The Short Road Home, Part III: always let your conscience be your guide — except when you shouldn’t

Did you miss me, campers? I’ve been hiding under the covers of both a good book and my bed for the past few days. Why, you ask? Well, I can take a hint: the last time I poked my nose outside my front door, I sprained my ankle and caught a cold.

Clearly, Somebody Up There is harboring a preference for my staying put. With my foot in the air and a mug of hot tea clutched to my chest.

I am venturing forth this evening, however, to reignite our discussion of the Short Road Home, my pet term for a scene that introduces a potential conflict, only to resolve it so quickly that the reader barely has time to notice an increase in ambient conflict. Short Roads Home have been the downfall of many a submitted novel, for a small handful of exceedingly simple reasons: such scenes almost invariably tell rather than show, minimize inter-character conflict, and let the tension of the story lag.

So why, you might well have spent last week wondering, do Short Roads Home remain immensely popular in manuscript submissions? Much of the time, the writers who construct such shortcuts are not even aware that they are doing it.

That, I think, is both unfortunate and unnecessary. Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it.

As in right now. Or at least before you send your baby out again.

Why the urgency? Because the Short Road Home is so very common, an experienced pro might not even have to read more than a couple of lines of a scene to identify it — and shove the submission into the rejection pile. In fact, it’s in the interest of a time-strapped Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, or Mehitabel the veteran contest judge to be on the lookout for this phenomenon: it’s a pretty good indicator that a manuscript has not seen very many critical first readers.

As such, M, M, and M tend to assume, the book is probably at least one revision away from being polished. Or, to put it as they would, “Next!”

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb appear above your heads somewhere in the course of those last two paragraphs? Did it occur to you as if archangels suddenly appeared and shouted the news into your awed ears that, as with nonstandard formatting, the appearance of an ultra-frequent megaproblem in a manuscript might actually be a welcome sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or, more to the point, without investing further reading time?

If so, congratulations — you now have a much, much firmer grasp of how submissions work than a good 95% of the writers currently slapping stamps on SASEs across the English-speaking world. It’s one of the great paradoxes of being in a position to discover new writers: in order to unearth that great undiscovered talent, they have to read a lot of, well, everything else. So the faster they can sift through the rest and reject the bulk of what they receive, the more time and energy they have to devote to that elusive perfect book.

Which is great, if your manuscript happens to be that needle in a haystack. It’s substantially less great if your project is a pin that merely needs a bit more sharpening and an eye installed before M, M, and/or M will recognize it as what they have been seeking.

Was the refreshing breeze that just wafted across my elevated foot the collective result of all of you agent-seekers sighing gustily? I’m not surprised: polishing a manuscript to professional standards is hard work, and not something that is going to happen all by itself. As much as the artist in all of us would like to believe that each and every sentence to fall off our fingertips onto a keyboard is camera-ready, more than talent is typically necessary to bring a wonderful story to publication. It takes inspiration, yes, but it also takes craft and an acquired knowledge of how the publishing industry expects good writing to be presented.

And half of you sighed again. But honestly, if you were setting out to be a professional baseball player, would you expect to hit the ball out of the park the first time you tried? Even a natural benefits from training.

But as M, M, and M can tell you to their cost, that’s not the prevailing notion of how books get published. Quite the opposite: most aspiring writers new to the business leap to the unwarranted conclusion that an agent or editor will be so delighted by a fresh voice that s/he is automatically going to be willing to ignore other problems in the manuscript until after the contract is signed.

In practice, this doesn’t happen much, even for manuscripts with minor problems. Certainly not for those with pacing or storytelling problems.

Out comes the broken record again: when submitting your writing in any professional context, it is not safe to assume that it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, this manuscript certainly needs work, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix it.”

And never, alas, does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along and maintaining tension, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist for the three or four years it will take her to learn to correct these problems.”

As delightful as it would be if they did habitually express such sentiments — better still, if they routinely acted upon them — this just doesn’t happen for writers who don’t already have a solid platform (i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to a book). As a non-celebrity writer, you can safely assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons to weed your work out, rather than reasons to accept it. At least for the first half of the book or so. Millicent and her ilk don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

Until then, they’re hoping that those great ones will take a hint, stop submitting, and polish their manuscripts before approaching the pros again. Oh, and becoming a celebrity in the meantime would be a selling point, too.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars, I notice — don’t like to talk much about this hope. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control.

As far as I’m concerned, megaproblems are very much within the writer’s control, as are the other rejection triggers we’ve been discussing over the last few months– but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission. So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up the subtle Short Road Home.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home crops up frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character — or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket — will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length. Case closed!

Not sure what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a common example: when a protagonist apparently shows up to a scene purely in order to comment upon it as an outside observer, rather than participating actively in it.

“I did not press the panic button!” James insisted.

Barnaby pointed to the city skyline melting into a fluorescent puddle in the distance. “The warhead didn’t launch itself!”

Etienne listened to the argument swirling around him, knowing it wasn’t really about who bombed what when. Anybody could see that the rapidly-disintegrating city was just an excuse for James and Barnaby to snipe at each other, a transparent mask laid delicately over the face of their unadmitted mutual passion. He wished that they would just rent a motel room and get on with it, so he wouldn’t have to listen to their bickering — assuming, that is, that James’ little slip of the finger had left any motels standing.

See the problem? Essentially, the protagonist is acting as the reader’s translator here: no need to draw one’s own conclusions while Etienne is on the job. No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader turning pages.

Even when these helpful characters are not therapists by trade (although M, M, and M have seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis: “I realize that you’re upset, Cheryl, but aren’t you displacing your underlying dissatisfaction at being laid off at the lumberyard onto your boyfriend? After all, it’s not his fault that pastry chefs remain in such high demand. If you were not envious of his job security, would you really have minded his torrid affair with those Siamese twins?

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

“But Anne,” I hear many an amateur Jiminy Cricket protest, “I don’t understand. Don’t my explanations move the plot along? Don’t they provide necessary character development? And isn’t my spouting them a fabulous way of making sure that the reader doesn’t miss any critical nuances?”

Why, yes, Jiminy, your running commentary can indeed perform all of those functions — but by definition, your pointing them out to the reader is telling, not showing.

I’m not just bringing that up to sound like your 10th grade composition teacher, either. While no one minds the occasional foray into summation, both characters and situations tend to be more intriguing if the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

It makes for a more involving narrative. Hyper-analytical protagonists seldom surprise; they’re too thoroughly explaining what’s already gone on, what’s going on now, and what is likely to be going on in future to allow a twist to sneak up on the reader.

Also, when the instant-analysis device is overused, the reader can become jaded to it pretty quickly. After the third or fourth instance — or after the first, if the reader happens to be a professional manuscript-scanner — the reader is apt to become convinced that that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist.

Why bother, if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed? Which, correct me if I am wrong, completely prevents the reader from enjoying one of the great joys of getting into a novel, trying to figure out what is going to happen next.

Besides, as we saw last week, instant analysis can relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on while it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments?

In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling, incidentally. Memoirists just adore foreshadowing — because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented as the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

A great structural rule of thumb for memoirs: show first, conclude later.

But what’s that you say, Great Hinter in the Sky? That burgeoning swelling in my ankle means I should stop for now? Thanks for telling me — I wouldn’t want to risk drawing the wrong conclusion from the evidence, after all.

I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject tomorrow. In the meantime, make sure those protagonists stay active, concentrate on giving the reader enough information so s/he may draw the correct inferences about what’s going on, and keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

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

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

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet peeves on parade, part XVII: once more — and this time with feeling!

All finished with your income taxes, campers? Since the 15th was a holiday in Washington D.C., giving us a whole extra weekend to gnaw on our erasers and scratch our heads, I figured that the end of last week was a good time to take a short break from blogging. Call me zany, but I suspect that a fairly hefty percentage of the Author! Author! community is more word-oriented than number-obsessed.

Hey, my high school calculus teacher didn’t call me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. He had worked his way through college playing poker (or so he claimed); I edited other students’ term papers. It takes all types to make a world.

Which renders it surprising, does it not, that wildly different sorts of people say such similar things in real-life dialogue? Admittedly, I may be more sensitive to verbal repetition than usual at the moment– you wouldn’t believe how often someone recovering from car crash injuries is asked the same questions. Not only by different practitioners, but by the same practitioner at each visit.

I realize that these well-meaning, healing-mongering individuals have forms to fill out and file, but since presumably one is not not their only patient on any given day, or even in the course of any given hour, I can’t imagine that they, too, are not bored to death by the sheer repetition. Quoth the parrots:

“So how are you feeling today? Better? Worse? The same? How is that {fill in body part here} doing? How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you have ever experienced?

Naturally, as a fully-vested member of the storytellers’ guild, one would try to vary one’s answers each time, to spice up the collective dialogue. What they want, of course, is not for the patient to respond in a manner that might conceivably be interesting to another human being (or to me) to hear or read, but in an extremely limited vocabulary and in the brevity permitted on their forms. They want our dialogue, in short, to resemble their dialogues with every other patient so closely that the only thing that differentiates us is the answer to those questions.

No personalities, please: just the facts, ma’am. Preferably delivered in so clipped and uncommunicative a manner that a Bertolt Brecht drama would seem positively chatty by contrast:

“So how are you feeling today?” Dr. Synonym asked brightly.

“Okay,” Patient No. 8276494/14A replied.





“The same?”

Patient No. 8276494/14A sighed. Had s/he not already implicitly answered this question? “Yes.”

“How is that…” Dr. Synonym glanced down at the chart. “Knee doing? Better? Worse? The same?”

“About the same.”

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you can imagine?”

Patient No. 8276494/14A pictured being ripped to pieces by dingoes. “Five.”

On the manuscript page, this exchange would be pretty dull, even the first time around — in fact, unless the point were to show how dull and repetitious this round of questions was, most professional readers would probably advise the author to cut it. And we should all hope that this was the point of the submission from which our example was borrowed, because it appeared more than once throughout the course of a narrative, it would be stultifying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I dare you: read it again.

The problem here isn’t merely that this is generic dialogue, a question-and-answer session so generic that neither question nor answer reveal much about either of the speakers. Or, indeed, about the situation both parties are ostensibly concerned with discussing.

So I ask you, manuscript revisers: is this dialogue, although unquestionably lifted from real life, worth preserving on the page for posterity? If not, how would you go about rendering more character- and/or plot-revealing?

The most obvious fix would be to have Dr. Synonym ask less generic questions — or at least ones that a good third of the patients currently scurrying around clinics in those fiendishly-designed little smocks that invariably leave half of one’s body exposed to the elements have answered within the last 20 minutes. Throwing even one curve ball into the mix would render the scene less predictable. Let’s try two.

“So how are you feeling today?” Dr. Synonym asked brightly. “Better?”




Was he even listening? “Experiencing any difficulty climbing the giant rock candy mountain to snatch the magic beans from the resident ogre?”


The doctor noted on the chart: sprained sense of humor. “Been eaten by crocodiles, lately?”


“How is that knee doing?” She decided to make it multiple choice this time. “Better? Worse? The same?”

“About the same.”

“You’re tired.” She snapped her notebook closed with a strained smile. “Let’s see if we can do better tomorrow.”

Quite a different dynamic, isn’t it? Now, there’s conflict in the scene: the doctor is trying to elicit an individuated response, but the patient insists upon being minimally communicative. By playing with the expected, we end up with more tension on the page.

I’m sensing some of you lovers of slice-of-life literature just itching to jump into the fray. “But Anne,” reality-huggers protest, “I don’t believe a doctor would say that in real life. What I like in dialogue is seeing actual speech mirrored precisely on the page. Yes, it’s occasionally boring, but aren’t most readers prepared to put up with a little dullness if the scene rings true?”

Some readers, yes. Professional readers, seldom. And our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, when she’s in the throes of reading a stack of submissions between now and her long-delayed lunch? Very rarely indeed.

Besides, who is to say that a real-life doctor wouldn’t ask a couple of funny questions in this situation? You really should get out more, slice-of-lifers.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that it’s necessary to the plot or characterization to depict the doctor’s asking precisely the questions the reader will expect him to ask. (Yes, I changed Dr. Synonym’s sex this time around. Had I mentioned that I like variety on the page?) A savvy reviser could embrace the strategy that has not worked so well in my myriad medical appointments: beefing up the answers. Or even allowing a question or two to go unanswered.

Dr. Synonym leaned over her battened-down body, apparently addressing her chin. “So how are you feeling today?”

“Like some idiots have tied me to a hospital bed,” Jenna spat. “How else would a sane person feel?”

His expression did not alter. “Better?”

“Better than what?”


She closed her eyes wearily. “Untie me, and maybe I’ll tell you.”

“The same, then?”

She could hear his fountain pen scratching. Clearly, that last question had been rhetorical.

“How is that knee doing? Better? Worse? The same?”

Jenna had not seen her legs in three weeks. “You tell me. I don’t have eyes on my toes.”

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you can imagine?”

“Eighty-seven. Fourteen hundred. Five thousand and twelve.”

“You’re tired.” He snapped his notebook closed with a strained smile. “Let’s see if we can do better tomorrow.”

Much more interesting than all of those nos, isn’t it? This is an old, old professional writer’s trick: avoid having your characters answer yes-or-no questions with either a yes or a no, since they add so little new information to the scene. Or an I don’t know, which typically adds even less.

Why avoid these three in particular? They often shut down a conversation, rather than moving it in an unexpected direction. Besides, yes,no, and I don’t know are usually the least interesting ways to answer a question;. We live in a full and fascinating universe, after all: neither fiction nor reality — complex fiction and reality, anyway — lend themselves to simple, dismissive answers.

Besides, if they come at the beginning of a fuller response to a yes/no question, the actual yes/no response is often not necessary. It’s implied in the rest of the statement.

“Is your leg feeling better today?”

“No, I feel as though it were about to fall off.”

Yes, a patient might actually say it this way, but on the page, this means essentially the same thing, doesn’t it?

“Is your leg feeling better today?”

“I feel as though it were about to fall off.”

It’s every bit as realistic, too. But it works better on the page: real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition.

Unfortunately, so does a hefty percentage of the dialogue in manuscript submissions. Rather than improving upon real-life speech by minimizing redundancy, sticking to the topic at hand, avoiding clichés, and varying phrasing — to name but a few of the many, many benefits of only selectively mirroring the way people actually talk — or using it to develop character, many aspiring writers don’t give much thought to how interesting the dialogue on their pages might be for someone else to read.

Seem perverse, in a population characterized by a clawing, desperate desire to have others read their writing? Strange to say, it seems to be true, judging by what turns up on the submission page. It’s as though dialogue were magically exempt from the thou shalt not bore thy reader rule applicable to the narrative portions of the manuscript.

Stop rolling your eyes. Even in manuscripts that have obviously been put together with care and revised meticulously, the dialogue is often repetitious in both phrasing and content. Add to that the simple truth that since it can take a heck of a long time to write a book, a writer does not always remember where — or even if — a character has made a particular point before, and even if he does, he may not be confident that the reader will remember it from 200 pages ago, and Millicent ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already, Francine!” a great deal more than any of us might like.

Yes, do take a moment to admire that last epic sentence. I doubt we’ll see its like again.

What’s the solution for repetitive dialogue on the whole manuscript level? Well, it depends upon the type of repetition a writer tends to favor. If a character’s dialogue is redundant because she likes to spout a catchphrase — please tell me she doesn’t — the fix is downright easy: a quick confab with Word’s FIND function, a few creative substitutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

If the problem is more complex than that, I’m afraid I must be redundant and suggest reading though every line of dialogue in your manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD. Why not silently and on your computer screen? The eye reads much faster on a backlit screen, rendering any sort of proofreading more difficult, and your ear may catch what your eyes do not.

Conceptual redundancy, however, is substantially more difficult for a self-editor to catch — it both time for close reading of the entire manuscript and a retentive memory. Even if that reviser happens to have been blessed with both, after slaving over a manuscript for months or years on end, repeated or largely similar snippets of dialogue, explanations, and even relatively important plot points can seem…well, if not precisely fresh, at least not memorable from earlier in the latest draft.

Unfortunately, this quite predictable byproduct of revision burnout does not always fill professional readers with sympathy for the writer’s dilemma. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Great jumping Jehoshaphat!” Millicent groans over many a submission. “Didn’t this writer bother to read this manuscript before sending it to us? Couldn’t she see that she told us this already!”

Would you believe me if I told you she is not only likely to formulate this complaint if she finds the same line of dialogue or repeated explanations three lines apart or three chapters? Or that it’s not unheard-of for a professional reader to notice reused phrasing or concepts if there are only two iterations hundreds of pages apart?

How is this possible, you ask? It’s an editor’s job to be that preternaturally observant of manuscript details; we’re trained to respond to it as if it were the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard. Because editors are so sensitive to repetition, agents learn to keep an eye out for it, too. So when the agent of your dreams was teaching her Millicents what red flags were deal-breakers, guess what was high on the list?

Every time we discuss this issue, I am transported back to the dim reaches of my past. I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B- range.

My tepid-to-begin-with enthusiasm had begun to fade practically as soon as I stepped into a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. All brown eyes and braids, I had already spent several hours holding my mother’s hand while my father took my older brother on D and E ticket rides. And I was not particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story: even at that tender age, the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead struck me as rather mean.

Honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives persistently remain dead?

Alas, the Peter Pan ride was one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. But the longer we stood in line, the more difficult I found it to muster even the appearance of childish joie de vivre.

Why was I feeling so oppressed, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into a flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times.

It’s all I remember about the ride. Newly alive to the necessity of editing dialogue, I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase repetition at the beginning.

He patted me on the back as he hurried me toward the exit. “I know,” he whispered. “By the end of the day, I want to strangle someone.”

