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!

Pet peeves on parade, part XVIII: Ivan who?

Hello, campers –
As those of you who have been hanging around the Author! Author! community for a while are, I hope, aware, I seldom rerun a former post wholesale. Oh, I’m not above taking an old post, dressing it in a new gown, switching out some jewelry, and sending onto the runway again, blinking at the bright lights, but it’s rare that I don’t add at least 5 or 6 pages of new material.

Today, I’m bringing you a post from last year’s Frankenstein manuscript series. It’s quite apt for our ongoing discussion of perennial professional readers’ pet peeves, but perhaps equally important today, I can post it with a minimum of keyboard time. I took a tumble earlier today, and I’m under doctors’ orders to take it easy.

This is as easy as I ever take it, apparently: I punched up today’s version only minimally. Enjoy!

Have you noticed a running pattern in the last week or two of posts on self-editing, campers? Have you dimly sensed that no matter where my suggestion du jour may begin, my narratives always end up taking a scenic detour through the joys of keeping the pacing tight in your manuscript? Has your significant other been shaking you awake, demanding that you cease muttering, “But does it have conflict on every page? EVERY page?” over and over again in the night? Have you found yourself clapping your hands loudly in boring work meetings, exclaiming, “Where’s the tension? Let’s get things moving here, people!” At family gatherings? At church? While waiting in line to vote?

Glad to hear it. My subtle indoctrination technique is working!

In case I haven’t yet dumped enough cold water on those of you intending to submit your writing to professional scrutiny any time in the foreseeable future: manuscripts or book proposal that drag their feet even a little tend to get rejected. Especially, as we discussed yesterday, those that meander within the first few pages. And while we’ve all read dozens of published books that have rocked us gently to sleep by page 4, and it truly isn’t fair that your manuscript is being held to a higher standard than THOSE evidently were, sitting around resenting the differential isn’t going to help you get your work published so effectively as making sure that YOUR manuscript is as tight as a drum.

I’m aware that the very notion makes half of you want to curl up into a protective ball around your manuscript, whimpering, “NO! You can’t cut ANY of it!” I know perfectly well that many, if not most, aspiring writers beard the heavens with bootless cries against the strange reality dictating that a manuscript should be publication-ready before it has an agent, who will probably ask the writer to change it significantly before sending it out to editors, anyway. I am even fully cognizant of the fact that from a writerly perspective, we love your writing — give us less of it doesn’t make much sense at all.

Yet a sober recognition of the extreme competitiveness of the literary market and the ability to self-edit in order to render one’s work more marketable within its ever-changing landscape are species characteristics of the professional working writer; while it’s not completely unheard-of for a first draft to be what ends up on the published page, by and large, producing a book-length manuscript purely from inspiration, without revision or even close subsequent reads by the author prior to an editor’s involvement, is roughly as rare amongst the successful author population as qualifying for the Olympics is amongst the world population.

I know you have it in you to approach this like a pro. Let’s talk conflict.

As I may have mentioned once or twice throughout this series, it’s an industry truism that a novel should have conflict — or still better, tension — on every page. While anybody who has had a half-hour conversation with me about the current state of the industry knows that I feel this standard should not be applied arbitrarily to every book in every genre, you should be aware of this axiom — because, I assure you, every agency screener is. In my ruminations on the subject, the word arbitrary tends to come up, as do the phrases knee-jerk reaction, radical oversimplification of a complex array of literary factors, and power run mad. I’ve been known to question whether, for instance, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, CATCH-22, or OF HUMAN BONDAGE could find a publisher today as new books, much less an agent.

Or, indeed, virtually any of the bestsellers of the 18th or 19th centuries. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is the opening page of the absolutely last word in exciting dramatic novels in 1819, IVANHOE:

Ivanhoe first page

“What is this?” a modern-day Millicent mutters under her breath, reading for the SASE that, being a conscientious submitter, Sir Walter Scott had included with his submission. “A book about furniture? A manual on room decor? Where is the conflict? And what’s the deal with the punctuation? Next!”

But that’s rich array of rejection reasons would not be what Sir Walter would hear, right? No, his only clue about why his submission was rejected would be this:

Dear Scott:

I read your submission with great interest, but I’m afraid your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with the story.

Another agent may well feel differently, and I wish you every success finding a home for this book.

Sincerely,

Millicent’s boss
Great Big Agency

I’m making light of it, but honestly, I have sat up many a midnight, worrying about all of the talented aspiring writers out there currently relying upon, say, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen as pacing role models, only to have their hearts broken by rejection by agents, editors, and contest judges who, rationally enough, base their assessments about whether a book is marketable upon what has been selling within the last five years, rather than upon the kind of abstract notion of Good Literature that most of us encountered in our English classes. To say nothing of writers who chose as their lodestar books released a decade ago, or even, in some especially fast-changing genres, just a few years back.

If you doubt that, I invite you to round up all of the agents who were trawling writers’ conferences for chick lit in, say, 2002, at the height of the post-BRIDGET JONES enthusiasm, and ask them whether they still rabidly seeking chick lit today. Those genuinely enamored of the genre have stuck with it, of course, but a good two-thirds of them subsequently spent a couple of years pursing the next big YA vampire classic. (2011 Anne here: or are currently as busy tumbling over backwards to avoid being affiliated with the next THREE CUPS OF TEA as they were a year ago trying to find it.)

My point is, publishing is driven as much by fads as by an appreciation for the beauty of a well-crafted sentence; in the mid-1980s, for instance, a novel’s being over 100,000 words was considered completely acceptable. Yet interestingly, the truism about conflict on every page has endured for a couple of decades now. There are plenty of agents and editors out there, and good ones, who do apply this standard to submissions, so you’re better off if you think about the pacing issue before you send your baby out the door, rather than later puzzling over a form-letter rejection, wondering if the pacing could possibly have been the problem.

Much of the time, it is. So much so that I feel a checklist coming on:

(1) If you’re editing for length, seeking out comparatively slow bits to shorten — or, dare I say it, cut altogether — should be at the top of your to-do list.

Actually, a search-and-minimize technique isn’t a bad idea even if length isn’t your particular bugbear, either, but it’s absolutely essential when editing for length.

What should go in the place of the trimmed bits? Conflict, of course.

(2) If you want to keep a slow scene, ramp up the conflict within it.

“But Anne,” those of you who write introspective books cry, “what can I do if my plot is, in fact, rather sedate? I can hardly make the supermarket down the block spontaneously combust in order to add spice to my domestic drama, can I? It would look so odd.”

This is a good question, and prompts me to ask another: what does tension on every page mean?

Should every character be fighting with every other constantly? Do you have to show things exploding at least once every 33 lines? Should the librarian in Chapter 2 pull a switchblade on your protagonist when he tries to check out a book on gardening?

No, on all counts. But how about these tension-increasers?

Some character could want something and not get it on every page, right, without gunpowder being involved.

A character could say one thing and do another.

Every conversation could contain some seed of disagreement.

That’s all realistic, isn’t it? After all, no two human beings are ever in absolute agreement on every point. At least no two I have ever known.

(3) Consider having allies disagree, harbor different motivations — or having the protagonist be less sure of her own.

Trust me, your protagonist’s relationship with her best buddy will come across to the reader as stronger– not to mention more true-to-life — if they have the occasional tiff. A person has to care more about a friend to maintain a relationship through a conflict than through periods of sunny agreement.

So make your characters fight a little for their friendships from time to time. They’ll seem more valuable.

Where overt disagreement is not feasible, then how about a differential between what your protagonist is saying and what she is thinking? The protagonist could habitually bite her tongue, while her angry thoughts run rampant. Internal conflict is definitely interesting.

(4) Seek out dialogue-only scenes and inspect them for lack of tension.

I’m talking about ALL scenes where the dialogue is uninterrupted by narrative text for more than, say, half a page. Reach for your manuscript, scan it for dialogue-only scenes, and check to see whether those scenes are sufficiently conflictual to maintain Millicent’s interest. Most of the time, they don’t.

Did I just hear the battle cry of all of those writers out there who were taught since their infancies that dialogue should speak for itself, and that it is inherently bad writing EVER to include a character’s thoughts in the midst of dialogue? Am I about to be on the receiving end of a body blow from those stalwart souls who have doomed readers to two or three pages on end of pure dialogue, devoid of other activity, or even markers of who is speaking when?

Oh, dear. How shall I put this gently?

If you are so gifted a dialogue-writer that you can convey every nuance of a relationship between two characters at a particular moment in time purely through dialogue, do so with my blessings. But honestly, if you have that particular talent, you might want to go into writing stage or screenplays. Novels, I believe, are places to show complex characters with interesting motivations, people who think and act as well as speak.

Personally, if I want to read transcripted conversations, a novel or memoir is not the first place I look. That’s what trial transcripts are for, after all.

I am aware, though, that there are plenty of writers — and writing teachers — out there who would disagree with me. (Look, Ma: conflict on this page!) If you prefer to follow their precepts, fine. But do be aware that it’s hard to maintain a sense of forward motion throughout pages of dialogue-only text, particularly if one of the speakers is a character the reader does not know particularly well.

(5) Consider the dramatic appeal of duplicity.

This is a great way to liven up those dialogue-only scenes. Few of us say everything that is on our minds at any given moment. Anyone who has ever been a teenager being lectured by a parent, for instance, or an employee shouted at by a boss, has direct personal knowledge of a situation where what is said out loud and what is thought is WILDLY different, where reproducing merely the dialogue would not give an accurate picture of what is really going on between these two people.

Almost everyone holds something back when talking to others — out of politeness sometimes, out of fear others, out of strategy, out of love. The struggle to express oneself without giving away the whole candy store is one of the great human problems, isn’t it? So why not let that struggle manifest on the page?

(6) Double-check all dialogue-based scenes for tension.

Is there enough conflict in them? If no emotion is being generated on either side of a discussion, there probably isn’t.

The conflict need not be large; an argument certainly isn’t appropriate to every scene. Are there a couple of small tweaks you could make to increase the tension between these characters, or the tension within the character’s own mind?

(7) Excise dialogue that doesn’t advance the storyline or provide memorable character development.

Is the conversation providing new information, or just rehashing what the reader already knows? If the latter, could the line be cut without the reader losing a sense of what is going on?

You’d be stunned by how often the answer is yes. Remember, repetition bogs down pace considerably. Trim as much of it as possible — yes, even if real-life characters would say precisely what you already have on the page.

(8) Scrutinize fill-in-the-friend scenes for conceptual redundancy.

Pay particular attention to scenes where the protagonist is telling another character what just happened; such dialogue is notoriously redundant. In fact, know a very prominent agent, one who gives classes and writes books to give advice to aspiring writers, who insists that any scene where characters are talking over ANYTHING that has already occurred in the book should be cut outright. However, since he also counsels removing any scene where the protagonist drinks tea, sips coffee, drives anywhere alone, or thinks about what is going on, I’m not sure I would advise taking his admonitions as revealed gospel.

But the next time you find your characters sitting in a coffee shop, chatting about what has happened in the previous scene, you might want to ask yourself: would the reader be able to follow what is going on in the book if this scene were cut?

(9) Check the beginnings of scenes (and chapters) for over-long set-ups.

Heck, check them for extra verbiage in general. The writing is often sparer at the end of a scene or chapter than at the beginning.

Why? Well, writers tend to compose in bursts, lavishing more time and detail upon the opening, hitting a groove in the middle — and rushing to get the rest of the scene on paper before that parent-teacher conference ten minutes hence. Openings also tend to be the most revised portions of text: if a writer comes up with a bon mot down the line, she will often insert it near the beginning of a scene or chapter.

(10) Generally speaking, a manuscript that has ups and downs will be perceived by the reader as more exciting than one that does not.

Consider changing the running order of the scenes. Alternating action scenes with processing scenes, or fast-paced scenes with slower ones, will give more movement to the plot.

(11) Experiment with varied sentence structure.

If you find yourself perplexed about the drooping energy of a scene whose action would seem to dictate tight pacing, try this trick o’ the trade: at exciting moments, make the sentences shorter than at more meditative times in your plot. That way, the rhythm of the punctuation echoes the increased heart rate of your protagonist. Your reader will automatically find himself reading faster — which, in turn, will make the suspense of the scene seem greater.

Good trick, eh? You can perform a similar feat with dialogue, to give the impression of greater underlying hostility between the speakers.

(12) Let the dialogue reflect the speakers’ breathing patterns.

We’ve talked about this one before, right? People breathe less deeply when they are upset; breathing shallowly, they speak in shorter bursts than when they are relaxed. Also, agitated people are more likely to throw the rules of etiquette to the four winds and interrupt others. It is not a time for long speeches.

Dialogue that reflects these two phenomena usually comes across to readers as more exciting than exchanges of hefty chunks of speech. If you are trying to make a dialogue-based scene read faster, try breaking up the individual speeches, providing interruptions; the resulting dialogue will seem more conflict-ridden, even if the actual conversation is not about something inherently conflict-inducing.

Seriously, it works. Consider this tame little piece of dialogue:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked. “I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like. The kids would love it; it would mean so much to them. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

Janie chuckled ruefully. “I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all. Even from preserves, though, the cherry cobbler you like takes a terribly long time to make. I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s pie recipe, the one she learned from that traveling pie pan salesman during the Great Depression. Infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey, with both: your Aunt Gloria certainly learned her lesson from that salesman well. But I’m sure that the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor, so to speak, show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

“Well,” Janie said, sighing, “you have a point, but I simply don’t have time to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

Not exactly a conflict-fest, is it? Now take a gander at the same scene with Albert and Janie taking shorter breaths — and some editorial rearrangement with an eye toward maximizing conflict. To make it an even higher dive, let’s maintain it as a dialogue-only scene:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, “to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

“I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like.”

“Even from preserves, the cobbler you like takes a long time to make.”

“The kids would love it. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

“I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all.”

“I’m sure the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

Janie sighed. “Look, I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s Great Depression cherry pie recipe…”

“Yeah, your Aunt Gloria certainly learned something from that traveling pie pan salesman.”

“…And infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it, even though the dialogue is almost identical? Hardly divorce-court material, even now, but now the scene isn’t about pie v. cobbler at all: it’s about clashing expectations within a marriage — and what does Albert have against Aunt Gloria, anyway?

If you really get stumped about where to break the speeches, try running around the block, then coming back and seeing how much of each character’s speech you can say out loud before you have to gasp for breath — thus allowing another party opportunity to speak up.

I swear that this really works.

(13) Consider the possibility that you may be able to convey the necessary tension by showing only part of the scene — or winnowing down a conversation to a quick exchange.

Sometimes, less honestly is more. If the goal is to put tension into this particular scene, do you really need more than the beginning and end of the Janie-Albert exchange?

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, ‘to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner. Your favorite cobbler takes an entire afternoon of my time, but I can throw together a pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Sufficient, isn’t it? That’s four lines of pure interpersonal conflict that could be dropped into any kitchen conversation between spouses of a certain age.

To coin a phrase, sometimes less is more. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XV: speak to me, protagonist. Or blink twice to let me know that you’re alive.

After yesterday’s unusually lengthy post, even by my standards (which is saying something), I thought I’d limit myself this evening to a light, sparkling addendum to last time’s intensive session of nit-picking. It will be a struggle, I fear; well-constructed dialogue is a subject upon which I, like Millicent the agency screener, hold quite passionate views.

Why work ourselves into a lather over dialogue, you ask, instead of, say, punctuation placement? Well, while I, for one, have been known to wax eloquent about our friend, the humble comma, its placement is largely a technical issue: it’s rare that a great new writer will stake her claim to fame upon her bold and innovative use of commas.

Seriously, would you want your name to be passed down to posterity as King of the Commas? Wowing the literary world with an unusually good ear for dialogue, on the other hand, is a goal to which many a fledgling writer of fiction and/or memoir aspires. It’s certainly a worthwhile one: writing dialogue well requires not merely a strong sense of what people actually say and the rhythms in which they say it, but also the creativity to pepper the dialogue with enough originality that it won’t seem ho-hum.

Yet for some reason that perpetually escapes me, even writers who pride themselves on their fresh, original notions and execution frequently choose to bore poor Millicent to extinction with uninteresting dialogue. “But people really talk like that,” they hedge. “It’s not my fault if most people are not scintillating conversationalists.”

Well, that’s not entirely true, realism-huggers. While no one can hold you accountable if the couple at the next table elects to immerse themselves in dull chit-chat (“How about this rain?” “We sure do need it.” “I’ll say.”), it’s not fair to expect readers to suffer through dialogue that has no legitimate claim to attention other than its fidelity to real-life talk.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: not everybody in the world is under an obligation to produce entertaining sentences. Writers are.

Messes with your head a little to think of dialogue in those terms, doesn’t it? If so, you’re not alone: most dialogue in submissions is clearly aimed at realism, rather than entertainment. Only a relatively small percentage of submissions demonstrate a commitment to developing character through speech by having characters say interesting and unexpected things in their own distinct voices.

Which is to say: you’d be amazed — at least, I hope you would — by how frequently otherwise creative narratives are bogged down by mundane, unrevealing, or cliché-ridden dialogue.

How common is it? Let me put it this way: if an alien from the planet Targ were to drop from the sky into Millicent’s cubicle tomorrow, determined to learn about how human beings communicate by leafing through a few hundred submissions, it would stroll out of her office sounding just like that couple at the next table. If you ran into it at a cocktail party, you’d be eavesdropping on nearby conversations within a couple of minutes.

What a pity — it might be fascinating to hear about living conditions on Targ these days. But even someone with something interesting to say can seem boring if he doesn’t express himself in interesting terms.

Or if, as we saw last time, if he chooses not to vouchsafe an opinion of his own. All too often, supporting characters — or even more common, passive protagonists whose idea of solving a mystery is to ask one or two questions, then sit back and wait while someone who has defined her very existence by the secret she has kept just blurts out the long-hidden truth — are only nominal participants in dialogue scenes. By not engaging the primary speaker with an alternate point of view, the character becomes simply a monologue-encourager.

Trevor glanced around the musty basement, wondering how anyone could possibly survive for an hour there, much less thirty-eight years. “So you have been in hiding all of this time?”

“You call it hiding.” Veronica’s teeth wobbled visibly with every word. “I call it saving my skin.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. When I first sought out the basement, it was merely as temporary shelter from the horrors of the street. I had no idea that I would be spending the better part of my life here.”

“Wow.”

She flipped her lank gray bangs out of her eyes, and just for a second, she resembled the seventeen-year-old she had been when she last stood in natural light. “Well might you say wow. Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to transform the disused washer/dryer unit into a convection oven? Eight long years. Before that, I had to eat the rats that sustain me raw.”

“Eww.”

“Oh, you get used to it. It’s the right seasoning that’s the trick. The same holds true for cockroach goulash, incidentally.”

“Weren’t you going to tell me about the horrible incident that drove you underground?”

She clutched her mouse fur bed jacket around her fiercely. “I swore I would never tell. Never!”

Trevor’s heart sunk within him. He had come so far in the last forty-eight hours; he couldn’t turn back without one last push. “Pretty please? With sugar on top?”

Veronica looked at him, and her last reservation melted. “It was a dark and stormy night in 1973. I was just a girl then, getting ready for the prom. My dress was hanging over my David Cassidy poster, waiting for me to pick out which of my six sets of platform shoes I would wear. Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling I was being watched.”

“Uh-huh,” he prompted breathlessly.

Trevor’s not adding very much to this interaction, is he? By choosing to be a mostly passive listener, rather than a participant in the conversation, he’s done more than abdicate his role as the reader’s guide through this part of the plot; he’s basically pulled up a chair and plopped himself down right next to the reader, drinking in Veronica’s story as though he were just another audience member.

