Bringing those unbelievable stories to life on the page, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

It’s Christmas Day, campers, but my tree has gone dark: the electricity has been out for the last two hours. The local authorities claim that gigantic boom we all heard around noon resulted from a frantic windstorm’s having taken out a transformer. A less literary-minded analyst might take this story at face value. You can’t fool me, though. This is obviously Phase I of the Grinch’s most recent plan to steal Christmas.

Either that, or the Great Celestial Plotmaster(s) have been reading a lot of classic mystery lately. The day has all the hallmarks of the genre: while stoplight at the top of the hill’s being on the blink (or, rather, uncharacteristically not being on the blink) is admittedly the kind of thoughtfully-selected, pragmatic detail that makes a fictional world spring to life on the page, my brunch guests’ finding themselves plunged into darkness — or as close to darkness as a deep gray Seattle afternoon will permit — must hardly have come as a surprise to those familiar with the genre. I’ll bet you saw it coming the proverbial mile away. What’s next, a cat leaping out of nowhere to startle us at a suspenseful moment?

I mean, really: all of the characters are gathered in one place, and the lights go out? Even the Agatha Christie-impaired around the table immediately began making nervous jokes about which one of us was about to meet a grisly fate.

That’s why, in case any of you have been wondering since last spring’s foray into editorial pet peeves and how to avoid them, I tend to urge savvy revisers not only to scan their manuscripts for places where summary statements (such as All the lights went out could be productively replaced with character- or situation-revealing details (In the middle of the soup course, the chandelier suddenly gave up on emitting light. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. The butler fumbled in the sideboard for matches.), but for opportunities to surprise and delight the reader with unexpected specifics (In the middle of the soup course — a clear, sherry-laced leek broth with a jaunty dollop of crème fraîche floating gaily on top — the dusty chandelier suddenly gave up on its losing battle to shed light on the table. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. Startled, he knocked his shrimp fork onto a passing cat.).

My, but that was a long sentence. Somewhere in the literary stratosphere, the late Henry James must be chortling over his holiday goose, muttering to Edith Wharton, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“Too few semicolons for my taste,” Edith replies. “And watch your elbow: if you knock the figgy pudding over, you are sure to set the tablecloth on fire.”

My point, should any of you by some remote chance have lost sight of it in the midst of all that frenetic activity, is that while every type of book — and certainly every genre of fiction — has its own conventions, tropes, and characterization expectations, word for word, a writer is going to get substantially more expressive mileage out of a creative telling deal than one that any inveterate reader of that book category could guess. Or even, if it’s a common enough element, add subconsciously to the scene if it does not appear on the page.

Oh, when you read that second description of the lights going out, you didn’t murmur, “I bet the butler did it,” before your eyes passed the parenthesis at the end of the example?

Yes, Millicent the agency screener is encouraged — indeed, is often explicitly trained — to be on the look-out for manuscripts that read like, well, books in their chosen categories, and yes, each book category, particularly each genre fiction category, has its own recognized and recognizable plot twists, plot lines, stock characters, and, yes, types of details. Because agents specialize in particular types of book, as well as certain types of voices — a fact well worth bearing in mind when selecting which agents to query — it does tend to be to a writer’s advantage at submission time if the manuscript fulfills category-specific expectations. (That’s as true in a query’s descriptive paragraph as in a submission’s first few pages, by the way: if the text doesn’t sound as though it would fit comfortably within the manuscript’s chosen book category, it will usually be rejected.)

Let’s face it, though, the line between making your text read like it belongs shelved with others like it and like a cliché fest can sometimes be pretty thin. Many an aspiring writer believes, mistakenly, that producing a pale replica of a famous author’s writing is a better way to win friends and influence people at an agency than to come up with something more original. Or, even more mistakenly, does not become familiar enough with what’s currently being published in that book category to be aware what conventions would now strike someone who deals with those manuscripts for a living as passé.

To put it another way: when was the last time you read a mystery in which the butler actually did it?

The result, unfortunately, is that our poor Millicent tends to see the same types of specific — as well as the same plot twists, character types, and even phrasing — over and over and over again. When you consider the sheer volume of stories within the same category any agent successful in selling such books receives in any given year, that’s hardly astonishing.

The trouble is, most submitters remain woefully in the dark (and not because the lights went out) about how such elements are likely to be received at an agency. Good writing in a particular book category is good writing, right?

Sheer repetition has made Millicent believe otherwise, alas — but honestly, it’s hard to blame her for feeling that way. What might strike Writer A as requisite for that genre is frequently precisely what Writer B considers an homage to a classic and what Writer C will decide to drop in as a humorous riff on a cliché. And that’s not even counting what Writers D-F will honestly believe is original, but is actually a subconscious lifting of material or phrasing from an admired book.

“Oh, come on,” Millicent mutters, scalding her lip on that too-hot latte she forgot in her annoyance she had set aside to cool. “Does this writer honestly think that someone who reads as much as I do can possibly read an opening line like Yesterday, I fantasized that I returned to Ottawa without Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA springing to mind? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again is arguably the most famous first line in the genre!”

Wondering why I am bringing all of this up in the midst of a series on querying? Well, several reasons. First, I wasn’t going to post today at all, but as my guests went home when the soup got cold, I had a bit of extra time on my hands. I also had a charged-up laptop, as it happens, so clearly, this is kismet.

Especially as I had a holiday-themed anecdote I had been itching to recycle, anyway. I could have worked it into a series of queries, but hey, it’s a holiday — I thought everyone might enjoy a little break from our two solid months of query consideration. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that those of you devoted enough to your writing to be checking in at Author! Author! today might be more seriously interested in a discussion of craft than your garden-variety casual Internet browser.

Either that, or you might be trying to avoid your nearest and dearest. I’m happy to help you do that, too.

So gather close to the Yule log, campers, and let me spin my tale. As you read, try to think like Millicent: does the narrative contain enough specifics to provide all of the characterization needed? Does it occasionally stumble into the realm of cliché? While you’re at it, why not embrace the chance to embrace the Author! Author! tradition of trying to figure out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer have been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plasters the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erect a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently do not, poor Curly frequently thrusts himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrain themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, screaming words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence, or, indeed, incorporate into her everyday vocabulary without getting expelled. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

Almost immediately, a bulbous man in shorts and a t-shirt materialized by my side. Despite ambient cold that left our breath visible, his exposed arms and legs were not even goose-bumped. “Come over here,” he barked at the little girl, dragging her along the fence until they were directly in front of Curly.

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? Curly did not seem to be expecting it, but perhaps his furry friends would appreciate the gesture.

Releasing the quivering child, the man — whose clothing, I noticed, was emblazoned with advertisements for a local band and Nike, respectively, not the nursery — reached up and over the chain-link fence, snapping his fingers. Placidly, Curly dipped his head, extending his hyper-mobile lips toward the hand.

Curious to hear what happened next, aren’t you? That’s a good indicator that a scene is paced well. See how selecting those details carefully, as well as not over-burdening the text with explanations, can increase suspense while simultaneously moving the plot along?

So why, I ask you, would our old pal Millicent, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #3? Because, I assure you, most would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the second and third paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraphs Nos. 1 and 2 are in the present tense; paragraph #3 is in the past.

Submissions and contest entries do that all the time; so do, believe it or not, descriptive paragraphs in query letters. Sometimes, they even switch back to the original tense later in the text, or vacillate from sentence to sentence.

Already, I can spot some raised hands out there. “But Anne,” adherents of variable tenses point out, and with some reason, “Paragraphs #1 and #2 describe ongoing conditions, while paragraph #3 on focuses upon one-time events. Doesn’t that mean that the tense choices here are appropriate, or at least defensible?”

Good question, lovers of the present tense. Professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript. They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process — or, if this were a descriptive paragraph in a query, the after-effects of an incomplete merger of two different versions, one in the present tense and one in the past.

Why might that make her stop reading altogether? Like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

You habitual tense-switchers are not particularly happy with that answer, are you? “Okay, so she’s detail-oriented, but this isn’t a writing mistake; this is a stylistic choice. So why would Millicent be annoyed by it?”

On its face, your logic is pretty sound, tense-switchers: it would indeed be possible, within the context of a civil conversation between author and reader, to justify the tense choices in the example above. A writer might ostensibly win an argument with, say, a writing teacher, critique group, or even an editor about keeping the switch in the text. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to submit pages with tense inconsistencies to Millicent — or to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: because the writer is seldom present when an agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge encounters his manuscript for the first time. Successful manuscripts, queries, synopses, and contest entries are thus those that do not require additional verbal explanation.

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. So why risk it? Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer had been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erected a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently would not, poor Curly frequently thrust himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrained themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to encounter, folks, by see how big a difference it makes to the text? All it requires is a good proofreading eye and a willingness to view the story from Millicent’s perspective, not the writer’s. (The latter, after all, is already familiar with the storyline.) And need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

I thought not. Let’s move on with the story, to see if we can catch any other Millicent-displeasers.

Delicately, politely, as if he were extracting an egg from beneath a mother hen, Curly took the man’s fingers into his gargantuan mouth. The hand did not budge. The camel paused meditatively for a few seconds, tasting, then sucked the hand into his mouth up to the elbow, dragging the man up to his tiptoes.

Instinctively, I took a step toward the child. If the object lesson about the dangers of violating animals’ personal space was about to go horribly awry, the least I could do was shield her from seeing the bloody denouement.

The man waved me back with his free hand. “See, Tanya?” he told the saucer-eyed girl. “They like people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”

“That’s right, sweetie,” a stringy-haired woman called from the nearby wreath display. “Be nice to the animals, and they’ll never hurt you.”

“You just have to learn what they like.” A helpful bystander kicked a tall crate toward the man’s feet, so he could follow his arm skyward. “Camels love sucking on things.”

Mentally, I began taking notes, in preparation for my inevitable testimony in a court of law. “I think she’s got the point. Maybe it’s time to back off now?”

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even harder to catch than the last.

No? What about all of that redundancy in the dialogue?

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” several exclaim, “that’s how people talk in real life! You’re not gearing up to tell us that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Um, sort of. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on. Or just plain boring.

Which is to say, as any close listener to everyday speech would happily tell you, most of it.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send my entire readers on free writing retreats.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “isn’t that pretty self-evident? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing an additional nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers are also apt to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect. 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, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker 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,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate!

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character, if not from Christmas Past, at least ripped from the writer’s actual experience? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina never showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she never appeared again?

Actually, that was a set of trick questions. The answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’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 — something that Millicent, by definition, would not walk into the scene possessing. Nor would any other reader who was neither there when the incident occurred nor had heard the author complain vociferously about it.

In other words, what we have here is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon. Because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — 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, for that matter. It’s just an anecdote. Yet most self-editing writers, especially those who happen to be writing memoir, wouldn’t notice this narrative lack. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shouted that it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, help yourself to four peppermint cookies from the holiday table. In the writer’s mind, her 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 is that Theresa 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 when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. If I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, however, it’s incumbent upon me 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.

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this, I tremble to report. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

As a general rule of thumb — sore or otherwise — I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

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

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

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to write as I do? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. If it isn’t either inherently interesting, plot-advancing, or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

One more insight, then I’ll let you get back to your relatives: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? I’m betting that some substantial part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth.

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics at the beginning of their manuscripts, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. Yes, we see it in published books all the time, but in a submission, it’s a risky strategy.

“Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now.

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense — and frankly, in the case of my camel story, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have chosen to do so by now. Ahem:

“Give me a boost,” the man asked calmly, but his eyes were beaming panic over his daughter’s head. Curly’s lips were exploring the first few inches of his t-shirt sleeve.

Since his arm appeared to be on the verge of being ripped off at the shoulder, the crate-kicker and I hastily complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man’s arm returned to the land of the living.

He strutted his way down from the crate. “See?” he told the girl. “If you know what you’re doing, they won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm, manifestly resolving never to have anything whatsoever to do with an animal larger than herself again.

The moral, if I may venture one: just because something seems like a good idea at first blush doesn’t mean that it’s worth stubbornly adhering to it. One of the keys to successful self-editing is flexibility.

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Happy holidays, everybody, and keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

similar name page 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pronoun-only text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Those were the days, eh?”

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

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

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

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

Part XXVI of Pet Peeves on Parade, and part IV of Structural Repetition, and other excuses stockpile a whole lot of ands. Because you wouldn’t want to run out or anything.

Are your fingers stained with highlighter ink, campers? I hope they are: last time, I urged you to scan your submission pages — in particular, the first five, the opening chapter, or all of a contest entry — for over-use of the words and, but, and then; the average manuscript submission is positively peppered with ‘em. Since our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees these words so very often, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

As I hope you have seen for yourselves, once you started marking, it was pretty darned astonishing just how often those conjunctions leapt off the page, wasn’t it? Or they would have, had you flung yourself into this nit-picky task wholeheartedly — as opposed to, say, devoting yourselves the activities of normal people.

The typical writerly reaction, though, is somewhere in between: glancing over those pages with an initially willing mind, but throwing up one’s hands in despair three buts in. “What was Anne thinking,” I sensed some of you muttering yesterday, “to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Doesn’t she realize that most of us have to fight in order to carve out time to write — and even if I happened to be one of the happy few who don’t, sunny days relatively rare in the Pacific Northwest?”

Well, in the first place, summer in Seattle is frequently beautiful; the popular belief that it rains here non-stop is a myth. In the second place, I do realize just how important your time is to you — which is precisely why I’m advising you to invest a little time now in exchange for not having scads of your time wasted later in the submission process.

Think of it this way: as those of you who have submitted to an agency or entered a contest lately are already well aware, preparing your pages and sending them off is quite time-consuming, and, if you’re like most aspiring writers, even more energy-consuming. We also all know, I hope, that the cleaner your manuscript — that’s industry-speak for pages free of basic spelling, grammar, formatting, and logic problems, in case anyone was wondering — the less likely it is to push Millicent’s rejection buttons. The same holds true for her pet peeves: the better revision job you do, the less likely your pages are to come winging back in your SASE, accompanied by a form-letter rejection. Or, as is increasingly common, for them not to come back at all.

Sense where I’m heading with this? Getting caught in a submission-rejection cycle generally ends up eating far, far more of a writer’s valuable time than an intensive revision aimed at weeding out rejection triggers would take.

Or, to put it more bluntly, aspiring writers who routinely send out first drafts, especially — sacre bleu! — ones that have neither been proofread or spell- and grammar-checked — because they are impatient to get their books published generally have a harder time landing an agent, winning a contest, and/or pleasing an editor than writers patient enough to polish their work prior to submitting it.

Given such a noble goal, concentrating upon something as basic as whether your narrative relies too heavily upon and, but, and then may not seem as if it would make a big difference, but actually, out of all the potential problems a self-editor might discover in a Frankenstein manuscript, overused conjunctions are some of the easiest to catch and fix. And the pay-off can be tremendous: quick-reading agency screeners, editorial assistants (who screen submissions for editors) and contest judges are routinely ordered to subtract points (Brownie in the case of the former two, literal in the case of the contest submission) for grammatical errors — and word repetition is always high on their penalty list.

As is that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence. Not sure what one looks like? Here’s a lulu, presented for your reading pleasure in its natural habitat, the manuscript page.

Laugh if you like, but would it astonish you to learn that this is shorter than some of the sentences my aged eyes have beheld in manuscripts and contest entries? I’ve seen sentences that have dragged on for more than a page; I once spotted one that expected the reader to follow its twists and turns for almost three.

Although I have apparently lived to tell about it, there can be no legitimate justification for dragging the reader through such an epic. The best possible outcome — which the author does not deserve — is that perhaps no one will notice that there was only a single period in those 21 lines of text, but that’s not what’s likely to happen at submission time. Since text like this simply shouts at Millicent, “Hey, this writer didn’t bother to reread this paragraph in hard copy after writing or revising it; clearly, these pages are not ready for professional perusal,” including such a lengthy run-on produces prose that is in effect self-rejecting.

I sense that those of you fond of the occasional multiply compound sentence longing to equivocate. “But Anne,” run-on huggers point out, “couldn’t embracing this sort of conversational-style sentence be a daring authorial choice? Could it not, in fact, be a characteristic of a distinctive voice?”

Well, it could, if it were handled skillfully — but in 99.99% of cases, extended run-ons are not interesting enough to be honored with the name of style. Run-on sentences, much like the repetition of a favorite word or phrase, virtually never strike Millicent as the result of well-thought-out and purposeful writerly strategy. Or, if a pro does think it is purposeful it’s poor strategy: “I know! I’ll bore my reader and annoy Millicent by making her read the sentence twice in order to understand it!”

Seem like a harsh assessment? It isn’t, particularly, if you consider that from an agent or editor’s perspective, it’s the writer’s job to write not only clearly, but beautifully, adhering to the basic rules of grammar. Expressing a sentiment well and without gaffes is, after all, the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra.

To Millicent, then, a run-on sentence tends to look like an instance of the writer’s just being in too much of a hurry to write well — and in practice, she’s frequently right about that. It’s not at all uncommon for an aspiring writer to whip out a scene or paragraph in a rush, fully intending to come back and flesh out those not-especially-stirring sentences when he has more time. Astonishingly often, though, that mythical day with 27 hours — 24 for normal life, plus an extra 3 for revision — never manages to roll around. The writer forgets all about those original noble intentions and moves on.

Multiply that by a few hundred times, and you’ll end up with the type of submission that makes Millicent shake her head over a good premise gone awry: a typo-filled, run-on laden series of scenes dimly indicating what an intriguing story this might be four or five drafts down the line. A half-century ago, an agent or editor might have taken on a project like this, seeing that with proper professional guidance, the writer might polish it up into something genuinely fine. Today, however, our Millie sees just too many technically perfect submissions to worry much about rejecting those that still need work.

You’d be surprised, I suspect, at just how clearly a page featuring a couple of run-ons telegraphs to the pros that this manuscript could use more revision. Run-ons are usually hodgepodges of several distinct sentences’ worth of material, rubber-cemented together with our old pals and, but, and then. Look how obvious it is that the writer was in a rush:

Eighteen thousand citizens rushed as one to the city’s walls and stared over the side, but they could not possibly have anticipated what they would find there and gasped accordingly, then began to shout.

Essentially, this is a summary, not a description. We can see where and how this hefty hunk of prose could be chopped up into interesting, specific detail-filled individual sentences, but for reasons best known to herself, the writer has elected not to do so.

Once a reader has developed the editorial eye to see what could have been, other types of compound sentence also seem ripe for closer scrutiny. Take, for instance, the 19th century prose practice of stringing clause after clause together with whiches and whos and wheres:

Petunia, who was desperate, ran along the docks where Ambrose had vanished. She turned right every time she came to a curve, which was easier than making a new decision each time, but which left her wondering after about fifteen minutes if the awnings she was passing were the same ones she had passed earlier.

Modern style cries out for fewer of those clunky asides. And don’t even get Millicent started on the species of run-on that’s simply the result of a writer’s apparently being unsure whether it’s okay to replace a period with a comma in order to speed up the reader’s sense of what’s going on.

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway, the scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong.

The answer, Millie would like me to tell you, is no: it’s never correct to slap two complete sentences together with a comma. That last example should have been cut in half with a period:

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway. The scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong.

Or a semicolon:

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway; the scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong.

Even with the punctuation corrected, these sentences still might raise Millicent’s ire. Any guesses why?

Give yourself a gold star with almond clusters if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “So is comparative! It must take a modifier!” A so statement logically requires a that follow-up. Voilà:

Sebastian hesitated before marching through the doorway. The scent of gunpowder coming through it was so strong that it made him gag.

Why, yes, I did add some extra information to this sentence that might not have been part of the author’s original intention; editors are notorious for doing that, in the interests of rendering the prose clearer. I could also have revised these sentences without changing the meaning. What the author probably meant (“And should have taken the time to say,” sniffs Millie) was this:

The scent of gunpowder wafting through the doorway was so strong that Sebastian hesitated before marching through it.

This version also, I am glad to report, neatly side-steps the other professional readers’ pet peeve in the original, presenting cause and effect out of chronological order. Think about it: how likely is it that Sebastian would have hesitated before he smelled the gunpowder? Isn’t it far more plausible that he paused because it wafted toward him and he drew a conclusion from it about what probably lay beyond that doorway?

I hate to be the one to break the sad news, but the writer of the first version probably thought she had said precisely that. She was just in too much of a hurry to go back and make sure a reader would take that meaning from it.

Starting to get the hang of reading a run-on for clarity and grammar? Good. Now — and only now — are we ready to talk about style.

Let’s face it, none of these are particularly pretty sentences. The word choice is not especially interesting; they reveal little about the physical environment, Sebastian’s character, or even the danger into which he is almost certainly walking. As such, the phrasing takes a potentially suspenseful moment and squashes the reader’s sense of anticipation.

So I ask you: as a writer, how likely would you be to do any of those things on purpose, in the name of delightful literature or compelling storytelling?

Millicent doesn’t think it’s likely, either. No professional reader would mistake any of these examples for a daring stylistic experiment; they are not polished or interesting enough to prompt the reader to try to figure out if the writer had some clever reason for presenting these facts in this manner.

Nor — dare I say it? — are these sentences original enough to set off the High Literary Stylings siren in Millicent’s brainpan. That may well come as something of a surprise to creators of the variety of first-person narration whose primary stylistic recommendation is that it reads like everyday speech. The most popular means of pulling that off, as we have discussed earlier in the Pet Peeves on Parade series, is to replace grammatically-necessary periods with the ands, buts, and thens that grant a false consecutiveness to verbal storytelling.

My name is Louisa, and I am seven years old — and already, I see your eyes glazing over, dismissing anything I might have to say as the mere ramblings of a child. But I was there when the schoolhouse caught fire, there when the mayor decamped with the last dime of the town’s funds, there when the crocodiles began to squirm up from the riverbed to dine on the dear departed that no one was around anymore to bury. Then the vultures came, and still, I was there.

It’s not an uncompelling voice — although of the scores of professional readers’ pet peeves, few will cause the average Millicent to mutter, “Next!” faster than the grade-school storytelling expedient of having the narrator say right off the bat My name is X and I am # years old — but honestly, any originality the reader might spot in it comes from the details, not the echo of run-on filled normal speech. (“And even if it did,” Millicent adds, “this is a far cry from a seven-year-old’s voice.”)

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is the same passage, stripped of run-ons and reworked to minimize conjunctions.

My name is Louisa. I am seven years old. Already, I see your eyes glazing over, dismissing anything I might have to say as the mere ramblings of a child, but I was there when the schoolhouse caught fire. I was there when the mayor decamped with the last dime of the town’s funds. I was there when the crocodiles began to squirm up from the riverbed to dine on the dear departed that no one was around anymore to bury. When the vultures came, I was still there.

A forest of hands sprouted throughout the course of that last paragraph; I couldn’t be more delighted. “But Anne,” shout those of you who have been paying attention in recent weeks, “isn’t this opening a prime example of the oh-so-common invocatory rhythm achieved through word and phrase repetition that we have already identified as one of Millie’s pet peeves? I can’t believe that you edited the original without addressing that problem.”