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors. While most of the population comes to accept the conceptual and phrase repetition that is constantly flung at all of us, all the time, in both everyday conversations and on TV, we remain painfully alive to it.

We think it should go-o-o-o.

Wait — some of you tuned out that anecdote, didn’t you? You remembered it from last year’s discussion of conceptual repetition, I’m guessing. Well, I have just one thing to say to those of you who skimmed past it: that’s exactly how Millicent feels when she sees a snippet of conversation from Chapter 3 turn up again in Chapter 17.

Actually, your reaction was almost certainly more charitable than hers, and with good reason. Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“I know we’ve been over this before, Trevor, but I must reiterate: cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a left-handed cellist and the provost of this college, Yvette, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this phenomenon — again, this may seem a tad familiar to some of you, but I’m trying to sensitize you — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Specials that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Peer Pressure Exists, Drugs are Bad, and You Should Have Self-Esteem.

In case, you know, the average kid might not have picked up on any of that from the 1,247 times he had heard adults tell him these things before. Stand up straight.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed to be operating upon the assumption that either young viewers’ memories or our general level of intelligence was inherently suspect. It was rare that these shows ever made any major point only once — or that the fate of the Good Kid Who Made One Mistake was not obvious from roughly minute five of the program.

True to this storytelling tradition, Strangers With Candy’s heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphed upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.” Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

Oh, you may smile, but this species of heavy-handed foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly to someone attuned to catching repetition. You would be astonished by how often characters say things like, “But Ernest, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

Because that’s the kind of thing that’s likely to slip one’s mind. I’ll bet hardly a week goes by without your uttering a sentence like that.

Or so one might conclude from the frequency with which such statements turn up in submissions — even when the first 50 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up to devote her life to excising all of that ambient redundancy.

Hey, someone’s got to make the library safe for readers with retentive memories. 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.”


“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.”


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.”


“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.


“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.”


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 XIII: repetitive activities and other things that wouldn’t be interesting to most readers if you set them on fire

Before I launch into today’s festivities, campers, I would like to call your attention to some festivities on this coming Saturday, April 9th. At 6 p.m., Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience will be holding its annual fundraising dinner and auction. A door prize for all attendees: a pre-release copy of Harold Taw’s The Adventures of the Karaoke King.

What a creative promotion idea, eh?

If Harold Taw’s name sounds familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while, it should: Harold is the long-time member of our little community whose first novel got plucked out of the plethora of entries in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and brought to publication through AmazonEncore. I plan to be raising a toast to his book’s astonishing journey to publication at his book release party at Elliott Bay Books on April 27th, by the way, while folks are marking calendars; I’d love to lead the wave in an Author! Author! cheering section.

As eagle-eyed readers may have been able to discern through the lines of that last paragraph, I love announcing my readers’ triumphs along the long and bumpy road to publication. Keep that good news rolling in, everybody!

While we’re on the subject of subtleties of the tossing-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window variety — how’s that for a light-handed segue? — I’d like to devote today’s post to a species of manuscript problem that seems to be practically invisible to most writers who produce it. The fact that it is so hard for a self-editor to catch, however, in no way impairs its ability to irritate professional readers like our old pals, Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, to madness.

“Not again!” Millicent exclaims, her fingers itching to reach for the form-letter rejection pile. “This submission has gotten caught in a conceptual repetition loop!”

Surprising that a subtle problem could engender such a strong reaction? Don’t be: professional readers are trained to focus on the little stuff. Millicent in particular is trained to be on the look-out for typos, formatting problems, missing words, and all of the other signs that a manuscript is at least one revision away from being ready to market to editors.

Or, to express it in her terms, a submission that causes her itchy fingers to make actual contact with that stack of rejection letters. “Next!” she cries.

Yes, I know: I harp quite a lot on the importance of a manuscript’s being completely clean — at least in the opening pages — in order to skirt the specter of knee-jerk rejection, but I’m continually meeting very talented aspiring writers who complain about how often their work is getting rejected…but haven’t taken the time to remove, or even notice, the seven typos within the first two pages of their texts. While it’s certainly understandable that someone who wants to write for a living would be shocked or even horrified upon learning just how high professional standards actually are, this is no time to be in denial: assuming that one’s first draft is going to meet those standards without further revision or even proofreading has led thousands upon thousands down the primrose path to rejection.

Has that sunk in this time, or shall I play another verse on my harp? My fingers are all warmed up now.

To be fair, even writers who have been working on their craft for years are often stunned to realize that the pros pride themselves on noticing everything. And with good reason: contrary to popular opinion, to a pro, the proper use of language is an integral part of an author’s literary style and voice, not a purely cosmetic addition to it.

As a freelance editor, I find it fascinating how often aspiring writers equate Millicent’s focus on proper language use — which is part of her job, incidentally — with a dislike of good writing. In reality, quite the opposite is usually true: the people who choose to work in agencies and publishing houses almost invariably love beautiful writing and strong stories.

Paradoxically, this affection for the well-constructed sentence often renders reading a promising submission or contest entry more irritating than one where the writing just isn’t very good. “Oh, dear,” Mehitabel says, shaking her head regretfully over a page full of potential, “I hate it when this happens. If only this writer had taken the time to notice that he’s made the same point four times over the course of this scene, it would have been so much more compelling. Next!”

Seem like a petty reason to knock an otherwise well-written entry out of finalist consideration? Actually, it’s a rather common one. As I hope has become clear over the course of this series on notorious professional readers’ pet peeves, the manuscript problems that cause Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel to rend their garments are not always major gaffes like an authorial indifference to punctuation or a storyline that provokes the ejaculation, “Huh?” every other line.

They see those kinds of submissions, of course, but astonishingly often, the irritant is simply a page of text that makes the same point too many times. Why, here’s an example of that species of scene coming along right now.

See if you can catch the subtle narrative problem that might elicit a cry of, “Next!” Actually, you might want to hunt for three of them.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse flicked the blindingly white tablecloth over the polished oak surface. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He settled the cloth over the table. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities, Alphonse.”

“Nonsense.” He smoothed the tablecloth over the flat surface, checking for any lingering wrinkles his iron had missed. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

“But Alphonse, we can’t afford to keep you.”

He lowered a fork into its proper place. “I don’t cost much, Carol. I live mostly on my tips.”

She pounded the table, making the fork dance. “Alphonse, you live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” Alphonse reached to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” Carol shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the fork and spoon he had just placed. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

Alphonse laid down a soup spoon. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Come on, admit it — by halfway through this excerpt, you wanted to shout, “Criminy, Alphonse, enough with the table-setting! Move on to something else.”

So would Millicent, and she has the power to enforce that preference. Being editorially trained, she’s more likely to express it as, “Um, couldn’t most of the inter-dialogue narrative have been replaced very adequately by Alphonse set the table with care?” but you get the picture, right? To an intelligent reader who is paying attention, attenuating the description of a process by mentioning each and every step can make a scene seem much longer than it is.

In a case like this, where the activity is not inherently interesting — he’s setting a table, for heaven’s sake, not cross-checking the details for the first manned flight to Venus — it can be downright irritating. That page space could have been used for far more fascinating ends.

We’ve discussed a version of this phenomenon before, right? The Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem dogs many a manuscript submission: instead of just stating that a character does something relevant, like answer a ringing doorbell, the narrative will describe him hearing the ring, rising from his seat, taking step after step across the room, opening the door into the hallway, passing down the hallway, approaching the front door, grasping the knob, turning it, and pulling.

All of which could quite nicely be summed up as The doorbell rang. Yves answered it., right?

The meticulous-minded have had their hands politely raised for the last few paragraphs. Yes? “But Anne,” process-huggers protest, “I don’t agree that Alphonse has a WATR problem. The passage above merely shows his attention to minute detail, showing (not telling) that he’s a perfectionist. That’s legitimate character development, isn’t it?”

Well, in a way, detail-hounds. Yes, it demonstrates character; it’s just not the most interesting way to do it. Nor are these details in and of themselves likely to hold the reader’s attention.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about these problems being difficult to catch in one’s own work. To Alphonse’s creator, all of the mundane specifics above may well be gripping.

Remember, though, just because a character might conceivably perform an action isn’t necessarily enough reason to include it a manuscript. Since this is a process that it’s safe to assume every reader will have observed before, however, the page space would be better spent demonstrating his attention to detail in an activity with which most readers will be less familiar — constructing a multi-layered wedding cake, for instance.

Or at least one that tells the reader a little more about what kind of restaurant it is. Take a gander at how much more revealing this scene is if our Alphonse busies himself prepping the restaurant’s signature dessert.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse sharpened his personal paring knife — off-limits to the rest of the wait staff — on the whetstone he kept in his left pants pocket. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He wiped the gleaming knife on his handkerchief. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities, Alphonse.”

“Nonsense.” Holding his breath, he began cutting the zest off an orange in one long strip. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

She held her breath, too; if his blade slipped, the curly peel would be too short for the flames to dance down its liquored length to the customer’s coffee cup. “But Alphonse, we can’t afford to keep you.”

A perfect peel tumbled from his knife into the waiting silver bowl. “I don’t cost much, Carol. I live mostly on my tips.”

“Alphonse, you live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” Alphonse studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” Carol shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the brandy awaiting his match. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

With a pointing finger, Alphonse laboriously counted all of the ingredients on his café brulôt cart. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Nice way to combine character development for him and information about the restaurant, isn’t it? By killing the proverbial two birds with one stone, the reader is not only treated to a more interesting process to observe, but is faced with far less repetitive and predictable activity throughout the scene.

Speaking of repetitive, did you catch the two subtle narrative problems remaining in the text? Hint: one is on the scene level, and the other is on the sentence level.

If you grasped the nearest tablecloth, waved it over your head, and exclaimed, “The constant name repetition is visually most annoying,” help yourself to an extra orange off Alphonse’s cart. The characters’ names are mentioned far too often than is necessary for clarity. Indeed, since the only two characters in the scene are of different sexes, the narrative sections could dispense with all but the first of those eye-distracting capital letters.

But the narrative repetitions of their names actually account for relatively few if the iterations. The real culprit here is the extremely pervasive phenomenon of having the characters address one another by name far more often than people actually do in real life.

As a group, aspiring writers seem to adore this. Editorial opinion on why varies: some of us maintain that writers tend to compose lines of dialogue in short bursts, rather than entire scenes, so they don’t notice how often their characters are barking their names at one another; others assert that writers just like the names they have picked for their characters to want to see them again and again. (It’s not all that uncommon for first-time novelists to believe that simply changing a name will completely destroy the reader’s conception of the character, as if the name choice were so significant that no other character development was needed or wanted.) The more practical-minded believe that writers sometimes overuse name repetition in dialogue deliberately, to make it easier for readers to follow who is speaking when; the more cynical think that writers repeat the names to remind themselves who is speaking when.

If it’s the last, it’s not a bad strategy — at the composition stage. Alternating lines of dialogue where the count has gotten off is another of Millicent’s pet peeves, after all. It’s surprisingly common in submissions, and it’s often an instant-rejection trigger. Proofreading each and every line of dialogue that does not contain a tag line (the he said bit that identifies who is speaking), then, can make the difference between Millicent’s remaining involved in a dialogue scene and “Next!”

At the polishing stage, though, the training wheels should come off: the extraneous name markers need to go. Fortunately, if the scene is clearly written, with each character’s dialogue being distinct from the other’s, these cuts can be made with virtually no cost to the story.

“What is it you are trying to say, Carol?” With infinite care, Alphonse sharpened his personal paring knife — off-limits to the rest of the wait staff — on the whetstone he kept in his left pants pocket. “Apparently, I’m not getting it.”

She sighed. “We’ve been over this same ground thirty-seven times, Alphonse.”

He wiped the gleaming knife on his handkerchief. “Make it thirty-eight, then.”

“We don’t want to hold you back from other employment opportunities”

“Nonsense.” Holding his breath, he began cutting the zest off an orange in one long strip. “It’s a pleasure to work here.”

She held her breath, too; if his blade slipped, the curly peel would be too short for the flames to dance down its liquored length to the customer’s coffee cup. “But we can’t afford to keep you.”

A perfect peel tumbled from his knife into the waiting silver bowl. “I don’t cost much. I live mostly on my tips.”

“You live entirely on your tips. We haven’t paid you in seven months.”

“Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Alphonse!” she shouted. “I’ve fired you thirty-seven times already!”

He smiled, apparently at the brandy awaiting his match. “Thirty-eight, isn’t it?”

She slumped. “I give up.”

With a pointing finger, he laboriously counted all of the ingredients on his café brulét cart. “You always do, Carol. You always do.”

Did it surprise all of you self-editors that I kept Carol’s shout of “Ambrose!” That’s the one that has the strongest emotional resonance: essentially, she is trying to call him back to reality. Now that all of her other repetitions of his name are gone, it stands out as it should.

There’s one final pet peeve that remains uncorrected — and no, it’s not the dubiously-constructed clause about the pointing finger. I’ll give you a hint: there’s an improperly-formatted tag line haunting this scene.

Or, as Millicent would put it: “Studded is not a speaking verb! Neither is reach! Next!”

Not positive what she’s talking about? Okay, here are the offending sentence from each version, ripped out of context.

“Well, then,” Alphonse reached to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

“Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

See Millie’s point now? No? Okay, would it help to know that what the author originally meant was this?

“Well, then,” Alphonse said, reaching to nudge the fork back into line, “you can hardly complain that I’m overcharging you for my services.”

The problem lies in the first two versions of this sentence using reach or stud, respectively, as substitutes for said. Since only verbs that refer to speech may legitimately be used in a tag line, the end result is improper — and a misuse of that first comma.

How so? “Well, then,” he studded the peel with whole cloves, is a run-on sentence. In a tag line, the comma indicates that a speaking verb is to follow. So while this is correct:

“I’m coming, Harry,” Celeste said.

This is not:

“I’m coming, Harry.” Celeste said.

Nor is:

“I’m coming, Harry,” Celeste put on her hat.

Those last two look very wrong, don’t they? Yet you would not believe how often these errors appear in otherwise well-written dialogue. My theory is that it’s a Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon: aspiring writers may write tag lines correctly the first time around, but come revision time, they change the verb without noticing that they have not altered the punctuation to match.

Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel can’t believe the frequency with which tag line problems crop up, either, but their explanation tends to be less charitable. “If these people want to write dialogue professionally,” they ask one another over flaming cups of coffee, “why wouldn’t they take the time to learn how tag lines work? Or to proofread?”

You have to admit, those are pretty darned good questions. If you’ll just hang around while I set the table for 18 people, perhaps we could discuss them at length.

Just not, please, on the manuscript page; both life and Millicent’s overloaded reading schedule are too short to read repetitive descriptions of uninteresting activities. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XII: give that horn a rest, Bozo. Or at least save it for the moment when it will have the most effect.

Every spring, I like to go on a media fast for a few days, just to reset my perspective: I eschew newspapers, television, radio, and yes, even my own blog. Instead of these shiny, frenetic distractions, I walk outside, breathe the fresh air, and bask in light that isn’t reflected from a screen. Then, refreshed, I can return to my work.

Normally, I wait until Seattle is warm enough for me to take those aforementioned walks without being bundled up to my nose in sweaters, jackets, and mufflers. This year, however, the muses were kind enough to provide me with tap on the shoulder and a murmured, “It’s time to go, sweetie.”

Actually, if I’m honest about it, their hint was more of a gigantic shove and a bellow of “Get a move on, doll!” that would have made the late and loud Ethel Merman wheel around in alarm, exclaiming, “What the heck was that?” But omen-watchers can’t be choosers, so out the door I went.

What happened, you ask? Well, at the end of last week, I logged into Facebook (where I have recently erected a fanpage, incidentally) to check in with some friends in Tokyo, as one does when natural and manmade disasters occur simultaneously. When I tried to post a comment, a brusque message informed me that the system had experienced a technical error. The dialogue box invited me to click on an ostensibly helpful link entitled Try Again.

That seemed like sensible advice: I clicked it once. The system then proceeded to post my comment 94 times, of its own accord. And frankly, what I’d had to say would have been interesting to even the most avid reader three or four times, at most.

But in the best tradition of false suspense, Facebook did not show me those 94 comments. Instead, it simply sent me back to my own homepage, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. So how did I find out about the infamous 94 at all? Because when I tried commenting on another friend’s page, up popped a genuinely nasty message saying that I was blocked from posting for some indefinite period of time, ranging (it said) anywhere from a few hours to a few days, because of my ongoing patter of (unnamed) malicious behavior annoying or abusive to other users.

What that behavior was, I was left to guess; the message merely referred me to a FAQ page. In the manner of badly-designed FAQ pages everywhere, it simply repeated verbatim what the message that had sent me there said. Grumbling, I went back to my friend’s page and did something that the harsh rebuke had not advised, but should have: I manually deleted 93 of those messages, one at a time. Because the system isn’t set up do mass deletions, this took almost 20 minutes.

Now, I could have taken this blatantly unfair series of events in any number of ways. I could have shaken my head over just how much time advancing technology manages to waste in all of our lives — as any aspiring writer trying to blandish a recalcitrant PC into printing a document in standard format (it’s easier on a Mac), unless the program’s designers happened to envision the problem one wants to solve, even the simplest change can eat up hours. I could also have wondered whether Facebook had invented this glitch on purpose, as an excuse to get rid of subscribers. I could even have thrown up my hands and concluded that the computers have become sentient — if not particularly intelligent — and are now turning on their masters.

But I’m an editor by trade. The very first words I uttered when I finally tracked down what the problem was: “94 posts that all say the same thing! That’s almost as repetitious as dialogue in the average submission.”