But at least he is responding in a manner that reveals his feelings about what she is saying. All too often, passive protagonists in interview don’t even do that.

Trevor glanced around the musty basement. “So you have been hiding here all this time?”

“You call it hiding.” Veronica’s teeth wobbled visibly with every word. “I call it saving my skin.”

“Saving your skin?

“Oh, yes. When I first sought out the basement, it was merely as temporary shelter from the horrors of the street. I had no idea that I would be spending the better part of my life here.”

“The better part of your life? Why, how long has it been?”

“That depends. What year is it?” She laughed loudly before he could answer. “Just kidding. It’s been thirty-eight years.”

“Thirty-eight years!”

“The trick was keeping myself busy. Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to transform the disused washer/dryer unit into a convection oven? Eight long years. Before that, I had to eat the rats that sustain me raw.”

“Rats? Raw?”

“Oh, you get used to it. It’s the right seasoning that’s the trick.”

Pardon my asking, but couldn’t Trevor’s part in this scene be very adequately played by a parrot? Or a very high, cavernous ceiling that could echo Veronica’s words back to her?

Certainly, he’s providing neither conflict nor any additional information to the scene. Heck, he’s barely contributing any new words.

So what is he doing in the scene at all? Perhaps he is seeking clues to an ongoing mystery he is trying to solve, and is merely going about it poorly. Or maybe he is actually an immensely clever sleuth, trying to lull poor Veronica into a false sense of security by giving incisive questions about what he wants to know a wide berth. Or he could have just suffered a brain injury that deprived him of the ability to understand what someone is saying until he’s heard every part of it twice.

Or maybe he’s just rather stupid. At least, he appears so on the page.

That made some of you real dialogue-echoers sit bolt upright in your desk chairs, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you point out with some vim, “I know that you’ve just been saying that the fact that people actually talk that way shouldn’t be the only justification for a line of text, but people actually do talk this way. Repeating what’s just been said is a standard means of asking for clarification. Why, I can barely watch five minutes of any TV drama without hearing a character repeat a phrase that’s just been said to her.”

I believe it — and that alone might be a good reason not to embrace this conversational tactic in your dialogue. Since the rise of reality television (does anyone but me remember that producers originally embraced the format because the writers’ guild was on strike?), we’ve all become accustomed to highly repetitious speech pouring out of characters’ mouths, often with a blithe disregard for the rules of grammar. Heck, it’s become quite normal for even speakers who should know better to misuse words.

And I’m not talking about tiny gaffes, like saying further when the speaker really meant farther, either. (In response to that silent plea for clarification: the first refers to concepts, the second to distance.) I’m talking about the increasingly common practice of substituting the intended word or phrase with one that sounds similar to it — a doggy-dog world instead of a dog-eat-dog world, for instance, or mano y mano instead of mano a mano — as if getting it right simply didn’t matter. Or simply using a term so loosely that its original meaning dissipates, as when someone dubs an outcome ironic when it’s merely symbolically apt (in itself ironic, since irony is when the intended and literal meaning are at odds). Or says unironically, “We will be landing momentarily,” when he means “We will be landing in a few minutes,” not “We will be landing for a few moments, then taking off again.”

Yes, yes, I know: if I were correcting these commonly-misused phrases in the middle of an actual conversation, I would come across as a joy-killing curmudgeon. (Blame my upbringing: children in the Mini household were expected to be both seen and heard, but never to end a spoken sentence with a preposition.) And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have a problem with a writer’s reproducing these gaffes on the manuscript page — provided that their use was limited to dialogue and not every character made similar mistakes.

Which character would I select to talk this way? The one the reader is supposed to regard as a little slow on the uptake, of course.

Oh, you laugh, but back when writers composed and refined every word that fell out of characters’ mouths on TV and in movies, placing improper grammar and malapropisms into dim-witted characters’ mouths was a standard comic device. It was also a time-honored means of establishing a character’s level of education, social class, or susceptibility to prejudice: much of the recent furor over whether it was legitimate to clean up the language in HUCKLEBERRY FINN so that it could be assigned in more high school classrooms turned on Mark Twain’s devastatingly frequent use of a certain pejorative term to illustrate his protagonist’s change of perspective on issues of race throughout the book.

Even now, one of the quickest means of making a character come across as less intelligent on the page is to have him misuse words or repeat what’s just been said to him. The latter can be particularly effective, enabling the dialogue to convey that he doesn’t understand what’s going on without having to resort to the blunt expedient of having another character call him stupid.

Don’t believe that a few misused or repeated words can have that great an impact on character development? Well, they might not to a reader who habitually makes similar mistakes, but to a literate reader — and Millicent, her boss the agent, and the editor to whom the agent pitches pride themselves on their literacy — conversational faux pas will leap off the page. They’re a way to show, not tell, that a character has trouble expressing himself.

I sense that some of you are still not convinced. Okay, here’s an anecdote about how the repetition of a single misused word made a university professor seem substantially less intelligent.

When I was in graduate school, I took several small seminars with Professor Baker, an elegant, well-spoken woman who delighted in quoting Ancient Greek playwrights in even the most informal conversations. No mere cold intellectual, she was deeply interested in her students’ personal development. “Don’t cut off your options,” she would tell us frequently. “Go out and explore. I want to see you living a fulsome life!”

The first time she said this, I was convinced that I must have misheard. Fulsome, after all, means grossly overabundant or insincere; a fulsome complimenter would heap on praise after exaggerated praise until it was impossible to believe anything he said at all. It can also mean disgusting or offensive to the sensibilities. Somehow, I doubted that my professor was wishing me a life that resembled rotting meat.

Yet at the end of practically every seminar session, she would repeat her admonition: she seemed pretty darned insistent that my fellow students and I should be actively pursuing fulsome lives.

What she meant, of course, was that we should lead full lives; she must have just thought the -some bit added emphasis. But when I suggested that she truncate the word, she snapped at me like an irate turtle.

“Are you questioning my erudition?” she demanded. “I would hardly use a word if I were unaware of its definition.”

In that moment, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, she dropped so low in my regard/I heard her hit the ground. Not because she had consistently been using her favorite word incorrectly, but because she was too inflexible even to consider the possibility that she might have been wrong. And because had she been right, all she would have had to do was stretch that elegant, beringed hand across her well-appointed desk, open a dictionary, and show me the definition.

If she had wielded her pet piece of advice with more discretion, she would probably have gotten away with it, right? I might have chuckled over my notebook, but her momentary gaffe would soon have been obliterated in my memory by other, more lucid statements. But by repeating it so often, essentially turning it into her catchphrase, she made sure that single mistake would become entrenched in my mind as the key to her entire character.

Would this tactic work on the page? You bet, although I would advise giving a fictional character a wider array of conversational missteps. Repeating the same one over and over might well backfire: since professional readers are trained to spot textual repetition — how else would they be able to point out to you that you used the same metaphor twice in 157 pages? — the second iteration might strike Millicent as unintentional. (In answer to what half of you just shouted mentally: oh, you’d be surprised how often aspiring writers will plagiarize themselves within a manuscript. They don’t mean to be repetitious; they simply forget that they have used an image or even a sentence earlier in the book.)

Speaking of low-level carelessness, there’s another reason it might behoove Trevor’s creator to ramp up his contribution to the scene. You really don’t want Millicent to start wondering if the only reason he’s in the scene is to provide the narrative an excuse to show the reader what it’s like down there.

You’re chuckling again, aren’t you? Think about it: in a close third-person (or first-person) narrative, Trevor would have to be there to justify the reader’s venturing into that basement. Including a scene in which he did not appear would necessarily entail jumping into someone else’s perspective — or slipping out of the dominant voice of the book into an omniscient point of view.

“Whoa!” Millicent cries. “This manuscript is breaking its own rules!”

You can hardly blame her for being hyper-sensitive on this point: since tight third person and first person are the two most popular point of view choices, she sees an awful lot of protagonists wander into an awful lot of situations where they have no business being, simply because writers want to include specific scenes in their books. She’s also privy to a great many instances of a narrative’s abandoning the strictures the writer had been following for the rest of the story — sticking to a single perspective, allowing the narrative to be colored by the chosen character’s prejudices, and so forth — because the writer apparently could not figure out a way to show a desired activity from the dominant perspective.

In answer to that collective gasp: yes, she will notice, whether the point of view slips for an entire scene or a single paragraph. She’s going to be on the lookout for such voice inconsistency problems, in fact. It’s all a part of her fulsome rich and meaningful life.

Make sure your protagonists pursue existences almost as full as hers: don’t allow them to become bystanders in their own lives, even for a page. Show them engaging in the world around them; let their presences add substantially to any scene they grace. Those contributions do not need to be limited to the dialogue, either: in a close third-person or first-person narrative, even a protagonist forced to remain stock-still and silent can interrogate her boss in her thoughts, signal another prisoner with a poke of her toe, struggle to breathe calmly while that cursed monologue-happy teacher bellows in front of the chalkboard…

The possibilities are, as they say, limitless. In a universe both frequently fulsome and perpetually full, why restrict the scope of your creativity by not taking complete advantage of your protagonist’s ability to react?

Worth pondering, anyway. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

meant something different than

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

Ophelia sighed. “So am I.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m tired,” Hamlet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have a hard day?” Ophelia asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, hon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want to die.”

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

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

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

“Easy for you to say.”

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

“You’re not always the one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s awful.”

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

“That’s so unfair.”

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

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

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

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true.”

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet peeves on parade, part IV: wait — what just happened?

Once again, I am delighted to begin with some happy news about a member of the Author! Author! community: a gigantic round of applause, please, for Harold Taw, whose first novel, Adventures of the Karaoke King, will be released through Amazon.com’s new imprint, AmazonEncore, in April. Congratulations, Harold, and may the book be a monumental success!

I’m particularly pleased to make this announcement, as I have been charmed by this story since it was at the pitching stage. It’s a story that, to put it mildly, sticks in one’s mind. From Harold’s website:

Seattle’s Guy Watanabe is a quiet thirty-something man who is marginally in touch with his Asian heritage and completely out of touch with his own needs and desires. Recovering from a divorce, Watanabe is unsure of himself and his future. When he wins a local karaoke contest, he discovers not only a newfound confidence, but the courage to take risks. With the victor’s medallion in hand, he seizes the moment, and his life changes dramatically…although not as he might have hoped. From a weekend romp with Megumi, a former hooker, comes a physical beating and the loss of his beloved medallion. Stung by this humiliation, yet able to muster a courage long dormant, his quest begins. From the Pacific Northwest, down to the Southwest, and on to Asia, with a return trip in a shipping container, Guy Watanabe is on a wild ride. Along the way he woos a hard-drinking Korean barmaid, teams up with a closeted gay man and a heavily-armed dwarf, and crosses paths with a patricidal Chinese businessman who will stop at nothing to create a global karaoke empire. So many people seeking the meaning of life and desperate to attain their dreams, and at the heart of their internal struggle is Guy Watanabe’s quest for truth, hope, and self-discovery.

He had you at heavily-armed dwarf, didn’t he? Or was it the phrase global karaoke empire? This is a great example of how a writer can use surprising details to enliven a book description.

Harold’s road to publication is one of those offbeat success stories that occur so seldom that they seem like lightning strikes when they do happen. Like many of you, he entered this manuscript in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest — and didn’t win. But the fine folks at Amazon noticed the freshness of his story, and the rest is publishing history. (I’d tell you more, but I’m hoping to blandish Harold into telling you about it himself in front of my interview camera. Stay tuned.)

My, we’ve had a lot of success stories lately, have we not? Keep them rolling in, folks — I love reporting my readers’ triumphs. Go, Team Literate!

Speaking of literacy and its many charms, last time, we focused our attention upon how an over-reliance upon phrases in common use — nodded his head, shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, waved a hand, to name but four — word repetition, and other uninspired narrative choices can water down even the strongest authorial voice. Because so many writers use them so often, our pal Millicent the agency screener tends to have a visceral negative reaction to them.

“Oh, no,” she murmurs regretfully over the 76th iteration of he pointed at X she’s read that day, “another writer who fell into the trap of believing that the sole point of narration is to show what is going on, as if it didn’t matter how that action were described to the reader. Why in heaven’s name do so many talented writers waste page space with stock phrases like this, rather than seeking to impress me with original wording?”

That’s a great question, Millicent. In my experience, the reason tends to be threefold: aspiring writers often don’t understand just how fierce the competition to get published is these days; because they are busy people, they slap their stories down on the page in a tearing hurry, on the theory that it’s more important to crank out the pages than to refine the prose. Then they begin querying the instant after they complete their first drafts, rather than going back over them with an eye to revision.

The result, unfortunately for literature, is all too often that a promising voice telling a potentially interesting story becomes obscured by catchphrases, clichés, and word repetition that the writer herself would probably find distracting if she sat down and read her manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Having skipped that essential step, it’s hardly surprising that Millicent’s scrutiny gets caught up in the submission’s problems, rather than its strengths.

Yet aspiring writers are continually being caught off guard by this development. “But I’ve worked so hard writing this book!” they exclaim over form-letter rejections. “Why isn’t anyone picking it up?”

I hate to break the hard, hard truth to these already bruised souls, but in the current literary market, books do not get published simply because someone wrote them. That’s true of literally every submission Millicent and the agent who employs her sees. From an agency perspective, it’s assumed that good writers work for years on their first manuscripts; even for the most naturally gifted writer, learning the ropes of constructing a narrative takes some time.

Hey, I warned you that it was a particularly hard species of truth. Those of us who have been in the business for a while would never consider submitting our first drafts of anything — if a story is worth putting down on paper, it’s worth revising. It’s worth going over with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, to make certain that the phrasing is original and pleasing to read. And it’s definitely worth ascertaining that all of those carefully-selected words are spelled correctly.

One of the most common types of spelling error, believe it or not, is the misspelling of proper nouns. Place names are particularly susceptible to mangling.

Oh, you may laugh at the notion that a writer familiar enough with Berkeley, California, to set a story there would not consistently spell its name correctly. But my version of Word’s spellchecker would also accept Berkley as a proper noun, as in Penguin’s imprint, the Berkley Press, or the cities of that name in Massachusetts and Michigan. It would also accept Berklee, a very fine school of music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And isn’t there a Congresswoman Berkley from Nevada?

See the problem? Spell-checking alone will not necessarily catch that our hard-working writer typed Berkely when he meant Berkeley. Even if it did, a tired writer sneaking an hour of writing into a busy day after the kids are in bed — or a super-excited writer who had just received a request for pages from an agent — might easily hit IGNORE once too often during an extended spell-checking session. Heck, all it would take is a single slip of the hand to CHANGE ALL.

If that horrifying possibility didn’t send you running for a pencil and your manuscript, consider this: when Millicent — or Maury the editorial assistant, or Mehitabel the veteran contest judge — encounters Berkley instead of Berkeley on the page, she won’t have any clue about the sordid late-night hand-slippage that brought it there. As far as she knows, that misspelled proper noun could just as easily mean that the writer just had no idea how Berkeley is spelled.

And apparently didn’t take the time to find out. Tell me, if you were Millicent, how serious would that writer seem about his craft?

Uh-huh. There’s a reason that professional readers so often murmur, “This might be a good book after the next revision,” as they reach for a photocopied form-letter rejection. They simply assume that writers who are serious about getting published will respond to no by hunkering down, honing their craft, and submitting a more polished work next time. Happily for Millicent, any reputable agency receives many, many times the carefully-revised submissions it needs to fill its few new client spots in any given year; they don’t need to dip into the not-quite-ready-yet pool.

Oh, dear. Should I have advised those of you new to the game to sit down before I said that?

If the news that Millicent is specifically trained not to cut a new writer any slack comes as a shock to you, you’re certainly not alone. Thirty years ago, writers of promise, as they were known in the industry, were treated quite differently. Back then, the agent might have had the time to read each submission personally, or even to give a specific reason for rejecting a particular manuscript. If a book seemed as though it was a revision away from being marketable, the agent might have taken the time to give the writer specific feedback, advising him to revise and resubmit.

Now, that same submission would typically have to make it past Millicent before the agent would even know of its existence. If it wasn’t print-ready, the writer would receive a form-letter rejection that read something like Thanks for sending this to me, but I just didn’t fall in love with it or While another agent might feel differently, I do not believe I can sell this in the current highly competitive market. Not a word about having spelled the name of the town Berkeley half the time and Berkely the other would be mentioned; the writer would simply be dismissed with polite platitudes.

That vaguely-worded form response is the usual result, incidentally, whether the submission was so peppered with misspellings that Millicent gave up three sentences in or if she read the entire submission before deciding that it wasn’t for the agency. Even if she actually did fall in love with the story, approve it, and send it on to her boss, the submitter might still end up shaking her head over Pardon an impersonal response, but our agency receives too many submissions for me to respond to each individually.

That’s right: the writer very seldom learns why her submission gets rejected. All the more reason, then, to go over the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, to ferret out any presentation reasons Millicent might have for shouting, “Next!”

Is that cacophony of voices bouncing around the ether an indication that a few hundred thousand aspiring writers are grumbling about how cold and impersonal the publishing world has become toward new talent? I hate to tap-dance on anyone’s oversimplification, but actually, we’re sorry, but this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time is a golden oldie. Pre-typed rejection slips were in common use at agencies by the mid-1950s; I’ve met writers who received one or more in the 1920s.

Admittedly, the manuscripts that made it farther in the winnowing-out process often did receive personalized rejections. The practice of giving those who were only a draft or two away encouragement and advice lingered long enough that even today, one does occasionally hear long-established publishing types insist that if a writer has sent out ten queries and received only form letter replies, there must be something wrong with the query. Or that if the writer comes up with a query good enough to garner requests for pages, yet receives nothing but form-letter rejections, the manuscript must necessarily be deeply flawed.

It might be, of course, but impersonal rejections — or, almost as common these days, no response at all if the answer is no — are no longer reserved for those queries and submissions too poorly written or formatted to receive serious consideration. Now, the sheer volume of queries and submissions often renders it impossible for the agency to respond to even the near misses personally.

Wait — haven’t I heard that somewhere before?

Call me zany, but if a genuinely talented writer is going to get rejected, I would prefer that it be for the reasons those form-letter responses claim: because the premise actually would be difficult to market in the current literary environment, books like this have not been selling well recently, or because the agent didn’t fall in love with the writer’s voice, but was sure that another agent would be delighted by it. I hate to see writers of promise give up hope because they submitted their work before it was polished.

Or, as is astonishingly often the case, before the writer has clutched that proverbial comb while giving serious thought to how the reader will respond to what’s on the page, as opposed to how he responds to it himself. After all, the writer already has a vision of the book in his head — he’s not necessarily going to look at the kind of generic activity we saw last time and think, “Hey, is it clear what’s going on here? Is there enough detail on the page that I can picture these characters, the ongoing conflict, the room in which it all takes place? Is this storyline continually engaging enough for me to want to keep reading?”

One does not need to be the Amazing Kreskin to predict that for 99.9% of aspiring writers, the answer to all three of those questions is going to be yes. And for good reason: if a writer doesn’t find his own story engaging, he’s unlikely to invest the considerable energy and time to complete even a first draft, right?

But that doesn’t mean that a reader new to the story — like, say, Millicent — would look at what’s on the page and answer all of those questions positively. Which she would have to do, in order to accept a submission.

It may seem self-evident, but a professional reader can only judge a manuscript by what actually appears on the page. Not what the writer intended to be on the page, or what he hopes the reader will fill in for herself, or what he would have typed had he not been writing at the end of a very long and hectic day. Just what is there in black and white.

Shouldn’t we want it to be that way, after all? No writer wants Millicent to read her own meaning into his submission, right? We all want our work to be appreciated on its own merits.