Hey, it’s not the editor’s job to rewrite the author’s voice choices; all we do is flag what’s not working and suggest how to kick-start that story’s engine. It’s the writer’s job to decide how the words should appear on the page, right?

Admit it: you’re happy that’s the case. You wouldn’t really like somebody else to set your literary voice for you, would you?

So I leave to you the meaty creative challenge of making your prose sound like you at your best. For the moment, my goal is far less lofty: I want to help you be able to spot a run-on when you encounter it in the wild.

Here’s a good preliminary rule of thumb: if you can’t say any given sentence within a single breath, it might be a run-on. (Yet another great reason to read your manuscript OUT LOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN THEIR ENTIRETY before you submit, eh?) Another classic tip-off: where run-ons gather, there will be ands aplenty also, typically.

So whip out your marked pages from last time, please, and let’s observe the reproduction habits of and. If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed four major patterns of andusage:

(1) In lists.

Remember, not all lists take the form of Kamala had three novels, two memoirs, and a dictionary in her backpack. Keep an eye out for lists consisting of named emotions, which often appear in groups (Kamala felt angry, betrayed, and hurt), too-hurried accounts of activity (Kamala went to the store, searched fruitlessly for spumoni ice cream, ran down the block to her favorite trattoria, and begged them to sell her a couple of scoops on the sly.), as well as lists inadvertently formed by the use of and for emphasis (Kamala felt angry and betrayed and hurt and, consequently, ravenous for spumoni ice cream.).

Don’t think of all of those types of sentence as lists? Millicent does, believe me — and are lists really the most interesting way to present your protagonist’s activities? Ever?

(2) In the immensely popular X happened and (then) Y happened sentence structure.

We’re all familiar with this one, right? Edward ate his pizza and drank his Coke. The sky turned brown, and all of the birds stopped singing. I could go on like this all night, and if my guests were not flipping impatiently through magazines, I would.

There’s nothing wrong with this structure per se — but used too often, or too close together, all of those ands can start to feel quite repetitious quite fast. As can…

(3) In the almost-as-popular trilogy structure: Someone did X, Y, and Z. Alternatively, it may appear as Someone did X and Y, then Z.

Yes, either of these structures could be considered a list (as in, Christos cried, rolled over, and bawled some more.), but since most aspiring writers simply like the three-beat rhythm, I prefer to talk about it as a separate sentence type. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this structure if used sparingly, but all too often, the three-beat descriptive sentence becomes the default in the manuscript.

The resulting repetition can feel quite percussive to a reader, even if the actual sentence structure varies:

Christos felt betrayed, confused, and, oddly enough, desperate for some spumoni ice cream. Puzzled, he wandered into his kitchen, yanked open the freezer door, and pondered his ice cream supply. Wait — what had happened to his long-hoarded supply? Suddenly, it came to him: he’d heard Kamala rooting about in here in the wee hours, rattling bowls and clattering spoons. He felt angry and betrayed and hurt.

See how predictable those threesomes became, even in the space of one short paragraph? Imagine how Millicent feels when confronted with pages upon pages of them — which happens more than any of us would like to think.

(4) In complex descriptions.

Descriptions with multiple elements almost always contain at least one and, particularly if the sentence is passive: Germaine was tall and lanky. Again, this is technically a list (albeit a short one), but few writers would think of it as one.

Pay close attention to descriptive passages for another common and bugbear: sentences containing more than one of them. A multiple-and sentence is to most professional readers what a red flag is to a bull, and yet they are so easy to produce almost inadvertently if a writer is trying to cram too much description into a single sentence. As in:

Germaine was tall and lanky, with long, straight hair that came down to her lean and boyish hips. She liked to dress in black-and-white dresses, the kind that confused the eye if she walked past a strobe light, and skin-tight leather boots. She also favored tight jeans and tank tops, except of course for days she knew she would be running into Kamala and joining her on a spumoni ice cream run.

Quite a lot of ands, isn’t it? As strange as it may seem, most writers have an infinitely easier time spotting this kind of repetition in other people’s work; in their own, they tend to concentrate on the description, not the repetitive structure.

Complicating matters is the fact that often, two or more of these four types of and usage will appear within a single paragraph — or even a single sentence. Not sure what that might look like in practice? Okay, see if you can ferret out instances of all four kinds in this sterling piece of prose:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

How did you do? Admittedly, we’re looking for something a bit subtle here. Although the types of repetition used in this example may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they would come across as structurally redundant on the page. Even minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge, because editors — like other professional readers — are trained to zero in on redundancy.

To see how this orientation might affect how one reads, let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He yanked his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic — the percussive repetition lulls the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed.

There’s a reason for that, you know, and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, it has probably already occurred to you. The swiftly-scanning eye’s automatic tendency is to jump between repeated words on a page, in very much the manner that a CLUE player might move his piece from the study to the kitchen via the secret passage about which everyone in the game is evidently quite well-informed. (Hey, it’s an editor’s job to demand precise word usage.)

The result: Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the revolver.

Oops, wrong chain of events: the result relevant for our purposes is a submission page read far, far more quickly than the average submitter might wish. Not only by Millicent and her ilk, but by the average reader as well.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure. A great place to start: scanning your manuscript for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. Take a gander:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

Did your eye catch the subtle problem here? No? Let’s take a second look, this time as Millicent would see it:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly valid if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed last time, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

When I first began writing that last paragraph, I didn’t intend it to be an illustration of just how visually confusing word repetition may be on the page — but as I seemed to be succeeding brilliantly at doing just that, I figured I’d just run with it.

You’re welcome. Let’s highlight the repetition here, to determine precisely why a skimming reader might find it confusing:

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly legitimate if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed yesterday, where a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

Is your brain in a twist after all of that percussive redundancy? Never fear — the twin revising morals are actually quite simple to remember:

(1) Every writer, no matter how experienced, will occasionally write a poorly-constructed sentence or paragraph, so there will never be a point where any of us can legitimately assume that our first drafts require no revision whatsoever, and

(2) Just because a given word may carry more than one meaning — or, as here, refer to distinct categories of things — that fact doesn’t nullify the effects of repetition upon the reader.

Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, rather than as images on a page, these kinds of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars. Unless one is looking for it specifically, it’s easy to, well, overlook. Thus my urging you to whip out the highlighting pens, in case you were wondering. I’m just trying to make repetition jump out at you as garishly as it does to those of us who read for a living.

Incidentally, words that sound alike but are spelled differently — there, they’re, and their, for instance — often strike readers as repetitious if they are used in too close proximity to one another. For example:

“They’re going to look for their zithers in there,” Thierry pointed out.

Why might this sentence give a reader pause? Because many pronounce words silently in their heads while they scan. Yet another great incentive to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, eh? It’s the best way to replicate the silent reader’s mental experience.

Next time, I shall delve into some other problems that commonly arise from an over-reliance upon ands. In the meantime, in between time, try to minimize word and sentence structure repetition, and keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part V, in which we have apparently all died and gone to Concrete Example Heaven

On and off for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home. The SRH haunts novel and memoir submissions in a variety of disguises. Oh, it’s a versatile narrative trick, easily applied to a broad range of manuscript environments; it is as proficient at strangling burgeoning character development as it is at draining the tension out of a scene.

Most often, of course, it manifests as a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears — astonishingly often without any effort whatsoever on the part of the protagonist. Indeed, conflict-avoidance is so popular amongst fictional characters that protagonists tend to favor resisting the status quo even in their minds.

Oh, you may laugh, but you’d be surprised how often those of us who read for a living will watch, stunned, as a protagonist briefly considers perhaps maybe eventually doing or saying something — only to be interrupted by another character rushing in to prevent even the thought of discord from developing into something that might be interesting for the reader to watch. The swiftness with which these tension-averse white knights dispatch nascent conflict is sometimes downright eerie, begging the question: is this character a participant in this story, or is he reading it?

You’d like a concrete example, wouldn’t you? We aim to please.

If only I had the courage to speak up, Tyrone thought, seething. I’ve put up with my repressive boss’ arbitrary pronouncements for years. Maybe today is the day I should stop being a doormat. Maybe today is the day I shall start speaking up for myself. Maybe today is…

“Oh, and before we end the meeting,” Artie said, smoothing his notes, “I’ve been sensing some disgruntlement in the face of our recent reorganization. Perhaps I’ve been a trifle, well, if not insensitive, then at least myopic. I’d like to hear your concerns, though.” He turned to Tyrone. “I’ve always valued your opinion, Ty. How do you think we could improve our beloved department?”

Beaming, Tyrone wrestled a binder stuffed with suggestions from his backpack. “I thought you’d never ask!”

Ah, but the reader wishes you hadn’t asked, Artie. Characters who read one another’s minds are notorious tension-deflaters.

They are also prone to cutting off plot possibilities before they have a chance to do more than poke their wary heads above ground. Had Artie not magically deduced his employees’ irritation from some clue that the narrative has not elected to share with the reader — if, in other words, the conflict were shown by any means other than Tyrone’s thoughts telling us about them — maybe then Tyrone would have had to take the longer, more arduous road of addressing the problem by — wait for it — addressing the problem. As in out loud, in a manner that might have provoked an interesting, true-to-life scene.

We met another favorite guise of the Short Road Homes in my last post: telling a story out of chronological order, drowning any possible suspense about the outcome of a conflict by revealing it at the beginning of the scene, rather than the end. Even if foreshadowing is vague, it can sap the reader’s impetus to wonder what is going to happen next — a pity, really, as its purpose is ostensibly to raise suspense.

All too soon, our happy mood vanished, ruining the rest of the day. If I’d known what was going to happen next, I would have grabbed the oars and rowed like mad for the shore.

“Where’s the sun gone?” Barbara asked suddenly.

Meg’s hat blew off before she could reply. “The sky looks mighty ominous. I’d always thought that the clouds spelled DOOM was just an expression.”

I pointed a shaking finger over the side. “Are those sharks?”

Even minor chronology-surfing can lead to confusion. Since — chant it with me now, long-term readers — unless the narrative specifically states otherwise, events are presumed to occur in the order they appear on the page, what may appear to the writer as just a little creative sentence restructuring may genuinely muddy the reader’s conception what’s going on.

How? By inverting cause and effect temporally. Compare, for instance, this inadvertently time-traveling piece of prose:

Horrified, James jumped backward as Fred took a swing at him. He narrowly avoided being grabbed by George’s flailing hands. Wincing at the pain, he managed to spot and catch Bob’s crowbar before it connected with the side of his head.

With this more straightforward narration, in which cause precedes effect and our hero does not react before he perceives a threat:

Abruptly, Fred took a swing at him. Horrified, James jumped backward, practically into George’s flailing hands. As he veered under the large man’s arm, he spotted Bob wielding a crowbar. He managed to catch it just before it connected with the side of his head. His palm exploded with pain.

Much clearer, is it not? It’s also less of a Short Road Home: the reader is not told up front that something that has not yet occurred on the page will cause our hero to wince with pain.

Sometimes, though, a writer’s effort to make a series of actions clear can also send the narrative sliding down the Short Road Home. The pros like to call this over-explaining, for reasons I hope the next example will render obvious.

Darlene took a deep breath, so she could speak at length. This was taking a surprising amount of explanation. “It’s over, honey.”

Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. Confusion suffused his soul as he struggled to plumb her meaning. “But I don’t understand!”

He honestly didn’t. His perplexity continued even after Darlene’s quiet, “How is that possible, after the last hour and a half of conversation?” He just couldn’t wrap his mind around what she was trying to say. Was there a subtext here? Was it a subtle joke? Why was she telling him this now? Had there been a series of clues he had not caught, and if so, would she merely get angrier if he asked her for an itemized list?

He reached for his notebook, so he could consult his notes from the previous hour. “You’ll have to explain this to me again. What is it you’re trying to say?”

A tad redundant, is it not? Again, over-explanation is typically a show, don’t tell problem: by swamping the character-revealing and plot-resolving action with a welter of extraneous explanation, not only is the pacing slowed, but the central point of the scene (in this case, Morgan’s refusal to accept a painful rejection) gets a bit lost. So while all of that repetitive bottom-lining of his emotional state may have seemed to the author like necessary clarification, naming those emotions rather than showing them renders the scene less effective.

Too-heavy explanations are also, as we discussed in this series, rather insulting to Millicent’s intelligence. I’ve wrested a bit of comedy from Morgan’s cluelessness in order to make this scene more fun to read, so the distrust of the reader’s ability to draw quite obvious conclusions about a fairly straightforward situation may not have leapt out at you. It’s not as though this scene deals with unfamiliar concepts, however; for most readers, confusion — and, by extension, denial — don’t really require much introduction.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s that same scene again, allowing the characters’ actions and feelings to speak for themselves.

Darlene took a deep breath. “It’s over, honey.”

Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. “But I don’t understand!”

Her grip tightened on the back of the chair so much that her knuckles grew white, but she held her voice quiet. “How is that possible, after the last hour and a half of conversation?”

Every inch of his intestines quivering, we reached for his notebook, so he could consult his notes from the previous hour. There had to be a way to talk her out of this, but how?

“I just want to make sure I get your reasoning.” He measured the time between his words with care: long enough to buy him some time, not long enough to make her want to leap into his mouth with pliers to drag the reluctant syllables out. “You know, so I can explain your departure to our friends.”

Axing all of that extraneous explanation certainly bought some room for character development, didn’t it? That would come as a surprise to most Short Road Home-wielders, I suspect: the urge to summarize tends to be a side effect of the impulse to speed things up. Or, as is often the case in these decadent days of relatively low word counts — can you imagine, say, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, if it had to be cut down to under 100,000 words before it could be marketed? — of a clawing, terrified need to slash fifty pages from an over-long manuscript.

Besides, as we have just seen, summarizing emotional turmoil, that oh-so-common manifestation of the Short Road Home, just isn’t as effective on the page as demonstrating it through specific feelings, actions, and thoughts. Not merely labeling the emotion in question. mind you — Jack was sad is not, after all, a particularly evocative description — but by showing it in detail and trusting the reader to draw the correct conclusion about Jack’s emotional state.

He roved listlessly around the living room, straightening a grinning china dwarf here, making sure a magazine’s edge was exactly parallel to the edge of a table there. Calla might not be alive to notice anymore, but that was no reason to relax her standards. Someday, a guest might stop by, as they did in the old days.

You wouldn’t want to convey the impression that Millicent is intellectually incapable of extrapolating as self-evident a conclusion as Jack was sad from that little gem, would you?

The SRH’s almost magical ability to minimize the emotional impact of a moment is not limited to tragedy, either; as we saw in the Pet Peeves on Parade series, over-explanation’s ability to declare a joke dead on arrival is legendary. Less discussed amongst writers but equally pernicious, skating too quickly past the comic constituent parts of a potentially funny scene can also be fatal to humor.

Just as suspense is more effective if the reader has time to absorb the ambient threat and imagine a negative outcome before something bad happens — Alfred Hitchcock was apparently fond of saying that the best way to render a scene that will end with an explosion was not to show the participants running around in terror of the imminent bang, but to let the audience a bomb was concealed under a table, then let them squirm while a couple of characters who have no idea they’re dining atop a bomb chat about something else entirely — a funny build-up tends to have more impact if the reader has a chance to appreciate a series of amusing details.

Premises in particular are susceptible to death by Short Road Home. Take a gander:

Surely, nobody would care if she took just one apricot from that beautiful pile. Gerri reached out, grabbed a small one near the bottom — and then the entire pyramid disintegrated, sending fruit flying everywhere.

Now, this might have been funny, had it been fleshed out a bit more. Indeed, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult for a comedy-minded reader to picture what probably happened here in hilarious detail, based upon this scant description. But it’s not the reader’s job to contribute material to a book’s humorous scenes; it’s the writer’s job to write them so that they are funny.

Surprisingly often, simply drawing out the suspense will make a SRH scene funnier. Let’s apply the Hitchcock principle to poor Gerri’s plight.

The largest pile of fruit she had ever seen loomed before her, five feet high if it was an inch and nearly as broad at the base. Each perfectly ripe apricot selflessly offered a flawless furry cheek to the public, an arc of delicious roundness identical to its neighbor. She leaned forward to examine it more closely, convinced that the fruit must be fake.

A slap of immistakable sweetness assured her nose that her brain was dead wrong. She had to force herself not to plunge her face into the wall of fruit.

She circled the display, running her fingers as close to the base as she dared. The Great Pyramid of Giza could hardly have been arranged with greater care, but Gerri felt this was an even greater human achievement: presumably, the ancient wonder had taken years; judging by the heady aroma, this must have been the work of a single breathless hour. She could not even begin to imagine the bravery it must have taken to place that last crowning apricot, the cherry on the top of the world’s most precariously-constructed sundae.

Her mouth was watering; clearly, it had been a mistake to swoop in for a sniff. A reasonable adult would simply have accepted that the pyramid was what the sign next to it said it was — the Arabella County 4-H Club’s summer project, an attempt to beat a three-decade-old youth timed fruit-piling record — and moved on. A reasonable adult, however, would not have been forcibly deprived of stone fruit for the last two years by a husband who wouldn’t have known a vegetable had it leapt into his mouth of its own accord, screaming, “Eat me, Harold!”

She slipped around back, where theft would be least likely to be noticed and selected her prey. A smallish one, with a dent in it so minuscule that Sherlock Holmes might have missed it. Millimeter by millimeter, she edged it out of its space in the middle of the tenth row.

She slipped it into her pocket, cool and damp, just before a fresh group of State Fair-goers stampeded into the room. “Isn’t it magnificent, Ma?” a little girl with pigtails gushed.

Palpitating but proud, Gerri wove her way through the crowd. “Oh, excuse me,” she told a gawker. “I didn’t mean to step on your shoe.”

He waved away her concern a little too hard; Gerri had to duck to avoid his elbow. Her elbow knocked into something soft and prickly.

The Zucchini Through the Ages display went crashing to the ground, its hand-lettered signage squashing thirty squash into pulp in an instant. Small zucchini rolled under bystanders’ feet, sending strangers careening into one another. The first-place entry, a monster of eighteen pounds, flew straight into the stomach of a passing Girl Scout, forcing a stream of fairground goodies out of her astonished mouth. In the ensuing stampede, every single entry in the legume category was trampled beyond recognition.

Only the apricot mountain was spared. “I knew they must have glued it together,” Gerri muttered, slipping form the tent.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that comedy also benefits from a healthy dose of surprise?

No, but seriously, folks, after a lifetime of reading and a couple of decades of reading professionally, it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers don’t have a clear idea just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling a trifle underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single dry cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous for luscious, richly-depicted narrative tension. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a feast come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

An excellent place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home: when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

Straying toward the general is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character that is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a peek at the offspring one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in adult fiction and memoir that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Do I sense some shifting in chairs out there? “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show my view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit: it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened his front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Malia, was once again refusing to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her school’s field trip to the State Fair had gone.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room. Small chunks of what appeared to be zucchini flew from her hair onto the beautifully-swept floor.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Alice. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Alice shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom, she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Malia’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Alice. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Well, I’m glad that’s settled. No need to read the rest of the novel, is there?

That’s a shame, because this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel. There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy sends us veering down the Short Road Home, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book. The result: what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

In other words, it becomes a scene that the writer should consider cutting.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Malia’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

Again, that’s a pity. If only Tom had said, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Malia’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Heck, had the narrative just gone ahead and shown Tom and Alice being patient and consistent, earning Malia’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no: the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he doesn’t show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

Especially if it’s the therapist. Millicent sees a lot of those.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist-in-therapy’s breakthroughs occur outside of the analyst’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Hey, here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which, at the risk of wearing out some pretty time-honored writing advice, you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the pros. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

But for heaven’s sake, leave that pyramid of apricots alone; it’s not as solid as it appears to be. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part IV: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of this post! Tommy!

I can’t quite decide whether I am profoundly sorry or oddly pleased that I’ve been digressing from our series-within-a-series on the Short Road Home, my pet name for a storyline that introduces a conflict only to resolve it immediately, sometimes before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious. Yes, too-swift fixes make it harder for the reader to root for the protagonist — or, when faced with a truly galloping case of SRH, to perceive any build-up of narrative tension at all — but since authorial distrust in readers’ attention spans often underlie these apparently self-solving problems, perhaps jumping around between topics has been appropriate.

Those of us who read for a living, however, may be trusted to have attention spans longer than a third grader hopped up on a quart of cola and half a dozen brownies. Oh, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, may be conditioned to reject most manuscript submissions on page 1, but once she gets into a story, she, like any other reader, wants to see it played out in a satisfying manner.

That seems to be news to an awful lot of submitters, however. You’d be amazed at how often not small, potentially character-revealing conflicts are resolved practically as soon as they appear on the page, but major ones. In book openings, it’s not even all that uncommon to use one of these near-momentary crises as a clumsy means of introducing necessary backstory, as the following sterling piece of dialogue illustrates.

“It’s gone!” Marvin scrabbled around frantically in the dry grass next to his sleeping back, careless of the rattlesnake producing marimba rhythms on its tail a scant yard away. “My beloved late great-great-grandfather’s pocket watch!”

Antoinette gasped. “Not the one traditionally passed from dying father to eldest son for a century and a half, and entrusted to you by your father on his deathbed not four weeks ago?”

“The same.” A silver disk flew through the air at his head, glinting in the firelight. “Why, here it is! Where did it come from?”

The sleeping bag on the far side of the fire jackknifed. Jesse’s red face peered out of the opening. “You dropped it three hours ago. I was waiting for you to notice.”

Marvin flung his arms around Antoinette. “My legacy is safe!”

“What kind of idiot brings an heirloom mountain climbing?” Jesse muttered, trying to regain a comfortable position.

Yes, this is Hollywood narration — all three characters are already aware of the significance of the watch, so the only conceivable motivation for Antoinette and Marvin to explain it to each other is so the reader can hear what they say, right? — but you must admit, it is a darned efficient means of shoehorning the watch’s importance to Marvin into the story. It might not even come across as heavy-handed, if the reader had time to absorb the loss, understand its significance through Marvin’s reaction, and gain a sense of what might happen if the watch were never found.

But here, the darned thing reappears practically the instant Antoinette finishes filling the reader in about it, killing any possible suspense before it’s had time to build. Does that strike you as a narrative strategy likely to entrance a professional reader? Or is it likely to seem like the Short Road Home to anyone with an attention span longer than a drunken gnat’s?

Leaving aside for the moment the burning question of whether a gnat could be trained to hold its liquor, let’s consider how much more annoying this narrative strategy would be if (a) it were used frequently throughout the story, (b) it were in fact the primary tactic for introducing conflict into the story, and/or (c) the conflict in question were one that had been hyped throughout the book as central to the protagonist’s personal journey.