Hey, my assistant laughed when I said it. Shortly before I told her to take a long weekend and walked out the door myself, seeking a soothing walk in the rain, early spring flowers, and some peace from computer systems that have apparently decided the next step toward world domination is to create a class of unjustly accused computer outcasts.

Early in my walk, I had intended to use that anecdote as a springboard for a well-justified lecture about the dangers of replicating the extreme redundancy of everyday speech on the manuscript page, but by the time I returned home, rivulets streaming from my hair, the muses had talked me into a sneakier way to make a literary point. Ahem: did you catch the rather fundamental storytelling error I deliberately inserted into that story?

Hint: it happens in comic manuscripts so often that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, automatically twitches a little at the very sight of it.

If you flung your hand in the air and yelled, “I know, Anne! The narrative had another character, your assistant, laugh as a means of demonstrating that a joke was funny,” you already have an A for the day. If you added, “And the assistant character didn’t appear in the story until she was needed to provide the laugh track,” make that an A+.

What about this narrative trick sets Millie a-twitching, you ask? To a professional reader, it’s a telltale sign of authorial insecurity: if the writer were positive that the joke were really funny, Millicent reasons, why would he think the reader needed a prompt to laugh?

Comedic insecurity’s shows up in a few other twitch-inducing manifestations on the manuscript page. I’ve included specimens of four kinds in the following sterling piece of prose — and, just for kicks, another common non-humor pet peeve. See if you can spot them all.

Melvyn glanced stealthily over his shoulder. No one had ever caught him hacking into someone else’s account to post endlessly redundant messages; he wasn’t even sure what dire punishment would await a brave soul caught doing such a thing. Trembling, he reached a hairy forefinger toward the ENTER key.

“Hey, geek.” Clarice came bouncing into the room, a stack of invoices wedged under her arm. “You hiding from the boss? She’s on a fourteen-apple rampage.”

Melvyn chuckled. Arnette was always on some kind of rampage, so he and the other staffers had come up with a rating scale like the one used for diamonds: the weightier her mood, the bigger the number of carats. Bill had just gotten engaged at the time, so solitaire classifications were much discussed around the office. Then some office wag decided that carats weren’t funny enough and changed them to apples. A fourteen-apple rampage must have been impressive to behold.

If you guessed that one of the problems was that the explanation in the last paragraph was boring enough to send Millicent’s weary eyes wandering morosely toward the window to contemplating the sweet spring day outside, well, you have a point. Like so many inside jokes ripped from real-life situations and reproduced faithfully on the page, this bit of office humor falls a bit flat.

A word to the wise: jokes like this should be test-driven verbally before you even consider typing them into your manuscript — and driven by people who do not know anything about the original context of the joke. If total strangers do not respond with mirth, chances are that, as the saying goes, you had to be there in order to find it funny.

Millicent was most assuredly not there. Need I say more?

What else is wrong with this bit of failed office humor? Did you notice that the text laid no foundation for the joke? Had an earlier scene featured some reference to the carat rating system, Clarice’s changing it to apples might have been spontaneously funny. Heck, there could be a running joke where each staffer substitutes his or her own favored fruit, vegetable, or legume.

Okay, so maybe you still would have had to be there. But there’s no denying that the last paragraph was funnier because it contained the word legume.

Unexpected words can often liven up an otherwise so-so bit of humor. As we saw in the example above, the opposite is also true: uninspired word choices can flatten even a funny situation on the page. And when the situation isn’t all that funny in the first place…

Well, I don’t think any of us want to be there, do we?

I spot a few clowns with their oversized gloves in the air. Yes, Bozo? “But Anne,” the red-nosed one points out, and who am I to deny the request of someone in a rainbow-hued fright wig? “How do we know that the author of that example hadn’t set up the joke earlier in the book? This is just an isolated excerpt; we really don’t know anything about context.”

Good point, but would you mind not honking that ooga horn in my face? Thank you so much. Something in the passage itself told me as clearly as if the author had hoisted a ten-foot banner reading FIRST WE’VE HEARD OF THIS over the page that the text had been a trifle light on set up. Any guesses what it was?

If you immediately started jumping up and down, shouting, “If a foundation had been laid for that joke, the turgid paragraph-long explanation would have been unnecessary,” your cup runneth over with editorial virtue. Properly set-up humor does not require further explanation — in fact, telling someone who didn’t laugh why a joke was funny is one of the surest ways to kill any residual humor that might have been lingering in the atmosphere.

Is that plain, or shall I re-explain it? Over and over again, until you wish I had never brought it up in the first place?

On the manuscript page, explanation after the fact is one of the surest signs that the writer has doubts about the joke. “If she thought that it could stand alone,” Millicent mutters, “why would she have slowed the scene down with a paragraph of explanation. Next!”

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, failed humor is often an instant-rejection violation, at least within the first few pages of a submission — and not merely because it’s a high dive that ended in a belly flop. It’s a voice issue, and a marketing one. While the genuinely funny is quite refreshing to find in the middle of a stack of manuscripts, if only because of its rarity, jokes that don’t work tell professional readers that the writer is not yet closely in tune with his audience.

His intended reading audience, that is, not just first readers he may have plucked from his doubtless wide and admiring acquaintance to serve as first readers. It’s an unavoidable reality of comedy writing that people who know and love the author are far more likely to laugh at his jokes than total strangers.

Trust me, Millicent has heard, “But it made my mom/husband/wife/sibling/coworker howl with laughter!” many, many times; to the pros, it’s simply irrelevant. No matter how much a joke or situation may have ‘em rolling in the aisles of your favorite dispenser of alcoholic beverages, if it doesn’t make a stranger laugh as it is written on the page, it’s likely to be a liability at submission time.

Okay, writers without comedic aspirations, your time has come: what was the other common Millicents’ pet peeve? Hint: it appeared in the following sentence.

Then some office wag decided that carats weren’t funny enough and changed them to apples.

Give up? It’s that pesky then, used in a manner that is actually rare not to find in a novel or memoir submission. (Again, don’t underestimate how much sheer repetition can contribute to a professional reader’s negative reaction to a manuscript gaffe. You try seeing the same narrative device in 75 different submissions in a week, and you might well start twitching, too.)

Okay, so that’s a tiny pet peeve — but as we have seen throughout this series, a series of small missteps can add up to rejection fairly quickly. Especially if several of them have chosen to congregate on page 1.

But why might this innocent-seeming word have begun annoying the pros in the first place? An editorial antipathy toward redundancy, mostly: when used in the way we see it above, to indicate that what came next occurred after what’s just been described, then — and its even more popular sibling, and then — are technically unnecessary. In English prose, unless the reader is specifically told that time is not running in a linear manner, events described are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page.

That being the case, why is it necessary to tell the reader that the office wag’s decision came after the carat joke had spread throughout the office? Does the reader have any reason to think that it didn’t happen next?

Instead, why not reserve then to introduce turns of event that might genuinely startle the reader? Millicent is far less likely to object to it as the clarion call of an unexpected sudden plot twist than as a simple and unnecessary notation of the passage of time. Take a gander:

Bill had just gotten engaged at the time, so solitaire classifications were much discussed around the office. Then in the middle of the fifth straight day of coffee-break chat on the subject, Arnette swept into the employee lounge, wielding a roll of duct tape. She slapped a piece across every kisser that so much as uttered the word carat. Thereafter, we were careful to use euphemisms.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s a surprise more than worthy of being introduced to Millicent by then.

Yes, Bozo? You honked your horn? “I wouldn’t really mind Millicent’s objecting to my use of then, or even not finding my jokes funny; I get that my humor might not be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea. I also get that agency screeners read a lot of submissions in a day. What I object to is not being told what specifically triggered the rejection. How hard would it be to scrawl a single sentence fragment in the margins at the point where they stopped reading, so the submitting writer would know why the manuscript was rejected? Or even just make a mark on the page, so the writer would know where the screener stopped reading?”

I have to say, I’m with you on this one, campers: a simple checklist of the most common rejection reasons would take Millicent very little time to fill out. It would be even speedier to print up a few hundred thousand stickers reading, “Show, don’t tell!” or “Where’s the conflict?” so she could slap ‘em on the manuscript page at the precise point where her pet peeve got to her. At least then, the writer could learn enough from the submission experience to improve the manuscript before trying again.

But that, alas, is not the reality of submission in the current hyper-competitive literary environment. We could expend a great deal of energy resenting that the process is set up not to help aspiring writers learn how to get better at submission, but for Millicent to be able to reject as high a proportion of requested materials as possible, to narrow the masses down to the happy few her boss has time to read and consider.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather invest my energies in teaching you to rid your submissions of the most frequent red flags. For the rest of today’s post, I shall concentrate on the rejection reasons that would make the most sense for agency screeners to rubber-stamp upon submissions: ubiquitous problems that are relatively easy for the writer to fix.

If she knows to fix them, that is.

One of my favorite easily-fixed common problems: a manuscript aimed at an adult audience that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene. If the teenager is the focus of page 1, Millicent is prone to say, “Oh, this is YA — the writer must think that we represent it. Next!”

Remember, there is no easier rejection than a book category that an agency does not handle. (That’s one reason that most agencies prefer query letters to contain the book category in the first paragraph, FYI: it enables agency screeners to reject queries about types of books they do not represent without reading the rest of the letter.) In an agency that represents both, the submission would be read with a different target market in mind, and thus judged by the wrong rules.

“Wait just a cotton-picking minute!” I here some of you out there murmuring. “This isn’t my fault; it’s the screener’s. All anyone at an agency would have to do to tell the difference is to take a look at the synopsis they asked me to include, and…”

Stop right there, oh murmurers, because you’re about to go down a logical wrong path. As we discussed earlier in this series, you can’t legitimately assume that Millicent is going to read your synopsis prior to reading your submission — or indeed at all. Nor is she even remotely likely to have your query letter at her elbow when she begins your manuscript, so she may refresh her recollection of what the book is about. As an unfortunate but direct result, it’s never safe to assume that the screener deciding whether your first page works or not is already familiar with your premise.

Why? Limited time. Millicent needs to figure out whether the submission in front of her is a compelling story, true, but she also needs to be able to determine whether the writing is good AND the style appropriate to the subject matter. An adult style and vocabulary in a book pitched at 13-year-olds, obviously, would send up some red flags in her mind.

Or even in a book she assumes is aimed at 13-year-olds. For those of you who write about teenagers for the adult market, I have a bold suggestion: make sure that your title and style in the opening pages reflect a sensibility that is unquestionably adult, so your work is judged by the right rules. This can be genuinely difficult if your narrator is a teenager.

Which brings me to another easily-fixed rejection reason: narration in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate. This issue crops up all the time not just in YA, but in books about children aimed at adult readers — as a general rule of thumb, if your protagonist is a pre-Civil War teenaged farmhand, he should not speak as if he graduated from Dartmouth in 2002. Nor should a narrator who is a 6-year-old girl wield the vocabulary of an English Literature professor.

Oh, you may laugh. Care to guess how many novels like that the average Millicent sees in a year?

Usually, though, the misfit between narrator and voice is not quite so obvious. Often, teenage protagonists are portrayed from an adult’s, or even a parent’s, point of view, creating narrators who are hyper-aware that hormones are causing their mood swings or character behavior apparently motivated (from the reader’s point of view, anyway) solely by age, not individual personality or the ambient conditions. But teenagers, by and large, do not think of themselves as moody, impossible, or even resentful; most of them, when asked, will report that they are just trying to get along in situations where they have responsibilities but few rights and little say over what they do with their time and energy.

Yet screeners are constantly seeing openings where teenage girls practice bulimia simply because they want to fit in, teenage boys act like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, teenage characters flounce off to their rooms to sulk — and everyone between the ages of 10 and 19 habitually says, “Whatever,” and rolls his or her eyes on the slightest provocation. Yes, some teenagers do these things, undoubtedly, but in novels, these behaviors have been documented so often that they come across as clichés. Compounding the problem: teenage characters and narrators who diagnose these activities as an adult would are accordingly rife.

That might not bug a 45-year-old professional reader very much, but agency screeners and editorial assistants tend to be really young: many weren’t teenagers all that long ago. Sometimes, they are still young enough to resent having been pigeonholed in their recent youths, and if your manuscript is sitting in front of them, what better opportunity to express that resentment than rejecting it is likely to present itself?

So do be careful, and make sure you are showing Millicent something she doesn’t see twenty times per week. When in doubt, take a long, hard look at your teenage characters and ask yourself, “Is this kid continually emitting martyred signs because of what’s going on, or because of who he is as an individual? Or — and I need to be honest here — is he doing this simply because this is how I think teenagers in general act?”

Those questions are worth acting with any character who happens to be a member of a commonly-stereotyped group (“Are all of the pretty characters in my book dumb, and the homely ones smart?”), but perhaps because so many first-time novelists of books about teens are the parents of same, Millicent tends to be especially sensitive to stereotyping of the young. And I have to say, I’m with her on this one: the best opening with a teenage protagonist I ever saw specifically had the girl snap out of an agony of self-doubt (which could easily have degenerated into cliché) into responsible behavior in the face of a crisis on page 1. To submission-wearied professional eyes, reading a manuscript where the teenaged protagonist had that kind of emotional range was like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day: most refreshing.

One of the most common ways to tactics up a teenage scene in the past is an opening including quotes from song lyrics. Yes, this can be an effective way to establish a timeframe without coming out and saying, hey, reader, it’s 1982, but it is also very, very overused. I blame this tactic’s use in movies and TV: in the old days, soundtracks used to contain emotionally evocative incidental music, but in recent years, the soundtrack for any movie set in the 20th-century past is a virtual replica of the K-Tel greatest hits of (fill in timeframe), as if no one in any historical period ever listed to anything but top 40.

I’m fairly confident, for instance, that there was no period in American history where dance bands played only the Charleston, where every radio played nothing but American Pie, or every television was tuned to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Yes, even when Elvis or the Beatles appeared on it. Writers are creative people — don’t we owe it to ourselves as a group to mix it up a bit more?

Other than ubiquity, there are other reasons that agents and their screeners tend to frown upon the inclusion of song lyrics in the opening pages of a book. Unless the song is within the public domain — and the last time I checked, Happy Birthday still wasn’t, so we are talking about a long lead time here — the publisher will need to get permission from whoever owns the rights to the song in order to reproduce it.

Translation: song lyrics on page one automatically mean more work for the editor. And possibly expense. Think that will make the book harder or easier for Millicent’s boss to sell?

Also, one of the benefits of setting a sentiment to music is that it is easier to sound profound in song than on the printed page. No disrespect to song stylists, but if you or I penned some of those lines, we would be laughed out of our writers’ groups. For this reason, song lyrics taken out of context and plopped onto the page often fall utterly flat — especially if the screener is too young to have any personal associations with that song.

Yes, that makes me feel rather old sometimes, too.

It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead started cropping up on a lot of agents’ pet peeve lists immediately after THE LOVELY BONES came out. Ghostly narrators began wandering into agencies with a frequency unseen since the old TWILIGHT ZONE series was influencing how fantasy was written in North America on a weekly basis. And wouldn’t you know it, the twist in many of these submissions turns out to be that the reader doesn’t learn that the narrator is an unusually chatty corpse until late in the book, or at any rate after the first paragraph of the first page.

Remember what I was saying the other day about Millicent’s not liking to feel tricked by the early pages of a submission in to thinking the story is about something that it isn’t? Well…

I’ll leave you to ponder the possibilities. I’m off to have dinner with a sulky teenager who prattles on about peer pressure, a child who speaks as though she is about to start collecting Social Security any day now, and a fellow who may or may not have kicked the bucket half a decade ago. Honestly, if agents and editors would only recognize that we writers are merely holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, all of our lives would be infinitely easier.

Insert eye roll here. Followed by a nice, long blast on Bozo’s horn, just in case anyone didn’t get that the last suggestion was a joke. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VIII: details that might give Millicent pause

I feel as though I’ve started a disproportionate number of my posts this year with sorry about the silence of X length, so I’ll spare you another repetition. Suffice it to say that while my spirit is very much with the Author! Author! community every day, the flesh is weak. At least in the wake of cars smashing into it.

As an editor, I can’t help but feel that if recovery was going to take this long, or be anywhere near this energy-sapping, some medical person should have at least dropped a hint of it in the first act, back in the summertime. This is one instance where a plot flare would have been really, really helpful to the protagonist. But no — until January, the major characters (and their major insurers) just kept stringing me along with false suspense.

And we all know how I, Millicent the agency screener, and professional readers everywhere feel about that. “Next!”

Actually, my energy is rather low today, too. However, I figured that getting back on the proverbial horse with an uncharacteristically short post right now was worth two longer posts at some dim, unspecified future point — because, let’s face it, it’s probably going to be as tempting tomorrow to say, “Oh, I’m just not up to it today,” isn’t it?

That’s not a bad rule for writing in general, by the way: it can add years to a writing project if the writer keeps saying, “Oh, I’m not really up to/don’t have time for/just don’t feel like writing today; I’ll wait until I’m feeling better/have an entire day/weekend/month free/am bashed over the head by an indignant muse.” There honestly is value in sitting down to write regularly, rather than only when inspiration happens to strike or the kids are off at fifth grade camp.

Why? Well, I don’t think I’d be giving away a trade secret if I pointed out that while inspiration is undoubtedly important to the writing process, there’s no getting around doing the actual work of putting words on a page.

Shall I assume that breeze ruffling the treetops outside my studio’s window is the collective huff of indignation from those who believe that writing is 99% inspiration, and only 1% conscious effort? Normally, I would pause to point out that one virtually never meets a professional writer who sits down at the keyboard only when s/he’s inspired: after one has been at it a while, and had the experience of incorporating feedback from agents and editors (or a really on-the-ball critique group), one learns that waiting for the muses to clamor isn’t a very efficient way to get a story on paper. Besides, if inspiration produces complex book ideas, it will take intense application to flesh them out. For every second of “Aha!” in the production of a good book, there are hours, days, weeks, or even years of solid, hard work to realize those aha moments beautifully on the page.