So if words are misspelled, Millie is forced to conclude that the writer misspelled them; what else could she think? If the grammar is poor or inconsistent, she unavoidably draws the conclusion that the writer either didn’t proofread well or — brace yourself — didn’t know the rules in the first place. If the manuscript presents enough evidence of these problems within the first page, it is not, by professional standards, unreasonable for her to conclude that (a) the rest of the manuscript suffers from similar difficulties and (b) it could stand some polishing.

And what is the logical (c) in this progression, campers, at least within the current literary market? That’s right: “Next!”

I’ve been sensing some of you squirming in your desk chairs throughout the last few paragraphs. “Okay, Anne — I get it. I need to proofread before I subject my work to Millicent’s scrutiny, preferably IN MY SUBMISSION’S ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. I even realize that I need to commit right now to doing that before the next time I submit, because, let’s face it, I’m probably going to be pretty excited when an agent asks me to send pages. I might jump the gun. But since you opened this series with a paean to proofreading, why today’s cheerleading on the subject? I had thought we had moved on to concrete examples of Millicent’s pet peeves.”

So we had, verbose squirmers. For the rest of this post, I shall be talking about the things that bug Millicent when they aren’t in the manuscript.

Chief among them, and very much a proofreading issue: omitted words. Writers often don’t notice them, but professional readers tend to regard them with some asperity. Why? Well, take a gander at a typical instance.

“You don’t have the ring?” Phaedra searched frantically amongst the velvet pillows of her fainting couch. “But it’s not, either!”

To paraphrase Millicent’s reaction, huh? What on earth does that last sentence mean?

Does that forest of hands that shot into the air indicate that some of you can guess the missing word? So can I. What the writer intended was this:

“You don’t have the ring?” Phaedra searched frantically amongst the velvet pillows of her fainting couch. “But it’s not here, either!”

“So what’s the big deal?” those who squirmed previously inquire. “It was pretty obvious what the missing word was. Any reasonable reader could have figured it out.”

Ah, but it isn’t Millicent’s job to figure it out. How do I know that? Because a professional reader can only judge a manuscript by what actually appears on the page.

Since the word’s not there, our Millie cannot legitimately fill it in for herself, then judge the paragraph. That would be cheating — and unfair to all of those conscientious submitters who, unlike the writer penning the adventures of Phaedra, actually did proof their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

It’s not as though any of us hasn’t dropped a word every now and again, either; this is a virtually universal first-draft phenomenon. It’s understandable: when a writer is in a hurry to get sentence or a scene down in writing, the creative brain does sometimes move faster than the fingertips. It’s easily caught in revision.

Provided that there is revision, of course. An unreviewed first draft enjoys no such oversight.

Dropped words, or even sentences, are also quite common in what I like to call Frankenstein manuscripts: a text that has received multiple partial revisions, but that the writer has not had the time (or perhaps the inclination) to go through from beginning to end, to make sure that all of the old and new sections flow together smoothly. A classic symptom of a Frankenstein manuscript is one where the narrative voice is different in one section than another, because the writer changed her mind about the tone of the book. Other standard attributes at the book level include a character’s name that changes throughout the book (she’s Sarah in Chs. 1, 17, and 19-25, but Sara in Chs. 2-16 and Sally in Ch. 19, because the latter remained unchanged from the first draft), a subplot that comes on strong in the beginning of the manuscript, but seems to be forgotten thereafter, and references late in the story to revelations earlier in the book, although those earlier scenes have been cut.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about the possibility of Millicent’s being as annoyed by what isn’t on the page as what is.

On the sentence and paragraph level, however, the telltale sign of Frankenstein revision practices is often missing verbiage. It’s very, very common for a reviser to import a sentence or two from another part of the page (or even another part of the manuscript) and plop it down amid existing text, intending to smooth out the transitions between the old and the new later. But then, other paragraphs beg for her attention, or the phone rings, or Junior suddenly remembers that he needs 42 cupcakes to take to school tomorrow morning, and before the writer knows it, the incomplete small-scale revision is forgotten.

The result, I am sorry to report, appears on the page like this.

Arnold turned out his the pockets of his pants pockets. They were empty. “I told you that I didn’t have your silly ring.”

Clear enough what happened here, isn’t it? The first sentence originally read Arnold turned out his pockets. Upon mature reflection, our revising friend decided that the sentence should run Arnold turned out the pockets of his pants. So just before Junior comes flying into the room ten minutes after his bedtime, waving the note from his second-grade teacher, the reviser starts to type the new text — and never gets a chance to delete the old.

Completely understandable, of course. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem at submission time, except — feel free to chant along at home, campers — a professional reader can only judge a manuscript by what actually appears on the page. Millicent can’t legitimately just pick the wording she likes best out of the plethora of possibilities in that first sentence, any more than she could make an executive decision that your protagonist was Sarah, not Sara or Sally.

Those kinds of decisions are up to you. You’re the writer, after all.

And that’s Millicent’s dilemma when what is on the page makes it fairly clear what the writer’s intention actually as. Sometimes, the missing verbiage is so crucial to the scene that poor Millie is left guessing.

“That’s not the only place you could have hidden it.” Phaedra ran her hands across his polyester-covered shoulders, stopping abruptly at the ends of his epaulettes. “Shall I search you?”

Arnold smirked. “I’m not armed. I can’t stop you.”

“So you claim.” Swiftly, she Phaedra turned the muzzle on him. “And I trusted you!”

Wait — what just happened? That awkward cut in this Frankenstein scene renders it impossible to make a credible guess.

“Honestly,” Millicent mutters. “Is it my job to write that missing section? I can’t even tell how long it was, much less predict its subject matter. Next!”

You must admit, Millie has a point here: it isn’t her job to fill in missing text. Pull out your hymnals, campers, and we’ll sing about why: a professional reader can only judge a manuscript by what actually appears on the page.

That’s not even the worst of it, from the submitter’s perspective. (Well, okay, so it’s the worst of it as far as Phaedra’s chronicler is concerned; “Next!” unfortunately, is the end of the line for requested materials, at least at that agency.) Because Frankenstein manuscripts are so common, writers of spare narratives sometimes find their work mistaken for it.

Seriously, to a skimming eye, scant narration can look as though there is some text missing. Take a gander.

“I’d always heard that you were the strong and silent type.” Angelica ground her spent cigarette into the gravel with her stiletto heel. “I see that I was not misinformed.”

Vern said little — nothing, in fact. He barely blinked at the blur flying through his peripheral vision.

Angelica didn’t thank him for saving her life. She lit another cigarette. “Apparently, you’re a handy fellow to have around.”

Seem like an outlandish omission? It isn’t, really: plenty of narratives veer away from the action at crucial moments. I’m not a big fan of it, personally, but it’s a recognized style, borrowed from TV. (In television drama, it’s fairly common for a major scene to come to a screaming halt just after a major revelation, but before the characters can react to it. Time for a commercial!)

It doesn’t work so well in print, but to be fair, a careful reader with time to kill could in fact figure out what happened between those last two paragraphs: some creature/person/deadly object soared toward Angelica, and Vern’s swift-yet-undefined action prevented it/him/her/it from killing her. The writer probably considered the fact that Vern is so cool that we never even see him move his eyes, much less his body, to avert the threat as humorous, not vague.

Yet on the page, there’s no denying it would be vague. As such, it’s hard to blame Millicent for doing a spit-take with her latte and crying as she dabs frantically but ineffectually at the spreading stain on her shirt, “Wait — what just happened?”

Oh, she might actually go back and re-read those two paragraphs. But once a submission has landed her with a $43 dry-cleaning bill, the rest of the text would have to be awfully compelling to make up for it.

I can hear all of you spare narrative-huggers out there jumping up and down in your seats. “I’m all ears, Anne. How can I revise my text to eliminate the possibility of Millicent’s choking on her latte?”

I do have an answer, but the sparer you like your text, the less satisfying I suspect you’ll find it: include enough detail that any reader, even a swiftly-skimming one, can easily follow what is going on.

A professional reader can only judge a manuscript by what actually appears on the page, after all. Millicent is entirely justified in believing that it is not her job to guess that a cheetah in a sapphire-encrusted collar leapt off a passing Model T, well-manicured claws aimed squarely at Angelica’s face, only to be caught in mid-air by the tail, squashed flat, then tucked into Vern’s inside jacket pocket, along with a half-finished roll of Mentos and a daguerreotype of his sainted great-grandmother.

You know, what any other reader might have figured out occurred, given enough time to figure it out from context.

Fill in the blanks for Millie; she has a hard job, even when her omnipresent latte isn’t attacking her wardrobe. Make absolutely certain that you’ve given her all the necessary words not just to be able to guess what you might have been envisioning in a scene, but to know for sure. Trust me, your ideas will shine much, much brighter if she sees them in their full glory. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza XVI, in which we get downright chatty

partial pink roses

I ask you: how did it get to be Wednesday already? Clearly, some mad scientist has been sneaking into my life, boxing up hours at a time, and hauling them away to another dimension.

Or so I surmise, from the fact that I began this post yesterday morning, yet don’t seem to have posted it until this afternoon. Let’s get right down to business, before another fifteen-minute chunk just vanishes before my very eyes.

Manuscript submissions, like any other form of human communication, are subject to fashion. Nine months to a year after a surprise major bestseller hits the bookstores, for instance, agencies start seeing scads of queries for books with remarkably similar premises. About the same amount of time after a multiple-perspective novel hits it big, their inboxes are suddenly stuffed to bursting with multiple POV submissions. Even matters as small as semicolon use often, after a suitable lag for composition, enjoy the occasional renaissance.

It’s as predictable as the flowers in May — and just as likely to induce an allergic reaction in Millicent the agency screener, at least when the day’s submissions heavily à la mode. While a manuscript’s fitting neatly into an already well-established book can be a good thing, the fourth DA VINCI CODE knock-off of the morning can easily start to seem a little old.

Other trends, I must confess, catch professional readers by surprise. A few years back, about a tenth of the manuscript submissions appearing on agency doorsteps abruptly lost the second space after a period: one day, the second space was virtually universal; the next, it was as if a pair of giant hands had slapped the left and right margins of America, forcing all of those poor sentences into closer proximity with one another.

“What happened?” the pros demanded of one another, mystified. “Did I miss an industry-wide memo that the standards have just changed?”

In a manner of speaking, the people who ostensibly set those standards had. Miss Snark, a well-known agent-who-blogs of the time, had declared from behind her wall of anonymity that anyone who was anyone simply despised the second space after the period. Within a couple of weeks after she declared it verboten, agencies felt the effects, despite the fact that the standard within the industry had not actually changed.

Now, it wasn’t as though there hadn’t been banshees declaring the demise of the second period for a good decade before Miss Snark’s pronouncement: it had, in fact, been a fairly common writing-class admonition ever since some publishers started cutting it from published books in order to save paper. Surprisingly often, it was presented in precisely the same terms: the double-space convention is old-fashioned, and using it would instantly brand a writer as someone to ignore. That’s never actually been true — unless an agency or publishing house actually states a preference in its guidelines for only a single space after a period, using two is virtually unheard-of as a rejection-worthy offense all on its own — but it certainly sounds convincing, doesn’t it?

Since I already dealt with the one-space-two-space (red space, blue space?) debate in an earlier post, I shan’t go into its pros and cons again here. I merely bring it up to illustrate that although people outside of agencies and publishing houses periodically decide that this or that is the new normal for submissions, those decrees usually come as news to the fine folks on the receiving end of submissions.

You know, the individuals with actual power to change the rules in question. Imagine their surprise.

In a not entirely coincidental development, when one of these sea changes begins to take effect, Millicent’s response is just as likely to be annoyance as approval for those who have leapt on the bandwagon. In fact, the former is more likely. “Why are half the manuscripts I’ve seen today in blue ink?” she wonders. “Did someone at a writers’ conference make a joke that got misunderstood?”

Oh, it happens. And now, thanks to the Internet, such a misunderstanding can make it three times around the world before breakfast.

So when about a year ago, submissions suddenly began appearing in agencies with more than one speaker per paragraph in dialogue scenes, professional readers drew the obvious inference: either some soi-disant writing guru had declared the paragraph break between speakers so old-fashioned, or a recent bestseller had been composed by someone with a broken RETURN key, a broken right pinkie to hit it, or a deep-seated psychological aversion to clarity in dialogue.

“Why else,” Millicent has been heard to mutter, “would anyone deliberately chose a dialogue format that will confuse readers?”

You know what I’m talking about, right? Whereas traditional and — dare I say it? — old-fashioned dialogue is formatted like this:

Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips. “But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent,” Dastardly Duke replied, twirling his mustache. “Or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“But you must pay the rent, or I shall deal with you as I mentioned above.”

“But I can’t pay the rent!”

“What are you, a tape recorder? You gotta pay your rent, lady.”

A handsome stranger appeared in the doorway, slightly out of breath from having missed his cue. “I’ll pay the rent.”

Polly tapped on her watch meaningfully. “My hero.”

“Curses,” Duke remarked, yawning, “foiled again.”

On the manuscript page, that exchange (and possibly a little more) would be formatted as you see below. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the type, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

dialogue format

That should look at least a trifle familiar to you: the indented paragraphs, one speaker per paragraph convention, and properly-placed quotation marks are all just what you would see in a published book, right? Obviously, though, because this page appears in a manuscript, these dialogue paragraphs are presented in standard format, just as narrative paragraphs would be.

Really, there’s only one unusual element here: did you catch the quote within the quote in paragraph 10? Because Handsome Stranger is reproducing verbiage from Dastardly’s rental ad, rustic charmer with view of railroad track appears within single quotation marks (‘), rather than doubled (“); doubled quotation marks appear around the entire speech.

Everybody’s clear on that, right? If not, now would be a delightful time to speak up.

Clear being the operative word here: while clarity is always required for professional writing, lack of clarity in dialogue is especially likely to be fatal to a submission. If the punctuation had not made it plain that Handsome was in fact quoting something, that paragraph would have made less sense. See for yourself:

“I do believe I will.” The stranger removed his fetching Mountie hat before stepping into the cabin. “I’ve been traveling all morning. The rental ad didn’t mention just how far out of town rustic charmer with view of railroad track actually was.”

Yes, Millicent might have been able to figure out from context (a) that Handsome was indeed quoting and (b) which words in the sentence were being quoted, but you have to admit, it’s not completely obvious at first glance. And one of the practices to which most overworked Millicents are allergic is reading a sentence in a submission twice, because they did not understand it completely the first time around.

The form that allergic reaction typically takes? You’ve probably already guessed: “Next!”

Seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t: conceptual clarity is the minimum expectation for professional writing, not a feature for which a submitter will receive extra credit. By definition, if a reader has to go back over a sentence a couple of times in order to figure out what’s going on in it, it’s not particularly clear.

Fortunately, even though there are three characters talking on the page above, it’s always perfectly clear who is speaking when, isn’t it? That’s because the real hero of this scene is the humble RETURN key: each speaker has his or her own paragraph.

Again, this should not come as too much of a surprise to readers familiar with how dialogue is typically presented in books. Recently, however, Millicent has found herself scratching her pretty head over exchanges like these:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips, but her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

See the problem? A skimmer might well assume that everything within quotation marks was Polly’s speech, and thus become — sacre bleu! — confused.

Why might a swiftly-reading observer leap to that conclusion? For one very good reason: in English prose, the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph, unless there is specific indication otherwise. If there is no tag line (he said, she said), the speaker is presumed to be the first character named in the narrative part of that paragraph.

So technically, Polly is the only speaker here. Even though there are two actors within this paragraph, there’s literally nothing in it to indicate a change of speaker. How could there be, when this paragraph violates the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue?

Not seeing it? Okay, let’s break down what the actual text is telling us is going on:

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent!

Polly: But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Doesn’t make much sense, right? And to a professional reader, neither does cramming two characters’ speeches into the same dialogue paragraph. Not only is it improper, but it leads to needless confusion.

Frankly, this kind of formatting is likely to send Millicent into a sneezing fit if it happens even once in a submission; if it occurs early enough in the text, it’s likely to trigger instant rejection. If she’s in an unusually tolerant mood that day, she might continue reading, but if she spots it again, she will sneeze herself into a whirl of philosophical confusion: why, such paragraphs leave her wondering, would a writer want not to follow the one speaker per paragraph rule of dialogue? Not only is it the norm for dialogue, but it fends off that bugbear of submissions everywhere, conceptual confusion.

If the practice appears to be habitual, she is forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either the writer was trying to save a line by not hitting the RETURN key (a sneaky practice which, over the course of an entire manuscript, might actually trim quite a few pages from an over-long dialogue-heavy submission), or he was simply unaware that — wait for it — the character who gives the first speech in a dialogue paragraph is assumed to be the speaker for every speech within that paragraph.

Neither conclusion is, I’m afraid, going to make her think particularly highly of the manuscript in question; either would be ample justification for rejection. Think about it: both a writer unfamiliar with the rules of dialogue nor one who believes that Millicent won’t notice or care if he bends them are likely to be rather time-consuming to represent; their learning curves will need to be pretty sharp in order to work successfully with an editor at a publishing house. Or, indeed, with an agent in preparing a submission to said editor.

But that’s not why misformatting dialogue is potentially fatal to a submission, at least not all by itself. Like not indenting one’s paragraphs, not adhering to the one speaker/one paragraph rule implies, among other things, that one does not read a great deal of English prose containing dialogue. And that’s an extremely dangerous impression to create with a submission, as the publishing industry has long favored writers it perceives as unusually literate.

It’s hard to blame them for that preference, considering that the people who harbor it tend to be the ones correcting any deviations from standard punctuation and grammar. Agents and editors know from experience that a writer who doesn’t pay attention to — or doesn’t know — how to format or punctuate dialogue is simply more time-consuming to guide down the curvy path to publication.

Indeed, many agents feel — and rightly — that it isn’t really their job to play the grammar police. One of the basic requirements of being a professional writer is knowing the rules governing English prose, after all.

You would think this tenet would send aspiring writers everywhere stampeding toward community colleges to enroll in basic composition classes, wouldn’t you? As Millicent’s inbox abundantly demonstrates these days, that’s one trend that doesn’t seem to be sweeping the nation.

Did a dragon just fly by, or are some of you hyperventilating? “But Anne,” the puzzled gasp, “isn’t it just a tad unreasonable to draw sweeping conclusions about someone’s literacy based upon just a couple of paragraphs of dialogue? I mean, take another look at that last example: it’s pretty obvious from context that Dastardly is saying the second speech, isn’t it? Would it kill Millicent to extrapolate? Or even just to read it twice, if she’s gotten confused?”

Not kill her, perhaps, but definitely irk her: remember, many screeners will not re-read, on general principle. Bear in mind, too, that Millicent is often reading very, very quickly — she has a lot of submissions to get through in a day, recall, and it’s her job to reject most of what she reads. If she finds a dialogue scene when she skims, she’s likely to reject the manuscript, even if someone reading at a normal pace might be able to follow the passage in question.

Fortunately, there’s a magic fix: hit the RETURN key between speakers. Look at how few keystrokes remove any potential for confusion from our last example.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly Purebred clutched a lace-napped handkerchief to her pale pink lips.

Her obvious distress had no effect on Dastardly Duke. He twirled his mustache. “But you must pay the rent, or I shall tie you to that railroad track conveniently located just outside your front door.

Problem solved — and at no cost to the meaning of the original exchange. To reiterate Millicent’s earlier question, why wouldn’t a writer want to do it this way?