Yes, you did read that last bit correctly, campers. You would be stunned at how frequently Millicent sees a manuscript’s central conflict diverted to the Short Road Home. Often in the last chapter — or on the next-to-last page.

“Oh, Marv,” Antoinette moaned, cradling his bloody head, “you are so close to learning the truth about your family. Before you die, let’s look at that watch one more time.”

With effort, he fished it out of his pocket. The last rays of the sun illuminated its broad face. “Wait — I’ve never noticed that notch before. Maybe it has a false back.”

After the third time he dropped the watch, she put her deft fingers to work for him. “Why, you’re right. There’s been a piece of paper hidden back here all the time.”

She spread the paper two inches from his eyes. With difficulty, he made out the words. “Dear descendent: you will have heard all your life about a family curse. There really isn’t one; I just made it up to scare off competition from my gold mine. Please find attached the true map to your inheritance. Love, Marvin Bellamy the First.”

Suddenly, Marvin felt life once again suffusing his limbs. “Why, that’s the answer I’ve been seeking since we began this long, strange trek!”

Antoinette struggled to contain her annoyance. “And to think, if you’d only given that watch more than a passing glance after your father gave it to you, we wouldn’t have had to spend fifteen months hiking these mountains barefoot.”

“Oh, stop your moaning.” He sprang to his feet. “Your shoes didn’t wear out until month three. Let’s go find the gold mine — it’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“Um, excuse me?” Millicent asks politely. “Is there a reason that I had to read the 312 pages prior to this one? The entire plot has just been sewn up in seven paragraphs.”

Ah, but you should be grateful, Millie: at least this protagonist had to do something in order to send us careening down the Short Road Home. Granted, it wasn’t much; he simply had to manhandle his main prop a little to find his long-sought truth. As you know from experience, many a passive protagonist simply has another character hand the key to the plot to him on a silver platter.

The shadowy figure was closer now, bending over him. If this was Death, he certainly wore nice cologne.

Wait — he knew that scent. Hurriedly, Marvin wiped the dust from his eyes, but he still didn’t believe what they told him. “Dad? I thought you were…”

“Dead?” Marvin the Fifth chuckled ruefully. “No, not quite, son. That was merely the necessary push to aim you toward your legacy. Still got that watch?”

Marvin dug it out of his pocket. Snatching it, the old man cracked it in half.

“My inheritance!” Marvin screamed, horrified.

“Oh, it’s just a cheap knock-off.” Dad poked around in the shards. “But it contained this key to a safe-deposit box located twenty-two feet from this very spot. Come on, kid, let’s go claim your real inheritance. On the way, I’ll tell you all about your great-great grandfather’s plan for making his descendents rich.”

“Do I have to walk?” Marvin whined. “I’m tired from all of that mountain-climbing.”

“Hello?” Antoinette shouted after the pair. “Remember me? The lady who has been carrying your backpack for the last 100 pages?”

Come on, admit it: Marvin, Jr. is not the only one who seems a trifle lazy here. This writer appears to have dropped a deus ex machina into this plot, having a new character waltz into the story at the last minute to explain away all of the remaining mystery, rather than engaging in the hard, meticulous work of setting up sufficient clues throughout the story for the protagonist to be able to solve it himself.

Like other forms of the Short Road Home, the external explainer is a tension-killer. It could have been worse, though: ol’ Dad could have popped up periodically throughout the story, making it clear to all and sundry that he could have filled Marvin in at any time, if so chose he. What a pity that Marvin was just too darned lazy — or dim-witted, or determined that this story would take 324 pages to tell — to ask the obvious question.

Oh, you laugh, but narrators effectively tease the reader in this manner all the time in both novel and memoir submissions, through the use of the historical future tense. The openings of chapters are particularly fertile ground for this sort of suspense-killing narration. Often mistaken for subtle foreshadowing, transitional statements like I was happy — but my illusions were about to be shattered forever. actually minimize the tension to come.

How? Well, before the conflict even begins, the reader already knows the outcome: the narrator’s illusions will be shattered. She may not yet know the details, but you can hardly expect her to begin reading the next scene hoping for the best, can you?

Section-opening paragraphs that tell the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene begins are alarmingly ubiquitous. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets that Saturday in May, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to follow:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing — and, even more troubling to writing rule-mongers, telling the story out of chronological order. The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the frequent use of and then tends to annoy your garden-variety Millicent: unless a narrative specifically indicates otherwise, actions are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page. I lost my footing and plunged into the water. And then the bear ate me, therefore, does not convey any more information to the reader than I lost my footing and plunged into the water. The bear ate me.

I hear some of you giggling. “Oh, come on, Anne,” lovers of conversational-style narration and/or run-on sentences protest. “I can see that and then might have been logically unnecessary here, but what’s the big deal about adding a couple of extra words?”

If they appear only once or twice in the course of a manuscript, they might not be a big deal. Given the extreme popularity of chatty-voiced narration, however, and the common conception that first-person narration peppered with conversational conjunctions is a valid reflection of everyday speech, Millicent sees an awful lot of and thens in a work day. Often, more than once on a single page. Or within a single paragraph.

You might want to give it a rest. I’m just saying.

Back to the benefits of telling a story in chronological order, rather than skipping around in time. Showing events in the order they occurred renders maintaining narrative tension easier, particularly in first-person narration: the reader may be safely left in the dark about surprising developments until they’re sprung upon the narrator, right?

Let’s face it, though, if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable. Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be a Millicent trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

All of which is to say: if you were looking for a good place to start trimming a manuscript, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Oh, wait: I’m foreshadowing — and to render it even more confusing, I’m doing it by jumping backwards in time. The last time I addressed this topic, a reader wrote in to ask:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

That’s an interesting question. So much so that I strongly suspect that if this reader had asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question. But did you notice how gratuitous that and then was?

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our last two examples. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as our questioner puts it, spill the beans. The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, too, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the bar for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Or impressed. Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that doesn’t use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five. By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on but little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel. After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it? Or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears — and then have it devour him?

If you’re like most readers — and virtually all professional ones — nine times out of ten, you would pick the latter. And for good reason: genuine suspense arises organically from conflict between the characters as the story chugs along. A surprise that you’ve known was coming for two pages is obviously going to startle you less than one that appears out of nowhere.

Foreshadowing is the opposite tactic: it tells the reader what to expect, dampening the surprise. It’s hard to do without spoiling future fun. All too often, what the writer considers a subtle hint informs the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order for so much as a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Why? Well, from a reader’s perspective, even that brief a Short Road Home can substantially reduce a scene’s tension. Take, for example, this fairly common species of scene-introducing prose:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity about why Frère Jacques departed, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the surprise along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold naturally is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as a manifestation of the unexpected.

That may seem self-evident, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch, few manuscript submissions contain twists that actually surprise professional readers. Partially, as we discussed earlier in this series, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball. After all, it’s not as though she has the attention span of a gnat, drunken or otherwise.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers apparently don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less astonishing than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some of you inveterate foreshadowers call out, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should one or more of them be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if — and only if — their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on her own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader. But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us twenty minutes hence.

To those of you who do habitually hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. There’s an excellent chance that six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately for his future prospects, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

But that doesn’t mean that if you do find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you shouldn’t seek some professional help.

Speaking of professional help: from a professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from a low-hanging cloud bank. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped as she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that pesky vulture for distracting me. Keep up the good work!

A detour from the pet peeve parade: the short road home

Throughout our rather sprawling Pet Peeves on Parade series, I have been chattering blithely about narrative conflict and tension, as though every aspiring writer out there were already hard at work, trying to ratchet up the quotas of both in their manuscripts. As, indeed, those of us who read for a living so frequently advise: make sure there is conflict on every single page is, after all, one of the most commonly-given pieces of how-to-please-the-agent-of-your-dreams revision advice.

But if you’ll pardon my asking, what does it mean?

Seriously, how would a conscientious self-editor apply this advice to the manuscript page? Insert a sword fight every eight paragraphs or so? Have the nearest gas station should spring a leak just because the protagonist happens to be strolling by? Force the lovers in your romance cease stop billing and cooing in favor of snarling at one another?

Of course not — but you would be surprised how often aspiring writers stumble into the harsh daylight at the end of a writers’ conference muttering to themselves, “Must ramp up conflict. Tension on every page!” without being certain what that means on a practical level. There’s a pretty good reason for that: colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

So let’s take a moment to define our literary terms, shall we?

Narrative conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force. The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Narrative tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next — rather than, say, idly wondering whether it is time to check in again with a 24-hour news network. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from a lack of one often suffers from a paucity of the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, enough so that the professional readers’ stereotype of a first submission is — are you sitting down? — a story that meanders episodically from event to unrelated event, just like real life.

“And just like real life,” our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, has been known to murmur over manuscripts, “any randomly-chosen scene will not appear to a bystander to be going anywhere in particular. Is there a point to all of this slice-of-life activity?”

Why might first books be more likely to fall prey to this pervasive problem than others? Keeping both conflict and tension high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult; it’s a learned skill, and many quite talented writers have been known to write a practice book or two before they learn it.

Oh, should I have checked again that you were sitting down before I broached that one?

The other major reason first books tend to drag is that writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer. Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep Millicent turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read this way.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on-the-screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline — or has just received a request for pages from a real, live agent.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting not to give your work a thorough read-through. Especially in the second case: if you’re like the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, you’ll be so excited by a positive response to your query that you’ll want to pop those pages in the mail or hit the SEND button within 24 hours or so. You know, before that nice agent changes his mind.

If you read that last paragraph and cried, “By gum, that’s me!” relax. Requests for pages don’t expire for a year or so, typically. Even if the request came as the result of a successful pitch — and if so, kudos on your bravery — an aspiring writer does not, contrary to popular panicked opinion, need to get the requested materials onto the agent’s desk before s/he forgets the pitch. If one pitched at a reasonably busy conference, it’s safe to assume that s/he will forget your pitch — but that s/he will have taken good notes.

Translation: you have time to proofread before sending all or part of your manuscript. In fact, it’s only professional to take the time to do so.

Unfortunately, those whose writing would most benefit from a good, hard, critical reading tend to be those less likely to perform it. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

So let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you submit so much as a paragraph of your writing to a professional reader, it would behoove you to read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so it doesn’t slip your mind the night before that contest deadline.

Many a hand has been in the air for many a paragraph now, hasn’t it? “But Anne,” anguished middle-of-the-night manuscript contemplators everywhere wail, “how can I tell if my manuscript does indeed lack conflict and/or tension? I’ve read some of the individual passages so often now that they seem set in stone to me.”

Excellent question, anguished self-editors. While there are as many individual causes of sagging tension and conflict minimization as there are plotlines, certain types of narrative choices are more conducive to producing them. In the interest of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home crops up when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension to the story — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve — or understand what the stakes are.

What might the SRH look like on the page? Well, in its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages –- and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character’s internal conflict is depicted as insurmountable — and then it turns out that all he needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in Madagascar leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

The thing is, though, blocked roads tend to be quite a bit more interesting to read about than unblocked ones. So you can hardly blame Millicent for becoming impatient when pages at a time pass without conflict — and then, when the long-anticipated conflict does arise, the narrative swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. Perhaps like so:

Percy rumpled his hair for what must have been the fifteenth time that day. How on earth was he going to find his long-lost relative in a city of half a million people, armed with only a ten-year-old photograph and a dim memory that Uncle Gerard adored hazelnut gelato?

Perhaps that was the best place to start; he nipped around the corner to Gelato Galleria. After all, sensory memories were always the strongest.

“Hazelnut?” The man behind the counter seemed thunderstruck. “Only one customer has ever ordered hazelnut here. Mr. Gerard’s my best customer.”

Percy reached across the counter to grasp him by his striped lapels. “When was he last in? Be quick, man — it may be a matter of life and death.”

“Th-this morning. He ordered seven pints for a party this evening. I’m supposed to deliver it.”

“Allow me.” Percy’s tone dispensed with the possibility of further discussion. “I would be delighted to deliver it for you.”

Or maybe like this:

Irene mopped her sopping brow, staring after the departing train. Her last chance for redemption chugged away from her. If only she hadn’t been so stubborn! Or so true: Mother had been wrong to extract that promise on her deathbed, the one about never revealing her true identity. Now, the only sister she would ever have was gone from her life forever.

She was wiping her eyes furtively when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Really, strangers were so pushy these days. She wheeled around.

“I missed my train,” Eileen said sheepishly. “Would you mind putting me up for another night?”

“Another night?” Irene threw her arms around her sibling. “You can stay with me forever. You are my identical twin!”

“Well,” Eileen murmured into her sister’s curls, “that would explain why meeting you three hundred pages ago was so like gazing into a mirror. How strange that nobody else noticed the resemblance, eh?”

Or, even more common, the too-quickly-resolved conflict on the scene level:

“I had that paper a minute ago,” Archibald said, beginning to contemplate perhaps thinking about maybe starting to contemplate looking for it. “Where can it be? Without it, I cannot walk into that meeting.”

“Is this it?” Grace held up the wastepaper basket, angled so he could see within its shallow depths.

Relieved, he fished it out. “Thanks, I would have been lost without it.”

It drives Millicent nuts. “If a conflict so unimportant to the plot and/or character development that it can be disposed of this quickly,” she murmurs, “why include it in the manuscript at all?”

Good question, Millie — often, a problem’s being too easy to solve is an indicator that it could be cut with no cost to the story. Or that the problem was not set up in sufficient detail in the first place. Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker except a propensity toward good manners.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an exchange that crops up in a good 90% of submitted manuscripts.

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

“Fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes. It seems to be spring at last.”

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

Put down that revolver, Millicent. I assure you, life is still worth living.

But you see the problem, right? On the page, good manners are predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Trust me: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent it if the narrative doesn’t point it out the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows, or even sees, for six more chapters. Amongst the pros, it’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

Not sure why? Okay — my God, what’s that creeping up behind your desk chair? Oh, it’s…horrible. Too horrible to describe…

Not a very satisfying plot twist, is it? And it should look familiar from last time: it’s a variation on the she ran through the woods opening.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — how will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes. A zany crew of misfits is hardly likely to solve the world hunger problem in that amount of time, after all. But a trumped-up conflict based upon Janie’s being afraid Fred will find out that she lied about something really, really unimportant? You can probably write the last scene right now, based upon that last sentence alone.

“Wait a gosh darned minute,” I can hear some of you say. “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it reflects the fact that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the entertainment industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase it at a crucial point? Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict and tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Before you answer that, bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. In the classic comic novel TOM JONES, the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true.

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff these days. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something fresh,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Well, that was easy. I guess my work here is done.

Or does a certain amount of disgruntlement linger in the air? “Well, you may not like it, Anne,” some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, someone is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots are not typically first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly better than what is already on the market.

To be blunt, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

That inconvenient reality can create some tension (hooray for drama!) in a critique group made up of a mix of published and unpublished writers. Years ago, a genuinely fine writer of many published books brought my critique group a chapter in which her protagonist escaped from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happened to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slunk off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Naturally, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the bad guy automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker was able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marked this exchange as a SRH rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book. One swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agreed to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me. By this story’s standards, everyone who works at my college alumni magazine is a dedicated stalker.

But because my colleague was an established author, she was able to get this SRH past her agent, although her editor did subsequently flag it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

But that’s not the only reason I brought up this example. I wanted you to have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a SRH is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the first effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first thought about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step. If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does a minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you? You don’t read many manuscripts, I take it. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise all the time. An astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to someone they have never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain extremely articulately with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at exactly the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?”

If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a SRH on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile, or a cohort a touch less competent. Add a subplot about a school board election. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can, in short. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

For some fabulous examples of this, take a gander at almost any film from the first decade of Jackie Chan’s career. In many of them, Our Hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain early in the story — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see him painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or check out the early HARRY POTTER books. When Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that the plots of the first three books were essentially identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, quite a bit of that pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story’s ultimate goal of pitting Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book. We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

Remember, the goal of storytelling is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as quickly, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip. And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. Varied outcomes are usually interesting for the reader than continual triumph or perpetual defeat.

Next time, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — because yes, Virginia, today’s was the easy one to fix. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIX: there was something about his eyes, something indescribable…



I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)

What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!

“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”

Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”

He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”

Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.

Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.

A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.

“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”

See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:

Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”

Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”

“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”

Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.

The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.

It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.

“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”

We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?

Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.

There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.

What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”

You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.

Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.

A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.

There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.

Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”

Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.

It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.

It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.

Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.

Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!

“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”

Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.

Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:

She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”

Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.

Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”

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

A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”

Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.

Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.

One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.

As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.

Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.

In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?

“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”

Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.

Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.

What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?

Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?

And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.

Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XVI: but I don’t want to give away the whole candy store!

Have you noticed a theme running through the last few posts, campers? Yes, we’ve ostensibly been talking about dialogue, but in that fine tradition of narrative where there’s more going on than what’s going on, as Millicent the agency screener might put it, I’ve been sneaking in some other lessons as well. Many of them, as some of you may have noticed, have related to reducing the passivity of one’s protagonist(s).

On the off chance that I’ve been too subtle: a protagonist who merely observes the plot, rather than being a force — or, ideally, the primary force — driving it forward can bring an otherwise exciting story to a grinding halt while s/he ruminates. (Confidential to Elizabeth: you’re welcome.) Similarly, a protagonist who contributes minimally to a scene, remains silent, or does not respond to stimuli that would cause the calmest herd of elephants to stampede for the nearest exit can sap tension.

So it’s not entirely surprising, is it, that a protagonist who is purely reactive on page 1 might cause Millicent to worry about how exciting s/he will be to follow for the rest of the book? Let’s face it, even if the opening scene is chock full of unexpected conflict, seeing it through the eyes and psyche of a protagonist seemingly determined not to get involved, or even one who just doesn’t ask particularly incisive questions, may make it seem, well, less exciting.

Not to mention making the protagonist come across as less intelligent than the author probably intended. Last time, we saw how a character’s repeating what has just been said to him can markedly lowers his apparent I.Q. by a few dozen points. When a protagonist stops the story in its tracks to draw conclusions that would cause a reasonably intelligent eight-year-old to exclaim, “Well, duh!”, it can have a similar effect. Imagine, for instance, having to follow Pauline through a 380-page novel.

Pauline struggled against her bonds, but it was no use. Her tormentor must have been an Eagle Scout with a specialty in knotting, to tie her to the railroad track this firmly. “You don’t mean to…hurt me, do you?”

“Of course not.” Edgar sneered, twirling his mustache. “It’s the oncoming train that’s going to hurt you. Quite a lot, I should think.”

Her eyes widened to the circumference of her Aunt Bettina’s favorite teacups, the ones with the wee lilacs painted upon them. “Are you trying to kill me? Why? What have I ever done to you?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Depressed, he flopped onto a nearby pile of burlap sacks. “I just have this thing for tying pretty women to railroad tracks. You happened to be here.” He buried his head in his elegant hands. “God, I really need to establish some standards.”

Was he weakening? Over the roar of the engine, it was so hard to be sure. “Edgar? If you don’t do something, I shall be squashed flatter than the proverbial pancake.”

He did not even lift his head. “I doubt it. With my luck, a handsome stranger will suddenly appear to rescue you.”

A shadow crossed her face. “Why, hello there, little lady,” a stranger blessed with undeniable good looks said. “You look like you could use some help.”

She had to shout to be heard over the wheels. “Yes, I could. You see, Edgar’s tied me to the train tracks, and there’s a train coming.”

Miffed at me for ending the scene before we found out it Pauline survived? Come on, admit it — you were tempted to shout, “Well, duh!” in response to some of Pauline’s statements, were you not? Who could blame you, when apparently her only role in the scene is to point out the obvious?

Millicent would have stopped reading, too, but she would have diagnosed the problem here differently. “Why doesn’t this writer trust my intelligence?” she would mutter, reaching for the nearest form-letter rejection. “Why does s/he assume that I’m too stupid to be able to follow this series of events — and a cliché-ridden series of events at that — without continual explanations of what’s going on?”

That’s a question for the ages, Millicent. In this case, the writer may have considered Pauline’s affection for the obvious funny. Or those frequent unnecessary statements may be Hollywood narration: instead of the narrative’s showing what’s happening, the dialogue’s carries the burden, even though the situation must be clear to the two characters to whom Pauline is speaking.

Or — and this is a possibility we have not yet considered in this series — this scene is lifted from a book category where the imperiled protagonist is expected to be purely reactive.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? 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; what would be considered normal in one may seem downright poky in another.

Case in point: our Pauline. Her tendency to lie there and wait for someone to untie her would be a drawback in a mainstream fiction or high-end women’s fiction manuscript, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon. Heck, if this example were WIP, Pauline might not only be tied to a train track — she might be menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun.

As opposed to, say, a bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down with large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack. The latter would make a great heroine of an Action/Adventure — and the last thing Millicent would expect her to be is passive.

Unless, of course, Pauline is the love interest in a thriller. Starting to see how this works?

Even if she were a passive protagonist in a genre more accepting of passivity (usually in females; in the U.S., genuinely passive male protagonists tend to be limited to YA or literary fiction), it would dangerous to depict the old girl being purely reactive on page 1: the Millicent who reads WIP at the agency of your dreams may also be screening fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or any of the other genres that tend to feature active female protagonists. As a general rule, then, it’s better strategy to show your protagonist being active and smart on page 1.

Which is to say: place your protagonist in an exciting situation, not just next to it.

Also, you might want to make it clear from the first line of page 1 who your protagonist is. Not who in the philosophical sense, or even in the demographic sense, but which character the reader is supposed to be following.

Stop laughing; this is a serious issue for our Millie. Remember, in order to recommend a manuscript to her boss, she has to be able to tell the agent of your dreams what the book is about — and about whom. Being a literary optimist, she begins each new submission with the expectation that she’s going to be telling her boss about it.

Unless the text signals her otherwise, she’s going to assume that the first name mentioned is the protagonist’s. Imagine her dismay, then, when the book turns out a page, or two, or fifty-seven later to be about someone else entirely.

I can still hear you giggling, but seriously, it’s often quite hard to tell. Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a fairly typical opening page in a close third-person Women’s Fiction narrative. Based on the first few lines, who is the protagonist?

Were you surprised by the sudden switch to Emma? Millicent would have been. Perhaps not enough to stop reading, but enough to wonder why the first half-page sent her assumptions careening in the wrong direction.

That little bait-and-switch would be even more likely to annoy her on this page than others, because Emma seems like the less interesting protagonist option here. Not only is she an observer of the action — Casey’s the one experiencing the tension, in addition to having apparently been married to someone with allegedly rather nasty habits — but she comes across as, well, a bit slow on the uptake.

How so, you ask? Do you know very many super-geniuses who have to count on their fingers to tell time?

Now, as a professional reader, it’s fairly obvious to me that the writer’s intention here was not to make Emma seem unintelligent. My guess would be that the finger-counting episode is merely an excuse to mention how the rings threw the dull light back at the ceiling — not a bad image for a first page. But that wasn’t what jumped out at you first from this page, was it?