As my energies are a bit low, though, I shall resist. Instead, I’m going to devote today’s post to a whole raft of genuinely tiny writing gaffes that set professional readers’ teeth on edge.

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly so, “isn’t that what you’ve been doing throughout this series? We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks now about Millicent’s pet peeves, manuscript ills that might not individually engender instant rejection, but that cumulatively might add up to it. Because, as you so like to point out, few submissions or contest entries are rejected for only one reason: like wolves, manuscript troubles tend to travel in packs.”

How nice that you remember my aphorisms so clearly, campers. We have indeed been discussing consistent Millicent-provokers — which, lest we forget tend to annoy Maury the editorial assistant and Mehitabel the contest judge with equal intensity. As the series have been moving along, though, I’ve noticed that we’ve been drifting toward larger narrative problems.

Today, I want to regale you with honest-to-goodness nit-picks. You know, the stuff that drives editors completely batty, but an ordinary reader might not notice at all.

Oh, you weren’t aware of how differently a professional reader scans a page than everybody else? It’s pretty radical. Take, for instance, the following passage. To a lay reader, as well as the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, it would be fairly innocuous, but to a pro, it’s as irritating as all get-out. See if you can spot why.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila’s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

Okay, why might this annoy Millicent after her fourth cup of coffee? After all, it’s not badly written (if I do say so myself): the pacing is tight, the emotion convincing, and only a few of passages is in the passive voice. (I had mentioned that most professional readers are specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently weak prose style, right?) It even produces suspense by showing, rather than telling that Sheila is scared.

So why would Millicent’s angry teeth marks be clearly visible on the rim of her disposable coffee cup by the end of this passage? Let’s look at it again, this time as a professional reader would see it.

Sheila stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, Sheila continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either Sheila‘s feet or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, her feet were a blur.

See it now? All of that name repetition is eye-distracting on the page — and as Sheila is the only person in the scene, not even vaguely necessary for clarity. In fact, if this excerpt is from a close third-person narrative, presumably the entire book up this point has been about Sheila, arguably any unspecified she is going to be presumed to refer to her. So why irritate Millie by inviting her skimming eye to leap from one capital S to the next on the page?

First novels and memoirs are notorious for having the protagonist’s name appear multiple times on a single page. A great test for whether name repetition is actually necessary: if any given repetition of the name could be eliminated, and it would still be perfectly clear what’s going on, the proper noun may not be necessary.

Let’s go ahead and see if that’s the case here. While I’m at it, I’m going to eliminate the other word repetition as well.

She stopped short, listening, her hand clutching the guardrail. Those footsteps must have been echoes of her own. Not altogether surprising, in a canyon. Smiling at herself, she continued down the steep stone staircase.

There it was again, a syncopated beat not in time with either her descent or her pounding heart. She sped up, but the rhythm remained the same: shoe, shoe, silence, thump from above. By the time she reached the bottom of the gulley, she was taking stairs three at a time.

Doesn’t change the action much, does it? An argument could be made that the original version’s Sheila, Sheila, silence, footfall was a trifle creepier than the revised list; I might well have advised keeping it. Overall, however, this draft is considerably easier on the eyes.

Again, the poor trees outside are being visibly oppressed by gusty sighs from experienced self-editor. “But Anne,” lovers of 19th-century novels protest, “as an aficionado of the passive voice, I feel a bit cheated by the revised version: you seem to have skipped some of the work I would have had to do. You changed only one instance of the passive voice, yet the italics marking the other two vanished. Why, when you didn’t rework those sections?”

Good question, adorers of indirect expressions of fact. I removed the italics because chances are, these uses of the passive voice would not have struck Millicent as particularly irritating.

Why not? Simple: she was not already annoyed by something else in this passage.

Wow — was that a thunderclap, or did half of my readership just simultaneously shout, “Aha!” to the heavens? I can’t say as I blame you: it often throws aspiring writers for a loop to realize that the same sentence might irritate a professional reader in one context, but be perfectly passable in another.

Let’s take a look at another example, a phenomenon almost as common as over-naming. This time, I’m going to leave you to guess what would get Millicent gnawing the edge of that coffee cup like a hyperactive rabbit.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the sunset back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age 10 could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Not a bad description, is it? If a bit architecturally unlikely: the windows would have had to be pretty massive to give a lady on the street such a clear view inside. But that’s not what might stop Millicent from giving up on this house by the middle of the paragraph.

Some of your hands have been waving impatiently in the air since that second sentence. Have at it: “Anne, this is a Frankenstein manuscript: the writer repeated the image about the sunset within a single line, something that is exceedingly unlikely to happen either in initial composition — unless it was intended as a narrative joke — or to be the author’s intent in a revised version.”

Give yourselves a gold star for the day, eagle-eyed revisers. You’re quite right: what probably happened here is that the writer began to change that sentence, but did not complete the revision. Cue, if not Dr. Frankenstein, than at least Millicent: “Well, this one is still a work-in-progress. Next!”

Award yourself two if you also caught the red flag in the final sentence: a number under 100 in numerical form, rather than written out. That’s a violation of standard format for manuscripts.

Since either of those gaffes might well have triggered rejection all by themselves — yes, really, especially if either occurred within the first few pages of a submission — let’s revisit this passage with them excised. The lesser pet peeve will still remain.

Sheila stopped short, stunned by the beauty of the house before her. Beneath a gabled roof, dormer windows reflected the reds and golds of the dying day back at her like languid eyes staring into a sunset. Gaily-colored curtains wafted gently out of windows on the two lower floors, revealing coy peeks at the life lived inside: overstuffed armchairs, equally overstuffed roll-top desks, a wood-paneled dining room, colorful duckies and bunnies frolicking across the wallpaper of a nursery, austere rows of books up the wall of what was clearly a library, and pies wafting sweet persuasion from the kitchen. The resemblance to the dollhouse she had designed for herself at age ten could not have been stronger if a genie had blown upon her juvenile sketches and made them jump to life.

Better already, is it not? But did that over-long third sentence give you pause this time around?

It would have stopped Millicent dead, like Sheila, in her tracks, if not made her choke on her last sip of latte. But why? Again, it is showing the house, not just talking about it; the details here are rather interesting. So what is the problem here?

If you instantly shouted, “This information is presented in a list, not in descriptive sentences,” grab another star out of petty cash. While a lay reader might not mind an occasional list of attributes in establishing what a space or a person looks like to a professional reader, that third sentence would read like the notes for a future version of this description, not the description itself.

Generally speaking, a list is the least interesting way to describe, well, anything — and isn’t it the writer’s job to describe things, places, and people beautifully?

To be fair, list sentences like the one above are considered a trifle more acceptable in nonfiction writing, although still not regarded as particularly scintillating prose style. In fiction, however, Millicent tends to read them as what they are: the single quickest way to slap a whole bunch of attributes down on the page.

That might not be especially problematic if such a sentence appeared, say, once or twice in an entire manuscript — although it’s a common enough pet peeve that I would strenuously advise against the use of a list description within the first couple of pages of a submission, or even within the first chapter. Unfortunately, writers fond of this type of sentence will often use it several times within a single scene.

Or even — sacre bleu! — a single page.

That last observation sent some of you scrambling for your manuscript, didn’t it? I’m not entirely surprised. List descriptions are ubiquitous in physical descriptions of, for instance, the variety indigenous to the opening pages of novels.

Often, several such sentences appear back-to-back, causing Millicent’s fingers to positively itch for a form-letter rejection. And who could blame her, confronted by prose this purple?

Sheila stopped short on the threshold, her long, red hair whipping around her head like an impetuous halo. She was dressed in a purple skirt that hid her fine, well-developed legs, an orange peasant blouse cut low enough to elicit a whistle from Figgis, the butler who opened the door, and a rust-colored belt that left no doubt as to the excellence of her corsetiere. Her lithe waist, elegant arms, and lengthy neck alone bespoke years of painstaking dance training under the tutelage of a bevy of governesses, while the proud tilt of her head, the willful flash of her eye, and imperious gesture at Figgis might have told an onlooker that she must have put those poor governesses through a merry hell throughout her formative years. Only her stout boots, betopped by fringed stockings, and the muddy lace of the pantaloons peeking out from beneath the folds of her gown belied the impression of a fine lady.

I’m not even going to try to revise that one: it’s a laundry list, in some portions literally. Surely, a talented writer could have come up with a more graceful way to introduce Sheila to the reader. At the very least, a writer with some sympathy for how many first pages Millicent sees in a week would not have opened the book with all of that tempestuous red hair.

Only long, blonde hair is more common for heroines. Would it kill you people to treat Millicent to the sight of a Dorothy Hamill pixie or a Louise Brooks bob every now and again, just for variety?

Another way in which lists often torture Millicent’s soul at screening time is in descriptions of physical activity by writers who — how can I put this delicately? — are evidently laboring under the mistaken impression that the primary point of writing is to tell the reader everything that happened, right down to the last twitch of a toe. Although on the page, not every action is equally relevant to what’s going on or even particularly interesting to see mentioned, a hefty proportion of aspiring novelists and memoirists routinely devote line after line to lists of actions that, frankly, the narrative could probably have done without.

And that’s unfortunate at submission time, as Hades hath no fury like a Millicent bored. It’s hard to blame her, either. See for yourself.

Sheila stopped short, contemplating the task ahead of her. In order to rescue that puppy, she would have to roll up her sleeves, hike up her skirt, and risk her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape, stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch once greeted visitors, shimmied across, and jumped lightly across the threshold. It was dark inside, cobwebby, dusty, and generally uncared-for. Reaching into her pocket — not the one concealed under her skirt, holding her identification papers, but the one just under the lapel of her close-fitting jacket — she felt around until her fingertips made contact with her great-grandfather’s trusty lighter, drew it forth, and struck it with the pad of her dainty thumb seven times until flame spurted from its top. Holding it high above her head so none of her long, red hair would catch fire, she placed one foot in front of another, moved out of the doorway, edged her way across the foyer, and walked toward the living room.

It’s not many lines of text, but ‘fess up: by the middle of the paragraph, you were ready to scream, “Get on with it, already!”

Millicent would be only too glad to join you in that refrain. Especially since all of the actually interesting and plot-relevant information in this passage could have been neatly summarized thus — and better still, shown, not told:

Rescuing that puppy would endanger her manicure, but she couldn’t abandon Aunt Gertie’s favorite pet. Slapping a brave smile onto her face, she lifted the police tape and stepped onto the wobbly wooden planks covering the chasm where the porch had once been. She brushed aside the cobwebs concealing half the doorway. It took seven tries to convince her grandfather’s battered gold lighter to produce flame. Holding it high above her head, she edged her way toward the living room.

Still not the happiest of phrasing, admittedly — but isn’t it astonishing how little taking out all of that extra activity detracts from the reader’s sense of what is going on? Now, Sheila appears to make up her mind, then take quick, decisive action.

One last pop quiz on Millicent-irking, then I shall sign off for the day. Assuming that all of these excerpts came from the same manuscript, why might a harried screener have been shouting, “Next!” by the time her overworked eyeballs encountered the first sentence of the last example, regardless of what followed it?

If you slapped your desk and exclaimed, “By jingo, it would be darned annoying to see Sheila stopping short anywhere after the first couple of times,” consider your quiz so covered with gold stars that your mom will post it on the fridge for weeks. Because reading one’s manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD is so very, very rare (except among you fine people, of course), aspiring writers tend not to notice how fond they are of showing their characters engaged in particular actions.

Nodding, for instance. Head-shaking. Turning. Walking. Or, in this case, not walking — stopping short.

Oh, come on — weren’t you wondering by the third repetition in this blog why I was so fond of the phrase? Imagine Millicent’s chagrin when Sheila stops short every ten or fifteen pages throughout the entire manuscript. Then picture her reaction when the next submission she screens has its own pet phrase, as does the one seven down the stack.

You would start gnawing on the edge of your coffee cup, too. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It takes more than clarity to impress a professional reader, however. As we’ve seen in the last couple of posts, though, the fine folks who read manuscripts for a living — such as our old pals, Millicent the hardworking agency screener, Maury the literature-loving editorial assistant, and Mehitabel, the dedicated volunteer contest judge — read a whole lot more closely than other people. They also tend to make up their minds far more rapidly than other readers about whether a text has merit: if the first line on the page is well-written, they will move on to the second; if the second passes muster, then it’s on to the third. And so forth until either the story draws them in completely or they have already invested so much time in reading the manuscript that they start to look for reasons to accept it, rather than excuses to reject it.

Even if our example above had fallen late in a manuscript, it’s hard to imagine Millicent’s being able to come up with many reasons to be pleased. It’s stuffed to the gills with common actions and hackneyed phrases. None of them sufficient to trigger a “Next!” on its own, perhaps, but cumulatively, they smother the scene.

At minimum, they are distractions. Instead of being able to concentrate on the story or the characters, Millicent’s psyche is busy snapping out annoyed commentary. Let’s eavesdrop on her thoughts.

“Yeah? I could care less.” {She means she couldn’t care less, and this is a cliché.} Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes {Overused action.}, she held up a finger at him {Whose finger — her maid’s? Albert Einstein’s? A time-traveler from the year 4075? If it’s her finger, why not just say so?}. “Can you hold on a sec? {Stock phrase.} I have to take this call.” {And another.}

Pablo sighed {Overused action.}, but he nodded. {Ditto.} What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. {Not a bad thought, but in the passive voice.}His time was valuable {Cliché.}; he had things to do {Cliché.}, places to go, people to meet. {And the third time’s a charm.}

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently {One of the two standard actions to indicate impatience}, and drumming his fingers {And here’s the other.}, on the marble tabletop. He waved his hand at her. {Overused action — and what would he be waving, other than his hand?}, “Babs?” he whispered, gesturing toward the grandfather clock. {A weak way to indicate that it’s in the room},”I’ve got to get going.” {Stock phrase.},

She nodded her head {As opposed to, say, nodding her Achilles tendon.} absently. Her loyal staff exchanged glances {Overused action.} and smiled. {And another. And heaven forfend that the narrative should not make me guess what the content of the thoughts these completely generic actions conveyed were…}

Resigned, he took a seat {Stock phrasing}, shaking his head {Overused action.} ruefully. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought. {Kind of clever, but expressed in the passive voice.}

Ouch. Especially that comment in paragraph 3 about gesturing toward the grandfather clock being a weak way to show the reader that such an object is in the room. This is an editor-annoying tactic from way back: much as an inexperienced actor will point to physical objects on the set as he names them, writers new to the game will often depict their characters gesturing toward people or items in mid-dialogue.

Why is that problematic? Well, unless the object or person magically appeared second before the description, it’s seldom the most graceful way to work the information into the narrative. Nor is it particularly realistic. Generally speaking, people notice large objects when they first spot them, not at some undefined point later on.

Yet, as Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel would be only to happy to tell you, scenes are often written as though even the most monumental portions of the scenery came panting up to the characters at the last possible moment, hastily flinging themselves into position just in time for a speaker to notice them. On the page, this phenomenon tends to look a little something like this:

“But Giséle,” Trevor whined, “we can’t turn back now. We’re almost there.”

She tossed her tempestuous red curls. “Where is there?”

He pointed to the Empire State Building, rising up out of the concrete before them. “Right here.”

Whoa — where did that gigantic edifice come from? Did Trevor tap the sidewalk with a magic wand while the reader wasn’t looking? Did he grow it from enchanted public monument beans?

Or — and this is what Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel will simply assume is the case — did it simply not occur to the writer to show the building to the reader before it was absolutely necessary to the conversation to do so? Like, say, when it would have first come into view from the characters’ perspectives?

What might that look like on the page? Glad you asked. While I’m at it, I’m going to excise all of that long, red hair — buy Millicent a drink sometime and ask her to fill you in on just how high a percentage of novel heroines in submissions are tossing around long red or blonde hair.

Giséle’s four-inch heels were making each block seem like a marathon course. Was that the Empire State Building she saw looming ahead, or was she beginning to hallucinate?

She stopped dead before a seedy sidewalk café. The slanted writing on the chalkboard out front implied that the writer had lost the will to live in the middle of describing the day’s specials. “I have to stop. Let’s have some coffee.”

“But Giséle,” Trevor whined, “we’re almost there.”

See how much more natural that is? Not to mention establishing a better sense of place. In fact, I’m going to state this as a general narrative axiom: if it’s important to the scene that an object is in the general vicinity, why not just show it to the reader directly, rather than refer to it obliquely?

Actually, Millicent and Co. would have a pretty good idea why the writer didn’t choose to do that in the first version: like so many other fledgling writers, Trevor’s creator decided to have a character gesture at something big and obvious as an excuse to add a sentence indicating who was speaking. In today’s original example, if you’ll recall, the writer just went all-out and incorporated the object-identifying action into the tag line.


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


If the reader already knows that the clock is in the room, that clumsy gesture becomes completely unnecessary. Actually, so does the tag line.


The gold-faced grandfather clock chimed six times. Fifteen minutes later, when it emitted a single ping, he was still drawing abstract shapes on the marble tabletop with his fingertip. “Babs? I’ve got to get going.”


Makes the point, doesn’t it, and in many fewer lines? This draft also helps establish the opulence of Babette’s home through the use of specific descriptive details: the gold on the clock, the marble on the table.

Relieved that our micro-revision is over? “Whew,” I hear some of you first draft-huggers murmuring, ” that was a whole lot of work for very few lines of dialogue. Still, I’m glad to know what the worst of Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel’s wrath looks like.”

The worst, you say? Au contraire, revision-eschewers. Our original example above didn’t even come close to hitting the top of Millicent’s annoyance meter.

