s point of view. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in Millicent’s parlance: next!

The plague of the passive protagonist is a very, very common manuscript megaproblem, one about which agents and editors complain loudly and often. What’s a passive protagonist, you ask? One who habitually stops the plot in order to think things over, rather than taking swift action. Or who stops to talk the problem over with another character, rehashing the background information that the reader already knows.

Whenever you spot these pondering scenes in your own work, even if the project in question is the most character-driven literary fiction imaginable, pause and consider: could the piece work without the pondering scene?

Often, it can, and brilliantly.

A more subtle form of this megaproblem is the protagonist who waits patiently for all of the pieces of the mystery to fall into to place before taking action. Why, the reader is left to wonder, did the protagonist NEED to know the entire historical background of the problem before doing something about it?

Because the author thought the background was interesting, that’s why. Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: from a storytelling point of view, “because the plot requires it” should never be the only reason something happens in a story.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and substantially more active, if the protagonist acted on partial information, and then learned from the results of what she had done that she needed to learn more? In the midst of manuscripts where 2/3rds of the book is spent hunting down every last detail before the protagonist acts, I often find myself wondering: is it really such a good thing that HAMLET is so widely taught in high schools?

Yes, yes, many of the speeches are mind-bogglingly lovely, but here is a protagonist who more or less sits around feeling sorry for himself and not acting until the final act of a very, very long play — is this really the best exemplar of how to construct a plot, sometimes the sole example shoved under the eyeballs of high school students? Yes, it’s beautifully written, but honestly, by the middle of Act III, don’t you just want to leap onto the stage, shake Hamlet, and tell him to DO SOMETHING, already?

Oh, yeah, right, as if I’m the only one who’s had that impulse…

Don’t panic, please, if in the dead of night you suddenly find yourself thinking, “Hey, Anne raised a whole lot of troubling points today — but what about strategies for dealing with them?” You may sleep peacefully, knowing that next week of posts is going to be devoted to precisely that.

Today was just to whet your appetite — a fortune cookie at the beginning of the meal, as it were, rather than the end. Keep those protagonists active, my friends, and of course, keep up the good work!