Or it wouldn’t have, if you were Millicent. There are three — count ‘em on your fingers: three — of her other pet peeves just clamoring for her attention. 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 initial scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

Probably not, if you were reading purely for story and writing style, instead of the myriad little green and red flags that are constantly waving at her from the submission page. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her — and consider whether they would have bugged her in submissions in other book categories.

Opening with an unidentified speaker: Millicent remains perpetually mystified by how popular such openings are. Depending upon the categories her 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.

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 give voice to the question that Millicent would be asking herself by the middle of the third line: 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?

99.9% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game we already know she dislikes, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

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. As we have discussed, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as both old-fashioned and unnecessary. Which leads me to…

Including unnecessary tag lines: chant it with me now, campers: 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. Quotation marks around sentences are pretty darned 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.

Most editors will axe unnecessary tag lines on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. If you are not sure about the norms in yours, hie yourself hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and start reading the first few pages of books similar to yours. If abundant tag lines are expected, you should be able to tell pretty quickly.

Chances are that you won’t find many — nor would you in second or third novel manuscripts by published authors. 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: 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 one that follows. (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 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. 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.

Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about: this is such a common page 1 (and Chapter 1) faux pas for both novel and memoir manuscripts that some professional readers believe it to be synonymous with a first-time submission. In my experience, that’s not always true. A lot of writers like to take their time warming up to their stories.

So much so, in fact, that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4. Or 54.

How does this happen? As we’ve discussed earlier in this series, 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 anybody 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 — and the protagonist as similarly ho-hum 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), 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.

Those of you who like slow-revealing plots have had your hands in the air for quite a while now, haven’t you? “But Anne,” you protest, and not without justification, “I want to lull my readers into a false sense of security. That way, when the first thrilling plot twist occurs, it comes out of a clear blue sky.”

I can understand the impulse, lovers of things that go bump on page 3, but since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense at the submission stage. Trust me, she’ll appreciate that bump far more if you can work it into one of your first few paragraphs.

Here’s an idea: why not start the book with it? Nothing tells a reader — professional or otherwise — that a story is going to be exciting than its being exciting right from the word go.

Bear in mind, though, that what constitutes excitement varies by book category. Yes, Millicent is always looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict, but what that conflict entails and how actively she would expect the protagonist to react to it varies wildly.

But whether readers in your chosen category will want to see your protagonist weeping pitifully on a train track, fighting off lions bare-handed, or grinding her teeth when her boss dumps an hour’s worth of work on her desk at 4:59 p.m., you might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page makes that conflict look darned fascinating — and that your protagonist seems like she’d be fun to watch work through it. Whatever your conflicts might be, keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XI: the many advantages of straying off the beaten path, or, did I drift off again?

I’m a bit drowsy today, campers; blame the lowering skies of a gray Seattle spring day. All I want to do is curl up with a cat or two and a new release by a promising first-time author. I would even feel virtuous doing that, because, let’s face it, if we all want to live in a world that’s open to giving a fresh voice a break, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep buying debut novels.

Oh, you hadn’t thought about it in those terms? Trust me, agents and editors do. They have to: those books are their bread and butter. And if you hope someday for a book to be your bread and butter, getting into the habit of supporting first- and second-time authors in your chosen book category is the single best way to encourage the agent and editor of your dreams to keep an open mind toward books like yours.

That’s more than enough moral reasoning for a sleepy day, I think. Since I don’t have Millicent’s ever-present too-hot latte in my hand, I’m going to devote today’s post to the kinds of faux pas that tempt her to keep downing them: opening pages that lull her into a deep, refreshing slumber. Or at least a jaw-cracking yawn.

I know, I know –-this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of my readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. Yet strange to report, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions snore-inducing. In fact, slow openings are common enough in submissions that no discussion of notorious pet peeves would be complete without some serious discussion of them.

Thus Millicent’s oft-burnt tongue: she’s just trying to stay awake. Not only due to the dreaded-yet-ubiquitous slow opening — you’d be astonished at how many manuscripts don’t really get going for 4, 5, or 23 pages — but also because once one has been reading submissions or contest entries for a while, the sheer repetition of certain premises begins to…be…

Oh, I’m sorry: did I nod off for a moment?

Frankly, I do not think we writers talk enough amongst ourselves about either of these widespread narrative problems. There’s a awfully good reason for that: since writers commit to spend months or years with a story, we’re usually pretty taken with the story. And nothing renders a section of prose more interesting than agonizing over every word choice, sentence structure, and comma.

So who can blame us if we don’t really notice that nothing much happens on page 1? Or Chapter 1? Or — and this is even harder for a self-editor to catch — if our openings employ similar narrative tricks to hook the reader’s attention and/or stray into plot territory that Millicent has already seen claimed by a few dozen aspiring writers within the last week?

Given how frequently similar tactics and premises crop up in submissions — and how very frequently those of us who read for a living complain about it to one another in private — it’s astonishing how infrequently agents, editors, or even writing coaches bring these problems to aspiring writers’ attention. Perk up your ears the next time you’re at a writers’ conference: when the pros give advice about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition don’t bore me is very seldom heard.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to a natural reluctance to admit in a room stocked to the brim with the authors of tomorrow just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while already know, the average submission gets rejected on page 1; one doesn’t hear that mentioned much at conferences, either. And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about implying in front of a group of total strangers that he has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

Hey, they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into an agents’ forum the morning after a long night of the kind of conferring that often happens in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening page 1, will ya? Now where is that conference volunteer with my COFFEE?”

On an entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned to those of you planning to give pitches at upcoming conferences that you might not want the first appointment of the day? Or one of the first several? (You didn’t hear it from me, but at the writers’ conference thrown annually in my neck of the woods, enough conferring goes on that on one memorable occasion, only two of the scheduled dozen or so pitch-hearers showed up for the scheduled morning pitch sessions. If we are to believe the agent who is still complaining about no one having told him that he could have slept in that day.)

Obviously, there’s nothing a writer can do about it if his page 1 — or morning pitch, for that matter — is being judged by someone in desperate need of a gallon of coffee and a B-12 shot, but one can maximize the probability of being the manuscript that makes Millicent’s eyes fly open. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid having your page 1 read like 4 out of the 16 first pages she has already screened that morning. Or like a third of what she has read in the last week. Even an innocuous writing or formatting problem may begin to annoy a professional reader after she has seen it 700 times.

In response to what half of you just thought very loudly: no, someone who has not had the experience of reading that many first pages probably would not know what those often-repeated problems are. (Although keeping up with new releases in one’s chosen book category would be an excellent means of learning what is and isn’t considered an outdated type of opening.) But yes, the pros honestly do believe that a serious writer would have taken the time to learn her craft well enough to avoid falling into these traps.

Oh, you thought I had devoted so many weeks of posts to common page 1 pet peeves because I liked chatting about them? I’m just trying to give you a peep into what it’s like to hold Millicent’s job.

They also expect, and with greater justification, that a talented writer with a strong premise won’t bore them before the bottom of page 1 — which is not by any means as easy as it sounds. These people see a LOT of plots, after all; if a Millicent is experienced enough to be able to tell from the first reference to a character’s hard childhood that he’s going to turn out to be the perpetrator of those seemingly random murders of everyone who was mean to him as a kid, it’s going to be difficult to keep her interested in the mystery.

And if that reference crops up on page 1 — as happens astonishingly often with plot flares — can you really blame her for muttering, “Well, I’ve seen this before; I want to see something fresh. Next!”

Okay, so maybe you can blame her, if it happens to be your submission over which she is muttering like one of the witches in Macbeth. But you can see why the sight of a genuinely fresh take on a well-worn premise might fill her with gleeful hope, can’t you?

Nor is predictability the only reason she might have the opposite reaction. Over the years, agents and their screeners have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them, and almost as many euphemisms. Trying to differentiate the various sub-species reminds me of that often-repeated truism about Arctic peoples having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying, I notice. Here, for your anxious perusal, are the most common reasons professional reasons give for nodding off over a submission.

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

There’s too much repetition on pg. 1 (!)

The narrative takes too many words to tell the reader what happened.

The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Millicent, however, is in a line of work where she actually does have to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting and boring.

Which is to say: all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m. All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

That startled some of you out of your late-afternoon doze, didn’t it? “But Anne,” past recipients of open with conflict admonitions point out, rubbing your blurry eyes, “I’ve always heard that the point of a hook is to draw the reader into the story. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that it mattered whether the opening was integrally related to the central conflict of the book.”

Well, I’m saying it now, and for a very good strategic reason. Remember earlier in this series, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends?

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1? Or what kind of novel it is?

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — by how many fiction submissions begin with frenetic action that has virtually nothing to do with the plot that follows, or that is wildly out of proportion with the action in the rest of the book. Because so many aspiring writers have heard that they should open their novels with conflict, Millicent’s very, very used to first pages that splatter the reader with blood or appall her with explicit violence. That alone won’t necessarily grab her.

Violence isn’t the only kind of conflict, after all. Nor is argument. Like so many other one-line pieces of writing advice, open with conflict is widely misinterpreted to mean a novel must open with a life-threatening (or life-ending) scene. While that may well work in a thriller, in most fiction book categories, it would be inappropriate.

So what kind of conflict do the pros have in mind when they spout this aphorism? Conflict between the protagonist and other characters, usually, or between the protagonist and a situation. A scene where the main characters disagree about how to solve the central problem of the plot. A disagreement between lovers. A winsome child abruptly noticing that her beloved cocker spaniel is missing.

Or, yes, a rural policeman stumbling upon some body parts, if that is genre-appropriate. Just make sure to pick a scene that is representative of both the story you’re telling and the prevailing tone of your book category.

If you aren’t sure about the latter, I have to ask: have you been reading enough recent releases of first- and second-time authors in your book category? (You didn’t think I’d tumbled off that high horse, did you?)

While you are conducting that little piece of self-examination, let’s move on to the next objection on our list, where’s the conflict? This cri de coeur gained considerable currency in the 1990s, when writing gurus began touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey to structure the story arc of a novel. Within that journey, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this can be an effective way to structure a book, there’s no denying that tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. I find this phenomenon fascinating, because most people’s everyday lives are simply loaded of conflict.

Oh, you’ve never had a coworker who got on your nerves?

Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1. Even if that conflict needs to be purely internal: Arnold cringed at the sound of plastic slapping into metal. Would Bruce never learn to treat the coffeemaker with respect? is, after all, as fraught with tension as Arnold stirred his coffee absently, unaware that Bruce had snuck up behind him, a filter full of steaming used grounds in his hand. They’re merely introducing different kinds of narratives.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how much and what kind of conflict is most appropriate to open your novel is to think about why writing teachers came up with the open with conflict aphorism in the first place: the many, many manuscripts that begin in a mundane present, introducing the protagonist and her environment before the central conflict of the book arrives to trouble her life. Millicent can’t even begin to count the number of page 1s she’s seen within the last month that began with something like this:

Arianna gazed out upon the blue-purple twilight, clutching her ever-present cup of tea. Peaceful tonight on Skullcracker Island, the perfect invitation to curl up by the fire with a good book. Spot rubbed purringly against her legs.

She bent to rub the furry orange head of her most recent shelter find. For a cat the vet had said was suffering heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder, the one-eared beast had certainly become affectionate quickly. “Don’t worry, Spot,” she crooned. “There will be a nice, warm lap for you soon.”

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

There’s nothing wrong with this as writing (although rubbed purringly might strike Millicent as rather purplish prose). In fact, it might work very well in the middle of the novel (if for some reason it were necessary to impress the reader with a great deal of information about that cat within a startlingly short stretch of text, and by telling, rather than showing).

But come on, admit it — even if the next line were

The axe severed her hand before the cat had finished rubbing against it.

you might have stopped reading before you got to it, mightn’t you? So would Millicent, in all probability. As a general rule of thumb (severed or not), if the first paragraph of a manuscript does not contain either conflict appropriate to the book’s category or a strong, nicely-described image, it may strike a professional reader as opening too slowly.

That got some goats out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” openers-with-conflict protest in injured tones, “I’ve always heard that I had to work conflict onto the first page, not into the first paragraph. Consequently, I’ve been making sure that my submissions feature a startling last line on the bottom of the first page, to tempt Millicent to turn to page 2. Are you telling me that she might not have been reading that far, since my first three paragraphs depict my protagonist chatting with her mother on the phone about nothing in particular?”

In a word, yes. And in several words: what on earth made you think that chatting about nothing in particular — your words, not mine — constituted opening with action?

Or, to answer your question on a more practical level: do you really want to make Millicent wait until the bottom of the page before depicting any relevant conflict? When she might not yet have had her morning latte? Or have slept more than a couple of hours last night?

The next two rejection reasons on our list — the story is not exciting enough to hold my interest and the story appears to be boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or — wait for it — the pace moves too slowly.

On the bright side, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it could be compelling reading. A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a paragraph or two.

Again, I doubt any of my readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under an impartial first reader’s eyes, just to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

Perhaps one that hasn’t had its morning latte yet, either. You might want to try scheduling your next meeting at 5 a.m.

The final three — too much repetition on pg. 1, taking too many words to tell the reader what happened, and the writing is dull — also respond well to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. As we have discussed earlier in this series, agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.

Ditto with excess verbiage and lackluster writing: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is –- please chant it with me now — to read your opening page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would give you some concrete examples, but I feel a well-deserved nap coming on. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part V: oh, look, Tweetie, a plot twist just fell into my mouth

bizarre crow

Had you noticed, campers, what a high percentage of the examples I’ve used throughout this series of prose that tends to irritate professional readers — such as agents, editors, contest judges, and our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener — has consisted of dialogue? That’s not entirely coincidental: as we have seen in recent posts, an astoundingly high percentage of dialogue in submissions just seems to lie there on the page, not so much moving the plot along, intensifying the central conflict, or helping enrich the reader’s understanding of the characters as taking up space.

Why? Because in real life, most dialogue exists for its own sake — and many writers are enamored in, as ’twere, holding the mirror up to nature.

That doesn’t mean, though, that just transcribing what actual human beings might actually say if they were transported into a fictional situation would make good reading. Frankly, quite a bit of what happens in real life would not make good reading. Virginia Woolf may well have been right when she wrote, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction,” but has anybody ever met a reader who longs for nothing more than a transcript of reality?

Let’s face it, reality is not a particularly good storyteller. It has neither taste, discretion, nor even a sense of the plausible.

Take, for instance, the photograph above. When I first spotted this wacky crow outside my studio window, I feared he had a broken neck. Ten minutes later, however, he startled me horribly by switching to this dignified pose:

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

He seemed to find this last position the most comfortable: he remained like that for the better part of an hour, squawking irritably at passing birds, presumably because they did not spontaneously drop food into his waiting gullet.

Now, nobody can tell me that this behavior would be plausible if it were presented as fiction, or even memoir. Oh, there’s no doubt that this series of events actually happened: I saw it with my own weary eyes (as, apparently, did my camera). Several readers wrote in the last time I ran these photos –hey, knowing a good metaphor when I see one is part of my job — to tell me that the gymnastics above are quite normal bird behavior; no birds were harmed in the production of these photographs.

But just because something happens in real life doesn’t mean it will come across as realistic on the page. Come on, admit it: no matter how well I told this story, you wouldn’t have believed the rubber-necking crow had I not produced photographic evidence. Nor would piling on specific details necessarily have helped the description: had Tweetie been a small bird, of a size and shape one might expect from a fledgling recently tumbled from a nearby nest, this behavior might have made more sense, but our hero was behemoth, a giant among crows.

Tweetie should, in short, have known better than to act in this extraordinary manner, if he wanted me to write about him plausibly. And so should protagonists who go around asking other characters questions.

I can already feel some of you smiling. Yes, long-time members of the Author! Author! community, I am about to take you on a wild ride through my least favorite type of dialogue and thus favorite kind of expendable text: the unconvincing interview scene.

Frankly, these drive me nuts — and I’m not the only professional reader who feels this way about them.

Don’t get me wrong — interview scenes in and of themselves are not inherently annoying. Fortunate, given that one character trying to elicit information from another is one of the most common type of dialogue scene. The problem arises when the protagonist is a really, really poor interviewer.

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be surprised at how often Millicent the agency screener grinds her teeth over this kind of dialogue. A protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Already, a forest of hands has shot up out there in the ether. “But Anne,” many a well-intentioned constructor of dialogue protests, and who can blame them? “Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? My main character is Everyman/woman/bird: part of his/her/its complicated appeal is that he/she/it has no specialized knowledge or skills at all. That way, every reader can identify with George/Fiona/Tweetie.”

The short, snide answer to that, should you care to know it, is that most Everyman characters have a very specific point of view and skill set: their authors’. That means the knowledge base and skill set is not only culturally-specific, but rooted in the worldview of a particular social class, gender, and even region of the country. While there’s nothing wrong with that — specificity is almost always more interesting for the reader than generality — an astonishingly high percentage of these protagonists share an apparent reluctance to ask questions germane to the plots they inhabit. Or even ones that any reasonably intelligent person in that situation might think to ask.

No, they prefer to sit there, beaks ajar and aloft, waiting for the necessary tidbits to tumble into their gullets. While yours truly, Millicent, and other souls lucky enough to read manuscripts for a living drum our fingers, tap our feet, stare out the window, and indulge in other clichés geared toward indicating boredom.

Move on with it already, Tweetie. The twisted-neck thing was cute the first time it happened, but you can hardly expect it to entertain readers for an entire book.

Unfortunately for passive protagonists everywhere, interview scenes are indigenous to almost all fiction and quite a bit of memoir and creative nonfiction as well. Many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance. Why everyone in Anytown, USA avoids that creepy-looking house at the end of Terror Lane. Or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon.

Just trying to keep those bird-lovers interested.

I hear those of you who do not write mystery, horror, or suspense heaving a vast collective sigh of relief, but don’t get too complacent: anyone who writes dialogue is prone to running afoul (get it?) of this notorious professional readers’ pet peeve. How so? Well, think about it: most plots feature at least one interview scene, regardless of book category.

Few human beings currently inhabiting the earth’s crust are omniscient, after all; an extremely high percentage of plots involve the protagonist(s) trying to find something out. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

The big questions can be unspoken, too, of course. Why does everyone in town refuse to talk about the day the old mill burned down? Why does Uncle Mortimer limp? Why is the boss suddenly acting so standoffish? What’s in that casserole, anyway? Why don’t you love me like you used to do, when my hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue?

In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters. And those other characters may not want to cough it up. Indeed, it’s not all that uncommon for a minor character’s entire reason for being revolves around not just blurting out That Big Secret the first time somebody asks.

Which renders it something of a surprise to Millicent and myself when such characters’ first reaction to a protagonist’s walking into that crowded bar/deserved archive/long-defunct mine is to start singing like a canary. Often before the protagonist has asked a single probing question. Villains are particularly prone to such bird songs: “Before I pull this switch and send 150,000 volts through you, Patsy, perhaps you would like to know my evil plan, presumably so you will have something to chat about when you are waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. It all began seventeen years ago, when my also-evil mother…”

We all know the song, right?

Yes, this phenomenon is partially a function of insufficient character development for antagonists — you wouldn’t believe how often the bad guy’s sole motivation is that he is (wait for it) bad — as well as a writerly tendency that we have already discussed in this series, the urge to fall into clichés. (Oh, you didn’t mentally add Mr. Bond to that last villainous speech?) On a narrative level, though, protagonists often have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

The result? Tweetie standing there with his beak open, waiting for some passerby to drop something yummy into it.

Nor is this tendency peculiar to fiction. Memoir protagonists often avoid asking even the most relevant and obvious questions for pages, nay, chapters on end.

Of course, this, too, might well be an instance of art whipping out that mirror to nature again; we writers are not known for being big confrontation-seekers, as a group. Real life does often afford the memoirist an opportunity to change the subject.

Why, the last time I wrote about this particular manuscript megaproblem, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. See if you can catch the interviewing problem.

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

Did you catch it? If you pointed out the extremely common narrative gaffe of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If, on the other hand, it occurred to you that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another.

Memoirs and fictionalized reality frequently suffer from both of these defects; the sheer frequency with which they turn up in submissions virtually guarantees that they would have over time joined the ranks of Millicent’s pet peeves. And why? Haul out your hymnals and sing along with me, campers: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting, amusing, or even worth recording on the page.

But these were not the only weaknesses you spotted in this narrative, I’m guessing If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being as clairaudient as Joan of Arc, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now that we have diagnosed these problems, what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer.

Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. Had I written the dialogue with an eye to increasing conflict, I might even have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t the scene necessarily be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I rewrite the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few standard narrative devices tend to annoy a Millicent who has been at it for a while than a protagonist — or narrator — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why might that be the case, other than the fact that lousy interviewers are as common in submissions as crows on metropolitan power lines? (Birds of a feather actually do flock together, evidently.) Let’s take a gander at the poor interviewer in his natural habitat, shall we?

“I swear,” Tyrone claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Antoinette drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Power. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Tyrone detached their clasped hands so quickly that Antoinette’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Antoinette fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” Mrs. Power bellowed after her. “I love paprika.”

Why might an exchange like this prove a touch irritating to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my anecdote about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because a poor interview scene represents a lost opportunity for intriguing conflict — rich potential for drama presented, then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth. Or attempting to hide said Awful Truth from the reader until your amateur sleuth’s in Chapter 38, the one that begins, “Here’s what happened…”

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 127 pages to 253. Regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a tad impatient.

Why? Well, in a first-person or tight third-person narrative, the protagonist is the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After a while, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader simply by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is indeed one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point, in fact, that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

Before I do, however, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers. And not only professional ones like Millicent, who tends to harbor a well-founded objection to narratives that toy with her too much. Especially if that plot twist is a fairly common one, like the guy who had the bad childhood’s turning out to be the serial killer. (Who saw that coming?) Or that the model for the portrait that someone keeps breaking into the county museum to snatch is now that grand old lady who controls city politics from behind the scenes. (Ditto.) Or that the murder victim whose body we didn’t see isn’t actually dead. (Zzzz…oh, did I miss my cue?)

Even if the plot twists in question are not ones that we have seen over and over again (the couple who keep bickering eventually falls in love? Alert the media!), Millicent tends to become impatient if an obvious question is not answered during those 200 pages. She and I even have a label for this particular pet peeve: false suspense.

“Okay,” plot twist-delayers the world over concede, “I can see where a professional reader might develop a distaste for being strung along. It’s Millicent’s job to whip through those submissions quickly, after all. But artistically, I still think it’s justified — wouldn’t most lay readers regard even a couple of hundred pages of being made to guess as legitimate suspense?

Well, readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, But trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps mentally screaming, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! It’s standing right there, munching on hay with a crow perched on it’s back. Wait — where are you going? Don’t just walk away from the elephant/crow cabal!”