Just think of how much less she would have liked this excerpt had all of it been written in the passive voice, for instance, or, as is fairly common, if those overused actions had been happening closer together. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the sight of the former, but I can’t resist treating you to a sample of the latter. While I’m at it, I’m going to toss in some gratuitous word repetition and stir.

The phone rang. Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, she held up a finger at him. “Can you hold on a sec? I have to take this call. Won’t take a second.”

What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. Pablo sighed, arching an eyebrow at her rudeness, but he nodded, shrugging, to indicate that he was willing to hold on while she took the call.

Five minutes later, he was still tapping his foot impatiently, drumming his fingers on the marble tabletop, glancing repeatedly at his watch, and humming the theme to The Bridge over the River Kwai to pass the time. Still no sign that she was getting off the phone anytime soon.

Sighing, he waved his hand at her. “Babs?” he whispered.

She nodded absently, arching her brows at him. “Yes?”

He resisted an urge to roll his eyes. He glanced at his watch, tapping its face with his finger as he grimaced. “I’ve got to get going.”

Her brow furrowed, but she nodded her head absently and shrugged. Her loyal staff exchanged glances, rolling their eyes at one another as they smiled at his discomfiture.

Resigned, he pulled up a chair, took a seat, and sat down, shaking his head ruefully and rolling his eyes. Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had thought.

Quite a bit more annoying, if I do say so myself. A good two-thirds of that verbiage could go, with no cost to the reader’s sense of what is going on.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that if any of us saw a real-life Babette or Pablo engage in so much simultaneous eye-rolling, eyebrow-wiggling, head-bouncing, shoulder-shrugging, and glancing pointedly at things, we’d assume that the poor soul was suffering from a severe neurological disorder. In the quotidian world, most people don’t stop their interactions dead while they grimace and gesticulate.

To be fair, infecting the characters with St. Vitus’ dance was probably not the writer’s intent here. Most aspiring writers who depict such nervous-faced and (-torsoed) characters are simply trying to convey emotion non-verbally. But by piling on so many tics and gestures — ones that sometimes replicate the dialogue, rather than adding to it — the seemingly natural actions come across as unnatural levels of activity.

Which is the most serious problem here, right? Over-writing, over-explaining, and word and phrase redundancy are secondary irritants in this version. The primary problem is all of that frenetic movement. This is a scene about waiting, yet it’s hard to imagine more physical activity had all of the dialogue been conveyed with semaphore flags. Or via interpretive dance.

Not seeing the problem — or, more likely, are you so distracted by the hackneyed phrasing and word repetition that it’s hard to focus upon it? Millicent and her ilk would sympathize. Here’s that same passage again, winnowed down to just the actual movements.

The phone rang. Babette snatched the phone. She rolled her eyes. She shook her head. She held up a finger.

Pablo sighed. He arched an eyebrow. He nodded. He shrugged.

He tapped his foot impatiently (and continuously). He drummed his fingers on the table. He glanced repeatedly at his watch. He hummed.

He sighed. He waved. He whispered.

She nodded (immediately before saying, “Yes,” a bit of redundancy bound to annoy our Millie). She arched her brows.

He glanced at his watch. He tapped its face. He grimaced.

She furrowed her brow. She nodded. She shrugged. Her staff exchanged glances. They rolled their eyes. They smiled.

He pulled up a chair. He took a seat. He sat down. He shook his head. He rolled his eyes.

Quite a lot of activity for an ostensibly quiet scene, isn’t it? Most of these actions occur more than once, too. Yet all by themselves, how much of the core conflict of this scene do these actions actually demonstrate?

Not very much. Nor do these actions reveal much about Babette and Pablo’s personalities — as the fact that they both do some of the same things implies, these activities are not unusual. They appear in the text simply because they are things that a real person might do in this situation. Apparently, the writer is laboring under the pervasive misconception that the goal of an interactive scene is to list everything that the characters did, not to limit the narration and dialogue to only what will advance the plot, reveal character, or add conflict.

In fact, I can easily conceive of a version of this scene that contained none of these actions, and yet remained true to the original spirit of the exchange. Perhaps if I imagine it hard enough, it will appear on the screen below.

Babette snatched the phone from its cradle before the end of the first ring. “Hello?” After a moment’s hard listening, she mouthed at Pablo: “Don’t move.”

What had started out as a two-minute conversation was bidding fair to take up his entire afternoon. Irritably, he grabbed a random book from the leather-bound many gracing the glassed-in shelves: Tolstoy. The gold-faced grandfather clock chimed the hour, then the quarter hour.

Still no sign that she was getting off the phone anytime soon. Unless he was planning on finishing War and Peace, he needed to assert himself. “Babs?” he whispered. “I’ve got to get going.”

She tossed him a smile over her shoulder without interrupting her conversation. The parlormaid refilled his teacup, in recompense.

Perhaps his time wasn’t as valuable as he had been accustomed to think. He tried to immerse himself in the tribulations of the Russian nobility.

Gets the job done, doesn’t it? Of course, this is only one of endless possibilities — which only underscores Millicent’s essential objection to hackneyed phrasing and the overuse of a few everyday actions. It’s not merely that seeing the same actions and phrasing over and over again across many, many manuscript pages is rather boring. She’s also likely to be disappointed that the writer is not embracing the opportunity to use that valuable page space to demonstrate how his writing style, eye for telling details, and storytelling skills are different from every other writer’s who might care to submit to her boss.

Seriously, we professional readers are saddened by the sight of an original voice diluted by the mundane. Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, genuinely want to fall in love with a new writer’s voice, characters, and story, so when yet another manuscript appears on her desk where the writer’s voice is peppered with stock phrases, the characters do and say things that don’t demonstrate to the reader who they are, and dialogue and activity that appear simply because someone might conceivably say or do those things in that situation.

It’s the writer’s job not only to depict the world of the book believably, but enjoyably for the reader. Surprising the pros with original phrasing, unpredictable dialogue, and an appropriate level of activity for each scene is a far better means of achieving those laudable goals than just envisioning an interaction like a movie and providing a list of each motion, sound, and word the audience might see.

A simple waiting scene doesn’t need to be War and Peace, you know. As Mark Twain pointed out, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Be selective, and show Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel how your voice and worldview are unique.

They are, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part II: head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…

Your eyes do not deceive you, campers: last post’s one-time venting of a professional reader’s spleen has transmogrified into a series. I’m inviting you to an all-you-can-eat buffet of ways to horrify our old pal, Millicent the agency screener (you know, the sweet lady who narrows the hundreds of requested manuscripts and tens of thousands of queries down to the handful the agent who employs her has time to read in any given year), her cousin Maury the editorial assistant (the fine fellow who performs a similar weeding function for an acquiring editor at a publishing house), and their aunt on the distaff side, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge (the volunteer devoted to whittling the masses of entries down to a few finalists). Belly up to the bar, folks; there’s plenty for everyone.

Why devote a week or two to what are, frankly, pretty minor manuscript gaffes? We have, after all, spent a fair amount of time

Because these minor infractions are so common in submissions and contest entries that virtually anyone who reads for a living will cringe a little at the very sight of them. Their very ubiquity conveys the false — and, from a doe-eyed aspiring writer’s perspective, utterly unfair — impression that 90% of submitted manuscripts are, if not the same, at least similar enough in writing style that Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel can feel justified in rejecting them within the first page or two.

Those of you who just cringed in your turn are in fact correct: if a manuscript or book proposal contains an abundance of these gaffes within the opening pages, most Millicents, almost all Maurys (Mauries? Maurizionis?), and pretty much every Mehitabel will just stop reading. That means, in practice, that no matter how marvelous pp. 3-257 might be, it’s extremely unwise for an aspiring writer to justify an unpolished opening with, “But the plot/writing/character development really springs to life on page 15!”

Why? Well, let’s just say that there’s a saying amongst those of us who read for a living: it doesn’t matter how marvelous the writing is nobody would stick with the manuscript long enough to read it.

Which is a pity, really: you wouldn’t believe how many promising novels have a great opening line buried around p. 4 or so. Or how frequently an exciting plot’s early pages are tangled up with backstory, rather than just plopping the readers down in the middle of the action.

But we’re not concentrating on those larger problems, are we? In this series, we’re focusing on the little things that might not trigger instant rejection on first sight, but cumulatively, add up to one grumpy Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel, simply because they pop up with such frequency.

Why should you worry about what other people do on the page? Because submissions and contest entries are read back-to-back, that’s why. One never knows where one’s requested materials might fall in a reading queue, after all. Even if you are too savvy a submitter to indulge in some of these easy ways out often in your manuscript, if the last three — or thirteen, or thirty-three — Chapter Ones M, M, or M read all had a character roll his eyes on page 1 — when your protagonist’s fifteen-year-old casts his eyeballs heavenward on your page 2, it’s going to feel redundant to the reader, even if no one else in your book ever rolls his eyes.

Fair? Not at all. But a reality of submission? Yes. So may I suggest that if you are featuring a teenager within you first five pages, it might behoove you to keep his eyes focused firmly forward?

Trust me, any Millicent who reads either YA or Women’s Fiction all day, every day will thank you; eye-rolling teens are such a popular manuscript decoration that it’s positively a vacation to a professional reader when those eyes stay put.

It’s also quite a treat when characters don’t shake their heads, raise their eyebrows, furrow those same eyebrows, or nod several times per chapter scene page paragraph.

Yes, people do these things all the time in real life, but as actions go, they are not particularly interesting. Yet such phrases creep into manuscripts on little cat feet: these are such common actions that most writers don’t have any idea how often their characters perform them.

Trust me, Millicent is keeping count. So is Maury. So is Mehitabel. So are the doctors who take their blood pressure.

Yet they seem innocuous, don’t they? They’re just simple descriptive terms, after all — and isn’t the point of, say, the narrative portions of a dialogue scene to describe what the characters are doing when they are not speaking? According to that logic, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an exchange like this:

“I’ll have to think about that one,” Thaddeus said, furrowing his brow. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet shook her head over her stone-cold cup. “No, thanks. This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

He nodded. “Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She nodded. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” Thaddeus cocked an eyebrow. “Less than forthcoming?”

Janet nodded, relieved at last to have found someone who understood. She grinned at the old man. “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you must admit, hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He nodded. “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you…”

Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. So she hadn’t been imagining it. “To get out of town?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently.

In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with any of these individual uses of these common actions. Cumulatively, however, they get to be a trifle redundant — if not downright soporific.

To a professional reader, they are something worse: percussively redundant. Because their eyes are trained to ferret out word and phrase redundancy, all of these similar actions will just leap off the page at them. So rather than focusing upon the dialogue tucked between all of this head and eyebrow action, they will focus on the actions themselves.

Want to see how distracting that would be? Here’s that same scene as M, M, or M would read it:

“I’ll have to think about that one,” Thaddeus said, furrowing his brow. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet shook her head over her stone-cold cup. “No, thanks. This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

He nodded. “Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She nodded. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” Thaddeus cocked an eyebrow. “Less than forthcoming?”

Janet nodded, relieved at last to have found someone who understood. She grinned at the old man. “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

He shook his head, chuckling. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you must admit, hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He nodded. “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you…”

Her eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. So she hadn’t been imagining it. “To get out of town?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently.

To a professional reader, these phrases are not merely word repetition — they represent a radical waste of page space. These actions may be an accurate reflection of what happened, but the point of a dialogue scene is not just to list every utterance and describe every action that might conceivably have occurred if this exchange happened in real life, right? It’s to provide an entertaining take on the exchange between two interesting characters by reporting only the character-revealing, plot-advancing, and/or relationship-illuminating details.

None of that eyebrow-wiggling and head-bobbing passes that three-part test, does it? None of those actions are especially character-revealing, plot-advancing, or relationship-illuminating. So what if we replaced it with actions that were — or simply eliminated the unrevealing activity? While we’re at it, let’s get rid of some of those unnecessary tag lines, shall we?

“I’ll have to think about that one.” Thaddeus fiddled needlessly with his long-dead wife’s bone china tea service. “Would you care for more tea?”

Janet took a mock-sip from her stone-cold cup. “This is fine. But if we could get back to what we were discussing…”

“Of course — how silly of me. You wanted to know about that tremendous secret that everyone in town has kept for the last forty-seven years.”

She gripped the armrests, shaking from the effort of not leaping up to throttle the truth out of old man. “I’d be grateful for anything you could tell me.”

“Am I to assume that my fellow citizens have been — how shall I put this?” He ran his fingertips skittishly along the curio shelf nearest to him as if he were checking for dust, causing the Hummel figurines of bland, blond children to rattle together. “Less than forthcoming?”

At last, someone who understood! “You don’t seem to mistrust strangers as much as they do.”

The ceramic children clashed noisily. “Now, now. You mustn’t assume that everyone who sets fire to your rearview mirror is necessarily hostile to you.”

“But how can you justify…” Suddenly, the world went blurry. Had he spiked her tea? She struggled to maintain her composure. “Hostility is a distinct possibility.”

He reached a blue-veined hand toward her — or was it three hands? “It’s also possible that people here like you enough to want to warn you.”

So she hadn’t been imagining it. Or was she imagining the fourteen old women who had sulk into the room, quietly menacing? “To get out of town?”

“Perhaps just to ask fewer questions,” he suggested gently, manually closing her eyes as if she were a corpse.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it? By minimizing the mundane and the too-common, we’ve freed up plenty of room for exciting new developments.

Let’s apply the same principle to another radically overused set of actions, looking at another — or, almost as popular, exchanging glances with her — in lieu of, well, doing something more expressive of character, emotion, or situation. A not particularly exaggerated example:

Spiro glanced at Tanya. She didn’t seem to be kidding. But it couldn’t hurt to double-check. “Are you kidding, Tanya?”

She looked him dead in the eye. “What do you think?”

He stared back, trying to read that mysterious expression in her eyes. “That you couldn’t possibly be serious. Pierrette is our friend.”

She just looked at him. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked fourteen times.

He averted his eyes. “Okay, so maybe she has kicked our dog occasionally.”

She grabbed his chin, to force him to look at her. “Have you seen Fido today? Or this week?”

Her gaze bore into him like a drill. He dropped his eyes. “No,” he whispered.

That’s quite a lot of eye activity, is it not? Too much, I suspect, for me to need to play with the typeface in order to show you how Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel might respond to the conceptual repetition.

The redundancy is not the only reason that M, M, and M might respond to this passage negatively, however. Any other guesses?

If your hand instantly flew into the air, and you shouted, “Hey, the mere fact that this character looked at another does not tell us much about what said character is thinking or feeling — or, indeed, what our hero Spiro is reading into Tanya’s peepers,” I hereby award you the Self-Editing Medal of Valor with walnut clusters. Instead of showing us how it was apparent that Tanya was not kidding, or what the mysterious expression in her eyes actually would have looked like to a bystander, the narrative is simply telling us that these people moved their eyes around.

So like the head motions and eyebrow gyrations above, all of this eye-motion is taking up page space that could be devoted to more revealing activity. My editorial inclination would be to get rid of practically of it, especially if this scene happened to fall within the first chapter of the manuscript: at the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), since the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers seriously overestimate just how much meaning the reader can derive from the simple statement that one character looked at another, or that they looked at each other, a professional reader is likely to respond to even a little bit of unnecessary eye movement as if it were filler.

Again, I think we can do better. Take a gander:

Her tone betrayed not the slightest hint of humor, but it couldn’t hurt to double-check. “Are you kidding, Tanya?”

The corners of her mouth twitched. “What do you think?”

He had never been able to read past her poker face. “That you couldn’t possibly be serious. Pierrette is our friend.”

She merely continued cleaning her revolver. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked fourteen times.

Spiro’s guts twisted sideways. “Okay, so maybe she has kicked our dog occasionally.”

“Have you seen Fido today?” Casually, she pointed the gun at him. “Or this week?”

“No,” he whispered.

See how much room eschewing a bare description of who was looking where when freed for more interesting activity? It also removed the hint of another extremely common Millicent-irritant, the glance into which the protagonist reads such complicated meaning that the reader is left wondering whether what our hero is actually seeing in those peepers is subtitles. Here, we see the phenomenon in a relatively mild form.

He stared back, trying to read that mysterious expression in her eyes.

Since we are neither shown what Tanya’s eyes looked like at this particular moment, nor told just how they evinced mysteriousness, nor even treated to an insight into why Spiro expected those baby blues to just blurt out — in Morse code, perhaps — what she is thinking, this statement would a little flat for most readers. If they were interested in the story, however, they might be willing to do the writer’s job, filling in what Spiro saw swimming around in those irises. But how likely are Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel, who may well have been treated to dozens of pairs of mysterious eyes in the hours of reading prior to picking up your manuscript or contest entry, to be willing to guess?

Uh-huh. Admittedly, the annoyance of the implicit expectation that they will invest the energy in guessing what the author intended here probably won’t be enough to provoke M, M, or M to shout, “Next!” But if it’s the third or fourth common gaffe within the first few paragraphs, can you honestly blame them for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that (a) the rest of the manuscript must be peppered with such irritants and thus (b) the writing in the manuscript is not different enough from the other submissions the pro has read that hour/day/week to be exceptional, so (c) the pro would be entirely justified in not reading any more of it?

Okay, so it is possible to blame them. But it’s not impossible to understand why the sight of the 20th or 30th pair of hyper-expressive eyes in a single morning might render Nos. 21-30 more likely to be rejection-triggers than Nos. 1-5, is it?

Or that irises that shout entire sentences — nay, paragraphs — might be rejection-triggers even early in the day. Seriously, M, M, and M regularly read of eyes so eloquent that it’s downright maddening. Yes, eyes do tend to be expressive in real life, but how precisely would they convey a sentiment like this?