She also is left to wonder far more often than strikes her as reasonable why so many submissions of late have taken to violating the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule. All too often, she finds herself confronted with dialogue formatted like this:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.” She quailed before the rope he brandished. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

If we apply the principle that the first character named in a dialogue paragraph (in this case, she) is the presumed speaker, confusion once again reigns. Not sure why? When in doubt, break the exchange down into a play.

Polly: But I can’t pay the rent! So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Again, it doesn’t make much logical sense — and it’s not Millicent’s job to re-read it until it does. She’s likely to shout, “Next!” before she even notices that second paragraph presents effect (quailing) before it shows cause (brandishing).

Far, far easier simply to observe the rule that dictates in a dialogue paragraph, the speaker and the primary actor should be the same. If they are not, add a tag line to render who is speaking completely clear to the reader.

Let’s take a gander at both of those principles in practice, shall we? If we separate each speaker/actor by simply hitting the return key as needed, the confusion vanishes.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now.”

She quailed silently before the rope he brandished.

“Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

This isn’t an especially stylish solution, is it? The cause-effect reversal is still there — and technically, it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. Let’s experiment with adding a tag line, so see if we can’t clear up matters:

“But I can’t pay the rent!” Polly reiterated.

“So you’ve said. Forty-seven times now,” he said wearily, brandishing the rope at her. She quailed before it. “Care to make it forty-eight, and take your chances with a locomotive?”

Perfectly clear who is doing what now, is it not? While adult fiction tends to minimize tag lines in two-person dialogue, where simple alternation of paragraphs will let the reader know who is speaking when, there is nothing wrong with this last example. Indeed, were this a three-person dialogue, the tag line would be actually necessary, since paragraph alternation works only with two speakers.

Not sure why? Let’s take another peek at that three-person exchange, this time with the speaker identification removed:

dialogue 3 speakers no IDs

Rather difficult to follow the players without a program, isn’t it? In multiple-speaker dialogue, frequent reminders of who is speaking when are downright necessary.

Remember: clarity, clarity, clarity.

In two-person dialogue that adheres to the one speaker/actor per paragraph rule, though, frequent reminders of who is speaking, especially in the form of tag lines, are seldom required, or even helpful. Obviously, the narrative must establish who the speakers are, but once they fall into an alternating rhythm of exchange, most readers will be able to follow who is speaking when — provided that the exchange does not go on for too long, of course, and the two speakers have distinct points of view.

There’s another reason to minimize tag lines in adult fiction. To a professional’s eye, too many he said/she cried reminders can come across as a bit storybookish, as if the narrative were going to be read aloud. A higher level of speaker identification is required in dialogue that’s heard, rather than read: since the hearer cannot see those nifty paragraph breaks that differentiate speakers on the page, she would have a hard time telling the players apart without the narrative’s actually stating who is speaking when.

As much as I would like to sign off and leave you to ponder these weighty issues, I cannot in good conscience leave the issue of dialogue behind without bringing up yet another of Millicent’s tag line-related pet peeves. See if you can diagnose it in the following example — or rather, them. Only one of the three tag lines below is correct.

“I told you so,” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes, “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

“You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.

If you spotted the third paragraph as the correct one, award yourself a gold star and a pat on the back. “You’d better hurry up, then,” she said, inspecting her manicure.
is a properly-formatted tag line, properly punctuated.

So what’s the problem with the first two dialogue paragraphs?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, neither pointed nor fumbled are verbs related to speech,” take yourself out to dinner. A verb in a tag line — and thus form a continuation of the sentence containing the quote, rather than a separate sentence — must at least imply the act of comprehensible noise coming out of a mouth: said, asked, whispered, shouted, exclaimed, asserted, etc.

Since neither pointed nor fumbled are speaking verbs, they cannot take the place of said in a tag line. Thus, the commas are incorrect: Polly pointed to the oncoming train and Dastardly fumbled with the ropes are not continuations of the dialogue sentences in their respective paragraphs, but separate sentences. They should have been punctuated accordingly.

“I told you so.” Polly pointed to the oncoming train. “That’s the five-ten.”

Dastardly fumbled with the ropes. “But it’s only 4:45! I have should have twenty-five minutes to tie you to the tracks!”

Admittedly, that last one is a matter of punctuation, rather than formatting, but as I believe I have mentioned approximately 1,500 times throughout the last few months of ‘Paloozas, writing problems tend to flock together. Especially these days, when the length restrictions of Twitter and Facebook status updates have accustomed so many of us to seeing writing without punctuation.

As any professional reader could tell you to her chagrin, the more one sees incorrect punctuation, spelling, grammar, and formatting, the greater the danger that it will start looking right to one on the page, even if one is aware of the rule dictating its wrongness. So in moving swiftly to reject incorrectly put-together dialogue, Millicent is not only out to protect the language — she’s practicing self-defense.

At the risk of sounding like an editor (funny how that happens from time to time), if you find that you’re starting to become fuzzy about what looks right and what wrong, consult an authoritative source; just assuming that what you see in print must be right is no longer necessarily a good rule of thumb. And if, to the everlasting shame of the educational system that nurtured you, no one ever taught you the rules in the first place, or if they have faded in your recollection, consider investing a couple of months in a basic composition class; most community colleges in the U.S. offer solid refreshers at a very reasonable price.

Seriously, it’s not a bad idea to go in for a grammar tune-up once or twice a decade. Millicent’s not the only one barraged with omitted punctuation, misspelled words, and overlooked grammar rules, after all.

Just something to ponder. Next time, I shall be moving back to pure formatting issues. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winners in adult fiction, Curtis Moser’s Perdition and Jens Porup’s The Second Bat Guano War

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

Welcome back to our ongoing salute to the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I: Adult Fiction. I am genuinely thrilled, not only to be able to bring you tantalizing tastes of some very talented writers’ prose, but also by the extraordinarily rich fund of discussion points these page 1s have been providing. Honestly, even though I’ve been chattering on here at Author! Author! for over five years about craft, presentation, voice, submission, and manuscript formatting, I keep finding myself thinking while I am typing, is it possible I’ve never blogged about this before?

Today’s exemplars are particularly fine ones, Adult Fiction first-place winners Jens Porup (the dapper fellow on the right, above) and Curtis Moser (the gentleman on the left with the two wee friends). The judges felt, and I concur, that both of their first pages were remarkable examples of strong authorial voice precisely suited to their target audiences.

They also felt, as do I, that there were some presentation issues that might prevent either of these exciting, fresh voices from getting a sympathetic reading from our old pal Millicent, the caffeine-quaffing agency screener. And since I know from long, long experience working with first-time authors that these specific presentation problems dog many, many otherwise well-done first pages, I am delighted to have the excuse to talk about them at length today.

First, though, to the voices. As we’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, the match between narrative voice and chosen book category can be vital to the success of a submission, particularly for genre fiction and YA: ideally, a great first page should cause Millicent to sigh pleasurably and murmur, “Ah, this is a fresh take on a story my boss can sell to this market, appropriate in voice, vocabulary, and tone for the intended readership, that also displays a fluency in the conventions of the genre.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit to murmur over the first paragraph of a submission, but since it is safe to assume that a Millicent employed by an agency that represents a lot of, say, thrillers will be staring at queries and submissions for thrillers for a hefty chunk of any given workday, the last response a thriller-mongering querier or submitter should want to elicit is a spit-take of too-hot latte and a cry of, “Wait — hasn’t this writer ever read a book in this category?” or “What’s that kind of word choice doing in a manuscript intended for this market?”

Or even, saddest of all, “Wow, this is a fresh, exciting new voice. What a shame that it’s not appropriate for the book category in which this talented person has chosen to write.”

Unfortunately for both literature and the health of Millicent’s throat, all three of these reactions to well-written first pages are a part of her normal workday. Often, in the joy of creation, aspiring writers lose sight of the fact that no novel is intended for a general audience. Even bestsellers that turn out to appeal to wide swathes of the reading public begin their publishing lives as books aimed at a specific part of that audience.

And frankly, the reading public expects that. Even the most eclectic of readers understands that a YA novel is not going to read like a romance novel, science fiction, or Western, even if the book contains elements of any or all of those genres, and that an adult genre novel will adhere, at least roughly, to the conventions, tone, and general reading level of its book category.

Were that not the case, brick-and-mortar bookstores would not organize their offerings by category, right? Oh, they usually have a generalized fiction or literature section, but if you’re looking for fantasy, it’s probably going to have a bookshelf of its own, crammed to the gills with novels that share, if not subject matter, at least a species resemblance of storytelling structure and voice.

So while naturally, an aspiring writer should not strive to produce a carbon-copy voice — why should Millicent recommend that her boss pick up a book that sounds precisely like another that’s already on the market? — it’s an excellent idea to re-read one’s submission with an eye to genre-appropriateness. Especially the opening pages, since, as I hope we all know by now, most submissions are rejected on page 1.

Thus it follows as dawn the night that the book description and the first page are not too early to establish that your book fits comfortably into the category you have chosen for it — and thus into Millicent’s boss’ client list. Remember, just as no novel is actually intended for every conceivable reader, no agent represents every type of book. They specialize, and so should you.

Why, yes, now that you mention it, gearing your voice to your chosen book category would be a heck of a lot easier if you invested some time in reading what’s come out recently in it. How savvy of you to realize that what might have struck Millicent as a fresh take fifteen years ago would probably not elicit the same pleased murmuring today.

As fate would have it, both of today’s winning entries fall into the same general book category: thrillers. However, these books are aimed at different readerships within the thriller genre. Curtis’ PERDITION is a paranormal thriller:

Colt Miller has driven by the cemetery house for years. When the owner died, he watched the shingles curl and the porch sag, and in his mind he nurtured the fantasy of restoring it to its former beauty. So when the bank finally brings it up for auction and there are no bidders, Colt is thrilled to purchase it cheap. After he finds the body of a little girl in the basement, however, the thrill ebbs along with his enthusiasm, and the memory of the loss of his own daughter threatens to swallow up what remains of his business, his life, and his sanity.

Sounds like a story about an interesting person in an interesting situation, right? Yet the potential for paranormal activity didn’t jump out until that last sentence, did it? If I were editing this paragraph in a query, I would bump some of the skin-crawling feeling up to the first sentence, on the general principle that a Millicent who read queries for paranormal thrillers all day might not be automatically creeped out by the word cemetery.

But it does read as genre-appropriate, and that’s the most important thing. So does Jens’ brief description for THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR (the judges’ favorite title in the competition, by the way):

This hard-boiled spy thriller set in Peru and Bolivia is an unflinching look at vice and corruption among expatriate Americans living in South America. When the hero’s best friend and CIA handler goes missing, he must risk everything to find him.

While this is a perfectly fine description, as those of you who followed the recent Querypalooza series are no doubt already aware, I prefer even the briefest novel description to give more of an indication of the book’s storytelling style and voice. Unlike Millicent, though, I did not need to judge the style on this terse paragraph: I asked Jens for a more extensive description.

Rats ate his baby daughter while he partied in a disco. Now Horace “Horse” Mann is a drugged-out expat teaching English to criminals in Lima, Peru. Oh, and doing the odd favor for the CIA.

When his drinking buddy and CIA contact, Pitt Watters, goes missing, Horse’s efforts to find him hit a snag. He comes home to find his lover, Lynn — Pitt’s mother — strangled in his apartment. Arrested and charged with murder, Horse escapes Lima and follows his only lead to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

There, Horse uncovers his friend’s involvement with a group of Gaia-worshipping terrorists who want to kill off the human “disease” infecting the earth.

The group’s leader, a world-famous vulcanologist, explains that only a new generation of lithium-ion batteries can replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. The group plans to set off a volcanic chain reaction that would destroy the world’s most promising lithium fields, and thus ensure that man pays for his polluting sins.

Horse finally finds Pitt on top of a volcano, his thumb on the detonator. Pitt confesses to killing Lynn, begs Horse to join him in the purification of Gaia. Horse must choose: end the world, himself, his guilt? Or forgive himself the death of his daughter, and find a way to live again?

Complete at 80,000 words, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR is a hard-boiled thriller set in South America, with an environmental twist.

Sounds like precisely what the first description promised: a hard-boiled spy thriller. But this description shows these qualities, in a voice that’s book category-appropriate; the first just asserts them.

And if you found yourself murmuring, “Show, don’t tell,” congratulations: you’re starting to think like Millicent.

I love this description for another reason, though — it’s a glorious illustration my earlier point about Millicents working in agencies that represent different kinds of books looking for different things at the querying and submission stage. A Millicent habituated to screening thrillers would glance at that first sentence and murmur, “Wow, that’s a graphic but fascinating detail; I don’t see that every day,” whereas a literary fiction-reading Millicent have quite the opposite response: “Wait, didn’t rats eat a protagonist’s baby sister in Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER?”

The moral, in case I’m being too subtle here: what’s fresh in one book category will not necessarily be in another. If Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully-written THE ROAD had shown up as a first novel in a science fiction/fantasy-representing agency, its Millicent would have rolled her eyes and muttered, “Not this old premise again!”

Happily, the target audience for hard-boiled spy thrillers tends not to have much overlap with that for literary fiction. For one thing, about 90% of habitual literary fiction buyers are female, whereas the overwhelming majority of spy thriller readers are male. So not only does Jens not need to worry too much about perusers of the Nobel Prize in Literature short list catching the similarity; they probably won’t even be browsing in the same part of the bookstore.

Before I move on to what really makes these two entries remarkable, the strong voices in their openings, I can’t resist pointing out a common synopsis and book description faux pas in that last example. Take another peek at its last paragraph: can anyone tell me why it might be problematic at query or submission time?

Award yourself a gold star if you instantly cried out, “A synopsis or book description for a novel should concentrate on the plot!” (And take two more gold stars out of petty cash if you thought that the first time you read that description.) When an agency’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, they expect an overview of the plot: basic introductions to the main characters and their conflicts. Mentions of technical matters like the length or book category do not belong here.

But that’s not actually the reason I flagged this paragraph. Any other guesses? (Hint: a LOT of queriers include this faux pas in their letters, too.)

Give up? The phrase Complete at 80,000 words actually doesn’t make sense in a novel query. Novels are ASSUMED to be complete before the writer begins to query them — so why mention it? All bringing it up achieves is to make Millicent wonder if the querier is also sending out letters for other novels that are not yet complete.

Also, the mention of the word count, while well within the standard range for thrillers, is not particularly helpful information to include. It’s not a usual element in a synopsis or book description, but even in a query, it can only hurt you.

Why? Well, as I argued at the beginning of Querypalooza, the only use Millicent can make of word count in a query is if it is higher or lower than expected for that book category. And that use is, “Next!”

“130,000 words!” she exclaims, reaching for the form-letter rejections. “Far too long for my boss to be able to submit to editors in this book category. Too bad, because the book description sounded interesting until that last bit about the word count. And why on earth would she be wasting my time with a manuscript that wasn’t complete?”

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, some agency guidelines (but not many; check) do specify that they would like to see word count mentioned in queries: speed of rejection. Think about it: if Millicent does not realize until she has opened the requested materials submission packet that the manuscript is longer than her agency wishes, she will usually read at least the first page anyway. And if she is taken by that first page, she might well read on.

So by the time she realizes that there are 120 more pages in that manuscript than her boss would like, she might already have fallen in love with it. The agent might have, too. In the worst-case scenario, their only course might be to sign the writer and ask her to trim the manuscript.

So including the word count is to the querier’s advantage how, precisely?

Speaking of falling in love with a new writer’s voice, I imagine that you’re getting impatient to read those aptly-voiced first pages I’ve been going on and on about. Let’s begin with Curtis Moser’s:

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

Original, assured authorial voices, right? Fresh without sending up red flags that the book to follow might not fit comfortably into the stated book category (although personally, I found the Colt 45 joke in the first a bit obvious: wouldn’t it be funnier to let the reader figure out later in the story that the guy named Colt was indeed 45?), these opening pages both announce where these books will sit in a bookstore and promise good, genre-appropriate writing to come.

Not only that, but both protagonists come across as interesting, quirky people faced with interesting, unexpected challenges. We as readers might be quite happy to follow these guys around for a few hundred pages.

But did something seem slightly off on both of those page 1s? Something, perhaps, in the formatting department?

Hint: they should look quite a bit more alike than they currently do. An even bigger hint: in one major respect, they have opposite problems.

Still not seeing it? Okay, let’s take a gander at both first pages with the formatting irregularities fixed. Again, Curtis first, then Jens:

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

They look much more alike this way, don’t they? That’s not entirely coincidental: the point of standard format is that all manuscripts should look alike. That way, the formatting does not distract from professional readers’ evaluation of the writing.

Award yourself one of those gold stars I’ve been tossing about so freely if you cried upon comparing the original versions to the revisions, “By Jove, margins were quite off the first time around. Curtis’ left and right margins are too big; Jens’ left, right, and bottom are too small. And is the slug line in the second in a rather unusual place in the header?”

Exactly so — and as Goldilocks would say, the margins in the revised versions are just right. Nice point about the slug line, too. As small as these deviations from standard format may seem, to someone accustomed to reading professionally-formatted manuscripts, they would be indicative of a certain lack of familiarity with submission norms. At minimum, a pro’s first glance at these pages would tend to lead to reading the actual text with a jaundiced eye: remember, new clients who need to be coached in how the biz works are significantly more time-consuming for an agent to sign than those who already know the ropes.

Even if that were not a consideration, these formatting problems would be a significant distraction from the good writing on these pages. In fact (avert your eyes, children; this sight is going to be almost as distressing to the average aspiring writer as a baby gobbled up by rats), there’s a better than even chance that the formatting would have prompted Millicent not to read these pages at all.

Okay, so it’s not up to baby-consumption levels of horror, but it’s still a pretty grim prospect, right? See why I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to comment upon these pages? A few small formatting changes will render them much, much more appealing to Millicent.

Bonus: all of the formatting gaffes you see above are very, very common in submissions. In fact, they were extremely common in the entries to this contest — which is why, in case any of you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, deviations from standard format, although explicitly forbidden in the contest’s rules, did not disqualify anybody.

Hey, there’s a reason that I run my HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series a couple of times per year. (Conveniently gathered for your reading pleasure under the category of the same name on the archive list at right, by the way.) The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that formatting is a matter of style, rather than simply the way the pros expect writing to be presented.

Let’s take these pages one at a time. Curtis’ left and right margins are set at 1.25″, rather than the expected 1″. While this formatting choice was actually rather nice for me as an editor (don’t worry, the marked-up versions are following below), it would necessarily throw the estimated word count for a loop: as you may see from the before and after versions, 1″ margins allow for quite a few more words on the page. So does turning off the widow/orphan control (which you will find under the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS section in Word), so that every page has the same number of lines of text.

Now let’s talk slug line, that bit in the header containing the author’s last name, book title, and page number. Or rather, it should contain the page number: on this page, the number is off on its own, on the far side of the page. So the slug line looks like this:

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:

Moser/Perdition/1

As you have no doubt already noticed, the expected version does not feature spaces before and after the slashes. What you may not have noticed, however, was that in the original, the slug line was in 10-point type, rather than the 12-point that should characterize every word in a manuscript. Also, the chapter title is in 14-point type AND in boldface, both standard format no-nos.

I’d actually be astonished if you spotted the other font-based problem, because the key to diagnosing it lies in being able to see it in soft copy: the skipped double-spaced lines between the chapter title and the first line of text are in 14-point, too. The difference on the printed page is miniscule, admittedly, but while we’re revising, we might as well go the whole hog, eh?

Jens’ page 1 is even more likely to be rejected on sight, due to his margins: 1.17″ at the top, .79 inch along the other three sides, and as the exclaimers above pointed out, the slug line is at the bottom of the header, rather than at the usual .5 from the top of the paper. In most literary contests, shrinking the margins to this extent would result in instant disqualification, but hey, we do things a little bit differently here at Author! Author!.