A professional reader is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by deliberately withholding information from the reader. We’re especially likely to start grinding our molars together if that information happens to be something that the protagonist already knows.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Such scenes often beg to be flagged for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well. That’s true, by the way, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Evelyn!”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or just plain necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, Hubert, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might presenting any of these plot points present pacing problems? (Try saying that seven times fast!) When the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically before the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

To be blunt about it, too-easy detective work makes the mystery — any mystery — seem less important. It’s hard to care much about a secret if the narrative makes it evident that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Sparky McArsonist why she kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene, that’s why.

Astonishingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

Or as Tweetie might put it: where’s my breakfast?

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers. Yet when was the last time you heard an advocate of realism on the page object to the formerly mild-mannered librarian suddenly bursting into florid epic storytelling mode the instant a protagonist asks for a particular book?

What makes secrets interesting, generally speaking, is the fact that not everyone knows them. Good mysteries are hard to solve; intriguing truths are hard to dig up. In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to reveal the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s that for an intriguing narrative possibility? Interview scenes do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get really adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple revision trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods. This both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Right away, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a hidden truth in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview technique consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be compelling in a book? Probably not.

Again, perish the thought that this basic principle applies only to mysteries. Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, it’s not all that surprising that someone might side-step this particular conflict. I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. As a protagonist in a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made. And pulling away from the story rather than following it into some of the many, many horrifying possibilities (the child’s next bravura performance could take place in school, for instance. Or in church. Or immediately after singing the National Anthem before her Little League game.)

Even if I chose not to take the narrative down any of those roads, admit it: you would have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song, wouldn’t you? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you what it was?

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Tweetie. And keep up the good work!

First Pages that Grab: Gayton Gomez’ Book Worms

Gayton Gomez author photo 2Gayton Gomez author photo 1

Sorry that your promised reward for virtue is coming a couple of days late, campers — I was following the inviolate rule chez Mini that migraines and blogging do not mix. A wacky standard, true, but mine own.

Fortunately, the treat is, in my humble opinion, well worth the wait: the final winner in the YA category of the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, Gayton Gomez’ delightful BOOK WORMS. That’s the lady herself, depicted twice above.

Is she her own identical twin? No, merely kind enough to afford me an opportunity to discourse on the always-burning subject of author photos.

Remember back in the heady days of Authorbiopalooza, when I mentioned that it’s an excellent idea for an aspiring writer to start early to try to come up with a great author photo, because for most of us, finding one we like is a rather protracted process? At the time, you probably muttered, “Oh, yeah, Anne, it might take me months — nay, years — to find a photo that is both flattering and appropriate to my book’s subject matter. Because, alas, I do not have a professional photographer following me around on a daily basis, and I have never so far in the long and fascinating course of my life stumbled upon a non-professional shot of myself that I like, I am inclined to believe you when you say it is going to be a struggle.”

Well, yes, both of those are pretty common reasons that authors have a hard time coming up with an author photo on that happy day when the editor of their dreams says, “Oh, and we’ll need a photo for the jacket by Tuesday. You already have one, right?”

And the author, trooper that she is, does violence to her initial impulse to blurt out that she had been laboring under the widely-held misconception that publishing houses maintained in-house battalions of shutterbugs for this very purpose. Instead, she replies brightly, “Tuesday? No problem. Would you like a hard copy, or should I mail you a jpeg version?” Then she hands up the phone — and dissolves into a little pool of deadline panic.

At the risk of repeating myself: start asking either your friends or a pro to get snapping now. You will be infinitely happier once you have a book contract in hand — or once the agent of your dreams wants to start submitting your work to editors accompanied by a bio graced with your smiling mug.

Gayton has been savvy enough start grinning early at those shutters, and has ended up with the other species of author photo dilemma: how does one choose between two awfully good pictures?

I know, I know: we should all be lucky (and photogenic) enough to have this problem, but actually, it’s a serious one. Looking good is not the only criterion for judging an author photo, after all: one also wants to look smart, interesting, approachable, and, well, authorial, right?

Yet from a professional perspective, what authorial looks like would necessarily vary depending upon the book itself. And that often comes as a great big surprise to first-time authors, used to those 1970s-80s glamour shots that made every inside back dust flap seem more or less identical.

The photo on the right falls very firmly into this category: it is more or less precisely what most of us have in mind when we think author photo, isn’t it? It’s attractive, polished, filmy of background, and conveys seriousness of purpose. This, it says, is an intellect to take seriously.

But does this photo also say that this is someone who writes genuinely funny YA? Or does the one on the left convey that spirit better?

A forest of hands has sprouted up all across the English-writing world. “But Anne,” the visually-oriented cry, “how can I know which of these is a better photo of today’s winner? And surely, that eye-catching red would not be appropriate for every book jacket. Isn’t this an instance where playing safe is the better bet?”

Not necessarily, hand-raisers, but you are quite right that Gayton’s future (and lucky) publisher’s marketing department might well want to weigh in on the bright red issue. (Although generally speaking, book covers with red on them sell better than those sporting other colors, probably because the eye is attracted to red faster than any other color in the spectrum. Rumor has it that when Cary Grant first started making color pictures, he used to wander around the set, grabbing every red object and carting it out of shot. Too distracting from his handsome mug, he believed.)

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, however, that this photo is intended not for a book jacket — at least not right away — but for the top of an author bio to be tucked into a submission packet. Yes, credibility is important in a bio photo, but so is personality and book-appropriateness. After all, this rather intense shot of Elinor Glyn was perfect for her classic of romantic introspection, IT:

elinor-glyn-author-photo

Not to be confused, of course, with Stephen King’s horror classic, IT. Here’s what his author photo looks like these days:

Stephen King

Not exactly a 1980s glamour shot, is it? But you cannot deny that it is appropriately menacing for his chosen genre — that’s horror lighting if I have ever seen it. By the same token, Marcel Proust’s author photo just screams ravishing sensibilities.

Marcel Proust

What constitutes an appropriate visual clue to ravishing sensibilities changes over time, naturally. When Truman Capote’s first novel, OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS, was released, its publishers shocked the literary world with this author photo:

Truman Capote's first author photo

Quick, those of you who have never read this lovely debut: based upon the photo alone, what was the novel about? (Hint: this photo was an impeccable choice.)

What does all of this mean for Gayton’s photo choice? Well, you tell me. Let’s take a gander at some of her writing and see which you think would be a more appropriate match.

Here is the winning first page of BOOK WORMS — and, as always, if you are having trouble catching the details, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + until it is big enough to read.

Book Worms p 1

Quite the grabber, eh? Actually, Gayton piqued the judges’ interest with her answer to what her book would add to her chosen book category:

Cassandra Wainwright is the first teenage protagonist in the Young Adult genre to use a magical bookpass to jump into the plots of classic novels. She’s the first heroine of any genre to foil a Ponzi scheme run by Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, who is dating Cassandra’s unsuspecting older sister.

While there was a fair amount of debate about whether that first sentence is empirically true — several of us had dim recollections of having read something like this as children, but none could recall an actual book title — the second is almost certainly true. (Which just goes to show you, campers: book descriptions are not the best places for superlatives or claims to be the first writer to do anything. You can never be absolutely certain that (a) some Victorian spinster didn’t write a book with a similar premise that’s been out of print since Henry Ford invented the assembly line and (b) some agent, editor, or contest judge won’t have read the last extant copy as a preadolescent. Literary types find their way into all kinds of archives.)

All that is quibbling, however. Just look how charming the fleshed-out premise is:

Book Worms synopsis

Before we move on, I would just like to applaud Gayton for writing a really solid 1-page synopsis — which, as those of you brave souls who worked your way through Synopsispalooza can attest, is no mean feat. As a quick review, what makes this such a good example?

If you immediately cried out, “I was blown away by the fact that Gayton managed to present not just the premise, main characters, and central conflict, but some indication of how that conflict is resolved,” give yourself an A for the day. That’s a lot to pull off in a single page of text without making it real like a laundry list — well done, Gayton!

If you also shouted, “There are unique, telling details here!” go ahead and move to the top of the class for the entire weekend. Gayton has made the very smart move of including specifics in her synopsis, rather than the more common generalities — and done so in a light-hearted manner. I defy Millicent not to smile at the very sight of the phrase catches Cassandra and Eugene red-handed in Romeo and Juliet.

But all of you are getting impatient for the close textual analysis for which these prize posts are famous, are you not? Okay, here is that first page again, decorated with Millicent the agency screener’s patented scrawl.

Gayton edit

Surprised that such a grabber of an opening — and one that so perfectly captures the ambient mood of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic thriller, THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO, too — would attract this much editorial ink? Actually, there’s a red flag in that first sentence that would, unfortunately, prevent quite a few Millicents from reading beyond it. Can anyone tell me what it is?

If you are jumping up and down, shrieking, “It’s in the passive voice! It’s in the passive voice!” take yourself out for ice cream. It was constructions, while both traditional in fairy tales and more accepted in YA than in adult fiction, tend to be eschewed in professional writing, for the very simply reason that most Millicents (and their bosses, as well as the editors to whom they sell manuscripts) have been specifically trained to regard it as low-quality writing. While generally speaking, it’s a good idea to avoid the passive voice anywhere in a submission, the first line of the first page is a particularly fine place to excise it.

And why is that, ‘Palooza followers? Chant it with me now: professional readers do not read like other people. Instead of scanning an entire scene, page, or even paragraph before deciding whether they find the writing engaging, they read a single sentence at a time. If they like it, they move on; if they do not, they will usually just stop reading.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Gayton’s first page is a textbook example of a submission that might well charm a reader who picked it up in a bookstore, yet get rejected without comment by many pros. And that’s a real pity, for if Millicent would just keep reading, she would find a great premise here.

The tension is also very well established by the end of the page (speaking of sentences in the passive voice), but I have a couple of suggestions to heighten it even more. First — and I don’t know why writing teachers don’t bring this one up more — having the sentences get shorter and choppier as soon as Cassandra gets scared would automatically crank up the suspense.

Why? Well, think about it: a switch to shorter, pithier sentences conveys the impression of panting. Subconsciously, that seems scarier: a frightened person would tend to speak in shorter, breathier bursts than one relaxing on a couch like Uncle Truman above; her heart would pound, and she would look around quickly. While it would certainly be possible to describe all of that in long, luxurious sentences (as, indeed, I just did), why not allow the narrative structure to help draw the reader into the mood of the piece?

Another means of keeping that tension high, at least from Millicent’s point of view, is not to have the yes/no question in paragraph 4 answered with a no. This is not a bad general rule for any first page — or indeed, any dialogue: answering a yes/no question with yes or no is almost invariably the least interesting response, and most of the time not even necessary. Frequently, as here, the very next sentence or phrase will answer the question more fully than the binary choice.

There’s also a more conceptual reason that no tends to be a pet peeve for professional readers: it cuts off possibilities in a way that a less categorical response will not. While this tends to be more true in dialogue than in narration, we can see quite plainly in paragraph 4 how completely no prevents our heroine from exploring one of her previously viable options.

A third way that this page cuts tension is through describing the unfamiliar room in mostly negative terms, rendering it harder for the reader to picture than a more fleshed-out description would allow. Since the reader has not yet seen Cassandra’s normal bedroom, it’s simply not as startling to see it disappear than if we had seen it before. Even a couple of familiar details in the first paragraph would help establish a firm image of her reading in her cozy bed, all set to be shattered in the next paragraph.

The judges and I would also have liked to see the room in which she finds herself in more detail, particularly in terms of sensual specifics. Was the new room the same temperature as her bedroom, for instance? Did it smell the same? Was she alerted to the change by an abrupt shift from electric light to candlelight?

And so forth. YA is known for its lush and detailed physical descriptions, so it would be hard to go overboard here. The goal would be to immerse the reader in a completely unfamiliar space, to make her feel as though she, too, has been suddenly transported into another realm.

Which just goes to show you: even a grabber of an opening can often be improved. With just a little bit more polishing, Gayton’s hook could provide more alluring bait for Millicent.

I’m genuinely pleased that this protracted series on winning first pages has illustrated that point so beautifully. Often, aspiring writers think of their opening hooks purely in terms of premise (Godzilla meets the Nazis — who will win?), opening with conflict (His medals melted from the Godzilla’s breath, the Nazi drew his pistol…), or just plain pretty writing (Flames spurted lazily across the tar macadam, a modern-day Wotan surrounding his wayward daughter Brünnhilde with protective fire…). In practice, a true grabber incorporates all three, and does so in a manner so appropriate for the book’s chosen category that Millicent knows immediately precisely where it would sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

A tall order? You bet. Doable for a good writer? Absolutely.

Have you reached a decision about which author photo fits the voice and story best? Personally, I would go for the more adventurous one — it comes across as both more dynamic and a trifle younger. The blurred traffic in the background gives the impression that she’s going places, just as Cassandra is in the book.

That being said, were this author to be writing across several book categories (am I remembering correctly that you do some travel writing, Gayton?), I would opt for the other photo for a general author bio. It’s a lovely example of a particular type of professional photo: as we discussed above, it does just scream this is an author.

That’s something I suspect no one who reads your manuscript will ever doubt, Gayton. Great job, and I’m sure all of us here at Author! Author! are looking forward to reading the rest of the book!

Refreshed from our little foray into close textual analysis? Excellent. Next time, we’ll be diving right back into the mysteries of standard format. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Divided States, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Jennifer Sinclair Johnson

Jsjohnsonphoto1

Yes, it’s been a lengthy process, campers, but today, at long last, I shall begin presenting you with the winning entries in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. For the rest of this week, I am delighted to be sharing with you the winning entries in Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir.

And if you’re not careful, as the pundit Fat Albert used to say, you might learn something before it’s done.

Why start with Category II, you ask, instead of the more numerically logical Category I? Well, Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper will be joining me after Labor Day to give feedback on the Category I: YA entries. We have some surprises in store that I hope will be worth another few days’ wait.

Let’s concentrate on the now, though, and Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s winning first page, the opening to a manuscript she described for the judges thus:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives, finding her coworker in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

First off, kudos to Jennifer for winning not only the Grand Prize for Adult Fiction in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, but also this year’s Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. For those of you who missed the initial contest announcement, I had decreed that the contest would have two levels: a straightforward competition for the most intriguing opening page for a manuscript, and an optional award level, if the judges felt that Grand Prize in the former was not sufficient to record their reactions to an entry.

I’m delighted to report that the judges required this extra outlet for their feelings not once, but four times in this contest. You shall see why in the days to come.

Jennifer’s was the Adult Fiction entry that elicited the more enthusiastic plaudits from the judges. Before I tell you why, let’s take a gander at what made them cheer until the rafters resounded. (If you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key while hitting +.)

Divided States page 1

The writing here is good, of course, crammed to the gills with telling details, but as we know from our summer of craft, there’s more to creating a great first page than collecting a series of strong, well-constructed sentences. In order to grab the reader — particularly a professional one like a contest judge or our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — a fiction first page needs to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.

Check. What else renders this first page so compelling?

If that question leaves you a trifle stumped, you’re not alone. Most aspiring writers know what they like, but have only a vague notion of what makes a first page compelling, marketable, accessible, and/or grabbing. There’s an excellent reason for that, of course: unlike professional readers, who read thousands upon thousands of page 1s in any given year, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never read any manuscript’s first page but their own.

Or, at best, a writer friend’s. It’s not likely, in short, to be an impartial reading. While active members in a regularly-meeting critique group gain more exposure to the possible range of openings, participation in such groups is rarer than one might think.

But how is the isolated aspiring writer to learn what works on page 1? Typically, the average writer’s conception of what a good opening is comes from precisely the same source as any other readers’: what he’s seen in published books. As we have discussed, though, what an established writer can get away with on page 1 and what someone trying to break into the biz could slip past Millicent are often quite different things. Ditto with what might have caught an agent’s eye 5 or 10 years ago vs. now.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, we have been spending so much time this summer concentrating on first page revision. I’ve been trying to move your conception of what makes a strong opening beyond a simple combination of what you like and what you have seen authors you respect do; all of these posts have been attempting to help you read more like a professional.

So let’s go ahead and turn to the pros for advice on how to assess today’s page 1. Specifically, let’s recall from last time the agent-generated list of qualities they like to see in a first page. How well do you think the example above meets these criteria?

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
Oh, do you see many stories about insurance adjusters newly transplanted to earthquake zones? Admittedly, it is not immediately apparent here whether our narrator is a man or a woman, but there isn’t much doubt that s/he is interesting, is there?

As we have discussed, as well as slice-of-life writing can work in short stories, plays, and novellas, it’s difficult to grab a novel reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent — on page 1 with a protagonist who is aggressively ordinary. A savvy writer is usually better off emphasizing what is unusual about his characters in an opening scene.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
This isn’t an action scene, so this one is not applicable. Remember, not all of these criteria will work for every opening.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.
In many first-person narratives, the self-analysis in page 1 would have extended for the rest of the page, if not beyond. Here, Jennifer has been quite restrained, moving the reader swiftly out of the protagonist’s head and into observation of the environment. That well-handled pacing will prevent Millicent from feeling that the story isn’t beginning fast enough.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
This lies largely in the eye of the beholder, of course. Perhaps a better way to approach this issue: based on this first page alone, do you want to read the rest of this book?

The judges did, unanimously. And if a quick scan of page 1 does not seem like an entirely fair basis for making a determination on an entire manuscript, bear in mind that Millicent often reads less than that before making up her mind.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
Again, this is quite subjective, but the judges found this narrative voice quite likable. With a protagonist engaged in a work project on page 1, it would have been very easy to load the narrative voice down with industry-specific jargon. Jennifer has steered clear of that danger, offering us instead a narrator who seems swept up in the details of the beauty of her new environment.

The only sentence that gave any of the judges pause on a voice level was The earthquake that hit Hollywood with the bang of a summer blockbuster’s opening had cast me into new territory. Opinions were divided over whether using Hollywood and cast so close together was intended as a pun based on the double meaning of cast (to throw/to be given a part in a play or movie). Since the pun, if intentional, was not very funny, the judges expressed the hope that the word choice would be reexamined.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
This is a subtle one. It’s clear that something is about to happen here, isn’t it? The reader isn’t sure what, but the suspense is palpable.

Again, some of the judges had a quibble with one of the sentences: After the way my new boss had sent me to the property before my flight finished taxiing along the tarmac, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find destruction akin to the aftermath of Armageddon. The ending image is strong, but the reader has to interpolate some action in order to make the first part make sense: since airline passengers are currently not allowed to use cell phones while the plane is in the air, and there’s no indication that the story is not taking place in the present, the narrator must have turned on her phone as soon as allowed, after the plane touched down.

So did her boss call her the second she powered up the phone? That would be the only way that the timing of his having issued the order could have conveyed urgency all by itself, but the narrative is in such a hurry (understandable, on a first page) that it leaves the reader to fill in the blanks.

Amid those blanks lies a logical question: how did he know that she had just turned it on? Is he psychic? Or — and this seems substantially more likely — had he been calling every five minutes since he thought her plane could possibly have landed? That in turn begs another question: did he call her, or did she turn on the phone, hear his 47 messages, and call him right away?

Yes, that is a whole lot of questions to have about a single event, now that you mention it. But that’s not an uncommon reaction to a page 1 where the narrative has left out logical steps in the interests of streamlining. Frankly, from a professional reader’s perspective, both that paragraph and that joke would have worked better if it hadn’t all been crammed into a single sentence.

That’s a small quibble, however, one likely too tiny to put off most Millicents. Even the judges who made it recognized that.

7. “Good opening line.”
Professional readers are notoriously fond of first sentences that contain some element of paradox. This opener does not disappoint.

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”
Well? Did you think there was?

What is the benefit of presenting a layered reality over a completely straightforward one, when clarity is also so highly valuable on page 1? Simply put, a narrative that implies that there’s more going on that immediately meets the eye is a better reflector of reality. The protagonist appears to be inhabiting an actual world, rather than just a tale.

As fine as all of those criteria are for evaluating a first page, the judges in our contest were looking for a bit more. For instance, in a submission, as we have discussed, it’s vital to give some indication from the very top of page 1 what the book is about. Based on Jennifer’s opening, would you or would you not expect some intrigue to arise from the earthquake site her narrator’s boss is so eager to get her to see?

How did we judges know whether this was representative of the rest of the book? Advance thought, my dears: as some of you may perhaps recall, one of the contest requirements was a brief teaser, indicating the subject matter, book category, and what the manuscript to follow would add to the current offerings in that category. Here’s what Jennifer told us:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives in Los Angeles to find her coworker lying unconscious in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

Quite a close match with the opening, isn’t it? Millicent would appreciate that. So did the judges: all of them commented on how beautifully this page 1 fulfilled the promise Jennifer had made in the book’s description.

I can already sense literal-minded readers thinking about raising their hands. “But Anne,” these detail-oriented souls point out, “the protagonist doesn’t discover her coworker in the rubble on page 1, nor do we hear much about the differences between Nebraska and Los Angeles. So in what sense does her page 1 fulfill the promise of the description?”

Glad you asked, literal-minded ones; aspiring writers often confuse the imperative to let Millicent know right away what the book with an expectation that page 1 would be crammed with backstory. Usually, though, backstory-heavy openings are slow — your garden variety NYC-based Millie tends to prefer manuscripts that open with conflict (or at least the potential for it), with the backstory filled in later.

Jennifer’s page 1 contains several different species of conflict — we learn right away that her protagonist is a fish out of water, coming into an inherently dangerous situation with an already-tense boss breathing down her neck. Furthermore, it appears that the last person sent to do her job ran into some serious difficulties. That’s a pretty rich set of possibilities for a single page of text, no? But rather than stop the action short to explain what precisely happened to her predecessor that necessitated flying our heroine out from Nebraska, the reader gets to figure out the situation along with the narrator.

Thus, how this page fulfills the promise of the premise is not by resolving all of the questions it raises on page 1, but by (a) giving the protagonist hints about what the conflicts in store for her are and (b) doing so in a manner that allows the readers to speculate — yes, even by the bottom of page 1 — how she is going to be drawn into those conflicts-to-come.

Of course, as the organizer of this contest, I enjoy a considerable advantage in anticipating those conflicts. I had the power to ask for a longer description of the book:

Divided States description

The judges were also looking for page 1 to present a narrative voice appropriate to the intended target audience. Here, Jennifer is showing us a very literate, likable, thoughtful voice, appropriate for a high-end cozy mystery or women’s fiction.

Wisely, she has not designated this voice as literary fiction, as many aspiring writers would have done: it’s an excellent example of well-written genre fiction. Rather than trying to pitch the book on the writing alone, though, she has made the market-savvy choice of categorizing her manuscript by its subject matter.

The hyper-literal have raised their hands again, have they not? “But Anne, are you saying that the judges — or, even worse, Millicent — would have liked this page less had it been categorized as literary fiction? To my admittedly less experienced eye, the writing has literary sensibilities.”

In a word, yes. In several words, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

Miscategorized submissions are, after all, among the easiest for Millicent to reject. As we have discussed many times before, no agent (or editor, or publishing house, or even most contests) handles every conceivable kind of writing. They specialize.