Clara shrank back, stunned by the intensity of Simon’s gaze as it tried to compel her to bend to his will. “Come to me,” it said, “and I will protect you from harm. Do not fear the Morrison brothers’ machinations; I will outwit them, for I love you as Shane Morrison never could. Only have faith in me, and I shall make sure everything turns out right.” He must be mad, insane, completely off his rocker to believe she would fall for him again.

I’ve read masters’ theses that advanced less complex arguments than these eyes are wordlessly conveying. What’s happening here, clearly, is not that Simon’s peepers have started flashing these sentiments, but that Clara is choosing to read volumes into an appealing glance.

So why not just admit it? Why not just show Simon’s facial expression, then allow Clara to get on with her mental gyrations?

Abruptly, Simon’s face became dead white, causing his overflowing black eyes to stand out against his skin like newsprint on a page. Clara shrank back, stunned by the intensity of his gaze. She knew now what dark bargain he was offering: protection from the Morrison brothers in exchange for her love. He must be mad, insane, completely off his rocker to believe she would fall for him again.

Noticing a pattern here? By avoiding the Millicent-annoying tropes upon which most aspiring writers rely, we open up the possibilities for showing, rather than telling, what’s going on.

These are not the only ways that those overtaxed body parts try M, M, and M’s patience, however. Perhaps the most provocative to the professional reader is that subset of irritants that not only suffer from overuse, but are internally redundant as well.

Like, say, the phrase she nodded her head. Pardon my asking, but what other body part could she possibly have nodded? Her spleen?

And what about that old standby, he shrugged his shoulders? In your long and doubtless eventful life, have you ever heard of someone, anyone, no matter how talented, shrugging a body part other than his shoulders?

Oh, you laugh, but try reading either of these phrases 50 or 100 times in a day. You would find yourself asking the question above through gritted teeth, too. Or perhaps crossing out her head so hard that your pen poked through the manuscript page.

Not all such phrases are so obviously redundant, of course. She pointed with her finger or he waved his hand are over-explanations, since pointing generally involves a finger and waving a hand. Yes, it is possible to point with a toe or wave an elbow. However, if one were to point or wave with a non-standard body part, it would be necessary to state explicitly which part is being used, right? If one just says she pointed at the ghost or he waved good-bye, any reader would assume that a finger and a hand were involved, respectively.

By contrast, M, M, and M’s eyes would skate tranquilly by characters that snap their fingers, tap their toes, crack their knuckles, or even shake their heads. It is possible to crack something other than a knuckle — a nut, for instance. And while tapping is generally the province of feet, it’s also possible to tap one’s fingers on a table, one’s fork against one’s wineglass to call for quiet, or a magic wand against a top hat to produce a rabbit.

But I’m over-explaining this, amn’t I? Let’s just move on to another way that fictional heads cause Millicent chagrin. See if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Monique nodded. “Yes, I agree.”

Seth shook his head. “And I said no. I couldn’t disagree more.”

Betty shrugged. “Oh, I just don’t know. Or perhaps I simply don’t care.”

How did you do? If you were jumping up and down by the end of the second line, bellowing at the top of your lungs, “Hey, Anne, each of these paragraphs is conceptually redundant — in fact, multiply so,” I hereby award you the Self-Editor of the Week medal, complete with a bright red ribbon. The physical actions convey the same meaning as the dialogue, so technically, they are redundant.

Don’t see it? Okay, what’s the difference in meaning between

Monique nodded.

“Yes,” Monique said.


“I agree,” said Monique.

They all express the same thing: Monique is in agreement with whatever just passed. “So why,” Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel wail, “does this writer need to tell me about it three times?

Trust me, once will suffice. Characters who nod while saying yes, shake their heads while saying no, and shrug (their shoulders, no doubt) while expressing factual doubt or indifference are a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

“What’s next?” Millicent and her relatives demand wearily. “Characters who walk with their legs, put shoes on their feet, and don gloves on their hands? Alert the media! Next, you’ll be astonishing me by depicting characters clapping hats on their heads, wrapping belts around their waists, and wearing rings on their fingers instead of the widest part of the arm.”

Have a bit more faith in your readers’ intelligence, especially if that reader happens to do it for a living. Narratives that explain more than necessary, or that over-make their points, can easily seem as though they are talking down to their audience. Just as a mystery-solving protagonist will come across as smarter if she figures out what’s going on without needing every relevant puzzle piece handed to her along with extensive explanation, so will the narrative voice seem smarter if it does not explain the obvious.

Have I made that plain? Please shake your head, say, “No,” and respond negatively, if not.

And please bear in mind while you are reading your work IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD: just because all of the phrases I have mentioned today are in common usage doesn’t mean that they will necessarily work well on the page. Professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and, to a lesser extent, Mehitabel are trained to zero in upon redundancy, both literal and conceptual.

They’re not going to be impressed by your stamping your manuscript over and over again with the same phrases, no matter how common they are in everyday speech. Minimizing your narrative’s reliance upon typically overused phrases and unnecessary explanation will not only help you steer clear of these common pet peeves, but also free up precious page space for your one-of-a-kind quips, vivid descriptions, and evocative phrases.

In other words, to unveil your good writing. And if that doesn’t cause you to cheer, “Hooray,” I’m not sure what will. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Normal Is What You Know, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner Jennifer Lyng


Is everyone getting excited for Querypalooza this coming weekend? I hope so; although I frequently teach query letter-development boot camps, I’ve never before done a weekend seminar here on Author! Author! The timing really couldn’t be better, however: as we had discussed early last month, most of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation from the end of the second week of August through Labor Day. So there really wasn’t much point querying recently.

Especially for those of you devoted to querying via e-mail. I’m not a big advocate of electronic querying in general, unless the agent of your dreams absolutely insists upon it: it’s significantly less time-consuming to reject via e-mail. That’s especially important to realize around this time of year, for just as e-queries sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to pile up, to be read in droves when Millicent the agency screener is back from vacation, August-sent e-queries usually end up being read in an unusually great hurry (even by Millie’s standards). And since the quickest way to clear an e-query out of her inbox is to reject it…

Human nature, I’m afraid. Who doesn’t rush through the backlog on one’s desk after a few days out of the office?

What wisdom may we derive from this set of depressing observations? Well, for starters, it’s a safe bet that our Millicent is going to be pretty swamped right after Labor Day — so whatever you do, campers, do not send out an e-query between now and then.

Trust me, you do not want your query to be the 512th in her inbox. If you must e-query, wait a few days, until her inbox no longer looks like it was the RSVP site for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

So much for today’s cautions. On to the fun part: awarding a prize.

Today, I shall be discussing the 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner, Jennifer Lyng’s NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW. As with the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Jennifer also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

After yesterday’s very technical discussion on the merits and liabilities of the A!A!AEE winner in Adult Fiction, I thought it might make for a nice change of pace to discuss this entry on a more visceral level — which is, not entirely coincidentally, the level at which the judges most enthusiastically responded to it. And, while we’re at it, to talk a little bit about how differently memoir tends to be evaluated from fiction at the submission and contest-judging stages.

For starters, as I hope most of you memoirists are already aware, the vast majority of memoirs currently acquired by publishers in the United States are sold via a book proposal, not an entire manuscript. That means, in effect, that a memoirist not have to have a complete draft in hand before beginning to query; technically, all that’s required is a book proposal and a beautifully-polished sample chapter or two.

Does that giant collective gasp mean that some of you had heard otherwise? I’m not entirely surprised; misinformation on this subject has been circulating rampantly around the writers’ conference circuit for at least a decade. But as an author who has successfully garnered publication offers for two memoir book proposals, I’m living proof that the you-must-write-the-whole-thing rumor just isn’t true.

For those of you who are already sprinting toward the archive list at right, you’ll find the guidance you’re seeking under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL and HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL categories. You’re welcome.

To be fair, though, one does encounter memoir agents who state categorically in their submission guidelines that they will only read the work of first-time memoirists, but that certainly is not an industry-wide preference. Prudently, these agents want to make sure before they sign a new writer that (a) she has a gripping book-length story to tell (not always apparent in the first draft of a proposal), (b) she has the writing chops to tell it well (ditto), and (c) she is already aware that writing a truly revealing memoir is awfully hard work, emotionally speaking.

Obviously, it is a whole lot easier to tell whether any or all of these thing are true if the writer has already produced a full draft. No imagination required: the potential of the book may simply be evaluated on the manuscript page, like a novel.

But even after a manuscript proves itself on (a), (b), and (c) levels, the acquiring agent will probably expect the by-now-exhausted writer to toss off a book proposal, anyway. That’s how memoir is sold in this country, you know.

(a), (b), and (c) are not the only reasons a cautious agent might want to see the whole thing right off the bat, though. Many a promising memoir heralded by an excellent book proposal has never seen the light of day as a book. And not just because first memoirs by non-celebrity writers have become significantly harder for agents to sell in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES literary world. As I mentioned above, the darned things are emotionally draining to write.

Even for those lucky memoirists whose books’ publication is not stymied by threatened $2 million lawsuits. (Long-time readers, can you believe that as of last month, my A FAMILY DARKLY has been on hold for FIVE YEARS?)

The trouble is, a memoirist may not realize just how draining the process can be until he’s well into the writing process — which is to say, for a memoir sold on a proposal, perhaps not until after he’s penned the proposal or even sold the book. It can take a while to reconstruct one’s own past substantively enough to be able to write about it, after all. Unfortunately for personal happiness, but fortunately for the emotional truth of memoir, the brain and the body do not always make a strong distinction between a vividly-recalled event and one that is actually happening in the moment.

Please think about that, the next time you pick up a beautifully-written memoir on a searingly painful subject. The author had to walk through fire twice in order to tell you about her experience.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Lyng’s powerful entry. Frankly, the judges had not originally planned to have a separate memoir category in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest; when I set up Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir, I had anticipated simply including any winning memoirs in the general adult category.

Then we read Jennifer’s entry. It was clear right away that memoir deserved its own category.

Actually, I probably should have designed the contest that way in the first place: after all, as we discussed above, memoirs are not usually submitted in the same manner as novels. Yes, grabbing Millicent by the bottom of page 1 is still important, but let’s face it, if she has to plow through 30-50 pages of marketing material before she gets to it — sample chapters are placed at the end of proposals, typically — she’s probably not going to make it to page 1 if she is not already at least slightly interested in the subject matter.

That’s why for this contest, the judges read the memoir entrants’ brief book descriptions prior to turning to the first page, instead of the other way around. The result was a reading that more closely resembled how Millicent would approach the first page of a memoir.

Happily, Jennifer’s description was a lulu. So much so, in fact, that one of the judges immediately suggested, “Maybe you should run this on the blog to show queriers that it is actually possible to intrigue a reader with a one-paragraph description.”

Good idea, judge. Here it is, in all of its glory:

How does a child live with the man she believes killed her mother? My book, a combination of memoir and true crime, will answer that question, as well as detail the murder trial that took 17 years to unfold — one with no body, weapon or eyewitness.

Wow. You already want to pick up that book, right?

It also — and this is remarkable in a blurb this short — answers one of the first two questions the pros invariably ask about a non-celebrity memoir: is this a story that only this author could tell? If not, why is this author uniquely qualified to tell it in this particular way? Jennifer addresses these salient issues even more fully in her one-page description:

Normal is synopsis

Sends chills up your spine, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you run, not walk, to the first page of the sample chapter, to see how well the person who lived through this remarkable set of events can write?

As it happens, quite well. Here is Jennifer’s first page, precisely as the judges saw it.

Lyng entry page 1

What do you think? More importantly for submission purposes, if you were Millicent and basing your decision whether to read on solely upon the descriptions above and this first page, would you? And if you were Millie’s boss, what conclusions would you leap to about (a), (b), and (c)?

The judges felt (and I concur) that this first page has a lot of promise — but not for the same reasons that a similarly-written novel opening might. Remember, the single biggest way in which fiction and nonfiction first pages are read differently is that it is ASSUMED that the nonfiction manuscript will be rewritten to the acquiring editor’s specifications. It is still to be written: the proposal is in essence the job application the writer submits to the publishing house in hopes of being paid to write it. A novel, on the other hand, is expected to be print-ready by the time the writer submits it to an agency.

Admittedly, agents often ask novelists for significant revisions after the representation contract is signed. So do editors, either before or after they acquire a manuscript. That may seem odd, given that they expect fiction to be polished to a high shine before they see it, but it makes abundant sense from a professional point of view: a writer who has the skills to perfect a submission, they reason, is the best candidate for making good revisions.

Part of the point of selling a memoir — or any nonfiction book, for that matter — via a book proposal, rather than a manuscript, is that the publisher will be able to tell the writer how it should be written. Although book proposals always include an annotated table of contents, it’s not at all unusual for an acquiring editor to ask for different chapters to appear in the finished book, for instance. It’s not even all that uncommon for the editor to request slight changes in authorial voice.

I mention all this in part because I suspect some of you novelists are going to be a smidge shocked when I show you how Millicent might respond to this first page on a sentence-by-sentence level. She’s expecting it to be revised between now and publication, so why not go to town on the feedback?

Lyng p 1 edited

(If you’re having a spot of trouble reading the comments, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing the + button. And no, I hadn’t realized that the light in this room was so very golden.)

Most of these points are pretty self-explanatory — beginning the page with the moment of dread, for instance, rather than showing a moment of normalcy first for contrast — but I want to take a minute to talk about the ones that turn up most often in memoir. I would have flagged the percussive repetition of my mother on any first page, but does anyone have a wild guess about why this redundancy is especially dangerous on the first page of a memoir?

Give up? It’s because virtually every first-time memoirist consistently refers to relatives as my mother, my father, my sister, and so forth, just as they would in a verbal anecdote. That’s fine in speech, but on the printed page, a constant reminder of characters’ relationship to the narrator quickly becomes tedious for the reader.

“What’s wrong,” Millicent fumes, “with referring to all of these people by NAME? They’re characters in a book, for heaven’s sake!”

That objection is relevant even in a case like this, where the single most likely name to replace the relationship marker is Mom. Believe it or not, simply changing two of the three my mothers to Mom would make most Millicents like it better.

The moral, should you not already have shouted it toward the sky: the little stuff matters. Especially on page 1.

It’s also both common and dangerous for a memoir to open with a sentence in the passive voice. As this one does: It was a crisp, overcast fall day… Any guesses why this simple statement of fact might raise Millicent’s hackles?

If you immediately cried, “Because it’s in the passive voice, by jingo!” give yourself a gold star for the day. As we have often discussed, the overwhelming majority of professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as poor writing. While that’s not quite fair — plenty of very good established authors use the passive voice all the time, after all — it is a belief worth noting.

In fact, I’m going to lay it down as an axiom: never, unless you are actually quoting someone else, use the passive voice on page 1 of a submission. And never, ever, EVER use it in the first sentence of a manuscript, or in the first sentence of any paragraph within the first few pages.

Why is the use of the passive voice more likely to make Millicent’s molars grind if they occupy those particular positions within the text? The first sentence of any paragraph is the one most likely to catch a skimmer’s eye. And if Millicent reads nothing else on page 1, she will take a gander at the first sentence.

The third common first memoir characteristic I’d like you to notice is much subtler than the first two: the emotional distance between the narrator and what is going on. On the first page of a memoir — and in memoir-writing in general — the more the reader can feel that he is observing the action from within the narrator’s body and psyche, the better.

Didn’t expect another axiom so soon, did you? Hey, I was on a roll.

Are some of you having trouble spotting the emotional distance, given how nicely Jennifer has set up the suspense here? A professional reader would appreciate the tangible sense that something awful is about to happen, but would note that while we’re seeing the narrator’s thoughts and reasoning in detail, the narrator is not telling us much about her own feelings, fears, or even physical sensations.

Yes, she mentions needing to go to the bathroom, but is that honestly the most character- or situation-revealing physical sensation the narrative could bring up here? At the risk of overloading this post with axioms, I would like to see this narrative be the protagonist’s head a bit less and in her body and emotions a bit more.

Jennifer’s in luck here: as she has presented this situation, it is particularly rich in opportunities for working in this kind of telling detail. The narrator could have a visceral reaction to the unexpected sensation of the doorknob fighting her hand, or to the sight of the “Sorry we missed you” sign. She could feel a rush of comfort when the dogs bark. Heck, she could even feel the cold coming through her jacket as she stood outside longer than she had expected.

Or — and this would be my first stop, revision-wise — the narrative could give us a peek at the most awful thing that 13-year-old could have imagined resulting in the door’s being locked. Given what the book description has led us to expect, the contrast between the normal fears of a kid and what is about to become her new reality would probably be quite poignant.

But you want to turn the page to find out, don’t you?

That, my friends, is the best possible evidence that a first page is a grabber — and yes, what constitutes a grabber does in fact often vary between fiction and nonfiction. Already, in just this page and her one-paragraph description for her query letter, Jennifer has made it clear that she has a fascinating story to tell, has the writerly tools to tell it well, and is ready to embrace the memoir-writing experience.

It’s as clear as (a), (b), (c), right? Congratulations on a job well done, Jennifer — the judges can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

In future posts, we shall continue apply what we’ve been learning all summer to the great first pages of more contest winners. (You did realize that’s what we’ve been doing, right?) Think of it as a master class in seeing submissions from Millicent’s perspective.

That noble effort will have to wait, however, until after Querypalooza — after so much craft, we’re all ready for a marketing weekend, right? Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Divided States, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Jennifer Sinclair Johnson


Yes, it’s been a lengthy process, campers, but today, at long last, I shall begin presenting you with the winning entries in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. For the rest of this week, I am delighted to be sharing with you the winning entries in Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir.

And if you’re not careful, as the pundit Fat Albert used to say, you might learn something before it’s done.