The funny thing is, shrinking the margins actually didn’t get much more material on this page. As some of you compare-and-contrasters may already have noticed, were the chapter title and space between the top of the page and the beginning of the text shrunk to standard format for a chapter opening, only a line and a half would be pushed to page 2.

Actually, if Jens were willing to change the font to Times New Roman, he’d actually gain space. To tell you the truth, I always discourage my editing clients from submitting work in Courier, anyway (or, in this case, Courier New): yes, it’s technically acceptable (and required for screenplays), but Times New Roman is the industry standard for novels.

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

Looks quite a bit sharper, doesn’t it? True, part of that increased neatness comes from bringing the page more in line with what Millicent would expect cosmetically: starting the text 1/3 of the way down the page, moving the Chapter One up to the top, not left-justifying anything but the slug line, and removing both the extra spaces and selective capitalization from that.

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now that we’ve gotten all of that distracting formatting out of the way, let’s see how Millicent responds to Jens’ first page now that she is reading it:

Jens edit2

Pretty positively, by professional readers’ standards, right? The judges felt the same way — but believed, as I do, that a couple of minor text changes would make Millicent like it even more. The first suggestion, however, would require substantial rearrangement of this opening scene.

Why? Well, in a novel’s opening, speech without a speaker identified – or, in this case, without the narrative’s even specifying whether the voice was male or female — is a notorious agents’ pet peeve. It’s not on every pet peeve list, but it’s on most. Guessing really drives ‘em nuts.

“It’s the writer’s job to show me what’s going on,” Millicent mutters, jabbing her pen at the dialogue, “not my job to fill in the logical holes. Next!”

On Jens’ page 1, having the action of the scene turn on a disembodied voice is even more dangerous, because it raises the possibility that perhaps this book should have been categorized on the other side of the thriller spectrum: as a paranormal thriller like Curtis’, rather than a spy thriller. Oh, it didn’t occur to you that the voice might have been of supernatural origin? It would to a Millicent whose boss represents both types of thriller.

The other avoidable potential red flag here is the word choice chancre. It’s a great word, but let’s face it, thriller-readers tend not to be the types to drop a book on page 1 in order to seek out a dictionary’s assistance. Even if Millicent happened to be unusually familiar with social disease-related terminology, she would probably feel, and rightly so, that this word is aimed above the day-to-day vocabulary level of this book’s target audience.

And no, I’m not going to define it for you. Despite all of this talk of baby-eating, this is a family-friendly website.

Dismissing the manuscript on these grounds would be a genuine shame — this is one of the most promising thriller voices I’ve seen in a long time. This jewel deserves the best setting possible to show off its scintillations.

And once again, isn’t it remarkable just how much more closely professional readers examine even very good text than the average reader? Here, Curtis’ first page gets the Millicent treatment:

Curtis edit

Again, a great opening, exciting new voice, and genre-appropriate, with the fringe benefit of a real grabber of an opening sentence. (That, ladies and gentleman, is how one constructs a hook.) The character-revealing specifics in the second paragraph are also eye-catching: considering that all of these telling details are external characteristics, they certainly give a compelling first glimpse of the man.

I see that Millicent agrees with me that that drawing the reader’s attention to the Colt 45 analogy twice on a single page might be overkill, though. Funny how that worked out, eh? She left it in the title — as, remarkably, would I — but advised cutting the unnecessary explanation at the beginning of paragraph 2.

The other easily-fixable element is an old favorite from this summer’s first page revision series: all of those ands. As we discussed in Juniper Ekman’s grand prize-winning entry last time, the frequent use of and is common in both YA and first-person narratives, as an echo of everyday speech.

On the printed page, especially if that printed page happens to be page 1 of an adult narrative, all of those ands can become wearying to the eye. As, indeed, does any word or phrase repetition: they tempt the weary skimmer to skip lines. Take a gander at how the word and phrase repetition here might jump out at Millicent:

Curtis page 1 ands

See how that percussive repetition conveys the impression that the sentence structure is far less varied than it actually is? Yet as individual sentences, most of this is nicely written — and despite all of the ands, there is only one honest-to-goodness run-on here.

The good news is that, like most word repetition, this is going to be quite simple to fix. It merely requires taking a step back from the text to see it as a pro would: not merely as one nice sentence following another to make up a compelling story and fascinating character development, but as a set of patterns on a page.

Wow, that was a productive little discussion, wasn’t it? Many thanks to Jens and Curtis for prompting it.

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

Next time — which may well follow late tonight, post-PT energies permitting; we’ve got a lot of contest winners to get through between now and the grand opening of Synopsispalooza on Saturday — I shall present you with another set of first-place-winning entries, this time in YA. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza XI: making your book sound like a real page-turner

How was the first workday after the long weekend, campers? Dragging a bit today?

If it’s any consolation, Millicent the agency screener probably is, too. Imagine walking into your office after a lovely Labor Day holiday (or, in many agency offices, an even more lovely multi-week break) to discover your desk has totally disappeared under the backlog of incoming queries and submissions? Or that your e-mail inbox is crammed so full that if you are going to do anything else over the next few days, you’ll have to be doing nothing but hitting the DELETE key constantly for hours on end?

(Confidential to the three readers who started as Millicents today: congratulations on the new gig! But I wasn’t kidding about the volume of work, was I?)

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst. Speaking of which, after Querypalooza, it’s right back to close textual analysis, self-editing, and more of those fascinating winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

Speaking of fascinating prose presented well (a clumsy segue, but hey, it was an awfully long weekend chez Mini), the last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable in the current literary market. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book how or why it is interesting. Or exciting. Or even vaguely original.

Blessed are the Millicents, for they shall be plowing through it all.

Of course, some of those queries must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound even remotely so. (At least, I hope you would.) It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.

Just not true, I’m afraid; the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the book being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter.

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. (See earlier expression of sympathy for the newbies’ eyestrain.) Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Still seem unfair? Think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), the letter is going to have to make HER believe that the book is fascinating.

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:

broken-recordRealistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

Not to mention demonstrating that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a manuscript’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many templates out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues.

(30) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be — the goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about wowing Millicent with amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like:

She’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

She’s a ditsy cheerleader, apparently, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader

Getting the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(31) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — notoriously common in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché, and few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if he does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing adolescent ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

(32) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects: how better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible (“But they really sound that way!”), but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(33) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context, but remember, Millicent is reading a whole lot of these missives in a row. The fact that your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences — or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in each — is bound to make those queries start to blur together after a while. Take a peek at this fairly typical gem:

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope it will interest you. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA, and thus probably not reflective of the narrative voice in this particular narrative. Despite the current popularity and burgeoning innovation of the YA market, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem? As I have argued about narrative writing, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line.

Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning. After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.

(34) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Eschewing the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because — not to put too fine a point on it…

broken-recordPretty much every professional reader is specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing, by definition. At minimum, it’s less vibrant than more direct and active sentences. If you want to impress a pro with the quality of your writing, you should avoid the passive voice as much as possible.

Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your writing teacher to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end. There are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.

Had enough of that reader-abusing structure? Millicent has — and frankly, so have I. After years of yanking such sentences out of query letters, synopses, and manuscripts, I actually found it mentally painful to construct that last paragraph.

Because the literary disdain for the passive voice is so close to universal, most of you probably already take active steps to avoid using it in your manuscripts, but surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well. In a way, that’s understandable: when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses. On an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(35) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in the past (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.

So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so?

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine.

(36) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes seem high enough for my protagonist that readers will care about the outcome? Does the conflict come across as both plausible and compelling? For other nonfiction, have I made the problem or issue I’m addressing appear important?
There’s a truism in editing: if a dialogue scene is dragging, raise the stakes for one of the speakers. The more the characters care about the outcome of a conflict, the easier it will be for the reader to care, too. By the same token, a fine revision tactic for keeping the reader turning nonfiction pages is to make a strong and continual case for why the subject matter of the book is vital — to the individual reader, to the society, to the world.

The same principle holds true for queries: if Millicent understands what a protagonist stands to gain or lose from confronting a clearly-defined problem, she’s more likely to find the story compelling. Similarly, if the query makes it pellucidly clear why she should care about its central question — and, more importantly, why readers in the target audience should care — the argument is more likely to grab her.

Or, to cast it in #35 terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.

Memoir queries are especially prone to underselling the importance of what’s at stake for the protagonist. After all, from the memoirist’s perspective (and frequently for writers of autobiographical fiction as well), the primary significance of the story may well be that (a) it’s a true story, and (b) it happened to the writer. Shouldn’t the very truth of the story, combined with the single person most able to give an inside perspective, be enough to captivate readers?

That’s certainly an understandable point of view, from a writerly perspective, but from a professional viewpoint, the answer is usually no. No one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because the events described in it happened to the author; there are far, far too many truthful memoirs out there for that to be the sole criterion for book buyers. Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of book.

So does Millicent in evaluating a query to decide whether she should request pages. Just as it’s the writer’s job to construct a manuscript or book proposal’s narrative to render the story compelling not just for herself, it’s incumbent upon the querying memoirist to give a screener plenty of reason to say, “Wow, this sounds not only like the narrator is an interesting person in an interesting situation — the conflict he faces comes across as one that will fascinate many readers in the already well-saturated memoir market.”

Yes, her thoughts really are that prolix. Our Millie is a complex reasoner.

Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard in making your case for your story or argument’s importance: implying that resolving leaf droppage on neighbors’ yards is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter from Millicent. The line between conveying importance and self-importance can be distressingly thin.

That’s the beauty of raising the stakes: ideally, you won’t have to make positive statements about the importance of your subject matter at all, at least for fiction. (For nonfiction, go ahead and explain why the world should care.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw his own conclusion. You’re just leading him toward the conclusion you wish him to draw.

(37) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder. Ahem:

broken-recordFor a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

(38) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book, isn’t it?”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last night: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

Of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of Querypalooza, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousand fold.

Next time — that’s 10 am PST tomorrow, campers; although we’re still in Querypalooza mode, it would be madness to try to maintain the three-shift schedule of the weekend — I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in the platform paragraph of your query. Or, as we like to call it here at Author! Author!, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Yum, yum. Keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part V: genius is no excuse for lack of polish, or, quoth the raven, “Next!”

tenniel-theraven

What a week it has been, campers! On top of the annoying crutches, the difficult physical therapy, and the seemingly endless series of doctors’ appointments, I seem somehow to have contracted a cold. Can’t imagine how that happened, spending all of that time next to sneezers in medical waiting rooms…

Fortunately, my will to communicate is apparently stronger than my scratchy throat’s ability to inhibit it. Onward and upward!

Before we launch into today’s installment from our long-ago and much-beloved fearedcommented-upon series, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk, I must mention: something happened that exactly mirrored one of the attitudes I discuss in this post. I won’t tell you about it up front, though — you’ll appreciate the story much more, I suspect, if I introduce it afterward. Enjoy the anticipation!

We’re almost at the end of our very, very long examination of reasons agents tend to reject a submission on page 1, Can’t you feel the air buzzing with excitement? Haven’t you noticed the bees murmuring in their hives, the birds stopping in mid-air to gape, and every little breeze seeming to whisper, “Louise!” like Maurice Chevalier?

No? Are your dreams still haunted by Millicent the agency screener hovering over your workspace, intoning “Next!” in the same sepulchral tone in which Edgar Allen Poe’s raven purportedly squawked, “Nevermore!” while you try to crank out query letters?

Quite understandable, if so. Facing the truth about just how harsh agents and their screeners can be in their readings — and need to be, in order to thin out the steady barrage of applicants for very, very few client positions available in any given year — requires great bravery.

“True genius,” Winston Churchill told us, “resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.” You can say that again, Win.

At first, it’s can be easier to keep cranking out those queries and submissions if a writer isn’t aware of the withering gaze to which the average submission is subjected. The pervasive twin beliefs that all that matters in a submission is the quality of the writing and that if an agent asks for a full manuscript, s/he is actually going to read the entire thing before making up his or her mind has buoyed many a submitter through months of waiting for a response.

Be proud of yourself for sticking around to learn why the vast majority of manuscripts get rejected, however — and not just because, as Goethe informs us, “The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth.” (So true, Johann Wolfgang, so true.)

In the long run, a solid understanding of the rigor with which the industry eyeballs manuscripts is going to serve you well at every stage of your writing career. While the truth might not set you free of worry, it will at least enable you to take a long, hard look at the opening pages of your manuscript to scout for the most common red flags, the ones that have caused Millicent to grind her teeth so much that she has TMJ syndrome.

She has to do something with her mouth between cries of, “Next!” you know.

Speaking of jaws, you may find yours dropping over today’s selection of submission red flags. Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last. In fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks.

Why, you ask? Because these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined not by the text per se, but by the reader’s response to it:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”

65. “Over the top.”

66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”

67. “It’s not visceral.”

68. “It’s not atmospheric.”

69. “It’s melodramatic.”

70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

From an agent, editor, or contest judge’s point of view, each item on this subset of the list shares an essential characteristic: these exclamations are responses to Millicent’s perception that the submission in front of her is unlike what she and her cohort expect a marketable manuscript to resemble. Not because it’s formatted incorrectly or uses language poorly (although submissions that provoke these cries often exhibit these problems, too), but because the writing doesn’t strike them as professional.

Since most aspiring writers operate in isolation, often without even having met anyone who actually makes a living by writing books, this distinction can seem rather elusive, but to the pros, the difference between professional’s writing and that of a talented amateur not yet ready for the big time is often quite palpable. How so? Because a professional writer is always, always thinking about not only self-expression and telling the story she wants to tell the way she wants to tell it, but about the effect of the writing upon the reader.

What makes that thought so obvious to Millicent on the printed page? A combination of talent and meticulous polish. As Thomas Carlyle liked to put it at the end of a long day, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.”

I’m not merely bringing up the concept of genius for comic effect here, but as a conscious antidote to the all-too-pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers that if only a writer is talented enough, it’s not necessary for him to follow the rules — literarily, in terms of formatting, or by paying any attention to his work’s marketability. Trust me on this one: every agent and editor in the biz has fifteen stories about writers who have tackled them, shoving manuscripts into their startled hands, claiming that their books are works of unusual genius.

Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t — who could possibly tell, without reading each and every one? — but this kind of approach is a very poor way to win friends and influence people in the industry. Why? Because so many writers who don’t happen to be geniuses so frequently make precisely the same claim. Or, if they do not state it outright, they at least imply by how they present their work that they are so talented that it should not matter whether they follow the rules of standard format (or even grammar) at all. It’s Millicent’s job, their attitude proclaims, to see past all of the presentation problems, not the writer’s to clean them up.

Quoth Millicent: au contraire.

A much, much better way for honest-to-goodness genius to get itself noticed (not to mention a more polite one) is by polishing that manuscript to a high sheen, then submitting it through the proper channels. Yes, it’s a great deal of work, but as Thomas Alva Edison urged us to bear in mind, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or, to put it rather more bluntly, Millicent can generally tell the difference between a submission that the writer just tossed off and one that has been taken through careful revision. Ditto with a half-revised Frankenstein manuscript. Many a potentially marketable book has blown its chance with an agent by being stuffed into an envelope before it was truly ready for professional scrutiny.

I just mention, in case any of you were on the cusp of sending out requested materials before having read them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any lingering unpolished bits.

Yes, now that you mention it, I have suggested this a few thousand times before. I’m perfectly capable of repeating that advice until the proverbial cows come home, and shall probably continue doing so as long as talented aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts containing mistakes that even a cursory proofreading would catch.

Enough banging on that particular tom-tom for now. Let’s get back to today’s list of red flags, shall we?

Present-day Anne here again, all ready to share today’s beautifully illustrative example. I had mentioned, I think, that since I have been posting a little less often post-accident, more readers have evidently been combing my archives — or so I surmise from the wildly increased volume of questions on years-old posts. Sometimes, the questions are simple to answer; sometimes, I have written on the topic since, and can quickly refer the questioner to the relevant subsequent post (or series — it’s always worth checking the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page); sometimes, I give a brief answer to a complex question, then file the matter away on my ever-burgeoning to-blog-about-soon list.

The vast majority of questions on past posts fall into one of these three categories. From time to time, however, a well-meaning writer will simply unload a barrage of hopes, fears, and inquiries.

Lest that sound like a fever-induced exaggeration, today’s correspondent left four pages’ worth of questions — not a record for an Author! Author! comment, by the way, or even a posted list of questions here. Most of his concerns were relatively straightforward, easily addressed in a paragraph or two, or, failing that, a referral to some subsequent posts. The last question, however, made my heart bleed for the asker: he claimed, in all seriousness, to be unable to follow either the rules of standard format or the usual formatting for dialogue. Instead, he wanted to know if he could submit the dialogue in play format, while the rest of the manuscript was formatted like, well, a manuscript.

The short answer is no, by the way, but that was not why his question made me sad. What made me sigh far more over his short last question than the long, long list that preceded it was that he argued that he should be able to ignore the prevailing structures and hard-and-fast rules because he was creating a new form of writing, a mash-up of screenplay and novel, something he seemed unaware had ever been done before. (It has.) He thought that switching between formats lent something to the dialogue that fleshed-out scenes would not convey as well. He genuinely seemed to believe, in short, that violating the formatting rules would strike the literary world as exciting and different, rather than — and I hated to be the one to break it to him — ill-informed about the norms of the biz.

In short, interesting, innovative, and/or experimental are not the words most likely to spring to Millicent’s mind upon seeing a mixed-format manuscript. The only word we can be almost positive she would use is, “Next!”

I’m not bringing this up to make fun of the obviously earnest writer who asked about it — believe me, I don’t particularly enjoy bursting people’s creative bubbles — or even solely to discourage other readers from embarking upon ambitious formatting experiments in a first novel. (Save those for later in your career, when your work won’t have to make it past a Millicent.)

No, my reasoning was more basic: while the specifics of this writer’s approach were unusual, his reasoning is unfortunately all too common amongst aspiring writers. Any professional reader has heard a hundred versions of my writing/book concept/gift for {fill in the blank} is so obviously good that I don’t need to follow the rules; it’s the standard excuse used by aspiring writers exasperated by the necessity of following submission requirements. Or even those requirements’ existence.

Oh, they may not express that attitude openly, but what other conclusion could Millicent be expected to draw from a single-spaced submission in 10-point type? While most deviations from standard format are the result of simple ignorance — hey, I don’t discuss the rules several times a year here because they’re widely-known — some are so extreme that they come across as deliberate.

Indeed, some aspiring writers evidently believe flouting the rules is a legitimate means of making their queries and submissions stand out from the crowd. But as any pro could tell you, while submitting your book proposal in a hot pink folder, or your manuscript bound in leather, would indeed make Millicent notice your work, it would not be for the right reason. No aspiring writer should want the first impression she makes on an agency to be, “Wow, this one’s not very professional.”

That’s why, should any of you conference-attendees have been wondering, so many agents say from the conference podium, “Please, don’t send me cookies/balloons/DVDs of interpretive dance versions of your story along with your query or submission.” The sad fact is, they have been sent all of these things in the past — and that strategy has never once worked in attracting positive attention to the book projects to which those goodies were attached.

Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you hear an agent bring up the no gifts, please policy at a conference, ask about the last time she or anyone at her agency has received such an extra in a query or submission packet. If so, ask her to name the title of the book, its author, or what it was about.

I guarantee you that in even the most egregious case, she will not be able to remember the first two. And if she can recall the third, it will be because the gift in question was directly related to the book’s subject matter.

As in, “Oh, God, remember the time that the live iguana crawled out of the box holding that jungle survival memoir?”