So when Millicent is confronted with even a very well-written submission that does not seem to fit comfortably into a book category that her boss represents, it just doesn’t make sense for her to keep reading once she’s determined it’s not something her agency is going to pick up. Even if she positively loves it, she is not in a position to help that book come to successful publication.

She has only one option, unfortunately: “Next!”

Starting to gain a better sense of what kind of first pages don’t provoke that response? If not, don’t despair — you’re going to get quite a bit of practice over the next week or two, as we continue to go over contest winner’s first pages. Except for the days during which we shall be taking a brief-but-content-heavy detour for Querypalooza, of course.

Lots of action in store at Author! Author! Tune in tomorrow for more first page high jinks.

Well done, Jennifer — and as always, everybody, keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part VI: and then there’s the fine art of doing it right, or, love, agent-style

pre-butchered fir tree

This, I am happy to say, used to be one of the views from my studio window, a sweet fir tree stuffed to the proverbial gills with cavorting crows, mischievous blue jays, and a small family of squirrels deeply devoted, for reasons best known to themselves, to digging up my crocus bulbs, saving them for a month or two, then replanting them in entirely different locations. I used to enjoy watching them before the strange men from the phone company showed up unannounced yesterday and slashed a ten-foot hole in the middle of the tree in order to make room for a half-inch cable scheduled to be installed three months from now. As one does.

Actually, it would have been a twenty-foot hole — quoth the foreman: “But those other branches were, like, in our way! We would have had to work around them!” — had I not managed to hobble out front to stop them in mid-slice. (Never underestimate the moral force of a crutch-wielding Valkyrie with a rudimentary knowledge of property law.) The damage has been done, though: this morning, there are no birds in the defiled tree.

Why does this seem like an apt time to wrap up this series on revising dialogue?

I can tell you why: all too often, in the first glow of enthusiasm following a newly-acquired self-editing tip — or, if you’ve been following our intensive discussions of craft this summer, a whole mess of ‘em — writers will, to put it succinctly, over-cut. Fired up by the time-honored advice to kill their darlings, they hack and slash with gusto, assuming, sometimes incorrectly, that if a line or two of dialogue runs afoul of the freshly-learned rule, the entire speech should go. Or the entire scene. Or the entire chapter.

But not all darlings are apt candidates for slaughter. Sometimes, too-vigorous cutting can do some serious harm to the tree. You don’t want to scare off the pretty birds, after all.

(I know — isn’t it amazing how often my day-to-day life provides PRECISELY the metaphor for what we’ve been discussing? Somebody up there must have a great fondness for blogs. Either that, or a monumental antipathy toward trees.)

Which is to say: not all of the results of revision are necessarily intentional. Over-enthusiastic cutting can, among other things, result in uneven tone, the loss of information the reader might need to know later in the plot, confusion of motivation, the omission of that foreshadowing sneer that alerts the attentive reader to the possibility that the protagonist’s mild-mannered coworker may turn out to be the super villain intent on destroying every ice cream stand in Gotham…

It can lead, in short, to a Frankenstein manuscript. There is no such thing, then, as a revision that would not benefit from a follow-up re-reading of the ENTIRE manuscript (preferably IN HARD COPY and, especially if it is dialogue-heavy, OUT LOUD) to make absolutely certain that the post-cut scenes not only read well on the page, but still pull their weight in the plot.

With that incentive for caution in mind, here is a final post in our revisit to 2009’s Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk series. Actually, it’s a mash-up of two posts in that series, presented in composite form for your perusing pleasure. When I originally posted the second, John Updike had just died — providing, yet again, a nudge toward a blog-friendly example.

Enjoy! But please, employ your pruning shears judiciously — and sparingly — after reading it.

Are you surprised to see another post on first-page rejection reasons coming after I’ve already gone over the agent-generated list of submission red flags? What can I possibly still have to say on the subject, after nearly three weeks of harping upon it?

Plenty, as it turns out. As excellent and extensive as the agent-generated list was in its day, as full of classic submission problems as any such list could possibly be, the agents in question generated it several years ago. As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops practically since I began writing this blog, the standards for what agents are seeking in a manuscript change all the time, along with the literary market itself.

Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, good writing, a solid premise, and catchy character names are not necessarily enough to catch an agent’s eye today. Yes, a novel or memoir submission typically needs all of those elements to be successful, but now as ever, it needs something else: to be a book that the agent can picture selling in within not an ideal market, but the one in which s/he is currently attempting to sell books.

Yes, I do realize what I just said: a manuscript could conceivably be perfectly marvelous and still not be what an agent would consider marketable in the literary market right now.

Why right now in particular? Well, agents have always made their living by selling their clients’ work to publishers — since reputable agents don’t charge fees over and above their contracted percentage of a book sale, they make money only when they hawk their clients’ books successfully — but even a cursory glance at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE will tell you that these are exceptional times for the publishing industry.

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along. {Present-day Anne here: amazingly, although I originally posted this a year and a half ago, this statement remains true. That’s how cautious agents have become.}

So the best thing you could possibly do right now is rush right out and buy 50 books similar to yours — and convince 100,000 of your friends to do the same. Like it or not, that’s now new marketing trends are made.

Since my readership is made up almost exclusively of writers, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of you like it.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the next big thing — other than the novel I’m about to finish writing, of course — but there are a few trends in what gets rejected and accepted that I’ve noticed cropping with increasing frequency over the last year or so. Since once a pet peeve is established, it tends to hang around for a while on Millicent the agency screener’s red flag list, it’s probably a good idea to avoid them for the foreseeable future.

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately {and, again, this list remains astonishingly current}:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

I know that I harp on this one quite a bit — as evidence and for the benefit of readers new enough to this blog not to have lived through my extensive discussions of what publishing professionals expect manuscripts to look like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right — but it honestly is true that if a submission does not look professional, Millicent is more likely to reject it, regardless of the quality of the writing. Since the volume of queries and submissions has been skyrocketing as the economy has worsened (writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, apparently), she can afford to be even pickier than usual.

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

This is a practically inevitable side effect of the aforementioned volume of queries and submissions rising, but standard storylines, stock characters, and literary clichés in general seem to be getting judged more harshly of late, probably because Millicent has been seeing the same things over and over again.

Does this mean that this is a great time for writers who embrace radical originality. Not exactly, because…

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

This is one of the truisms of the publishing industry for the last century — during uncertain economic times, comforting and escapist plot lines tend to sell better. Unfortunate, but true. It has to do with what’s known as the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index: when Americans are feeling insecure about the future, sales of inexpensive comfort foods tend to rise — as do books that make readers all warm and fuzzy.

Historically, agents and editors have followed these trends, shying away from more challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and even experimental use of prose. Since I’m personally a big fan of challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and experimental use of prose, I’m not all too happy about this, but it might be worth holding off on submitting any of the above for a few months, until the industry has had time to get used to new economic realities.

I know; it’s annoying. {Even more annoying: that this advice is still apt, to a very great extent.}

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of complaints in that bar that’s never more than a 100 yards from any literary conference in North America about submissions from writers who don’t seem aware of either the target audience or the conventions of the categories in which they have written books. From coast to coast, Millicents and their bosses have been railing about YA with too-adult word choices, literary fiction with a fourth-grade vocabulary, cynical romances, paranormals where vampires cavort in the sun…

I suspect that the increased pervasiveness of this one is actually an expression of the publishing industry’s smoldering resentment that book sales have dropped; if the writers of these books were actually buying the new releases in their genres, the logic goes, they would be more conversant with what’s selling right now. Having met scads of writers who say, “What do you mean, what do I read? I don’t have time; I’m too busy writing,” I have to say, I have some sympathy with this one.

Remember, from the pros’ point of view, a writer’s being up on the current releases for her type of book is considered a minimum standard of professionalism, not an optional extra. At least take the time to go to a well-stocked bookstore and thumb through the recent releases, to make sure that your submission doesn’t fly too far out of the acceptable range.

5. Narrative voices that read as though the author has swallowed a dictionary.

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Especially if — and this problem turns up more often than anyone would like to admit — not all of those words are used correctly.

Or, to put it as some aspiring writers might: without embroiling us in superfluous polysemousness, it must be averred that the aesthetic propensities of a vainglorious tome toward prolixity or indeed even the pseudo-pragmatic co-optation — as by droit du seigneur — of an antiquitarian lexis, whilst purportedly an amendment to the erudition of said opuscule and arguably consanguinean (metaphorically speaking) and perhaps even existentially bound up with its literary apprizal, can all too facilely directionize in the azimuth of fustian grandiloquence or unmanacle unpurposed (or even dystelelogical) consequences on a pith and/or douceur de vivre level vis-à-vis even the most pansophic reader. As Pliny was wont to quip in his cups…

Come on, admit it: this is a BIT over-the-top for YA.

Yes, yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin. Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue.

They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

Here again, your best guideline is the current market for your type of book: generally speaking, a writer will always be safe sticking to the vocabulary level of recent releases in his book category. If you want to sneak in more obscure words here and there, make sure that their meaning is evident from context. Trust me on this one.

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

Perhaps it’s due to the major presidential candidates’ having employed speechwriters last time around who wrote better jokes for them, but in the last few years, more aspiring writers seem to be trying to incorporate humor into their work. Since genuinely funny writing is a rare and wonderful thing, I can only applaud this trend.

Just make sure that it’s actually funny before you submit it on the page — not just to you and your kith and kin, but to someone who has never met you and is from a completely different background. And no, having one character laugh at a joke another character has just made will not cause Millicent to find it humorous.

Remember, too: nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom. (Have your parents explain why they ever thought “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” was funny, children.)

If you choose to open with humor, run your first scene (at least) by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny.

7. Unlikable protagonists.

This is another golden oldie that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency of late: it’s long been an industry truism that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist likable, she’s not going to want to follow him through an entire book. And I don’t just mean finding him kind of tolerable; Millicent’s going to want to find the guy actively engaging.

Why might this perennial objection be flying out of Millicent’s mouth more often recently, you ask? Did you read that one above about the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index?

And don’t tell me that your protagonist or narrator becomes more likable as the reader gets to know her. If the writing on page 1 doesn’t grab Millie, it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is marvelous on page 15.

It’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing, after all. Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their Pliny-like cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), they want to fall in love on page 1.

All that being said, a moment of silence, please: John Updike is dead.

When I heard the news — repeatedly; one of the mixed blessings of being widely known as a writer and descendent of a long line of writers is that people very considerately call to break the news to me whenever any well-established author kicks the bucket, as if everyone who has ever set pen to paper were a distant cousin of mine whose death I should not be forced to learn from the standard media sources — I naturally went straight to my bookshelf and glanced through some of his work. In light of our ongoing series on opening pages and the fact that his first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, came out in 1959, I expected his initial pages would, to put it politely, have a tough time making in past today’s Millicents, thus underscoring Updike’s frequently-made point about how literary fiction has been all but brought to earth over the last 40 years.

I was pleased to find that quite the opposite was true: his first pages were grabbers. Take that, eulogists of literary fiction!

More to the point of the latter part of this series, his hooks largely operated not through garish action, but interesting character development. Take a gander, for instance, at the first two paragraphs of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984):

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way; each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”

“A man?” Alexandra Spofford asked, feeling off-center, her peaceful aura that morning splayed by the assertive word.

Now, we could speculate all day about the probable insecurities of a male author who felt compelled not only to have a female character repeat the word man here, as though the very concept of the Y chromosome were inherently unsettling to heterosexual women (at least the frail kind discombobulated by assertive words) but also to employ splayed, a term commonly associated with the things models do in the centerfolds of men’s magazines, to describe a mental state. It might not be too much of a stretch to assume based upon this opening that Mr. Updike wasn’t picturing much of a female readership for this book when he wrote it — intriguing, since in 1984 as now, women were far and away the most common purchasers of literary fiction.

But none of that concerns us at the moment. Look, I ask you, at how beautifully he has used visceral details to establish both a mood and character in the first lines of this book.

It’s a heck of an opening in general. Let’s take a moment to ponder why: instead of easing the reader into the story by an extensive description of the physical space in which we discover these characters, or the even more common physical description of the characters themselves, Updike introduces these women by providing specific insight into their mental processes and motivations. Instead of just telling us that Jane is mean and Alexandra shy, he shows us through an analogy and word choices that we might not expect.

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely right: this opening would grab Millicent because it’s not only well-written, but surprising.

Seeing all the elements in action helps to clarify what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t it? But while we’re at it, let’s be thorough about this. Quick, without rushing back and checking our initial list of red flags that often lead Millicent to reject a submission on page 1, what might strike her as problematic if she saw this opening in a submission by a brand-new writer today?

If you pointed out the typo in the very first sentence, give yourself a great big gold star for the day. (Technically, there should be a comma between oh and yes; as Mr. Updike was a graduate of my alma mater, I’m relatively certain that he should have been aware of this.) While some Millicents might be kind enough to read past a first sentence grammatical or spelling error, it’s not a foregone conclusion.

Proofread.

While we’re giving out prizes for observation, take a red ribbon out of petty cash if you flagged the repetitive dialogue. As we discussed earlier in this series, repetitive dialogue tends to annoy agents and editors, since they’ve been trained since they were pups to excise redundancy. Besides, characters who simply echo what has already been said tend to come across as less intelligent than those who actually add something new to the conversations in which they participate — always a tad risky in a protagonist.

Anything else? What about the unnecessary tag lines (Jane Smart said, Alexandra Spofford asked), now out of fashion? Since Mr. Updike had already been established in the first rank of North American authors by the time for decades by the time the use of tag lines fell out of fashion, this might seem like an unwarranted quibble, but remember, we’re judging this by the standards that would apply to a writer trying to break into the biz now.

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: an established author can often get away with things that someone new could not.

Did any of you red-flag the semicolon? If Mr. Updike were submitting this to Millicent labeled as anything but literary fiction, you’d be right to consider cutting it. Generally speaking, in fiction that isn’t aimed at a college-educated audience — as literary fiction is, ostensibly, but most fiction is not — semicolons are considered a bit highbrow.

Admittedly, the fact that Millicent regularly sees manuscripts whose vocabulary barely scrapes the 10th grade positively peppered with semicolons might have something to do with this. No one but writers really like semicolons, and not even all of us use them correctly (as the late John Harvard would no doubt be delighted to note, Mr. Updike has done properly above), but my, don’t we like to shoehorn them into a manuscript!

Unless you’re submitting your work as literary fiction to an agent with a successful track record of representing a whole lot of it AND her client list fairly bristles with semicolon-wielding authors, you might want to minimize their use.

All of which, as fate would have it, is a perfect lead-in to my wrap-up of the rejection reasons because, really, it’s important to recognize that while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems, at least on page 1: we’ve been going over these points exhaustively precisely so you can meet standards far higher than when the late, great Mr. Updike faced when he was first trying to break into the biz.

Today, however, we get to see the reward: the kind of manuscript that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents and editors tend not to talk too much at conferences about what they love to see in manuscripts. They tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. Remember, agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market.

Which is to say: it’s not enough for an agent to love your work; she needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that’s in the writer’s interest as much as the agent’s.

But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agencies often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book. Or that there exists writing so beautifully literary that every agent currently drawing breath will instantly exclaim, “Oh, of course — I’ll represent that!”

Especially for first fiction or memoir, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as this series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk.

So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service. Literarily, of course.

With an eye toward getting your submission on the litero-romantic short list, here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date. In other words, these are the traits they said would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

Hey, I told you Updike’s work stood up well.

Notice anything else? How about that all of these criteria could be applied equally well to a memoir and a novel? That’s something that memoirists often forget: just because a story is true does not mean that it will be judged by less stringent requirements than a fictional one. A good memoirist, like a good novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller.

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or ‘Wow, great hook’ have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not necessarily a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than pure beauty of voice. Yes, they are seeking good writing with a genre-appropriate voice, but at first glance, they are looking to fall in love with a premise.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient AND able to draw the reader immediately into a pulse-elevating plot.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the loveliness and/or experimental nature of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. Thus, her question is much, much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, ABOUT SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have included both of these elements in your premise, and you have presented them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually.

If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, this avalanche of critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book. (You’re welcome.)

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements is only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough for a first book in the current market. (Unless, of course, you’re already established, like John Updike, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

On that note, I’m going to close this series. Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds tangible skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision…

speechgraphic

“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

What a week, campers! Again, I’ll spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say that I shall probably soon be writing comic scenes about medical practitioners who can’t remember which leg is the injured one (hint: could it be the one encased from ankle to hipbone in a brace?), physical therapists incapable of describing any of the activities of the human body without resorting to impenetrable medical jargon, and the intricacies of sweeping out of a treatment room with dignity while on crutches. Adding to the hilarity: the physical therapy facility did not have ADA-compliant doors, so leaving (or coming in, for that matter) required yanking open two thirty-pound glass doors.

How fortunate that the facility never had any visitors with leg or arm problems, eh?

Speaking of characters who evidently have trouble expressing themselves, I’m going to spend the next few days re-running dialogue-related posts from my extremely popular 2009 series on agency screeners’ pet peeves, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk. Actually, I’m going to run two today, albeit in a tricky manner: to save all of you brave and intrepid souls who worked through our recent Frankenstein manuscript series a bit of repetition, I’m smashing the relevant (and non-repetitive) bits together into great, big, Friday-worthy post.

That’s appropriate for Frankenstein manuscript-hardened readers, isn’t it? Enjoy!

I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons on the Idol first-page rejection list related to dialogue. (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.)

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1, plucked from the Idol list:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking a few days ago about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling of rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. (Can you tell that I would really, really like it if any of you who happened to miss that earlier discussion chose to go back and read it?)

However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this is legitimate to discuss as a dialogue problem. While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing.

And that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s just not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, perhaps there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story to follow.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: that’s quite a few questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing while she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context.

But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: {book released 5+ years ago} began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation. In the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall I pause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself, when that tends to annoy Millicent on page 1, too?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none.

Not one iota. It is devoid of any scintilla of character development. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 to find out whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines? Or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count. There is no such thing as a throw-away line on page 1 of a submission.

So let your dialogue reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

Opening dialogue that lives up to that hope is rarer than you might think. Don’t believe me? May I remind you that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol first-page rejection reasons were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect?

Be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, some agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly standard objection to dialogue scenes. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a relatively average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed, irritated and annoyed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most professional readers this kind of tag line use just seems repetitive — or, to phrase it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit more by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo.

Those two telling details made you reconsider your view of Joanna’s tardiness, didn’t they? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation. Make every line of dialogue count, campers, and keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part II: do we really want the creator’s fine Italian hand to be quite this visible?

sistine-chapel-god-and-adam

No time for my usual weighty tome today, I’m afraid: the houseguests, they are a-coming. As in any minute.

So let’s cut right to the chase and continue yesterday’s discussion of, well, when it is and isn’t a good idea to cut to the chase in a dialogue scene. Specifically, in that ubiquitous species of dialogue where one character is trying to elicit information from another.

In my last post, I brought up how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED for her to happen onto precisely the clues she needed to solve the book’s central puzzle.

What a happy coincidence, eh? And just in time to wrap up the mystery by the end of the book, too.

This marvelous atmosphere for coincidence does not always occur at the end of a plot, either. Ineffectual interview scenes are often employed, as we saw yesterday, to slow down a plot, creating false suspense. If the protagonist is too lazy, too clueless, or just too dimwitted to ferret out the truth early in the book, it’s substantially easier to keep the reader in the dark about salient details of the variety that might cause a reasonably intelligent reader to figure out whodunit by the end of Chapter 2.

But that’s not the only pacing problem an ineffectual interview scene can cause. A protagonist who is bad at asking questions — and his creative Siamese twin, the antagonist or supporting character who is suspiciously eager to cough up information — are also frequently used as means to speed up a narrative by shoehorning necessary information into the plot.

It’s a classic tell, not show strategy, high on both backstory and ability to move the plot along, low on conflict, believability, and character development. See, for instance, how in the following sterling example, the lethal combination of a passive interviewer and a too-active interviewee compresses what could have been a relatively lengthy but conflict-filled interrogation scene into a few short exchanges:

interview bad

“Wait a second,” Millicent the agency screener mutters upon encountering a scene like this. “Who is interviewing whom here?”

Oh, you may laugh, but this kind of inverse interview, as well as plot giveaways every bit this broad, turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries all the time. These techniques may well be the quickest way to tell a story, but as you may see, they make it pretty easy to see the wheels turning in the authorial mind. Not to mention being almost laughably unrealistic.

Neither of these quite legitimate complaints would necessarily be Millicent’s primary objection to the scene above, however. Any guesses?

Hint: it’s one of her perennial pet peeves. Oh, wait, that doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

Give yourself a gold star and a pat on the back if you instantly cried, “This kind of implausible exchange pulls the reader out of the story!” Even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in more interesting ones.

Was that wind that just blew my cat from one side of my studio to the other the collective irritated sigh of those of you who have been laboring to revise Frankenstein manuscripts? “Oh, fabulous, Anne,” the bleary-eyed many whimper, wearily reaching for their trusty highlighter pens. “Now I not only have to scrub my manuscript until it gleams at the sentence level, but I also have to make sure all of my interview scenes are both plausible AND contain surprising plot twists? When do you expect me to be ready to submit this baby, 2018?”

Well, yes and no. No, I don’t expect you to spend years polishing your manuscript — unless, of course, it needs it — and yes, I do expect your work to abound in gleaming sentences, believable, conflict-ridden interview scenes, and twists I couldn’t see coming. So, incidentally, does Millicent.

That’s enough homework to keep you busy for quite a while, I think. So I’ll just sign off now…

Just kidding. There’s actually a magnificently helpful revision tip buried in the example above: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth.

At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am — discover me, already!”

What does that mean for your revision, you ask? Since almost every book-length plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, it’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow, excitement, and plausibility. In fact, I would recommend making those interview scenes your first stops for tightening (or, less commonly, slackening) the pace of your narrative.

(Yes, yes, I know: I’m being unusually generous with the boldface today. I want to make sure to hammer home these points before folks come banging on my door, expecting to be charmingly received.)

Do I sense that some of you are resisting the notion of taking on such a wide-ranging revision project? Okay, time for me to haul out the even bigger guns: besides presenting a pacing problem, clues that seem too anxious to fling themselves in a protagonist’s way, feigning casualness when they are discovered littering the path, can actually render said protagonist less likable to readers.

Why? I refer you back to our question-light reporter above. Just as it doesn’t make a character seem like a stellar interviewer if he just strolls into a room at the precise psychological moment that the taciturn miner who’s kept his peace for 57 years abruptly feels the need to unburden himself to the nearest total stranger, it doesn’t make a protagonist seem smart if he happens upon a necessary puzzle piece without working to find it.