Why start with Category II, you ask, instead of the more numerically logical Category I? Well, Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper will be joining me after Labor Day to give feedback on the Category I: YA entries. We have some surprises in store that I hope will be worth another few days’ wait.

Let’s concentrate on the now, though, and Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s winning first page, the opening to a manuscript she described for the judges thus:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives, finding her coworker in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

First off, kudos to Jennifer for winning not only the Grand Prize for Adult Fiction in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, but also this year’s Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. For those of you who missed the initial contest announcement, I had decreed that the contest would have two levels: a straightforward competition for the most intriguing opening page for a manuscript, and an optional award level, if the judges felt that Grand Prize in the former was not sufficient to record their reactions to an entry.

I’m delighted to report that the judges required this extra outlet for their feelings not once, but four times in this contest. You shall see why in the days to come.

Jennifer’s was the Adult Fiction entry that elicited the more enthusiastic plaudits from the judges. Before I tell you why, let’s take a gander at what made them cheer until the rafters resounded. (If you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key while hitting +.)

Divided States page 1

The writing here is good, of course, crammed to the gills with telling details, but as we know from our summer of craft, there’s more to creating a great first page than collecting a series of strong, well-constructed sentences. In order to grab the reader — particularly a professional one like a contest judge or our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — a fiction first page needs to present the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.

Check. What else renders this first page so compelling?

If that question leaves you a trifle stumped, you’re not alone. Most aspiring writers know what they like, but have only a vague notion of what makes a first page compelling, marketable, accessible, and/or grabbing. There’s an excellent reason for that, of course: unlike professional readers, who read thousands upon thousands of page 1s in any given year, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers have never read any manuscript’s first page but their own.

Or, at best, a writer friend’s. It’s not likely, in short, to be an impartial reading. While active members in a regularly-meeting critique group gain more exposure to the possible range of openings, participation in such groups is rarer than one might think.

But how is the isolated aspiring writer to learn what works on page 1? Typically, the average writer’s conception of what a good opening is comes from precisely the same source as any other readers’: what he’s seen in published books. As we have discussed, though, what an established writer can get away with on page 1 and what someone trying to break into the biz could slip past Millicent are often quite different things. Ditto with what might have caught an agent’s eye 5 or 10 years ago vs. now.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, we have been spending so much time this summer concentrating on first page revision. I’ve been trying to move your conception of what makes a strong opening beyond a simple combination of what you like and what you have seen authors you respect do; all of these posts have been attempting to help you read more like a professional.

So let’s go ahead and turn to the pros for advice on how to assess today’s page 1. Specifically, let’s recall from last time the agent-generated list of qualities they like to see in a first page. How well do you think the example above meets these criteria?

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
Oh, do you see many stories about insurance adjusters newly transplanted to earthquake zones? Admittedly, it is not immediately apparent here whether our narrator is a man or a woman, but there isn’t much doubt that s/he is interesting, is there?

As we have discussed, as well as slice-of-life writing can work in short stories, plays, and novellas, it’s difficult to grab a novel reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent — on page 1 with a protagonist who is aggressively ordinary. A savvy writer is usually better off emphasizing what is unusual about his characters in an opening scene.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
This isn’t an action scene, so this one is not applicable. Remember, not all of these criteria will work for every opening.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.
In many first-person narratives, the self-analysis in page 1 would have extended for the rest of the page, if not beyond. Here, Jennifer has been quite restrained, moving the reader swiftly out of the protagonist’s head and into observation of the environment. That well-handled pacing will prevent Millicent from feeling that the story isn’t beginning fast enough.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
This lies largely in the eye of the beholder, of course. Perhaps a better way to approach this issue: based on this first page alone, do you want to read the rest of this book?

The judges did, unanimously. And if a quick scan of page 1 does not seem like an entirely fair basis for making a determination on an entire manuscript, bear in mind that Millicent often reads less than that before making up her mind.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
Again, this is quite subjective, but the judges found this narrative voice quite likable. With a protagonist engaged in a work project on page 1, it would have been very easy to load the narrative voice down with industry-specific jargon. Jennifer has steered clear of that danger, offering us instead a narrator who seems swept up in the details of the beauty of her new environment.

The only sentence that gave any of the judges pause on a voice level was The earthquake that hit Hollywood with the bang of a summer blockbuster’s opening had cast me into new territory. Opinions were divided over whether using Hollywood and cast so close together was intended as a pun based on the double meaning of cast (to throw/to be given a part in a play or movie). Since the pun, if intentional, was not very funny, the judges expressed the hope that the word choice would be reexamined.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
This is a subtle one. It’s clear that something is about to happen here, isn’t it? The reader isn’t sure what, but the suspense is palpable.

Again, some of the judges had a quibble with one of the sentences: After the way my new boss had sent me to the property before my flight finished taxiing along the tarmac, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find destruction akin to the aftermath of Armageddon. The ending image is strong, but the reader has to interpolate some action in order to make the first part make sense: since airline passengers are currently not allowed to use cell phones while the plane is in the air, and there’s no indication that the story is not taking place in the present, the narrator must have turned on her phone as soon as allowed, after the plane touched down.

So did her boss call her the second she powered up the phone? That would be the only way that the timing of his having issued the order could have conveyed urgency all by itself, but the narrative is in such a hurry (understandable, on a first page) that it leaves the reader to fill in the blanks.

Amid those blanks lies a logical question: how did he know that she had just turned it on? Is he psychic? Or — and this seems substantially more likely — had he been calling every five minutes since he thought her plane could possibly have landed? That in turn begs another question: did he call her, or did she turn on the phone, hear his 47 messages, and call him right away?

Yes, that is a whole lot of questions to have about a single event, now that you mention it. But that’s not an uncommon reaction to a page 1 where the narrative has left out logical steps in the interests of streamlining. Frankly, from a professional reader’s perspective, both that paragraph and that joke would have worked better if it hadn’t all been crammed into a single sentence.

That’s a small quibble, however, one likely too tiny to put off most Millicents. Even the judges who made it recognized that.

7. “Good opening line.”
Professional readers are notoriously fond of first sentences that contain some element of paradox. This opener does not disappoint.

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”
Well? Did you think there was?

What is the benefit of presenting a layered reality over a completely straightforward one, when clarity is also so highly valuable on page 1? Simply put, a narrative that implies that there’s more going on that immediately meets the eye is a better reflector of reality. The protagonist appears to be inhabiting an actual world, rather than just a tale.

As fine as all of those criteria are for evaluating a first page, the judges in our contest were looking for a bit more. For instance, in a submission, as we have discussed, it’s vital to give some indication from the very top of page 1 what the book is about. Based on Jennifer’s opening, would you or would you not expect some intrigue to arise from the earthquake site her narrator’s boss is so eager to get her to see?

How did we judges know whether this was representative of the rest of the book? Advance thought, my dears: as some of you may perhaps recall, one of the contest requirements was a brief teaser, indicating the subject matter, book category, and what the manuscript to follow would add to the current offerings in that category. Here’s what Jennifer told us:

What if Dorothy landed in Hollywood instead of Oz? DIVIDED STATES spins a new twist on Cozy Mysteries as a Midwestern insurance adjuster arrives in Los Angeles to find her coworker lying unconscious in earthquake rubble. Navigating natural disaster and local rules with more cracks than sun-baked Nebraska clay, she brings fresh perspective to light.

Quite a close match with the opening, isn’t it? Millicent would appreciate that. So did the judges: all of them commented on how beautifully this page 1 fulfilled the promise Jennifer had made in the book’s description.

I can already sense literal-minded readers thinking about raising their hands. “But Anne,” these detail-oriented souls point out, “the protagonist doesn’t discover her coworker in the rubble on page 1, nor do we hear much about the differences between Nebraska and Los Angeles. So in what sense does her page 1 fulfill the promise of the description?”

Glad you asked, literal-minded ones; aspiring writers often confuse the imperative to let Millicent know right away what the book with an expectation that page 1 would be crammed with backstory. Usually, though, backstory-heavy openings are slow — your garden variety NYC-based Millie tends to prefer manuscripts that open with conflict (or at least the potential for it), with the backstory filled in later.

Jennifer’s page 1 contains several different species of conflict — we learn right away that her protagonist is a fish out of water, coming into an inherently dangerous situation with an already-tense boss breathing down her neck. Furthermore, it appears that the last person sent to do her job ran into some serious difficulties. That’s a pretty rich set of possibilities for a single page of text, no? But rather than stop the action short to explain what precisely happened to her predecessor that necessitated flying our heroine out from Nebraska, the reader gets to figure out the situation along with the narrator.

Thus, how this page fulfills the promise of the premise is not by resolving all of the questions it raises on page 1, but by (a) giving the protagonist hints about what the conflicts in store for her are and (b) doing so in a manner that allows the readers to speculate — yes, even by the bottom of page 1 — how she is going to be drawn into those conflicts-to-come.

Of course, as the organizer of this contest, I enjoy a considerable advantage in anticipating those conflicts. I had the power to ask for a longer description of the book:

Divided States description

The judges were also looking for page 1 to present a narrative voice appropriate to the intended target audience. Here, Jennifer is showing us a very literate, likable, thoughtful voice, appropriate for a high-end cozy mystery or women’s fiction.

Wisely, she has not designated this voice as literary fiction, as many aspiring writers would have done: it’s an excellent example of well-written genre fiction. Rather than trying to pitch the book on the writing alone, though, she has made the market-savvy choice of categorizing her manuscript by its subject matter.

The hyper-literal have raised their hands again, have they not? “But Anne, are you saying that the judges — or, even worse, Millicent — would have liked this page less had it been categorized as literary fiction? To my admittedly less experienced eye, the writing has literary sensibilities.”

In a word, yes. In several words, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

Miscategorized submissions are, after all, among the easiest for Millicent to reject. As we have discussed many times before, no agent (or editor, or publishing house, or even most contests) handles every conceivable kind of writing. They specialize.

So when Millicent is confronted with even a very well-written submission that does not seem to fit comfortably into a book category that her boss represents, it just doesn’t make sense for her to keep reading once she’s determined it’s not something her agency is going to pick up. Even if she positively loves it, she is not in a position to help that book come to successful publication.

She has only one option, unfortunately: “Next!”

Starting to gain a better sense of what kind of first pages don’t provoke that response? If not, don’t despair — you’re going to get quite a bit of practice over the next week or two, as we continue to go over contest winner’s first pages. Except for the days during which we shall be taking a brief-but-content-heavy detour for Querypalooza, of course.

Lots of action in store at Author! Author! Tune in tomorrow for more first page high jinks.

Well done, Jennifer — and as always, everybody, keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part VI: and then there’s the fine art of doing it right, or, love, agent-style

pre-butchered fir tree

This, I am happy to say, used to be one of the views from my studio window, a sweet fir tree stuffed to the proverbial gills with cavorting crows, mischievous blue jays, and a small family of squirrels deeply devoted, for reasons best known to themselves, to digging up my crocus bulbs, saving them for a month or two, then replanting them in entirely different locations. I used to enjoy watching them before the strange men from the phone company showed up unannounced yesterday and slashed a ten-foot hole in the middle of the tree in order to make room for a half-inch cable scheduled to be installed three months from now. As one does.

Actually, it would have been a twenty-foot hole — quoth the foreman: “But those other branches were, like, in our way! We would have had to work around them!” — had I not managed to hobble out front to stop them in mid-slice. (Never underestimate the moral force of a crutch-wielding Valkyrie with a rudimentary knowledge of property law.) The damage has been done, though: this morning, there are no birds in the defiled tree.

Why does this seem like an apt time to wrap up this series on revising dialogue?

I can tell you why: all too often, in the first glow of enthusiasm following a newly-acquired self-editing tip — or, if you’ve been following our intensive discussions of craft this summer, a whole mess of ‘em — writers will, to put it succinctly, over-cut. Fired up by the time-honored advice to kill their darlings, they hack and slash with gusto, assuming, sometimes incorrectly, that if a line or two of dialogue runs afoul of the freshly-learned rule, the entire speech should go. Or the entire scene. Or the entire chapter.

But not all darlings are apt candidates for slaughter. Sometimes, too-vigorous cutting can do some serious harm to the tree. You don’t want to scare off the pretty birds, after all.

(I know — isn’t it amazing how often my day-to-day life provides PRECISELY the metaphor for what we’ve been discussing? Somebody up there must have a great fondness for blogs. Either that, or a monumental antipathy toward trees.)

Which is to say: not all of the results of revision are necessarily intentional. Over-enthusiastic cutting can, among other things, result in uneven tone, the loss of information the reader might need to know later in the plot, confusion of motivation, the omission of that foreshadowing sneer that alerts the attentive reader to the possibility that the protagonist’s mild-mannered coworker may turn out to be the super villain intent on destroying every ice cream stand in Gotham…

It can lead, in short, to a Frankenstein manuscript. There is no such thing, then, as a revision that would not benefit from a follow-up re-reading of the ENTIRE manuscript (preferably IN HARD COPY and, especially if it is dialogue-heavy, OUT LOUD) to make absolutely certain that the post-cut scenes not only read well on the page, but still pull their weight in the plot.

With that incentive for caution in mind, here is a final post in our revisit to 2009’s Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk series. Actually, it’s a mash-up of two posts in that series, presented in composite form for your perusing pleasure. When I originally posted the second, John Updike had just died — providing, yet again, a nudge toward a blog-friendly example.

Enjoy! But please, employ your pruning shears judiciously — and sparingly — after reading it.

Are you surprised to see another post on first-page rejection reasons coming after I’ve already gone over the agent-generated list of submission red flags? What can I possibly still have to say on the subject, after nearly three weeks of harping upon it?

Plenty, as it turns out. As excellent and extensive as the agent-generated list was in its day, as full of classic submission problems as any such list could possibly be, the agents in question generated it several years ago. As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops practically since I began writing this blog, the standards for what agents are seeking in a manuscript change all the time, along with the literary market itself.

Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, good writing, a solid premise, and catchy character names are not necessarily enough to catch an agent’s eye today. Yes, a novel or memoir submission typically needs all of those elements to be successful, but now as ever, it needs something else: to be a book that the agent can picture selling in within not an ideal market, but the one in which s/he is currently attempting to sell books.

Yes, I do realize what I just said: a manuscript could conceivably be perfectly marvelous and still not be what an agent would consider marketable in the literary market right now.

Why right now in particular? Well, agents have always made their living by selling their clients’ work to publishers — since reputable agents don’t charge fees over and above their contracted percentage of a book sale, they make money only when they hawk their clients’ books successfully — but even a cursory glance at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE will tell you that these are exceptional times for the publishing industry.

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along. {Present-day Anne here: amazingly, although I originally posted this a year and a half ago, this statement remains true. That’s how cautious agents have become.}

So the best thing you could possibly do right now is rush right out and buy 50 books similar to yours — and convince 100,000 of your friends to do the same. Like it or not, that’s now new marketing trends are made.

Since my readership is made up almost exclusively of writers, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of you like it.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the next big thing — other than the novel I’m about to finish writing, of course — but there are a few trends in what gets rejected and accepted that I’ve noticed cropping with increasing frequency over the last year or so. Since once a pet peeve is established, it tends to hang around for a while on Millicent the agency screener’s red flag list, it’s probably a good idea to avoid them for the foreseeable future.

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately {and, again, this list remains astonishingly current}:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

I know that I harp on this one quite a bit — as evidence and for the benefit of readers new enough to this blog not to have lived through my extensive discussions of what publishing professionals expect manuscripts to look like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right — but it honestly is true that if a submission does not look professional, Millicent is more likely to reject it, regardless of the quality of the writing. Since the volume of queries and submissions has been skyrocketing as the economy has worsened (writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, apparently), she can afford to be even pickier than usual.

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

This is a practically inevitable side effect of the aforementioned volume of queries and submissions rising, but standard storylines, stock characters, and literary clichés in general seem to be getting judged more harshly of late, probably because Millicent has been seeing the same things over and over again.

Does this mean that this is a great time for writers who embrace radical originality. Not exactly, because…

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

This is one of the truisms of the publishing industry for the last century — during uncertain economic times, comforting and escapist plot lines tend to sell better. Unfortunate, but true. It has to do with what’s known as the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index: when Americans are feeling insecure about the future, sales of inexpensive comfort foods tend to rise — as do books that make readers all warm and fuzzy.

Historically, agents and editors have followed these trends, shying away from more challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and even experimental use of prose. Since I’m personally a big fan of challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and experimental use of prose, I’m not all too happy about this, but it might be worth holding off on submitting any of the above for a few months, until the industry has had time to get used to new economic realities.

I know; it’s annoying. {Even more annoying: that this advice is still apt, to a very great extent.}

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of complaints in that bar that’s never more than a 100 yards from any literary conference in North America about submissions from writers who don’t seem aware of either the target audience or the conventions of the categories in which they have written books. From coast to coast, Millicents and their bosses have been railing about YA with too-adult word choices, literary fiction with a fourth-grade vocabulary, cynical romances, paranormals where vampires cavort in the sun…

I suspect that the increased pervasiveness of this one is actually an expression of the publishing industry’s smoldering resentment that book sales have dropped; if the writers of these books were actually buying the new releases in their genres, the logic goes, they would be more conversant with what’s selling right now. Having met scads of writers who say, “What do you mean, what do I read? I don’t have time; I’m too busy writing,” I have to say, I have some sympathy with this one.

Remember, from the pros’ point of view, a writer’s being up on the current releases for her type of book is considered a minimum standard of professionalism, not an optional extra. At least take the time to go to a well-stocked bookstore and thumb through the recent releases, to make sure that your submission doesn’t fly too far out of the acceptable range.

5. Narrative voices that read as though the author has swallowed a dictionary.

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Especially if — and this problem turns up more often than anyone would like to admit — not all of those words are used correctly.