Trust me, that’s not how you want Millicent — or anyone else at an agency, on a contest-judging panel, or at a publishing house — to remember you or your work. Nor, really, do you want to be memorable primarily as the person who sent the wacky formatting. Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be remembered for the beauty of your writing, the poignancy of your plot, the trenchancy of your analysis, the depth of your character development…

Well, you get the picture. If you happen to be a genius — and, again, who am I to say, without first examining the evidence? — removing the distractions of unusual formatting, non-standard spelling or grammar, and so forth can only help Millicent notice it. Positively, that is.

Let your writing speak for itself. The same holds true, of course, for magnificent dialogue. Read on!

Obviously, whether a particular opening page constitutes overkill, over the top, laughable, or is melodramatic (rejection reasons nos. 64, 65, 66, and 69, respectively) lies largely in the eye of the reader — specifically, in the reader’s sense of the possible. The agents on the panel cried, “Unbelievable!” and “Implausible!” a lot in response to the submitted first pages that they rejected for these reasons.

That’s not all that surprising: whether a situation is believable or not is largely dependent upon the reader’s life experience, isn’t it? Since my childhood strongly smacked at times of having been directed by Federico Fellini, I tend to find a broader array of written situations plausible than, say, someone who grew up on a cul-de-sac in an middle-class suburb, attended a minor Ivy, and was working at a first job in Manhattan while her parents paid a significant portion of her living expenses because that glamorous entry-level job in the publishing industry didn’t pay enough to live.

Does that mean I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant? Probably — but remember, these people are individuals with individual tastes, not manuscript-scanning robots sharing a single computerized brain. Naturally, not every Millicent or Maury (Millie’s cousin who screens submissions at a publishing house, if you’ll recall) is from the background I mentioned above; some have conceptions of the probable that would undoubtedly make mine seem downright prosaic.

So what kind of level of credulity should an aspiring writer expect in a professional reader? Good question — but not one with an easy answer.

The safest strategy is to bear in mind that even if you hit the submission jackpot and your work slides under the eyes of a Millicent very open to the worldview and style of your particular book, it’s the writer’s job to depict that world believably — and to do so not merely for her ideal reader. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book.

Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents’ wallets. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.

Yeah, I know: where has she been for the past 30 years? (Partially, not yet being born, I would guess.)

While there’s no way to disaster-proof a manuscript so no conceivable reader could ever find it implausible, not all of the rejection reasons above invariably spring from personal-experiential approaches to judgment. Most of the time, these criticisms can be averted by judicious presentation of the story.

And that, my friends, the writer can control.

For instance, #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. It’s not necessarily that the concept or characterization is bad, or even poorly-drawn: there’s just too much of it crammed into too short a piece of prose.

Since most of us were taught that the opening of any piece of writing needs to hook the reader, the critique of over-intensity can seem a bit contradictory, if not downright alien. As we’ve discussed many times before, good writers are people of extraordinary sensitivity; “Genius,” Ezra Pound taught us, “is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one.”

Setting aside the fact that as much could be said for the delusional — is it genius that produces dancing pink elephants in one’s peripheral vision? — Mssr. Pound’s observation may be applied productively to talent. Good writers do notice more than other people, typically.

So is it really all that astonishing when an aspiring writer attempting to catch an agent’s attention (especially one who has attended enough writers’ conferences to learn that Millicent LIKES books that open with action) begins with slightly too big a bang? Not really, but this is a classic instance of where additional polishing can make the difference between an exciting opening scene and one that strikes Millicent as over-the-top.

The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right. You don’t want to so overload the reader with gore, violence, or despair that she tosses it aside immediately. Nor do you want to be boring. Usually, it is enough to provide a single strong, visceral opening image, rather than barraging the reader with a lengthy series of graphic details.

Before half of you start reading the opening page of THE LOVELY BONES to me, allow me to say: I know, I know. I don’t make the rules; I just comment upon them.

Allow me to remind you: there is no such thing as a single book that will please every agent and editor in the industry. If you are worried that your work might be too over the top for a particular agency, learn the names of four or five of their clients, walk into your nearest well-stocked bookstore, and start pulling books from the shelves. Usually, if your opening is within the intensity range of an agency’s client list, your submission will be fine.

The same tactic works well, incidentally, for dialogue. If you want to gain a sense of what kind of — or how much — dialogue the agent of your dreams thinks is just right for an opening page, take a judicious gander at page 1 of that agent’s clients’ most recent books. Ideally, the clients who have published their first or second books recently. (Don’t bother with releases more than five years old; they won’t necessarily be reflective of what the agent is selling now.) If that particular agent isn’t a fan of opening with dialogue, or prefers a higher character-development to action ratio, that should become apparent pretty quickly, once you have an array of books you know he likes in front of you.

No need to be slavish about it — “His clients average 6.7 lines of dialogue on page 1, so I must revise until I have no fewer than 6 and no more than 7!” would, in fact, be an insanely literal response. There’s no magic formula here. Just aim for the same ballpark.

You could also, I suppose, apply this standard to the question of plausibility. (Ah, you’d thought I’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you?) For that test to be useful, though, you should limit your book selections to titles within your chosen book category.

Oh, does somebody out there think what would be believable in a paranormal urban mystery would also fly in a Highland romance?

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the plausibility continuum. Both tend to provoke what folks in the movie biz call bad laughter, chuckles that the author did not intend to elicit; because the writing seems mismatched to the action (the most common culprit: over-the-top or clichéd dialogue), the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is broken.

Thus, both #69 and #66 refer to ways in which the narrative pulls the reader out of the story — the exact opposite of the goal of the hook, to draw the reader into it.

What’s the difference between melodrama and just plain old drama, you ask? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli. Although most of us tend to think of melodrama as being constantly concerned with operatic, life-and-death issues (“I can’t pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” etc.), usually on the page, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict shown not being high enough for the characters.

Lowering the intensity level to drama then is making the stakes and the reaction seem proportionate. For example, if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally come across as dramatic. If, however, she sings a self-pitying aria because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama. (Or comedy.)

Need I even say that the rise of reality TV, which is deliberately edited to emphasize interpersonal conflict, has increased the amount of melodrama the average agency screener encounters in submissions on any given day? Or any given hour?

A good rule of thumb for revision purposes: it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (Before anyone rolls his eyes at me: as I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an justification that generally gains much traction with Millicent.)

If you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine, but do bear in mind that to qualify, the conflict has to matter to the reader, not just to you. As I pointed out above, one mark of professional writing is a clear cognizance of the reader’s point of view; many a manuscript has been scuttled by bad laughter at a submission’s overblown insistence that a minor inconvenience is one of the major slings and arrows to which flesh is prey.

As Carl Sagan so trenchantly informed us, “the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Hard to argue with that, Carl.

And this goes double if you are writing comedy, because the line between cajoling the reader into laughing along with the narrative and at it is a fine one. Overreaction to trifles is a staple of film and television comedy, but it’s hard to pull off on the printed page. Especially on the FIRST printed page, when the reader is not yet fond of the protagonist or familiar with the protagonist’s quirks — much sitcom comedy relies upon the audience’s recognizing a situation as likely to trigger character responses before the character realizes it, right?

Generally speaking, comedy grounded in a believable situation works better in a book opening than a scene that is entirely wacky, or where we are introduced to a character via his over-reactions. The more superficial a situation is, the harder it is for the reader to identify with the protagonist who is reacting to it.

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Ditto if the reader still doesn’t have a strong impression of what it would be like to stand in the room/in the wilderness/on the burning deck where your opening scene takes place.

Not that you should load down your opening with physical description — that was a bugbear described earlier on the rejection list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there.

Because, after all, “The essence of genius is to know what to overlook,” as William James teaches us.

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70,“This is tell-y, not showy.” Because of all the common writerly missteps that a pro would polish away from both fiction and memoir, nothing prompts Millicent to cry, “Next!” faster than prose that tells, rather than shows.

Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is the single most frequently-given piece of manuscript critique. The overwhelming majority of writing out there — yes, including the first pages of submissions — is generality-ridden. Just ask Millicent.

Visceral details don’t just show — they give the reader the impression of physically occupying the protagonist’s body, vicariously feeling the rude slap of air-conditioning upon sun-warmed skin, the acrid smudge of smoke on the tongue while fleeing the scene of the fire, the sweet tang of the slightly under-ripe peach that girl with long, red hair has just slipped into the protagonist’s mouth.

“The patent system,” Abraham Lincoln noted, “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (Oh, you thought it was easy to come up with an apt quote every time? Besides, I had to get that redhead’s oral incursions out of your head somehow.)

Okay, okay, if you insist, here’s a better one: “What is genius,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning asked us, “but the power of expressing a new individuality?”

That’s lovely, Liz, and couldn’t be more appropriate to the struggle to create genuinely memorable writing and a unique authorial voice. Try to view the imperative to keep the reader in mind not as a limit upon your personal creativity, but as an extension of it, an opportunity to share the world you have created in your book more fully with your audience.

Yes, to pull that off, you’re probably going to have to invest quite a bit of time in revision and polishing, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Scotty. More on ramping up those visceral details follows next time — keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part II: let’s revisit dialogue repetition…repetition…repetition…

broken-record

For those of you who haven’t joined us for a week or two, I’ve been busy spending my doctor-ordered take-it-easy-on-the-hands time by re-running a few older posts. Specifically, posts at least marginally related to the topic we were discussing when a car crash so rudely interrupted us: writing and revising dialogue so it rings true, adds to the story, and entertains the reader.

Or, to translate all that into the negative terms in which professional readers tend to critique work, so it doesn’t seem contrived, isn’t gratuitous, and prevents the reader from falling into the deep, refreshing slumber so often induced by dialogue ripped from real life.

To that end, I shall be repeating today the two tactics that worked so well (if I do say so myself) last time. First, I’m going to import material from that still most visited of my archival series, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk, a lighthearted romp through dozens and dozens of reasons that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, might feel compelled to reject a submission on page 1. Second, rather than re-run the dialogue-related posts in that series individually, I shall mash a couple together and add a bit more material, just to keep things interesting for those of you who were hanging around Author! Author! a year and a half ago.

So is it a re-run, if it is no precisely as it was the first time around? You tell me.

Enjoy!

As I may have mentioned before in this forum, Hollywood narration (dialogue wherein characters telling one another things they already know purely for the purpose of letting the reader know them, too) tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory.

In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the agents’ forum from which I derived the list of pet peeves we’ve been discussing. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case.

Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The agents on the panel tore it to pieces. Actually, the panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.

*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.

*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)

*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)

*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any submission any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence.

So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

What can happen if an aspiring writer just assumes that what he’s got in mind is what Millicent will take away from the page? Well, let me put it this way: the writer who penned the opening I’ve just described– a gentle lady who had waited a year to be able to submit her opening page to this forum, I later learned — did not laugh along with the judges. She sat there, open-mouthed and blushing furiously, obviously stunned that anyone could read her innocent page 1 in such a manner.

Why did she feel so blindsided? Well, if I had to guess — and I do! I do! — it was probably because her opening gambit was one she had seen so often in the openings of TV shows, movies, and yes, even books.

Wait, where have I heard that before?

Seriously, this sub-species of Hollywood narration can be very hard for self-editors to catch. Take, for instance, the following example. (And if you can’t take it because the image is so small, try increasing the size by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing +.)

Hollywood narration2

While you were reading that little gem, did you think at least twice, Gee, is there a particular reason that the reader needs to be told all of this backstory on page 1? If so, congratulations: Millicent would have had the same thought. By the middle of paragraph 3.

But be honest now, campers: if you had encountered that page in a critique group yesterday, would you instantly have tapped its author on the shoulder and whispered, “Dear friend, what you have there is a classic example of Hollywood narration, and I implore you to reconsider opening your book in this manner?” Or would you simply have admired how quickly and economically the writer worked in all of that backstory?

The vast majority of aspiring writers would have opted for the latter. Just so you know, however, Millicent would appreciate it if the next time any of you should find yourself in this situation, you would start tapping some shoulders.

Why? Because she sees this sort of opening so very, very often. Which brings me to rejection reason #30: over-use of dialogue in the name of realism.

At the risk of dropping the needle on a broken record (have your grandparents explain that metaphor to you, children), real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. But in defense of realism, real-life dialogue seldom resembles Hollywood narration, either. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party.

It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time. I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Move it along.

When talkers do fill one another in on personal backstory, it’s usually in the form of specific anecdotes (“When I was seventeen, I had just put on my favorite record when a condor flew into my bedroom…”) or personalized summaries of larger events (“I got married in the year the condors carried off my little brother…”), rather than in Hollywood narration-type generalities (“When I was young, condors were the number one municipal problem here in Ridgedale, the pleasant small town where you and I both grew up, Tony. Remember how often the black wings used to blot out the sun? Why, I was just reminding my wife, Martha, about how dark it was on our wedding day. Remember, dear? How you screamed as the black, black birds carried our ring bearer — my brother and your fishing buddy, Tony — off into the wild blue yonder…”

See the difference? If not, I’m sure Tony would be happy to go over your collective past with you a few more times.

Typically, at this juncture, I blithely suggest that writers enamored of the idea of reproducing dialogue precisely as it is heard in real life try a little experiment: sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down overheard conversations verbatim. Don’t fill in any logical gaps; reproduce it as is. Afterward, go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using ONLY the dialogue actually heard.

If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you either have an unusually high threshold for boredom or a great affection for the mundane. Either way, have you considered a career as an agency screener, where these traits would be positive boons?

It’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result of this exercise past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding REAL is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining.

So here’s a radical notion for all of you revisers out there: why don’t you edit your opening pages with an eye toward entertaining Millicent, as well as future readers, rather than using them merely as a medium for backstory?

I heard half of you groaning. Yes, oh groaners, your surmise is correct: I am indeed about to tell you that a savvy reviser should pay as much attention to word, phrase, and concept repetition in dialogue as in narrative paragraphs.

Yes, Virginia, even if your work happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Slice-of-life pieces can be quite effective IF they are short — but frankly, in my opinion, most of what goes on in the real world doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Far, far better to apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something BETTER than reality, I say. The same goes for dialogue.

And yes, now that you mention it, that will mean a good deal more revision for most writers. Feel free to groan again.

Some of you are already reaching for your BUT PEOPLE REALLY TALK LIKE THAT! picket signs, aren’t you? That’s not too surprising. Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives. “I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Chant it with me now, long-time readers of this blog: because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because I spoke earlier in this series about how little Millicent appreciates repetition of any kind; I also rattled on a bit last time about how conceptually repetitious most real-life dialogue tends to be. But today, I want to talk about repetition on a smaller scale, within the actual writing.

As I have pointed out before, the single most common word appearing in submissions in every book category is and. Leaning on this multi-purpose word can lead to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting the bubonic plague.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, from Millicent’s point of view.

You would not believe, for instance, just how often the sentence structure, X happened and Y happened turns up in dialogue. From a hold-the-mirror-up-to-nature point of view, that’s completely understandable, because it’s structure that speakers use all the time. Even when writers are constructing narrative rather than dialogue, they tend to find this structure appealing: like stringing together sentences beginning with conjunctions, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow, as in:

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

See? Chatty, casual: the way your local poisoner is very likely to say it to her next-door neighbor, right? In a single sentence, it makes for a rather likable voice.

If this structure is used sparingly, it can work very well indeed — but as any professional reader who has been at it a while would be delighted to tell you, its advocates seldom seem to be able to restrain themselves. Let’s take a peek at several sentences of this type in a row, to see why it might annoy your garden-variety Millicent at the end of a long, hard day of rejection:

Esmeralda blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

See what I mean? Although each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English, it’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Esmeralda blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least flushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Lest any of you just thought, “Well, all Millicent would have to do is read on to the next paragraph” (or next page, or next chapter) “to discover that I know a whole lot of ways to structure a sentence; I’m not going to worry about that,” may I remind you of one of the most startling truths divulged in this series, that most manuscripts get rejected on page 1? If the opening paragraphs of a submission are structurally repetitious, how likely is it that she’s going to keep reading to find out if the writer shakes things up a little later on?

The sad fact is, most agents, editors, and contest judges would not, alas, at least while perusing a manuscript by an author with whom they do not already enjoy a professional relationship. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure.

Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of an X happened and Y happenedsentence within half a page. (See why I felt this issue was important enough to interrupt our review of the Idol list to cover?) At minimum, it would be very much in your submission’s best interest to ferret out over-use of the word and.

So while you are going over your first page with a fine-toothed comb in the wake of this series anyway, why not identify and considering reworking ANY sentence in which and appears more than once? Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:

In evading the police, Zelda ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions. Yes, people actually do say things like this in real life, but how much do you think the realism of this sentence is going to help its author get a manuscript past Millicent?

Uh-huh. Good writing matters in dialogue every bit as much as in narration. It’s merely harder to make sound realistic.

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ classic comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spend all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.)

I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions — and no, none of them is optional to observe:

(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), AND

(3) IF the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. YOU may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading agency screener to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve sensed disgruntled rumblings out there since I mentioned point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format restrictions on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to be harboring. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

Clearly, then, these matters are not under my personal control, so kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission. To someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of — gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

Sometimes repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events — which, if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, should automatically make you cringe at the idea of boring Millicent.

And honestly, is a statement like Georgette ran down the stairs and out the station door, then she made a sharp left at the corner, proceeded a hundred yards past the fruit and flower stands, now at four o’clock sadly depleted, and dashed to the waiting taxi worth the risk?

This kind of dismissive reading is not always a fair assessment of an and-ridden text, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering, despite the fact that most Millicents find soliloquizing protagonists a touch annoying) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like Millicent. Do keep it up.

Since your revision eye is getting so sophisticated, let’s consider the opposite possibility: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry? Or did you think you were the only writer in the history of the world who did this?

Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.

It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important.

Which — you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which is not exactly the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right?

When in doubt, revise to minimize the ands. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”

I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part VIII: more less-than-stellar argumentative techniques, or, when are the violins going to kick in? I’m fox-trotting with a giant squid here!

postcardsquiddancer

Wow, have I ever had a lousy couple of days, campers. Rather than burden you with a vivid account that would depress you into a stupor, though, I’m just going to mention that this is a re-run of an older post and slink off to lick my wounds.

Cheer me up by having some fun with this one in the comments, why don’t you? You may have seen one or two of these examples before — they’re favorites of mine, admittedly — but there’s quite a lot of thought-provoking material analysis here, even if I do say so myself.

As, apparently, I do. Enjoy!

We’ve already talked about quite a number of ways that a protagonist can (and so often does) annoy Millicent by being a bad interviewer — that is, by thwarting the reader’s desire to know what’s going on by failing to ask good questions, omitting to ask logical follow-up questions, and generally not stepping fully into his role as the audience’s surrogate detective. Since these flaws are so very pervasive in manuscripts, professional readers tend to feel that scenes that contain them drag.

“Pick up the pace, already,” Millicent mutters darkly into her latte. “Don’t just sit there, waiting for something to happen.”

Millicent doesn’t have much patience for passive protagonists in general, as all of us here at Author! Author! are only too sorrowfully aware. (And if you’re not, you might want to check out the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page, to learn precisely why a slow-moving hero irritates her so.) Even in a submission stuffed to the gills with conflict, a protagonist who doesn’t invest much energy into an interview, even for a half a page, is likely to raise her hackles.

{Present-day Anne here: especially on a bad day. Every Millicent is entitled to a few of those.}

The professional reader’s distaste for low-conflict dialogue often comes as a great big shock to novelists (and memoirists, for that matter), especially those who write literary fiction. In trying to avoid spending the entire narrative inside the protagonist’s head, they tend to regard dialogue as action — there’s exchange between the characters, right? But if the stakes aren’t very high in the discussion, or if the protagonist doesn’t take a definite side, dialogue is not necessarily conflictual, in the literary sense.