And the protagonist is not the only one who runs the risk of coming across as a trifle dim-witted: a mystery or conflict that’s too easy to solve or resolve doesn’t offer the reader much food for conjecture. Readers like to feel smart, after all; piecing the puzzle together along with (or even a little ahead of) the protagonist is half the fun, isn’t it?

It’s considerably less amusing when the protagonist just stumbles onto necessary information, is slow to act, or isn’t on the ball enough to ask the right questions of the right people. While a poor interviewer is almost always an obstruction to the reader finding out crucial information, too-garrulous antagonists and the interview scenes that enable their yen to spout monologue tend to make the stakes seem lower.

Why, you gasp in horror? As convenient as a suddenly chatty secret-hider can be to moving the plot along, information discovered too easily runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

Think about it from a whole-plot level for a moment. If the reader gets to watch the protagonist run down a false lead or two, struggle to remove that rock from in front of the cave to rescue the Brownie troop, a brace of nuns, and three golden retriever puppies gasping for breath within, genuinely have to put two and two together in order to make four, etc., it’s not only usually more exciting, but your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined than if she just stands around while these things happen around her — she’ll also be more likable, someone a reader might be eager to follow throughout an entire book.

(And no, Virginia, that last bit’s not a foregone conclusion. If the reader, particularly a professional one, does not either like or love to hate a manuscript’s protagonist(s), he’s unlikely to keep reading for long. Just a fact of the life literary.)

Now let’s apply that plot-level logic to an interview scene, shall we? If the information the protagonist is seeking just drops into her lap, as it does in the example above, the reader has no reason to become invested in the search: after the first couple of times, tremendous, long-held secrets being blurted out will simply become expected.

But what if our scheming reporter above had been forced to try really, really hard to pry Mrs. Quinine’s whereabouts out of Ernest Borgnine? What if he was not only recalcitrant, but had an agenda of his own? What if he told her half-truths that would require still more backstory to render useful? Wouldn’t the information she elicited — even if it consisted of precisely the same set of facts Ernest blurted out spontaneously in the version above — seem more valuable? Or at least more fun for the reader to watch her ferret out?

The answer to both of those last two questions was yes, by the way.

Contrary to popular belief amongst that apparently sizable portion of the aspiring writing community that wants to kill conflict on the page practically the moment it draws its first breath, readers like to see protagonists struggle to achieve their goals. It’s interesting, as well as character-revealing.

Yes, yes, I know, Virginia — you’re worried about your manuscript’s getting too long, or the pace dragging, should you include a few digressions in your hero’s pursuit of whatever MacGuffin he’s desperately seeking throughout the story. (Although, frankly, I would prefer that you didn’t just keep spontaneously shouting out these questions.)

While it is quite reasonable to draw a line on the length of a manuscript you’re planning to submit to an agent, whether a particular scene seems overly lengthy to a reader is largely a matter of presentation, not actual number of lines on a page. There are plenty of short books, and even short scenes, that, to borrow a phrase from industry parlance, read long. (And speaking of eliciting, if you’re not aware of how thick a sheaf of papers tends to elicit a knee-jerk rejection from Millicent, please see the BOOK LENGTH category on the archive list located on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

How might a savvy self-editor put this advice into practice? Glad you asked. Try divesting your interview scenes of any and all plot shortcuts or too-easy revelations, up to and including:

(a) any line where anyone’s pointing out something obvious (“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s been walking around town, asking all of those pesky questions?”), or

(b) any line that consists entirely of one character agreeing with or simply prompting another to speak (while “Yes, dear,” may be charming to hear in real life, it seldom adds much to a scene), or

(c) simple yes or no answers to simple yes or no questions (almost never the most interesting way to frame a question or response), or,

(d) any new development that’s not actually surprising (“Wait — you mean that your long-lost brother first described as a miner on pg. 4 might possess a map to the very mine we need to explore? Astonishing!”), or

(e) any scene where the interviewer doesn’t have to work to elicit information from the interviewee.

These may not seem like big cuts, but believe me, they can add up. In many manuscripts, making those omissions alone would free up pages and pages of space for new plot twists, if not actual chapters of ‘em.

And yes, I did jump from the line level to the scene level in that last one; thanks for noticing, Virginia. It’s worth your while to consider whether a low-conflict interview scene is even necessary to the storyline; could your protagonist glean this information in another, more conflict-producing manner?

That question is not a bad one to write on a Post-It note and stick to your computer monitor, incidentally. If a scene — or even a page — does not contain recognizable conflict, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.

A grand chapter to start excising the unsurprising: the first, since that is the part of any submission that any Millicent, agent, editor, or contest judge is most likely to read. Especially the first 5 pages or so — if you’re going to have your plot surprise or your protagonist impress the reader with her interview acumen anyplace in the book, make sure that she does it here.

Chant it together now, long-term readers: unless the opening pages grab Millicent, she’s not going to keep reading. (No, not even if her boss asked you personally to send the entire manuscript.)

That’s just common sense, really. An agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end. Therefore, it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene? I’m sympathetic to your frustration, but next time, could you aim away from my cat?

How did I know half of you would be frustrated right about now? Easy: an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a telephone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details.

And he says, and I quote, “Uh-huh,” four times.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

“Uh-huh,” she says. “Go on, Mrs. Smith.”

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

“Uh-huh, that’s the problem,” one of them says ruefully. “But what are we going to do about it?”

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of bad trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins. Probably with a lot of agreement in it.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least the last decade and a half, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with overt conflict, to let the reader jump right into the action, without a lot of explanatory preamble. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information or character development very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a good long time are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know, apparently for no other reason than to provide the audience with background information as easily and non-conflictually as humanly possible.

As it happens, you were right, oh gigglers. Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for being jam-packed with Hollywood narration. As in:

“So, Selene, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Theodore, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“Well, Selene, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Jason — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

“Yes, I know, Theodore. How right you were to follow Jason’s advice, given that in his former, pre-atoll life, he was a famous psychologist, renowned for testifying in the infamous Pulaski case, where forty-seven armed robbers overran a culinary snail farm…

Well, you get the picture. That’s not just information being handed to the protagonist without any sort of struggle whatsoever; it’s backstory being spoon-fed to the reader in massive chunks too large to digest in a single sitting.

Since I have lectured so often on this extremely common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. (And if it doesn’t, I refer you to the many, many posts under the HOLLYWOOD NARRATION category on the list at right.) Suffice it to say that about the nicest comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is a well-justified shout of, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the habitual cry of the Millicent, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Selene for over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature. As character development goes, this is the equivalent of knocking Gilligan on the head with a coconut to induce amnesia when the Skipper needs him to remember something crucial: a pretty obvious shortcut.

Besides, as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did. Besides, revealing a character’s favorite book is not a very telling detail.

I hear writerly hackles rising out there all over the reading world, but hear me out on this one. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

Out come the Author! Author! hymnals again: it’s never a good idea to assume that any conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes, literary or otherwise. Or worldview.

But let’s get back to analyzing that Hollywood narration opening. Give yourself an A+ for the day if you immediately said, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Selene know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call. This is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Jefferson glanced over at his girlfriend. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Mimette snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Jeff reached over to pat her on the head. “Having been your hairdresser for the past three years, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

She jerked away. “Get your broad-wedding-ring-bearing fingers away from my delicate brow. What would your tall, blonde wife think if you came home with a long, red hair hanging from that charm bracelet you always wear on your left wrist, the one that sports dangling trinkets from all of the various religious pilgrimage sights you have visited with your three short brunette daughters, Faith, Hope, and Gertrude?”

Granted, few submissions are quite as clumsy as this purple-prosed exemplar, but you’d be surprised at how obvious aspiring writers can be about it. Remember: just because television and movie scripts can utilize only the senses of sight and sound to tell a story doesn’t mean that a novelist or memoirist must resort to Hollywood narration to provide either backstory or physical details. We writers of books enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to use narrative text to show, not tell, what we want our readers to know.

Pop quiz, campers: why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Jeff and Mimette are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would not know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length. Thus, the only reason this information could possibly appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party.

Like, for instance, the reader. Who might conceivably prefer to be shown such details, rather than hear them in implausible dialogue.

Once again, though, poor text has given us the gift of a revision tool. A pretty good test for Hollywood narration: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go — to free up page space for more intriguing material and good writing.

If you also said that Jeff and Mimette are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary. My SO has just walked into the room to tell me that our guest have arrived, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, I don’t mean to startle you, but your eyes are green!”

His eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want you to know it. But honestly, was just blurting it out — and to him, no less — the most interesting way to introduce this information?

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out that being possessed of a mirror — nay, several — he already knew.

Who could have seen that plot twist coming, eh? And aren’t we all stunned by the depth of that character and relationship development in the last few paragraphs?

Oh, here come my guests: blue eyes, brown hair; brown eyes, red hair. I must go and remind them of the exact circumstances of how we all met. You know, just in case the neighbors happen to be listening.

Hey, that’s not the kind of information we’d want bystanders to pick up on the street, is it? Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, or, maybe if I hold my bill open, a worm will just drop into my mouth…

bizarre crow

Sorry that I missed our daily confab yesterday, campers. I got a new pair of eyeglasses the other day, with spiffy cutting-edge lenses that optometrist and optician alike assure me will be the optical standard ten years hence, and my eyes have been rather baffled by them. Headaches, blurriness, the works. I’m told that these minor side effects (such as NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE WELL) will pass off in a few days, as my eyes become used to the space-age materials currently before them, but on the whole, I thought it would be better if I did not share my thoughts with you fine people while I could not confirm that what I thought I was typing was actually what was appearing on the screen.

Hey, no one is that good a touch-typist.

Speaking of one’s eyes playing tricks on one, no, yours are not: the photo above does indeed depict a crow bending over backwards, for reasons best known to itself. When I first spotted him outside my studio window, I feared he had a broken neck. Ten minutes later, however, he startled me horribly by switching to this dignified pose:

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

He seemed to find this last position quite comfortable: he remained like that for the better part of an hour, squawking irritably at passing birds, presumably because they did not spontaneously drop food into his waiting gullet. Had he been a small bird, of a size and shape one might expect from a fledgling recently tumbled from a nearby nest, this behavior might have made more sense, but our hero was immense, a titan among crows.

He should, in short, have known better. And so should protagonists who go around asking other characters questions.

That’s right, campers. It’s time once again for my annual foray into concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite species of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes; this is a serious manuscript megaproblem. A protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon.

Don’t heave a sigh of relief, writers of anything but mystery or suspense. Most fiction plots feature at least one interview scene, regardless of book category. Let’s face it, few human beings currently treading the earth’s crust are omniscient; as a result, an extremely high percentage of plots involve the protagonist(s) trying to find something out. Why does everyone in town refuse to talk about the day the old mill burned down? Why does Uncle Mortimer limp? Why is the boss suddenly acting so standoffish? What’s in that casserole, anyway? Why don’t you love me like you used to do, when my hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue?

Getting the picture?

In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters. What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

The result? A protagonist standing there with his beak open, waiting for some passerby to drop something yummy into it.

The last time I wrote about this particular manuscript megaproblem, as so often happens when I have planned to attack a particular issue, craft or promotional, in this venue, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. It would have been ungrateful of me not to use it as an example, right?

Heaven forfend that we should disregard the gift of the Fates. See if you can catch the interviewing problem in the following story. To render it a trifle more instructive, I shall present it in standard manuscript format — and as usual, if you should have difficulty making out the words, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

Okay, what did you identify as the problem here? If you pointed out the extremely common one of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If, on the other hand, it occurred to you that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another.

Memoirs and fictionalized reality frequently suffer from both of these defects. And why? Haul out your hymnals and sing along with me, campers: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting, amusing, or even worth recording on the page.

But these were not the only weaknesses you spotted in this narrative, were they? If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being as clairaudient as Joan of Arc, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now — what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer.

Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer all those years ago?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. Had I written the dialogue with an eye to increasing conflict, I might even have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t it be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I write the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few standard narrative devices annoy professional readers (like agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener) who’ve been at it for a while than a narrator — or protagonist — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why? Well, for starters, lousy interviewers are so very common in submissions. On a manuscript’s page, a poor interview scene tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Romeo claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Juliet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Montague. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Romeo detached their clasped hands so quickly that Juliet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Juliet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Montague bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why might an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my anecdote about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because a poor interview scene represents a lost opportunity for intriguing conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a tad impatient.

Why? Well, think about it: in a first-person or tight third-person narrative, the protagonist is the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After a while, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader simply by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

Before I do, however, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers. And not only professional ones like Millicent, who tend to harbor a well-founded objection to narratives that toy with them too much.

Why might a lay reader object, you ask? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by deliberately withholding information from the reader.

Especially if that information happens to be something that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Again, don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. If you have ever constructed a narrative that involved dialogue, you’ve almost certainly written at least one interview scene.

What makes me so darned sure of that? It’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain a one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses.

In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are those of you who have survived previous craft series with me already warming up your highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes often beg to be flagged for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

Yes, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Evelyn.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or just plain necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, Herbert, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might presenting any of these plot points present pacing problems? (Try saying that seven times fast!) Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

To be blunt about it, too-easy detective work makes the mystery seem less important. It’s hard to care much about a secret if the narrative makes it evident that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene.

Astonishingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

Or, as our friend the crow might put it: where’s my breakfast?

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

Yet a novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers. Yet when was the last time you heard an advocate of realism on the page object to the formerly mild-mannered librarian suddenly bursting into florid epic storytelling mode the instant a protagonist asks for a particular book?

What makes secrets interesting, generally speaking, is the fact that not everyone knows them. Good mysteries are hard to solve; intriguing truths are hard to dig up. In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s that for an intriguing narrative possibility?

When you are trying to increase the overall level of tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often difficult to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple revision trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods.

This both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Automatically, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a hidden truth in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention — and this isn’t an insignificant consideration when trying to get a submission past Millicent to her boss, the agent of your dreams — being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview techniques consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be compelling in a book? Probably not.

Again, perish the thought that this basic principle applies only to mysteries. Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, it’s not all that surprising that someone might side-step the particular conflict in this anecdote. I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. (Or at any rate I didn’t know at the time; I’ve since mentioned the incident to Pansy’s mom, to minimize the possibility that the child’s next bravura performance of that musical number will take place in school, where she might get into some real trouble. Or in church.) As a protagonist in a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made.

Come on: you wouldn’t have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you what it was?

Starting to empathize more with Millicent’s impatience when she sees this sort of interview scene in fourteen consecutive submissions in any given week? And she’s not the only one who is notoriously touchy about it: ineffectual interviewing and false suspense are both legitimately annoying narrative practices.

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Mr. Crow.

How might a savvy reviser take this principle to heart? Consider eschewing the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills — and give your interview subjects stronger backbones.

Your manuscripts will be more interesting for it, I promise. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIX: the quirkiness of real life, or, so long, Harvey

American Splendor poster

I am genuinely sad to record the passing of graphic novel pioneer Harvey Pekar. His intensely-observed presentations of both the most mundane and most trying aspects of everyday life not only stretched his genre, but demonstrated time and time again that accounts of ordinary life need not be ordinary.

I’m morally sure that Mssr. Pekar would have enjoyed the irony of his having joined the choir invisible right in the middle of our discussion of real-life vs. real-sounding dialogue. As any fan of OUR CANCER YEAR (co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) could tell you, he relied very heavily upon actual speech — something substantially easier to pull off when animation appears side-by-side with words on the printed page. Yet just when the dialogue seemed most mundane, one of his quirky characters would come out with a zinger:

“15 amps…15 amps! That’s all we’ve got, and I bet my computer uses half that. This place is a fire trap. You know what’s behind this wall? All our wiring is still in its original paper insulation. Melting copper, wrapped with newspaper. With headlines that read, ‘Jack the Ripper Still at Large!’”

That may sound like the extempore chat of any exasperated person, but as we discussed last time, simply transcribing actual speech is not usually the best — and certainly not the only — means of producing realistic dialogue on the page. There’s nothing wrong per se with lifting quotes from real life, but a savvy writer lifts selectively, judiciously.

And always, always with a definite point in mind. Dialogue that apparently serves no other purpose than to demonstrate that the writer is aware of normal, everyday speech tends to provoke an undesirable speech pattern in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener: “Next!”

Especially if, as often occurs in the opening pages of novel submissions, that meticulously-reproduced everyday speech either delays the action from beginning, slows down action already in progress, or — and Millicent sees this more than any of us might like to think — it takes the place of action happening offstage, so to speak. Many a potentially exciting opening scene has been smothered by the protagonist stopping to be polite — or just chatty.

Not sure what I mean? Okay, here are a couple of openings for the same story, each cut off at the point at which Millicent probably would have stopped reading. (Hey, you think it’s easy to come up with fresh examples night after night?)

“Why, Kathy!” Evan exclaimed. “I thought you weren’t going to make it?”

Well might he have asked. Kathy was not the sort of girl who typically turned up in dank attics, covered with cobwebs, soaking wet, and shaking with fear.

Still, her mother had brought her up right. “Hello, Evan. I thought you were going to Sharon’s party tonight.”

“My date came down with the flu.”

“That’s a shame. And after you got all dressed up, too.”

Evan glanced down at his normally spotless khakis. Climbing up that trellis might not have been such a good idea. He’d have to sneak his pants into the wash before Mom saw them, or he’d be in for it. “I hadn’t expected company.”

Kathy looked away. “Can you tell me what the Algebra homework
was?”

A trifle annoying, isn’t it? It’s fairly obvious that something has happened to Kathy just before the scene we’re seeing, but all of the narrative’s energies seem aimed toward delaying showing us what that something was. (And what is that called, campers? That’s right: false suspense.) Other than slowing the action, keeping the reader from knowing what’s going on, and probably pushing off the first scary happening of the book for a few pages, what purpose is this dialogue serving?

Before you answer, let me caution you that from Millicent’s perspective, but people really talk like that! is not a sufficient answer. Yes, two teenagers running into each other in a haunted house late at night might conceivably say things like this, but why does the reader need to see them say it?

Actually, why does the reader need to see this character say that? is a pretty good question for the reviser of a Frankenstein manuscript to ask early and often, especially when going over a scene that doesn’t go much of anywhere for a third of a page or more. (Hey, Millicent often doesn’t read more than that before deciding to reject a manuscript. Screeners read fast.) In a good submission or contest entry, there’s no such thing as a throw-away line, after all.

As we discussed yesterday, any line of dialogue unequivocally worth keeping exhibits one or more of the following characteristics: it either advances/complicates/resolves a plot point, reveals some interesting and relevant aspect of a character previously unseen in the book, or is interesting, amusing, and/or entertaining in its own right. As the closer readers among you may have noticed, practically none of the dialogue in the example above rises to any of these challenges.

So what’s a savvy reviser to do? Well, we have a number of options. We could back the timeline up a bit, to begin with an interesting character in an interesting situation.

Kathy felt fingers running gently through the sweaty tendrils on the back of her neck. So Evan did like her enough to meet her in the haunted house at midnight. “I don’t scare that easily.”

He didn’t answer. She tilted her head, resting it on his caressing hand. It was ice-cold. And bonier than she remembered.

“Okay, enough with the Halloween jokes.” She wiggled in his grasp. He was surprisingly strong for a chess club captain. “Your girlfriend may like this kid stuff, but…”

The side of her head hit the claw-footed bathtub so hard that she saw stars. She’d always thought seeing stars was a myth, just like the Holton Hall ghost. Water flowed over her face, smothering any further thought but escape.

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Thinking objectively, which opening would be more likely to spur you to keep reading, this or the first version?

And THAT is why, in case you were curious, writing gurus urge students to begin their works with a hook, to establish interest right away. But capturing a reader’s interest — particularly a professional reader’s interest — is not like tag: once you’ve hooked ‘em, they don’t necessarily remain hooked. Think of maintaining interest as being akin to love: no matter how hard someone falls for you at first, if you do not keep wooing, that interest is going to flag sooner or later.

Too many aspiring writers take their readers’ interest for granted, an often-costly assumption. So let’s talk wooing strategy.

In the industry, the standard term for what keeps a reader turning pages is tension. All too frequently, writers new to the game confuse it with suspense, but suspense is plot-specific: a skillful writer sets up an array of events in such a way as to keep the reader guessing what will happen next. In a suspenseful plot, that writing-fueled curiosity keeps the reader glued to the page between plot points.

Suspense, in other words, is why one doesn’t get up in the middle of a Hitchcock film to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge, unless there’s a commercial break. You want to see what is going to happen next.

Tension, on the other hand, can stem from a lot of sources, mostly character-generated, rather than plot-generated: the reader wants to know how the protagonist is going to respond next, a different kettle of fish entirely. Sometimes tension-rich dilemmas are plot points, but not always – and this gives the writer a great deal of freedom, since it’s a rare plot that can maintain a major twist on every page.

Or even every other page. (THE DA VINCI CODE, anyone?)

Some of the greatest contemporary examples of consistent tension in novels are the HARRY POTTER books. Actually, not a lot happens in most of the books in this series, particularly in the early chapters: kids go to school; they learn things; they have difficulty discerning the difference between epoch-destroying evil and a teacher who just doesn’t like them very much; Harry saves the world again.

Of course, the lessons they learn in the classroom ultimately help them triumph over evil, but that’s not what makes the HARRY POTTER books so absorbing. It’s the incredibly consistent tension. If J.K. Rowling’s publisher infused each page with heroin, rather than with ink, her writing could hardly be more addictive; there’s a reason that kids sit up for a day and a half to read them straight through. With the exception of the first 50 pages of the last book (hey, I’m an editor: it’s my job to call authors on their writing lapses), the tension scarcely flags for a line at a time.

Technically, that’s a writing marvel, a achieved not by magic, but by doing precisely the opposite of what the movie and TV scripts with which we’re all inundated tend to do: she gives her characters genuine quirks substantial enough to affect their relationships and problems that could not be solved within half an hour by any reasonably intelligent person.

Rather than making the reader guess WHAT is going to happen next, well-crafted tension lands the reader in the midst of an unresolved moment — and then doesn’t resolve it immediately. This encourages the reader to identify with a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) to try to figure out how that character could get out of that particular dilemma. The more long-term and complicated the dilemma, the greater its capacity for keeping the tension consistently high.

A popular few: interpersonal conflict manifesting between the characters; interpersonal conflict ABOUT to manifest between the characters; the huge strain required from the characters to keep interpersonal conflict from manifesting. Also on the hit parade: sexual energy flying between two characters (or more), but not acted upon; love, hatred, or any other strong emotion flying from one character to another, spoken or unspoken. Or even the protagonist alone, sitting in his room, wondering if the walls are going to collapse upon him.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for judging whether a scene exhibits sufficient tension: if you would be comfortable living through the moment described on the page, the scene may not provide enough tension to keep the reader riveted to the page. Polite conversation, for instance, when incorporated into dialogue, is almost always a tension-breaker.