Or, to put it another way: after reading literally thousands of manuscript submissions, Millicent no longer believes that a protagonist is active just because her lips happen to be moving. Talk is as cheap on the page as it is in real life.

In fact, a protagonist can become more passive by talking. Let’s revisit one of my all-time favorite examples of a classic bad interview scene, a rather lengthy excerpt from the 1625 opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini. (Hey, I told you it was a classic.)

Anne here again: to head off the critique that invariably appears every time I use this example, none of this is intended as criticism of the opera. As those who stumble upon this simply because they did a word search on the opera’s name often don’t seem to take the time to notice, this is a blog devoted to the improvement of writing, not musical criticism.

That said, on with the example:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

Try not to be distracted by the squid for the moment. (Although would you believe that I wrote the line about squid-jiggery first, then found the antique postcard image above? The Internet is a weird and wonderful place.) Concentrate on how too-easy agreement scuttles what could be some interesting argument.

Or, as Millicent might put it, a scene that might keep her reading.

This type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone TELLS him he’s wrong, without engaging in convincing argument — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book becomes positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

And that, unfortunately, makes the conflict seem much less important than if the characters argue the pros and cons at least a little. Usually, the result is a more compelling scene — and better character development for the arguers.

Oh, heck, I’ll go out on a limb here: it’s almost always better storytelling.

Why? Everybody haul out your hymnals and sing along with me now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement. As we discovered last time, unending harmony, as delightful (and rare) as it may be in real life, can be a real snooze-fest on the page.

Even the injection of just a little good, old-fashioned passive-aggression can ginger up a scene no end. (Stop speculating about that squid, I tell you. We’ve moved on.)

Nor does being easily persuaded, non-confrontational, or generally — brace yourself — nice necessarily render a protagonist (or any other character) more likeable to the reader. No, not even if the reader happens to enjoy the company of such sterling souls in real life.

Why, you cry? Because endlessly making nice tends to kill dramatic tension dead, dead, dead.

That seems to come as a surprise to many aspiring writers, judging by the number of first novels and memoirs where the protagonist bends over backwards never to offend anyone — especially common in manuscripts where the protagonist happens to be female, I notice. Butter wouldn’t melt in some of these ladies’ mouths, as the saying goes. Which pretty much inevitably results in either a relatively conflict-free plot or a passive protagonist who stands on the sidelines while the less scrupulous (and more interesting) characters act.

Make something happen: let your characters disagree, equivocate, be downright obstructionist. Interpersonal conflict will usually bring a smile to Millicent’s over-caffeinated face faster than agreement. (Conflict on the page, at least; don’t argue with the nice people in agencies and publishing houses at the submission stage. It will not end well for you.)

And while you’re at it, here’s a radical thought: why not have more going on in a dialogue scene than just the dialogue?

Ooh, that one raised as many hackles as confused eyebrows, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised — many, many novelists (and, again, memoirists are not exempt from the practice) cling tenaciously to that old warhorse of writerly advice, the notion the dialogue should show absolutely everything necessary for the reader to know about a situation, without the added distraction of commentary, insight into thought processes, or physical reactions.

Oh, dear, how to break the realities of professional writing gently to those of you fond of this classic piece of 11th-grade writing guidance? Here’s the best I can do: Millicent would be far, far happier if far, far fewer 11th-grade English teachers had given this advice.

Why? Because approximately 95% of novel submissions contain extensive sections that might as well be written as plays. And while dialogue-only scenes can convey all the reader needs to know, they have a nasty tendency to minimize nuance.

Or, as Millicent has been known to put it, to produce scenes where all that’s going on is what’s going on.

To be fair, chucking all the narrative out of an interview scene is a strategy we’ve all seen work brilliantly, particularly for comedy. Sticking solely to dialogue enables the reader to move quickly through banter, without having her attention drawn away by side comments from the narrator. To haul out yet another of my favorite examples (hey, I had to do something to get your mind off that squid), take a gander at this bit of self-sufficient dialogue from Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22:

“What’s your name, son?” asked Major — de Coverley.

“My name is Milo Minderbinder, sir. I am twenty-seven years old.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“I’m not the mess officer, sir.”

“You’re a good mess officer, Milo.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do everything in my power to be a good mess officer.”

“Bless you, my boy. Have a horseshoe.”

“Thank you, sir. What should I do with it?”

“Throw it.”

“Away?”

“At that peg there. Then pick it up and throw it at this peg. It’s a game, see? You get the horseshoe back.”

“Yes, sir, I see. How much are horseshoes selling for?”

This is a pretty admirable use of pure dialogue, isn’t it? It tells us everything we need to know about characters that the book is not going to explore in much depth: Major — de Coverley is a whimsical commander who regards his own word as law, and Milo is obsessed with the art of the deal.

Not bad character development, for only thirteen lines of dialogue. As a technique, no-frills dialogue can undoubtedly be extremely useful, and I applaud its use in moderation. However — and this is one of my patented BIG howevers — like the rule about perspective in third-person narration, a lot of writers and writing teachers get carried away with it.

In fact, you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who will tell you, with an absolutely straight face, that dialogue should NEVER be encumbered by non-spoken information.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while should be able to predict my reaction to this: I’m no fan of the hard-and-fast stylistic rule, generally speaking. The rules of grammar I can respect as immutable (as I wish more writers, particularly those who crank out copy for magazines and newspapers, did), but I am always mistrustful of any rule that tells me that I must dismiss a particular piece of writing automatically, without really reading it, on the basis of a stern stylistic preference.

Perversely, so does Millicent, usually, at least in this particular case.

Yes, I know that’s a bit odd in someone whose job is to dismiss many pieces of writing automatically, often based on rather cursory readings, on the basis of stern preconceived notions of, say, how a professional manuscript should be formatted (if you’re not absolutely positive, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before you even dream of passing your pages under her bloodshot eyes) or current conceptions of style within her boss agent’s chosen genre.

But believe me, if you read manuscripts for a living, you might start resenting dialogue-only scenes as well. I must admit it: like Millicent, I often find long stretches of pure dialogue rather boring.

Yet despite the pervasiveness of this attitude amongst professional readers — yes, including contest judges — aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts crammed with lengthy dialogue-only scenes, probably for much the same reason that the other dialogue weaknesses we’ve discussed in this series are so incredibly common. Movies and television have accustomed us to stories told entirely by dialogue, visuals, and background music, after all.

Is this the right time to remind everybody that novels and memoirs are not limited to those storytelling techniques? Would it be too cruel to suggest that utilizing only those means in a manuscript is rather like an orchestra conductor’s telling the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections that they might as well go home, since the tune’s going to be carried entirely by the strings?

There’s nothing wrong with violin music, of course — but if you’re going to the symphony, is that all you want to hear?

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have been hanging out at writers’ conferences lately — particularly conferences that feature those ever-popular speakers, screenwriters eager to share the tricks of their trade with book writers. If you took that same piece of bread you were trying to fling above and cast it at the speakers’ table at the same average conference, you might well hit some expert who had come to tell novelists that their work would be best served by embracing screenwriting techniques with vigor, and keeping thought and physical sensation reportage to a minimum.

I can tell you the source of this advice: a very common fledgling writer tendency to get so bogged down in reporting every thought the protagonist has that the text slows down to the rate of molasses flowing uphill. It is definitely possible to stay too much in a character’s head.

Yes, yes, we all know about Proust and Dostoyevsky’s characters who languish in bed for scores of pages at a stretch, contemplating their lives. It was fresh when they did it, but it’s been done so many times now that it’s bound to seem derivative to any seasoned reader.

For my sins, I once sat through a five-hour version of HAMLET that so catered to the title character that the actor (who, since he is now a rather famous political blogger, shall remain nameless) was allowed to take FIFTEEN MINUTES to get from “To be or not to be” to “Soft you now, the fair Ophelia” — a mere 33 lines of text, according to the Riverside Shakespeare that every college student of my generation owns.

And this for a speech that, as any Shakespearian actor can tell you, half the audience knows well enough by heart to chant softly along with the actor. It was a bit de trop. (Truth compels me to own that since it was the late 1980s, the audience of this particular production of HAMLET was also plagued by repeated playings of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s dubious hit, RELAX, DON’T DO IT. I’ve witnessed more subtle directorial symbolism.)

From the reader’s perspective, a too-long sojourn into any character’s thoughts, feelings, and doubts (a particular favorite for writers of literary fiction, perhaps due to too many viewings of HAMLET in their early youths) can feel interminable. I am not necessarily an advocate of the hard-and-fast rule that some conflict should occur on every single page (although it’s not a bad rule for a first-time self-editor to follow), but most readers do tend to get a bit restive after the fourth or fifth page of a character’s sitting around and thinking.

And we already know how Millicent tends to react to it, right? “Next!”

If you are not of the sit-and-ponder school, but are still wondering if you are staying too much in a character’s head in a third-person narrative, here’s a self-editing tip: go through the text and note every time the reader is given information outside dialogue by the protagonist’s specifically NOTICING something. Pay attention to whether the text lets the narration mention that the truck stop waitress has red hair, or whether Joe Protagonist SEES her have red hair.

If you find that more than about a tenth of the information is conveyed as protagonist sensation, you should think about moving the perspective outside him more. Or consider switching to first-person narration, where thought may be intermingled seamlessly with narration.

All that being said, I am still a fan of exposition alternated with dialogue, particularly in emotionally-charged scenes. We writers live so much in our heads that we tend to create characters who do so, too.

However, in real life, people have physical reactions to things: discomfort in their guts when meeting someone smarmy, tightness in the chest when yelled at by the boss, slumping of the shoulders when receiving the news of the death of a friend. These are legitimate pieces of information to include in characterization; they often add depth to dialogue-based scenes.

Or, as the classic piece of advanced writing advice has it: get out of your protagonist’s head and into her body!

Interspersing narrative sentences with dialogue is a great way to introduce more to the scene than is apparent in the words spoken. Because, let’s face it, there are plenty of human interactions that cannot be adequately conveyed in all of their nuanced glory by dialogue alone.

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the idea that dialogue can ALWAYS convey everything that is going on in a scene, either emotionally or factually. People very frequently do not say what they are thinking, and Freudian slips, though common in post-war literature, actually do not occur with great frequency in real life. Frequently, what a character is NOT saying can be as telling as what she is. Even in comedy, where speed of exchange is most desirable, adding exposition amid the verbal exchanges of wit can considerably heighten the tension of a scene.

Since I’m trotting out so many of my pet exemplars today, let’s take a look at this excerpt from E.F. Benson’s LUCIA IN LONDON, the second installment in Benson’s brilliantly funny Mapp and Lucia series. Here, social climber Lucia is sitting in the boudoir of duchess Marcia, chatting with her newly-acquired friends about lovers; she has been pretending to be having an affair with fey Stephen, to make herself appear more interesting, and Marcia et alia are trying to grill her about it. Lucia has just finished saying:

“… If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

Marcia longed, with almost the imperativeness of a longing to sneeze, to allude directly to Stephen. She raised her eyes for a half second to Adele, the priestess of this cult in which she knew she was rapidly becoming a worshipper, but if ever an emphatic negative was wordlessly bawled at a tentative enquirer, it was bawled now. If Lucia chose to say anything about Stephen, it would be manna, but to ask — never! Aggie, seated sideways to them, had not seen this telegraphy, and unwisely spoke with her lips.

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” she said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

Nothing could have been more unfortunate. Adele could have hurled the entire six rows of Whitby pearls at Aggie’s face…The effect of her carelessness was that Lucia became visibly embarrassed, looked at the clock, and got up in a violent hurry.

“Good gracious me!” she said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

There is a LOT of information conveyed in this excerpt, and all of it contributes to Benson’s comic effect. Now look at the same passage after the dialogue-only rule has been applied to it:

“… If you all had fifty lovers apiece, I should merely think it a privilege to know about them all.”

“If an ordinary good-looking woman,” Aggie said, “tells me that she hasn’t got a lover or a man who wants to be her lover, I always say, ‘You lie!’ So she does. You shall begin, Lucia, about your lovers.”

“Good gracious me!” Lucia said. “What a time of night! Who could have thought our little chat had lasted so long?”

Quite a bit flatter, isn’t it? Aggie’s fluke and Lucia’s reaction are still there, but the other two women might as well not have been in the room. We have entirely lost the delicious sense of conspiracy between Marcia and Adele, and Aggie’s blunder has been reduced to simple gaucherie. As a direct result, it’s substantially less funny — and less nuanced.

Again, the enriched dialogue method should be used in moderation, just as the dialogue-only method should be. Like profanity, stylistic restrictions are far more effective when used sparingly than constantly; who pays attention to the profanity of a constant swearer? Select the time when your dialogue choice will have the greatest effect.

And that, thank heavens, is my last word on dialogue, at least for the moment. As always, keep up the good work!

PS: when’s the last time you made a back-up of your computerized writing files? If you haven’t done it within the last week, humor me, please, and do it as soon as possible; I’d hate to think of any of you losing pages or chapters in the event of a hard disk crash. If you’re unclear on what your backing-up options are, please rush post-haste to the BACK-UP COPIES category on the list at right.

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part V: push-polling the reader, and other tell-tale signs that you’ve slipped into Hollywood narration

Aspiring writer on the job, keeping the metropolis safe from Hollywood Narration

Aspiring writer on the job, making the world safe from Hollywood Narration

Hello again, campers —

I’m hoping to get back to generating brand-new posts sometime next week; the hand doc turned pale at hearing how often and how much I usually post, but I entertain high hopes of his getting over the shock soon. In the meantime, I am re-running some older posts on constructing effective interview scenes, to keep those revision gears chugging in everybody’s brains. Just so those of you who read it the first time around won’t be too bored, I reserve the right to interpolate comments or make small changes from time to time — or, in this case, add huge, honking sub-sections — but for the most part, I shall be husbanding by hand strength by posting these pretty much as is.

Before anyone decides the result is unlikely to be relevant to the types of manuscript revision we have been discussing, the interview scene is one of the most frequently-muffed types of dialogue; unfortunately, it’s also among the most common, period. Interview scenes, for the benefit of those of you joining us late in this conversation, are spates of dialogue where one character (usually the protagonist) is trying to extract information (the pursuit of which is often the driving force behind the plot) from another character (sometimes, but not always, historically reluctant to spill.)

In discussing interview scenes, we’ve also talked quite a bit about Hollywood narration, my term for a scene where Character 1 tells Character 2 a bit of information or backstory of which both 1 & 2 are already aware, purely so the reader may learn it. Yet Hollywood narration is not the only questionable tool writers sometimes use to shovel heaping piles of extraneous facts into a narrative.

Today, I shall discuss a few others. Enjoy!

You know how I keep saying that real life perpetually volunteers examples at just the point I could really, really use them on the blog? Well, it’s happened again: I was actually writing yesterday’s post on Hollywood Narration and how annoying a poor interviewer character can be, when the phone rang: it was a pre-recorded, computerized political opinion poll.

Now, I don’t find polls much fun to take, but since I used to do quite a bit of political writing, I know that the mere fact that the polled so often hang up on such calls can skew the accuracy of the results. Case in point: the number of percentage points by which most polls miscalled the last presidential election’s results.

So I stayed on the line, despite the graininess of the computer-generated voice, so poorly rendered that I occasionally had trouble making out even proper names. A minute or so in, the grating narrator began retailing the respective virtues and aspirations of only two candidates in a multi-player mayoral race — neither of the candidates so lauded was the current mayor, I couldn’t help but notice — asking me to evaluate the two without reference to any other candidate.

In politics, this is called a push poll: although ostensibly, its goal is to gather information from those it calls, its primary point is to convey information to them, both as advertisement and to see if responders’ answers change after being fed certain pieces of information. In this poll, for instance, the inhumanly blurred voice first inquired which of nine candidates I was planning to honor with my vote (“I haven’t made up my mind yet because the primary is a month and a half away” was not an available option, although “no opinion” was ), then heaped me with several paragraphs of information about Candidate One, a scant paragraph about Candidate Two, before asking me which of the two I intended to support.

Guess which they wanted my answer to be?

Contrary to popular opinion, although push polls are usually used to disseminate harmful information about an opponent (through cleverly-constructed questions like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate X if you knew that he secretly belonged to a cult that regularly sacrifices goats, chickens, and the odd goldfish?”), the accuracy of the information conveyed is not the defining factor, but the fact of masking advertisement under the guise of asking questions, In a well-designed push poll, it’s hard to tell which candidates or issues are being promoted, conveying the illusion of being even-handed, to preserve the impression of being an impartial poll.

Yesterday’s call, however, left no doubt whatsoever as to which local candidates had commissioned it: the list of a local city councilwoman’s attributes took almost twice as long for the robot voice to utter, at a level of clarity that made the other candidates’ briefer, purely factual blurb sound, well, distinctly inferior. Even his name was pronounced less distinctly. To anyone even vaguely familiar with how polls are constructed, it was completely obvious that the questions had, at best, been constructed to maximize the probability of certain responses, something that legitimate pollsters take wincing pains to avoid, as well as to cajole innocent phone-answerers into listening to an endorsement for a political candidate.

To be blunt, I haven’t heard such obvious plugging since the last time I attended a party at a literary conference, when an agent leaned over me in a hot tub to pitch a client’s book at the editor floating next to me. In fact, it’s the only push poll I’ve ever encountered that actually made me change my mind about voting for a candidate that I formerly respected.

{Present-day Anne here: FYI, she lost.}

Why am I telling you fine people about this at all, since I seldom write here on political issues and I haven’t mentioned who the commissioning candidate was ? (And I’m not going to — the pushed candidate is someone who has done some pretty good things for the city in the past, and is furthermore reputed to be a holy terror to those who cross her — although something tells me it may crop up when I share this story with my neighbors at the July 4th potluck. Unlike the polling firm, I’m not out to affect the outcome of the election.)

I’m bringing it up because of what writers can learn from this handily-timed phone call. True, we could glean from it that, obviously, far too much of my education was devoted to learning about how statistics are generated. A savvy interpreter might also conclude that cutting campaign expenditures by hiring polling firms that use badly-faked human voices is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But most vital to our ongoing series, in an interview scene, it’s important to make it clear who is the information-solicitor and who the information-revealer.

If the interviewer’s biases are heavy-handedly applied, he/she/the computer-generated voice appears to be trying to influence the content of the answers by how the questions are phrased. (As pretty much all political poll questions are designed to do; sorry to shatter anyone’s illusions on the subject, but I’ve written them in the past.) While a pushy interviewer can make for an interesting scene if the interviewee resists his/her/its ostensibly subtle blandishments, the reader may well side against a protagonist who interviews like a push-poller.

The moral of the story: impartial questions are actually rather rare in real life. When constructing an interview scene, it’s vital to be aware of that — and how much interviewees tend to resent being push-polled, if they realize that’s what’s happening.

Got all that? Good. Because the plot is about to thicken in an even more instructive way. Let us return to our story of civic communicative ineptitude, already in progress.

Being a good citizen, as well as having more than a passing familiarity with how much a poorly-executed campaign ad (which this poll effectively was) can harm an otherwise praiseworthy candidate, I took the time out of my busy schedule to drop the campaign manager an e-mail. I felt pretty virtuous for doing this: I was probably not the only potential voter annoyed by the pseudo-poll, but I was probably the only one who would actually contact the campaign to say why.

You know me; I’m all about generating useful feedback.

So I sent it off and thought no more about it — until this morning, when the campaign manager sent me the following e-mailed reply:

Dear Dr. Mini,

Thank you for your comments. We appreciate the feedback on any of our voter contact and outreach efforts. In everything we do, we want to make the best and most professional impression. You are right that automated surveys are cost competitive {sic}. In this situation, the need for feedback from voters was important {sic} and we hope that almost everyone was able to hear the questions clearly.

I have included the following link to an article on what push polling is {sic} (address omitted, but here’s the relevant link). I assure you that our campaign does not and will not ever be involved in push polling.

Thank you for supporting (his candidate) for Mayor {sic}.

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly polite, if poorly punctuated, response, doesn’t it? He acknowledged the fact that I had taken the time to communicate my critique, gave a justification (albeit an indirect one) for having used computerized polling, and reassured an anxious potential voter that his candidate’s policy was to eschew a practice that I had informed him I found offensive.

On a second read, he’s saying that he’s not even going to check in with the pollsters to see if my objections were valid, since obviously I am stone-deaf and have no idea what push polling is. Oh, and since push polling is bad, and his candidate is not bad, therefore no polls commissioned on her behalf could possibly be push polling. Thank you.

In short: vote for my candidate anyway, so I may head up the future mayor’s staff. But otherwise, go away, and you shouldn’t have bugged me in the first place.

To add stupidity icing to the cake of insolence, the article to which he referred me for enlightenment on how I had misdefined push polling confirmed my use of the term, not his: “A call made for the purposes of disseminating information under the guise of survey is still a fraud – and thus still a ‘push poll’ – even if the facts of the ‘questions’ are technically true or defensible.”

Wondering again why I’m sharing this sordid little episode with you? Well, first, to discourage any of you from making the boneheaded mistake of not bothering to read an article before forwarding the link to somebody. An attempt to pull intellectual rank is never so apparent as when if falls flat on its face.

Second, see how beautifully his resentment that I had brought up the issue at all shines through what is ostensibly a curt business letter, one that he probably thought was restrained and professional when he hit the SEND key? If any of you is ever tempted to respond by e-mail, letter, or phone to a rejection from an agent or editor, this is precisely why you should dismiss the idea immediately as self-destructive: when even very good writers are angry, they tend not to be the best judges of the tone of their own work.

And when a writer is less talented…well, you see the result above.

Another reason you should force yourself not to hit SEND: such follow-ups are considered both rude and a waste of time by virtually everyone in the industry. (For a fuller explanation why, please see my earlier post on the subject.) Like a campaign manager’s telling an offended voter that her concerns are irrelevant for semantic reasons, it’s just not a strategy that’s at all likely to convince your rejecter that his earlier opinion of you was mistaken.

Trust me: I’ve been on every conceivable side of this one. Just hold your peace — unless, of course, you would like the recipient of your missive to do precisely what I’ve done here, tell everyone within shouting distance precisely what happened when you didn’t observe the standing norms of professionalism and courtesy.

Yes, it happens. As you see, the anecdote can be made very funny.

Okay, back to the business at hand. Last time, I sensed some of you writers of first-person narratives cringing at the prospect of minimizing the occurrence of Hollywood narration in your manuscripts.

Oh, don’t deny it: at least 10% of you novelists, and close to 100% of memoir-writers — read through my excoriation of Hollywood narration and thought, “Oh, no — my narrator is CONSTANTLY updating the reader on what’s going on, what has gone on, other characters’ motivations, and the like. I thought that was okay, because I hear that done in movies all the time. But if Hollywood narration on the printed page is one of Millicent the agency screener’s numerous pet peeves, I’d better weed out anything in my manuscript that sounds remotely like screenplay dialogue, and pronto! But where should I begin? HELP!”

Okay, take a deep breath: I’m not saying that every piece of movie-type dialogue is a red flag if it appears in a manuscript. What I’ve been arguing is that including implausible movie-type dialogue can be fatal to a manuscript’s chances.

Remember, in defining Hollywood narration, I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf. It’s immeasurably better — and much closer to the rough cut that Philip K. Dick saw himself before he died. Trust me on this one.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past. If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory.

You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the way; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but hey, it was the ‘70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device, rather than pretending that it wasn’t. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a fledgling writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys while he’s waiting for his book to hit the big time. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, as we discussed yesterday, most of us have become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

”Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

”Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that. In film, it’s an accepted narrative convention.”

In a book, there’s plenty odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe.

I can’t make screenwriters –or political operatives — do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on, if only for the novelty of it. And I don’t know if you noticed, but wasn’t it far more effective for me to allow the campaign manager to hang himself with his own words, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about his communication skills and tact levels before I gave my narrative opinion of them, rather than the other way around? Trick o’ the trade.

Trust me, when Millicent is pondering submissions, you want your manuscript to fall into the novelty category, not the far more common reads-like-a-movie-script pile. Which, as often as not, also serves as the rejection pile.

No, I’m not kidding about that. By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed — so much so that the vast majority of Millicents are trained simply to stop reading a submission when it breaks out into Hollywood narration. In fact, it’s such a pervasive professional reader’s pet peeve that I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

Funny to observe? Oh, my, yes — unless you happen to be the aspiring writer who submitted that dialogue.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that if your characters tell one another things they already know is not going to win your manuscript any friends. There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent. As a general rule of thumb, one bad laugh is enough to get a submission rejected.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

Present-day Anne breaking in again here, feeling compelled to point out two things. First, people from San Francisco have historically hated it when others refer to it as Frisco, by the way. It’s safe to assume that Millicent from there will, too.

Second, and more important for revision purposes, memoirs fall into this trap ALL THE TIME — and it’s as fatal a practice in a book proposal or contest entry as it is in a manuscript. It may be counterintuitive that an anecdote that’s been knocking ‘em dead for years at cocktail parties might not be funny — or poignant, for that matter — when the same speech is reproduced verbatim on the page, but I assure you that such is the case.

The result? Any Millicent working for a memoir-representing agent spends days on end scanning submissions that read like this:

So there I was, listening to my boss go on and on about his fishing vacation, when I notice that he’s got a hand-tied fly stuck in his hair. I’m afraid to swipe my hand at it, because I might end up with a hook in my thumb, and besides, Thom hadn’t drawn breath for fifteen minutes; if the room had been on fire, he wouldn’t want to be disturbed.

The fly keeps bobbing up and down. I keep swishing my bangs out of my eyes, hoping he will start to copy me. Then he absent-mindedly started to shove his hair out of his eyes — and rammed his pinkie finger straight into the fly. That’s a fish story he’ll be telling for years!

Did those paragraphs make your hands grope unconsciously for highlighting pens and correction fluid? After all of our discussion of Frankenstein manuscripts and how to revise them, I sincerely hope so. Like so many verbal anecdotes, this little gem wanders back and forth between the past and present tenses, contains run-on sentences, and is light on vivid detail.

For our purposes today, however, what I want you to notice is how flat the telling is. Both the suspense and the comedy are there, potentially, but told this tersely, neither really jumps off the page at the reader. It reads like a summary, rather than as a scene.

It is, in short, told, not shown. The sad part is, the more exciting the anecdote, the more this kind of summary narration will deaden the story.

Don’t believe me? Okay, snuggle yourself into Millicent’s reading chair and take a gander at this sterling piece of memoir, a fairly representative example of the kind of action scene she sees in both memoir and autobiographical fiction submissions:

The plane landed in the jungle, and we got off. The surroundings looked pretty peaceful, but I had read up on the deadly snakes and vicious mountain cats that lurked in the underbrush. Suddenly, I heard a scream, and Avery, the magazine writer in the Bermuda shorts, went down like a sacked football player. He hadn’t even seen the cat coming.

While I was bending over him, tending his slashed eye, an anaconda slowly wrapped itself around my ankle. By the time I noticed that I had no circulation in my toes, it was too late.

Now, that’s an inherently exciting story, right? But does the telling do it justice? Wouldn’t it work better if the narrative presented this series of events as a scene, rather than a summary?

Ponder that, please, as we return to the discussion already in progress.

To professional readers, humor is a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two of a partial, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the Frisco example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration? (And in the story about the campaign manager, didn’t you find it just a trifle refreshing that he didn’t speak exactly like a character on THE WEST WING?)

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny or ironic doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission tries to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

So can any other good first reader, of course, if you’re not into joining groups, but for the purposes of catching Hollywood narration and other logical problems, more eyes tend to be better than fewer. Not only are multiple first readers more likely to notice any narrative gaffe than a single one — that’s just probability, right? — but when an aspiring writer selects only one first reader, he usually chooses someone who shares his cultural background.

His politics, in other words. His educational level. His taste in television and movie viewing — and do you see where I’m heading with this? If you’re looking for a reader who is going to flag when your dialogue starts to sound Spielbergish, it might not be the best idea to recruit the person with whom you cuddle up on the couch to watch the latest Spielberg flick, might it?

I just mention.

One excellent request to make of first readers when you hand them your manuscript is to ask them to flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that…”

Ask them to consider: should the lines that follow these statements be cut? Do they actually add meaning to the scene, or are they just the author’s subconscious way of admitting that this is Hollywood narration?

Another good indicator that dialogue might be trending in the wrong direction: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least get you into the habit of spotting them. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, other than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

Flagging the warning signs is a trick that works well for isolated writers self-editing, too: once again, those highlighter pens are a revising writer’s best friends. Mark the relevant phrases, then go back through the manuscript, reexamining the sentences that surround them to see whether they should be reworked into more natural dialogue.

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered “By gum, no!” to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader really need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Okay, that’s more than enough homework for one day, I think, and enough civic involvement for one day. Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part IV: don’t go casting your novel’s characters QUITE yet

royal-tenenbaumsposter

Hello, campers —

Here, as promised, is a re-run of an earlier post on a topic we were all blithely discussing in the happy days before those two cars decided to adhere themselves to mine so abruptly. While I would have preferred to embellish it with a practical exercise or two, designed to send you running toward your respective manuscripts, highlighting pens in hand, I suspect that as it stands, it will provide abundant fodder for discussion.

Before I let you get on with it, I can’t resist adding both a well-deserved plug and a bit of scolding for the movie shown in poster form above (and used as an example below). Novelists and memoirists — perhaps especially memoirists — interested in learning the difficult art of giving the slight spin to realistic dialogue to make it witty would do well to invest an hour or two in watching THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The screenplay’s lovely, full of the kind of banter writers love but filmgoers don’t always appreciate; it’s really a film best seen by oneself, to appreciate the dialogue fully.

That being said, it contains perhaps the single least excusable character-naming joke I have ever heard: the mother of the family, an urban archeologist, is called Etheline. Leaving aside the fact that this would be a rather surprising name for wealthy New Yorkers to have chosen for their daughter in the 1940s or 50s — it would have made far more sense in Dallas, right? — part of the plot of the movie concerns Etheline’s relationship with her long-gone-but-still-not-divorced husband and the man she may or may not marry.

Thus, one could say that Etheline is polyandrous, the possessor of more than one husband. Rendering her — and remember, this is the screenwriters’ joke, not mine — poly-Etheline.

Or, as manufacturers of plastic prefer to spell it, polyethylene. Call her the Original Inflatable Mother.

The moral, if you’re quite finished squirming over that bad pun: as funny as an oddball name may seem to the author, if it seems out of step with a character’s ostensible background, it can be a distraction from the story. (Yes, even in a comedy.) So even if you were already reader-savvy enough to axe your first idea of christening a waiter character Trey, you might also want to think twice before you allow a manuscript out the door with a name that’s too reminiscent of something else.

Unless, of course, you are a fan of plastic mothers. Enjoy the post!

So far in this series, I have bent our overall focus upon effective interview scenes — i.e., dialogue wherein one character, usually the protagonist, elicits information from another — toward one of my pet peeves, Hollywood narration. For those of you who missed the last couple of posts (hey, I’m aware that some of you are on vacation, cajoling children not to blow their fingers off with firecrackers, creating Jell-O molds, and similar Independence Day-related pursuits), Hollywood narration occurs when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader.

How common, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show starring a character who did not suffer from amnesia, you’ve almost certainly encountered some; it’s one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information. Because we’ve all heard so much Hollywood narration, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory in this manner.

The result: our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already know that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

Which, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest, but as I mentioned, it’s a holiday weekend, so I shan’t be holding you to ordinary weekday standards.

Why out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or in offices. Or in the White House. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as at least the major characters in their novels.

C’mon, admit it: practically every aspiring writer does it. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood narration in screenplays, we’re all used to actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. As a result, imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.

It can be genuinely hard to catch on the page. Especially difficult: ferreting out what filmmakers call bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. A bad laugh can be sparked by many things, typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, lest we forget, a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.

It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life.

You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is notorious for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, last year, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a ghost story; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can reproduce it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (clearly weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.”

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.”

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Gregory Peck and Kate Winslet to read those very lines to you, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s their job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem above: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems (see earlier quip about amnesiac characters), it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other descriptive delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood narration have abounded in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg — but of that notorious Hollywood narrator, more below.

There’s another way in which movies and TV have warped the cultural understanding of storytelling, and thus prompted many aspiring writers to incorporate Hollywood Narration in their manuscripts, to Millicent’s teeth-gnashing chagrin. As I pointed out yesterday, openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins.

Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning precisely what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance. We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell.

Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately for the current state of literature, I gather that not all movie producers share my view on the subject. How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. Here’s a very common opening gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes come to believe that such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the worlds nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Johnny Depp as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. She will respond not as a filmgoer, but as a reader.

Oh, wait, I’m talking about Hollywood narration again, amn’t I? Funny how I keep getting goaded into that. Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part III: as you know, robot, I have a nefarious plan…

Dr. Smith and the robot

Shh! The houseguests are sleeping, so I have tiptoed into my studio to have a few words with you. Perhaps it is inhospitable of me, but all weekend, I’ve been yearning to log in to warn you further of the horrifying perils of Hollywood narration.

That’s not the kind of yen that makes sense to non-writers, in case you’d been wondering. I believe the term most often being applied to it in my household over the last few days is pathological.

But then, most conscientious revisions would strike outside observers as pretty odd, I suspect. “What do you mean, you’re going to go over every syllable in the book several times?” they demand, wide-eyed. “Isn’t that, you know, the editor’s job, not the writer’s? Why don’t you just send off the manuscript and let the publisher take care of any typos — or whatever it is you think you’ll find on your seventeenth read-through?”

Hoo boy — it’s hard to know even where to start countering that pervasive set of misconceptions, isn’t it? Rather than engaging in a lengthy explanation that will only depress all and sundry, let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last time, I introduced you to Hollywood narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. Interestingly, writers who pride themselves on the pursuit of realistic dialogue are every bit as likely to incorporate Hollywood narration as those who do not.

It’s just so darned convenient. Particularly if a reviser is editing for length: a paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can, after all, replace pages and pages of backstory.

But page-slashing self-editors are not the only writers fond of Hollywood narration, unfortunately. Many a first-time novelist or memoirist has panicked at the notion that the reader will walk into a story without knowing basic facts about the participants. As a result, our old pal Millicent the agency screener is constantly confronted with opening pages that read something like this.

Hollywood narration

Did any of that seem a trifle unnecessary to you? It would to Millicent, or indeed to most readers. For this scene to work, we don’t actually have to know how old these people are, how long they’ve been married, or even how long little Tara has been sleeping through the night. We certainly don’t need to hear about all of that on page 1; these tidbits could pop up naturally as the story progressed.

Or, to put it in editing terms, most of those statements of fact slow down the story, rather than adding to it, at least at this juncture. To grab the reader, this opening scene needs to present Helga and Chaz as interesting people in an interesting situation — so why take up page space with matters that, while important in and of themselves, are not integral to the conflict at hand?

Heavy-handed application of backstory isn’t solely the province of dialogue, of course (as that whopper of a sentence in the second paragraph proves abundantly). Most first novel manuscripts (and quite a few first memoirs as well) produced within the last thirty years or so have leaned pretty heavily upon dialogue to introduce facts that both parties already know, for the exceedingly simple reason that we’ve all heard it done so much in movies and on TV.

Thus the term Hollywood narration: all too often, writers forget that having a character essentially narrate backstory or fundamental facts crops up in movies because film is limited in how it may convey the past. On the printed page, however, we have more — and more interesting — options than having a character start waxing poetic about the past to people who shared that past, don’t we?

Before we go any further, and to save confusion in critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should point out that the term Hollywood narration is mine; the agent of your dreams may well look at you blankly if you mention it. She will undoubtedly be familiar with the phenomenon, however: due to its continual widespread unpopularity amongst aspiring writers, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.

Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry and the screenwriters’ guild.

What’s so wrong with it on the manuscript page? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is effectively an interview scene with no interviewer but the author.

The reader is left to wonder: why the heck is that chattering character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it? Why, in fact, is this monologue (or dialogue; both Helga and Chaz engaged in Hollywood dialoguing above) appearing on the page at all?

As we discussed last time, the answer to all of those questions usually disarmingly straightforward: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a teensy problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show you, wouldn’t it? Especially since it isn’t always easy to catch in revision.

Oh, you may laugh, recalling the throw-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the example above, but sometimes, Hollywood narration can be very low-key. You’d actually have to be looking for it. As you should be, ideally, in the following:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it?

Or rather, I should say did you catch them, since the Hollywood narration cuts both ways here. Surely, both parties have been aware for quite some time — say, five years — of what Clark’s glasses look like. So why is Lois describing them? On the flip side, Clark is also telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for — wait for it — five years?

And is that honestly sufficient reason to keep this sterling exchange in the text? As a reviser, you should constantly be asking yourself, “Is this really the most effective way to convey this information? Brilliant writer that I am, could I not find a more graceful way to let the reader in on the backstory — or is it possible that the backstory actually is not integral to this scene, and thus could be introduced later?”

Yes, that is quite a mouthful to keep muttering to yourself. It gets easier with practice.

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel or a backhoe. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Desmond pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Elaine shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day soon. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Betty came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Rose managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after Dr. Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Desmond said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Desmond didn’t ask Elaine for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue. Nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Even a reader not much given to questioning the printed word might have been brought up short by this passage, as the narrative itself gave a major clue that something’s wrong with this dialogue. But to Millicent and her ilk, the mere fact that Desmond said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for Millicent, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once.

This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately had been wondering, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information. “Don’t tell me everything at once,” they beg. “Let me be surprised.”

Good advice: the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s premise. Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that last statement? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “in your last post, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader? Telepathy?”

Good question, up-fronters. (Although you might want to watch the sarcasm when you’re asking me to explain something to you as a favor. Your mother cannot possibly know that you’re that flippant with your teachers.) How about opening the book by placing your characters in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a suggestion. It’s always worked for me.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel satisfyingly efficient — one way to describe cramming a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, I guess — it’s actually one of the weakest kind of opening. So much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he does not like to see a manuscript to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

“How do you know that?” those of you currently clutching your chests demand.

Experience, mostly — and not just editing experience. One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see open with Hollywood narration. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common.

The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first scene. I shan’t put this one in standard format; who would blame you if you gave up after the end of page 1?

”So, Ambrose, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Penelope asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man shook his head. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Vivienne, fell off the handlebars of Ambrose Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Facinelli, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Facinelli’s rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Penelope sunk her hands into the bread dough that always seemed to be sitting in a moist ball, ready to knead, on the kitchen table. “But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers and the annual migration of the canary finch — for our Christmas tree.”

Ambrose stroked his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Fatima, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Lulu, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

”Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

”What would I do without you, honey?” Ambrose put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

”Oh, Ambrose, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Ambrose did not respond; he was busy kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Joanna, all sixty-four years of her, invariably points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen narratives almost this bald. Make no mistake: Hollywood narration is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.

As in Millicent can spot it from a mile away. Or at least within the first line or two.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. Placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership spontaneously decide to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous amongst established authors. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline darned quick. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

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!