“But wait!” I hear some of you slice-of-life aficionados out there cry. “I hate to be redundant with the questions, but shouldn’t dialogue EVER reflect how people speak in real life?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it should, insofar as good dialogue reflects plausible regional differences, personal quirks, and educational levels. I’ve heard many an agent and editor complain about novels where every character speaks identically, or where a third-person narrative reads in exactly the same cadence and tone as the protagonist’s dialogue. Having a Texan character use terms indigenous to Maine (unless that character happens to be a relative of our last president’s, of course) is very likely to annoy a screener conversant with the dialect choices of either area.

Yes, Virginia, the pros honestly do notice these little things. That’s one of the many, many reasons that it is an excellent idea for you to read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you mail or e-mail it off; it really is the best way to catch this flavor of writing problem.

But it’s just a fact of the art form that the vast majority of real-life dialogue is deadly dull when committed to print. While the pleasantries of manners undoubtedly make interpersonal relationships move more smoothly, they are rote forms, and the problem with rote forms is that utilizing them absolutely precludes saying anything spontaneous. Or original.

Or — and this is of primary importance in a scene — surprising. Think about it: when’s the last time someone with impeccable manners made you gasp with astonishment?

Even rude real-life conversation can be very dull on the page. If you don’t believe this, try this experiment:

1. Walk into a crowded café alone, sit down at a table near a couple engaged in an argument (not all that difficult to find, alas) and start taking notes.

2. Go home and write up their actual words — no cheating — as a scene.

3. Read it over afterward. Does it work dramatically? Is it character-revealing? Or do these people sound generic and their bickering dull?

99% of the time, even if the couple upon whom you eavesdropped were fighting or contemplating robbing a bank or discussing where to stash Uncle Harry’s long-dead body, a good editor would cut over half of what the speakers said. And if the two were in perfect agreement, the entire scene would probably go.

Why? Because real-life conversation is both repetitious and vague, as a general rule. It also tends to be chock-full of clichés, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, jokes that do not translate at all to print, and pop culture references that will surely be outdated in a year or two.

In a word: boring to everyone but the participants. It’s an insult to the art of eavesdropping.

So is, incidentally, dialogue that insists upon showing the reader every pause or hesitation, however miniscule. Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that a speaker stops saying anything for a moment is not invariably important enough to record for posterity. Nor is it, in itself, interesting.

You’re not believing me again, aren’t you? Okay, smarty pants, take a gander at this relatively commonplace example of this type of dialogue.

Sheila stopped in mid-step. “Edmond, what’s wrong? Are you…”

He hesitated before answering. “I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“But are you…I mean, is it something we need to worry about?”

“You worry too much, Sheila.” He paused. “But I should probably get to…a doctor. Or even…a hospital?”

“A hospital!” She couldn’t say anything else for a second. Then she grew brisk: “Edmond, you’re not…thinking clearly. I’m taking you to the emergency room, now.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. Do you need to lean on me to get to the car?”

Quite heavy ellipsis for just a few lines of text, isn’t it? Apart from being repetitive on the page, all of those dots aren’t really adding much to the scene. As those of you who are editing for length will be delighted to see, most of them could be cut entirely without changing the conflict or decreasing the tension of the scene at all.

Look at how painlessly those pauses may be minimized — and while we’re at it, let’s excise some of that redundancy as well:

Sheila stopped in mid-step. “Edmond, what’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“Is it something we need to worry about?”

“You worry too much, Sheila.” He took in a shuddering breath. “But I should probably get to a doctor. Or even a hospital.”

She grew brisk: “I’m taking you to the emergency room, now.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. Do you need to lean on me to get to the car?”

See? All I retained was one reference to stopping and one ellipsis — but the scene is, if anything, more full of tension than when Sheila and Edmond were wasting all of our time by speaking so slowly.

That’s right, those of you who just gasped — I did say that wasting our time. Professional readers aren’t the only ones who tend to bore quickly when faced with dialogue whose primary recommendation is realism.

“But Anne,” the gaspers protest, “I thought the point of good writing was to show the reader the world as it actually is! If their eyes are going to glaze over just because I show a pause or two — which actual people do all the time in the real world, by the way — or include a few pleasantries, how is it going to be remotely possible for me to tell the realistic tale I want to tell?”

It’s more than remotely possible, reality-lovers — it’s probable, provided that you concentrate on what is surprising and interesting about that tale. Usually, the best way to achieve this is to focus upon what is unique about your self-described ordinary characters, rather than how they are just like everybody else.

That’s a taller order than it might at first appear, from an editing perspective. Far too often, slice-of-lifers and Everyman-producers will not differentiate between the expected ordinary details and the specific quirks of individual characters; their Frankenstein manuscripts tend to include everything, up to and including the kitchen sink. The trick to revising such text is to winnow out what the reader might expect to be there, so the genuinely unusual personalities of your real-life characters can shine forth.

Strong character development is as much about what the writer chooses to leave out as what s/he elects to leave in, after all. Mundane, predictable statements, however likely characters like yours may be to utter them in real life, seldom reveal much about the speaker’s personality, do they?

And that’s doubly true if more than one character says the same types of things. Yes, real people do frequently echo their kith and kin in real life, but unless you prefer to define true-to-life as synonymous with dull, I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that you can’t come up with something different for each character to say.

The same holds true for individual quirks. The more seemingly ordinary your protagonist, the more you ought to consider giving him a unique trait or two. Remember, one reader’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

Ah, the gaspers seem to have caught their breath again. Yes? “But Anne, what you’re saying is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality in our prose? Weren’t we all ordered to write what you know? Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I?”

Unfortunately, no — judging by contest entries and submissions, quite a few writers did. But let’s pause for a moment — you’ll like that, won’t you, slice-of-lifers? — to consider just how reflective of real life those Writing 101 standards actually were. Universality, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men; exhortations to write what you know led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle-class white teenagers, mostly male. And the popularity of the slice-of-life short story (it’s awfully hard to maintain for an entire novel) left many of us sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s point of view, all of the good students obediently following this advice has resulted in a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. Every day, she reads of universal protagonists (read: ordinary people) in situations that their authors know intimately (read: ordinary life) acutely observed (read: the ordinary seen through a magnifying glass).

It’s not that some of these many, many stories aren’t well-written; many of them are. And there’s nothing wrong with portraying all of that ordinariness, per se. It’s just that Millicent sees so darned much of it that it’s hard for an average Joe or Jane protagonist in an ordinary situation not to strike her as…

Well, you get the picture.

Whether that slice-of-life story is presented as fiction or memoir (a book category where it tends to work better on the page), ordinary characters may never be excused for being dull or predictable. Not in a manuscript submission, not in a contest entry, and not in a published book. Millicent is screening to find the extraordinary manuscript, the one with the fresh worldview, spin, or writing style applied to a story about a character (or characters) who are different enough from character(s) she’s seen before to remain interesting for the length of an entire book.

Aspiring writers, particularly memoirists, often seem to fail to take that last part into account when preparing their submissions: if the story presented does not appear from the very first line on page 1 to be about a fascinating person in an intriguing situation, the manuscript is going to be a tough sell to everyone from Millicent to her boss to an editor at a publishing house to a contest judge.

So if a book is about an Everyman living a life with which an ordinary reader might identify, it’s IMPERATIVE that he demonstrate some way in which either he or his story is not ordinary right away. Why? Because otherwise, the manuscript is far too likely to get dismissed as just not very interesting or surprising.

It’s not for nothing, you know, that agents complain about how many submissions they see that took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story took too much time to warm up, as well as the ever-popular not enough action on page 1. These complaints are reflective of the hard reality they see on a daily basis: many, if not most, first pages have no conflict on them at all, but are purely set-up.

Such an opening scene may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from the business side of the industry’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — a slow opening translates into hard to sell.

The ordinariness of characters, that is, is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. An interesting character in an interesting situation is featured in practically all of their personal ads advice on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOT paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie.

That sort of thing. In Millicent’s world, interesting and surprising are synonymous more often than fans of the ordinary might think.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure to his team? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?)

So I ask you: isn’t it possible for you to work an element of surprise onto page 1 of your submission, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

Before you chafe at that request, remember that lack of surprise can render a protagonist less likable, even for readers who do not, like Millicent, drop a book like a hot coal if the first few paragraphs don’t grab them. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, given how often writing teachers lecture about the importance of opening with a hook, this justification for keeping the opening lively is seldom mentioned, but it is in fact true: ordinary characters tend not to be all that engaging, precisely because they are average, and thus predictable.

For most readers, an unpredictable jerk is more interesting to follow than a beautifully-mannered bore, after all. It’s hard to blame Millicent and her cronies for that.

Or if it won’t work in your story to open with something surprising, how about vitally important? I don’t necessarily mean important on the global scale, but within the world of the story you’re telling.

Seriously, one of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to elevate the importance of what is going on in the opening to that character. A protagonist or narrator’s caring passionately about the outcome of a conflict practically always renders a scene more interesting, because it prompts the reader to care about the outcome, too. (Of course, this is a whole lot easier to pull off in an opening scene that features a conflict, right?)

Whatever you revisers of Frankenstein manuscripts do, however, do not under any circumstances allow the reader to become bored for even so much as a sentence of page 1. Or to be able to predict what the next line of dialogue will be. If your current opening scene cannot be edited to avoid both of these dreadful fates, consider beginning your submission with a different scene.

I ask you again: were you drawn into Kathy’s story faster when you saw her attacked by a water-loving ghost, or when she was chatting with a classmate after she’d fought off the spook?

Believe me, “boring” is absolutely the last adjective you want to spring to Millicent’s mind while she’s perusing your work. Even “annoying” is better, because at least then the manuscript is eliciting a reaction of some sort. But once the screener has a chance to think, “I’m bored with this,” if the next line does not re-introduce tension, chances are that the submission is going to end up in the reject pile.

That’s the VERY next line; you can’t count upon your manuscript’s ending up on the desk of someone who is going to willing to be bored for a few paragraphs. Or hadn’t I mentioned that as a group, professional readers bore fast.

Try not to hold it against them. I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: the vast majority of manuscripts suffer from a chronic lack of tension.

Dull dialogue that does not reveal interesting things about the characters saying it is a primary culprit. I know, I know, being courteous seems as though it should make your protagonist more likable to the reader, but frankly, “Yes, thank you, George,” could be spoken by anyone. It doesn’t add much to any scene. And reading too many pages of real-life dialogue is like being trapped in a cocktail party with people you don’t know very well for all eternity.

“Deliver us from chit-chat!” the Millicents moan, rattling the chains that shackle them to their grim little desks clustered together under those flickering, eye-destroying fluorescent lights. “Oh, God, not another attractive stranger who asks, ‘So, have you been staying here long?’”

You’re just the writer to answer their prayers, aren’t you? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVIII: were you leading up to a point, Chatty Cathy? Or just killing some time with conversation?

chatty cathy doll

When last we met, I was urging you, through the oh-so-subtle means of inundating you with example after example, into an appreciation of just how annoying redundant, non-character-revealing, or just plain dull dialogue can be to someone who reads manuscripts for hours on end. Like, say, Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge.

Why bring this up in the midst of an ongoing series on self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript? Well, several reasons. First — and it pains me to tell you this — more otherwise well-written submissions and contest entries drop precipitously in M & M’s respective esteems due to lackluster dialogue than is generally believed. Due to the pervasiveness of this phenomenon (and we’re gearing up for the second reason here), typically, one of the quickest, easiest ways to cut length off an over-long manuscript is to track down and excise the ordinary, everyday dialogue, the chatter that neither advances the plot, creates interesting conflict in the moment, or reveals character.

How can I state that so confidently? Because almost every writer who has taken an English composition course was told repeatedly that good dialogue should sound real, the average novel or memoir manuscript overflows with dialogue that’s apparently there simply because people say those types of things.

Which is not to say that striving to make your dialogue realistic is bad writing advice. It’s very good advice — but what the vast majority of composition teachers should have added immediately thereafter yet did not was an explanation that real-sounding dialogue and the things that people actually say in real life are not the same thing.

The former rings true on the page; while the latter can sometimes be very interesting, it can also lull the reader into a deep, deep slumber. Trust me, when people talk about an author with a good ear for dialogue, they’re referring to someone who consistently produces real-sounding dialogue, not someone who simply holds a microphone up to life and records the unedited results on the page.

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

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

“Oh,” Babette said. “You’re home.”

Rufus nursed the thumb the dodo trod upon earlier. “Yeah.”

“Have a nice day?”

“Um-hm.”

“I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Rockaway Beach to scatter Grandfather’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if all of our ancestors and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

“Yeah. We sure got wet that day.“

“Ham sound good for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

Ordinary dialogue makes her especially antsy — again, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but if I don’t, who will? — on page 1. And that’s unfortunate, since this kind of chat is quite popular in the opening pages of manuscripts.

Why would the dialogue above have annoyed Millicent? Well, cast your eyes over it and tell me: what’s going on here? What is this story about? Who are these people, and why are 7 of the 10 opening lines of this story wasted on dialogue that doesn’t even begin to answer any of these questions?

Already, I see some hands raised out there in the ether. “But Anne,” writers of the real everywhere protest, and who can blame them? “It’s unfair to assume that every reader, even professional ones, would be turned off by the example above, even if it did appear on page 1. I think that Millicent and Mehitabel would be intrigued by its very terseness; I believe it would render them more likely to keep reading, not less, if only to find out what’s going on. I, for one, want to hear more about that dodo bite.”

I’m glad you brought that up, mythical hand-raisers, because the strategy of withholding basic information from the reader in an opening scene in order to create curiosity about what is to come is a suspense-building technique popular only with aspiring writers. Established writers soon learn not to do it, for the exceedingly simple reason that professional readers like Millicent, Mehitabel, and even Maury, Millie’s cousin who works as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, tend not to find this kind of opening titillating.

How do they regard it? Negatively, almost always. There’s even a term for it: false suspense.

That’s also the term for when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now. Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense.

I’m not here to talk about plotting today, however — but don’t worry; I’ll be coming back to it later in this series. For now, suffice it to say that even if you are one of those writers who absolutely adores reproducing everyday speech down to the last grunt and hesitation, you might want to keep those mundanities off of page 1 of your submission. Or page 2. Or, really, out of the opening chapter.

You wouldn’t want Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury to mistake your submission for the hundreds of thousands of others that don’t have as good an ear for dialogue as you do, right?

As a general revision guideline for any page of the manuscript, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

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

I’ll admit it: my fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and early in my career, I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to write as I do? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

But I apply a slightly different twist to it. For each line of dialogue, I ask myself: Is this here because it needs to be, or just because it’s something a character like this would say? In memoir and reality-based fiction, it can indeed be there simply because someone actually did say it — but is this particular line essential to the story being told here? And regardless of whether it’s a quote or not, if it isn’t either plot-advancing, character-revealing, or interesting in its own right, does it really need to be on the page at all?

Why, yes, you’re right, everyone who just grabbed the nearest sofa cushion and screamed into it: that is an awfully high standard to apply to every single line of dialogue in a manuscript. Your point?

To help the rest of you understand why your fellow readers felt faint at the mere thought of placing their manuscripts under that powerful a microscope, let’s take a gander at a species of dialogue gets under your garden-variety Millicent’s skin like wet sand under a swimsuit: the de facto monologue.

You know, the kind of ostensible dialogue that involves one character talking about something, while the other character doesn’t really add much to the conversation. It tends to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Steve replied.

“You can say that again. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”

“Um-hm.”

“I’ll bet you did. You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No.” Steve was crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Antoinette dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?”

“Could be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You think I’m blaming the victims?”

“I never said that.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Steve serving in this conversation, other than providing validation, the opposite of conflict? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of mostly colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. We all know by this juncture, I hope, how Millicent and her ilk feel about that in a submission: “Next!”

Even if you find none of those excellent arguments for revision convincing, there’s another, quite practical one you might want to consider. Just look, self-editors concerned about the fact that your manuscript is 40 pages longer than the expected length for a first book in your category, at how much shorter this scene would be if it were presented as an actual monologue:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Saying that women don’t know anything about cars is sure a lousy sales technique. Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

While Steve crawled into the passenger seat via the smashed back window, she dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. She set about hot-wiring the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition.

“Or maybe it’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?” The engine roared. “Bingo, baby! I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

See? Steve’s silence makes his unwillingness to argue every bit as clear as his bland continual agreement did above. So what would have been the payoff for retaining his chatter?

Perhaps more to the point, if such lightly-disguised monologues provide neither character development, interesting inter-character conflict, nor, frankly, many sentences worth preserving for posterity, why are they so very popular with aspiring writers? Expediency, mostly: there’s no denying that having a protagonist, villain, or crucial minor character suddenly hold forth like Hamlet is a mighty efficient way to convey information to a reader.

But from the professional reader’s point of view, this use of page space is not efficient at all: it’s the narrative equivalent of having a play’s lead excuse himself to the other characters mid-scene, walk to the edge of the stage, and say, “Look, I really don’t have time to convey everything you need to know in dramatic form, so I’m simply going to tell you what would have happened in the next couple of scenes if we had bothered to stage them, okay?”

It’s not okay, at least according to Millicent. She’s reading your manuscript partially in order to find out how you tell a story — is it honestly in your interest to make her read through filler before reaching your best writing?

Ditto with dialogue that repeats what the reader already knows, as in that archetype of easily cut-able scenes, the one where the protagonist tells another character what happened in a previous scene. As in what the reader has just read. This might be defensible if the protagonist were adding a new twist on the information, but most of the time, s/he recaps the information exactly as the reader has already experienced it because — you can see this coming, can’t you? — it’s what a reasonable person might do in real life.

How easily cut-able are such scenes, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s rare that an accurate retelling, even one that takes up pages of text, could not be summed up in a single sentence: Sheila ran back to the classroom and told everyone what had happened.

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

That answer didn’t mollify some of you reality-huggers, did it? “But Anne, isn’t realism valuable in and of itself? I know plenty of people who effectively have their own catchphrases.”

As do I, as it happens. In fact, I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, both her father AND her uncle spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no. So I ask you: would it or would it not be a good means of revealing the background of a character from my home town to incorporate it repeatedly in the text? What about using it as that character’s personal catchphrase?

Pardon my asking, but what precisely would it reveal about her character — other than the not-very-interesting fact that she uses this phrase often? If it does not add anything to the dialogue other than repetition, what possible incentive could I have to reproduce this verbal tick except so readers who already knew the person upon whom the fictional (or memoir) character was based would recognize her?

Is that honestly a good enough reason to bore all of those potential readers who have never had the pleasure of making her acquaintance? Would those excellent souls gain anything but chagrin out of my fidelity in reproducing a rather annoying true-life speech pattern on the page?

The answer to all of those seemingly rhetorical questions was no, by the way. The fact that a real-life person a writer has chosen to use as a character in a book really speaks repetitively does not justify forcing the reader to put up with it.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of the phrases that actually were typical of my home town, real-life tropes that actual people say bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

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

Mrs. Darter: “I was picking peaches. Sure is a great crop this year. How did your dentist appointment go?”

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

Mrs. Darter: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. Haven’t seen her for a while. She’s not married yet, is she?”

Mrs. Price: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie.

Dr. Mini: Oh, hello, Mrs. Price. Hello, Mrs. Darter.

Mrs. Darter: I haven’t seen you in a long time, dear. Moving back to town, I hope?

Mrs. Price: Or just visiting friends who have been loyal enough to return to the town that nurtured them as babes?”

Dr. Mini: (Seeking escape route.) How’s your son, Mrs. Price? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to significant other, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

Mrs. Darter: And how’s your mother?

Dr. Mini: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you both.

Mrs. Price: Give my regards to your mother. Tell her that we hope to see her soon.

Dr. Mini: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to (thinks hard) Bobby.

Mrs. Price: Well?

Mrs. Darter: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Mrs. Price: Just wait until I tell Bobby. At least he’ll be pleased.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not, as I mentioned, necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality? And why oh why do we learn so little about Bobby?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life. (But trust me, you don’t want to know more about Bobby. His character strikes me as inherently hostile to development.)

More to the point of this series, the boring bits of this ripped-from-reality dialogue would be significantly more difficult to edit out of a manuscript than a linguistic trope such as my old pal’s “like I said…” Cutting the latter would a particularly easy edit, not only because the writer could simply use the FIND function in word to excise it, but because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice).

But reworking the exchange above to render it snappy? That would take an almost complete rewrite. Nevertheless, one of the best places for a self-editor to start looking to trim manuscript fat — or even eliminate entire scenes — is generally in scenes taken directly from real life. Most writers cut-worthy include elements in such scenes simply because it happened that way, not because those elements or lines of dialogue add crucial elements to the scene.

To put it bluntly, blandness tends to linger in reality — and that’s potentially problematic at the submission stage. To paraphrase one of Millicent’s most frequent exclamations, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”

While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener — and an even worse agent — his observation might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: some screeners and contest judges’ maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is well under a minute.

So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15; it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito. Not that every Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury would stop reading that quickly — but enough of them would that it just doesn’t make strategic sense to take a chance.

Especially on page 1. Had I mentioned that?

Oh, seven or eight times? Funny, I hadn’t noticed. Keep up the good work!

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!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIII: as different as grains of sand on a…wow, quite a few of those grains are awfully similar, aren’t they?

sand on a beach

Last time, I went on at some length about the yawn-inducing effect of over-use of major characters’ names in a narrative. As I tried to show, the repetitive force of all those capitals can be somewhat hypnotic, or at any rate distracting from the story itself. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to work with the text a little to try to reduce their frequency.

It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s — or, if we going to be honest about it, any writer who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Think about it: the more worked-over a Frankenstein manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed, right?

Even in a never-before-revised manuscript, though, it’s likely to behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, the reading eye can leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

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

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

Oh, you think it should be easy to keep track? Okay, skim over this sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can:

similar name page 1

Quick, sit down and draw a family tree for Cheryl from memory. No fair referring back to page 1. Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, today there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part — or, as is more often the case, a lot of between-draft revision of a Frankenstein manuscript. As we saw yesterday, since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

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

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? I assure you, Millicent is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

pronoun-only text

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

Again, you may laugh, but actually, for the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating. Overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of, “Who is this broad?” or “What on earth is going on here?”

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

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

Unless there is a very, very good reason for withholding information as basic as a character’s name from the reader — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name on the page, rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she. Yes, there was a time when the latter strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles, but really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

Actually, even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes. Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test of clarity, I will resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

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

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

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

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

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

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

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

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

Does that low, despairing moan I hear mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? Afraid that once you start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to your Frankenstein manuscript, you’ll almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition?

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up for all of you in a comment on a recent post:

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

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

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

I’m glad you brought this up, Elizabeth: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as you point out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

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

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

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it?

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

Yes, you read that correctly. Never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance.

Why? Well, plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

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

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

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

You’re laughing again, aren’t you? Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above.

The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule. Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense.

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” April asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I believe I observed last time, that’s quite a lot of proper names for a short scene, isn’t it? Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would be confusing.

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

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

“Why ever not?”

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

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

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

“Just one. It’s been just him since the seventh grade, hasn’t it?”

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

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

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

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

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