Or, to put it as some aspiring writers might: without embroiling us in superfluous polysemousness, it must be averred that the aesthetic propensities of a vainglorious tome toward prolixity or indeed even the pseudo-pragmatic co-optation — as by droit du seigneur — of an antiquitarian lexis, whilst purportedly an amendment to the erudition of said opuscule and arguably consanguinean (metaphorically speaking) and perhaps even existentially bound up with its literary apprizal, can all too facilely directionize in the azimuth of fustian grandiloquence or unmanacle unpurposed (or even dystelelogical) consequences on a pith and/or douceur de vivre level vis-à-vis even the most pansophic reader. As Pliny was wont to quip in his cups…

Come on, admit it: this is a BIT over-the-top for YA.

Yes, yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin. Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue.

They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

Here again, your best guideline is the current market for your type of book: generally speaking, a writer will always be safe sticking to the vocabulary level of recent releases in his book category. If you want to sneak in more obscure words here and there, make sure that their meaning is evident from context. Trust me on this one.

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

Perhaps it’s due to the major presidential candidates’ having employed speechwriters last time around who wrote better jokes for them, but in the last few years, more aspiring writers seem to be trying to incorporate humor into their work. Since genuinely funny writing is a rare and wonderful thing, I can only applaud this trend.

Just make sure that it’s actually funny before you submit it on the page — not just to you and your kith and kin, but to someone who has never met you and is from a completely different background. And no, having one character laugh at a joke another character has just made will not cause Millicent to find it humorous.

Remember, too: nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom. (Have your parents explain why they ever thought “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” was funny, children.)

If you choose to open with humor, run your first scene (at least) by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny.

7. Unlikable protagonists.

This is another golden oldie that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency of late: it’s long been an industry truism that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist likable, she’s not going to want to follow him through an entire book. And I don’t just mean finding him kind of tolerable; Millicent’s going to want to find the guy actively engaging.

Why might this perennial objection be flying out of Millicent’s mouth more often recently, you ask? Did you read that one above about the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index?

And don’t tell me that your protagonist or narrator becomes more likable as the reader gets to know her. If the writing on page 1 doesn’t grab Millie, it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is marvelous on page 15.

It’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing, after all. Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their Pliny-like cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), they want to fall in love on page 1.

All that being said, a moment of silence, please: John Updike is dead.

When I heard the news — repeatedly; one of the mixed blessings of being widely known as a writer and descendent of a long line of writers is that people very considerately call to break the news to me whenever any well-established author kicks the bucket, as if everyone who has ever set pen to paper were a distant cousin of mine whose death I should not be forced to learn from the standard media sources — I naturally went straight to my bookshelf and glanced through some of his work. In light of our ongoing series on opening pages and the fact that his first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, came out in 1959, I expected his initial pages would, to put it politely, have a tough time making in past today’s Millicents, thus underscoring Updike’s frequently-made point about how literary fiction has been all but brought to earth over the last 40 years.

I was pleased to find that quite the opposite was true: his first pages were grabbers. Take that, eulogists of literary fiction!

More to the point of the latter part of this series, his hooks largely operated not through garish action, but interesting character development. Take a gander, for instance, at the first two paragraphs of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984):

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way; each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”

“A man?” Alexandra Spofford asked, feeling off-center, her peaceful aura that morning splayed by the assertive word.

Now, we could speculate all day about the probable insecurities of a male author who felt compelled not only to have a female character repeat the word man here, as though the very concept of the Y chromosome were inherently unsettling to heterosexual women (at least the frail kind discombobulated by assertive words) but also to employ splayed, a term commonly associated with the things models do in the centerfolds of men’s magazines, to describe a mental state. It might not be too much of a stretch to assume based upon this opening that Mr. Updike wasn’t picturing much of a female readership for this book when he wrote it — intriguing, since in 1984 as now, women were far and away the most common purchasers of literary fiction.

But none of that concerns us at the moment. Look, I ask you, at how beautifully he has used visceral details to establish both a mood and character in the first lines of this book.

It’s a heck of an opening in general. Let’s take a moment to ponder why: instead of easing the reader into the story by an extensive description of the physical space in which we discover these characters, or the even more common physical description of the characters themselves, Updike introduces these women by providing specific insight into their mental processes and motivations. Instead of just telling us that Jane is mean and Alexandra shy, he shows us through an analogy and word choices that we might not expect.

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely right: this opening would grab Millicent because it’s not only well-written, but surprising.

Seeing all the elements in action helps to clarify what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t it? But while we’re at it, let’s be thorough about this. Quick, without rushing back and checking our initial list of red flags that often lead Millicent to reject a submission on page 1, what might strike her as problematic if she saw this opening in a submission by a brand-new writer today?

If you pointed out the typo in the very first sentence, give yourself a great big gold star for the day. (Technically, there should be a comma between oh and yes; as Mr. Updike was a graduate of my alma mater, I’m relatively certain that he should have been aware of this.) While some Millicents might be kind enough to read past a first sentence grammatical or spelling error, it’s not a foregone conclusion.


While we’re giving out prizes for observation, take a red ribbon out of petty cash if you flagged the repetitive dialogue. As we discussed earlier in this series, repetitive dialogue tends to annoy agents and editors, since they’ve been trained since they were pups to excise redundancy. Besides, characters who simply echo what has already been said tend to come across as less intelligent than those who actually add something new to the conversations in which they participate — always a tad risky in a protagonist.

Anything else? What about the unnecessary tag lines (Jane Smart said, Alexandra Spofford asked), now out of fashion? Since Mr. Updike had already been established in the first rank of North American authors by the time for decades by the time the use of tag lines fell out of fashion, this might seem like an unwarranted quibble, but remember, we’re judging this by the standards that would apply to a writer trying to break into the biz now.

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: an established author can often get away with things that someone new could not.

Did any of you red-flag the semicolon? If Mr. Updike were submitting this to Millicent labeled as anything but literary fiction, you’d be right to consider cutting it. Generally speaking, in fiction that isn’t aimed at a college-educated audience — as literary fiction is, ostensibly, but most fiction is not — semicolons are considered a bit highbrow.

Admittedly, the fact that Millicent regularly sees manuscripts whose vocabulary barely scrapes the 10th grade positively peppered with semicolons might have something to do with this. No one but writers really like semicolons, and not even all of us use them correctly (as the late John Harvard would no doubt be delighted to note, Mr. Updike has done properly above), but my, don’t we like to shoehorn them into a manuscript!

Unless you’re submitting your work as literary fiction to an agent with a successful track record of representing a whole lot of it AND her client list fairly bristles with semicolon-wielding authors, you might want to minimize their use.

All of which, as fate would have it, is a perfect lead-in to my wrap-up of the rejection reasons because, really, it’s important to recognize that while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems, at least on page 1: we’ve been going over these points exhaustively precisely so you can meet standards far higher than when the late, great Mr. Updike faced when he was first trying to break into the biz.

Today, however, we get to see the reward: the kind of manuscript that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents and editors tend not to talk too much at conferences about what they love to see in manuscripts. They tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. Remember, agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market.

Which is to say: it’s not enough for an agent to love your work; she needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that’s in the writer’s interest as much as the agent’s.

But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agencies often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book. Or that there exists writing so beautifully literary that every agent currently drawing breath will instantly exclaim, “Oh, of course — I’ll represent that!”

Especially for first fiction or memoir, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as this series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk.

So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service. Literarily, of course.

With an eye toward getting your submission on the litero-romantic short list, here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date. In other words, these are the traits they said would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

Hey, I told you Updike’s work stood up well.

Notice anything else? How about that all of these criteria could be applied equally well to a memoir and a novel? That’s something that memoirists often forget: just because a story is true does not mean that it will be judged by less stringent requirements than a fictional one. A good memoirist, like a good novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller.

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or ‘Wow, great hook’ have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not necessarily a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than pure beauty of voice. Yes, they are seeking good writing with a genre-appropriate voice, but at first glance, they are looking to fall in love with a premise.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient AND able to draw the reader immediately into a pulse-elevating plot.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the loveliness and/or experimental nature of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. Thus, her question is much, much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, ABOUT SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have included both of these elements in your premise, and you have presented them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually.

If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, this avalanche of critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book. (You’re welcome.)

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements is only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough for a first book in the current market. (Unless, of course, you’re already established, like John Updike, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

On that note, I’m going to close this series. Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds tangible skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and keep up the good work!

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


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 IV: sins of excess, prose that flushes purple (or at least mauve), and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities

St Therese at Albi 2St Therese at Albi 3

I think that revisiting some of our well-beloved (and much-hated) list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 is being very fruitful, but it’s a mite depressing, isn’t it? I’m re-posting only selected ones, moving through the dialogue-relevant ones, as swiftly as I can, but still, it feels a bit like wading through mud. Thick mud, the kind that doesn’t come off easily in the wash.

Not to nag, but I suspect it feels that way in part because folks have been chiming in less than usual in the comments. That could mean one of three things: you don’t have anything to say, you’re all off madly pulling together queries and submissions in anticipation of the annual Return of the Literary to New York-based agencies and publishing houses after Labor Day , or even this limited dip back into the dreaded rejection list has stunned and shocked half of you into a coma.

Present-day Anne here: the comments on this post the first time I ran it indicated that the coma option was the most popular response, followed closely by manuscript-shredding despair. As honest and incisive reader Reba pointed out:

Having spent the afternoon reading this entire series, I am struggling to not permanently trunk everything I’ve ever written. Fortunately, that whinging reaction triggered my stubborn streak and I have come to accept that what is necessary is a good, hard look at what I’ve written and, I shudder to say, an enormous amount of actual WORK before I subject the poor Millicents of the world to my prose.

I find this attitude very healthy, truth be known. Naturally, it’s annoying to hear that professional standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit higher — as well as quite a bit more specific — than the average aspiring writer has been lead to believe, or even than what that same writer may have seen done in books published ten years ago or by already-established authors. Those of you who have poured your heart, time, and intellect into producing a manuscript have every right to find that news irritating. Have a good, old-fashioned tantrum about it, then do what Reba did: take a critical look at your own work and move on.

Why am I bringing this up just before we launch into today’s blast from the archived past, you ask nervously? Well, I’m hoping to be winding up out trip down memory lane fairly soon — before Labor Day, we’ve got contest-winning first pages to discuss at length and a truly exciting guest blog (more on that later). In this interval, I also hope many of you are busily preparing your entries for the Author! Author!/Hard Time Words Across the Water literary contest; deadline for entries is midnight (in whatever time zone you happen to be occupying) on September 6.

Why the rush to get through all of that before Labor Day? Well, that’s when the NYC publishing world’s annual exodus ends. While it might be a bit much to expect dancing in the streets, it will once again make sense to send queries and submissions in Manhattanite agents’ general direction.

Not entirely coincidentally, I like to mark the occasion with an intense discussion of what does and does not make a good query letter. Heck, we’re close enough to this exciting time of the year that I have punched up today’s revisited post, to alter its original January-specific submission advice to some that’s more applicable to this time of year.

So why are we sitting around gabbing? We have a lot to do this hot August evening. As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

One caveat about the post to come: although some of the points below are not directly related to the construction and the revision of dialogue per se, all of them could be applied to dialogue scenes. In their rush toward reproducing dialogue realistically, aspiring writers often overlook opportunities to use dialogue for character development. But shouldn’t interesting characters say interesting things?

Worth pondering, at least. Enjoy!

Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to prep those queries and long-requested submissions with an eye to popping those materials into the mail in a couple of weeks? If so, good thinking: early to mid-September is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably planning to labor toward that laudable goal during the upcoming (and aptly-named) Labor Day weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the just-back-from-vacation backlog.

Why avoid weekend e-submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

So tell me: if you were she, would you be more or less likely than usual to shout “Next!” over the first submission or query that happened to run afoul of one of your pet peeves?

On a not entirely unrelated note, shall we get on with the many, many reasons Millicent is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can continue prepping to send out those submissions? As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read-prior-to-rejection, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

Why might that in and of itself raise a raise flag for Millicent? Well, as we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all. Rather ironic, considering that same agent may well ask the producer of that 1-in-10,000 camera-ready manuscript for some fairly hefty revisions after signing her, but hey, the pros reason, an aspiring writer capable of producing a clean, compelling draft might reasonably be expected to produce a clean, compelling revision, too.

The reverse expectation applies as well, of course — and that can be most unfortunate for a Frankenstein manuscript that needs only one more solid revision pass to be market-ready. While the writer might well ( and with good reason) regard such a manuscript as close enough to perfect that it’s worth starting to submit, it can be pretty hard for a swiftly-scanning Millicent to differentiate between a voice that’s uneven because the writer was in a hurry to get it out the door and a voice that’s uneven because the writer has not found the proper narrative voice for the book yet.

Why might that difficulty be problematic for a submitter? Because Millicent’s boss would have to invest a great deal more time and energy in giving guidance to the writer still experimenting with voice; by contrast, all the agent would have to do for the writer who just hasn’t ironed out the kinks yet is make a few generalized revision requests. By the same token, when faced with writing that’s not polished, our Millie is left to guess whether the writer just hasn’t had a chance to go back and buff it up a bit (and thus might be relied upon to do so without much coaching) or if — heaven forfend — the writer simply isn’t experienced enough to be able to tell which sentences flow well and which do not.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up will often find itself in the rejection pile. Millicent does not want to risk running into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “Here’s one that you’ll really like — but fair warning, the writer doesn’t seem to realize that the book doesn’t start until page 17. You don’t mind explaining that to her, do you?”

Chances are that he will mind. Quite a lot, actually.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have been tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect to time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens, say, mid-argument.

The same principle applies to a dialogue scene that dwells on the same argumentative point for too long — or, even more common, consists entirely of people being polite and pleasant to one another. Remember, the point of good dialogue is not to hold a tape recorder up to actual speech; it’s a tool to show interpersonal conflict, develop character, and move the plot along.

What should a reviser do when confronted with dialogue that does none of these things? Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it warms up my editing shears wonderfully to imagine Millicent muttering, “Get ON with it!”

I know; it’s limiting to have to think in these terms. But being aware of the pacing imperative prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print — and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Yes, even to make it through dialogue scenes. When a reader sees as much dialogue as our Millie does, it’s genuinely rare that a character says something that simultaneously makes sense for the ongoing scene, adds to character development, AND surprises her.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Especially on page 1.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially prolix first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

Again, in case you’re wondering: that’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format

If you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right. If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly

Actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter or title page.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.

(4) Consider editing for length.

If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

Like taking too long to come to the point, #59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the uncharitable conclusion screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question. What is that conclusion, you ask? The writer doesn’t think this story or these characters are interesting enough to retain a reader’s attention, and thus relies on punctuation and/or writing tricks to compensate.

Hey, I warned you that it was uncharitable.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish. In much the same way that an insecure comedy writer will depict characters rocking with laughter in order to convey that a situation or speaker is supposed to be funny, a barrage of exclamation points reads like an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation.

Since these particular prejudices are shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class. Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (professional readers often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft, because — wait for it — such writers are more time-consuming clients.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

That made some of you dialogue-revisers sit up and take notice, didn’t it? Generally speaking, exclamation points are far more comfortable in dialogue than in narrative paragraphs — but even then, take care not to go overboard. Punctuation is not really designed to take the place of description, after all; if a character is excited, there are a million ways to show it over and above simultaneously hitting the SHIFT and 1 keys.

If you suspect that your dialogue is exclamation point-heavy, try this experiment: select a chapter and circle all of the exclamation points. Then pick up a highlighting pen (you knew I wouldn’t let you keep ‘em in the drawer for long, didn’t you?) and mark every non-dialogue sentence that ends in one of the pesky things. Take another color and highlight every piece of dialogue spoken by the protagonist that ends in an exclamation point. Using different colors for each speaker, repeat.

Now flip back through the chapter. What color predominates? How many pages between highlighting? How many paragraphs? How many lines?

Once you have identified patterns, you can begin to make strategic choices. If you find, for instance, that exclamation points tend to congregate in scenes between particular characters, ask yourself: am I using punctuation as a substitute for character or relationship development here? If you are using the exclamation points primarily for younger characters (a rather common unconscious authorial choice, by the way), are there speech patterns or vocabulary choices that would make the same point? What would happen if you picked the most exclamation point-using character, and removed the exclamation points from other characters’ speech, to make the emphasis a character trait?

And so forth. There is no formula for how much exclamation point use is too much, but as with semicolons, norms vary from book category to book category. For most adult fiction and memoir, though, you should seriously consider removing most or all of the exclamation points from narrative sentences.

While over-use of exclamation points is often a mark of inexperience, #61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading. An amazingly high percentage of first pages are feature narration positively peppered with as if, as though, and our old friend like. While all of these analogy-introducers are perfectly acceptable in moderation, a too-heavy reliance upon them is one of the classic birthmarks of a first manuscript.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic scene considerably — and can weigh down an opening so much that it can’t get off the ground. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail of streets that is Nob Hill as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s apartment, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes. Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole.

There are far too many stock phrases to list here, of course, but the agents on the panel specifically singled out She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of those see storms. However, that doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers rolling their eyes, protagonists sighing as the sole indicator of disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more another time) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, it’s not all that uncommon for any given agent or editor to perceive him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell my work as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They simply don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails just after Labor Day.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

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


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.


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!

Speaking of dialogue revision…


“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

What a week, campers! Again, I’ll spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say that I shall probably soon be writing comic scenes about medical practitioners who can’t remember which leg is the injured one (hint: could it be the one encased from ankle to hipbone in a brace?), physical therapists incapable of describing any of the activities of the human body without resorting to impenetrable medical jargon, and the intricacies of sweeping out of a treatment room with dignity while on crutches. Adding to the hilarity: the physical therapy facility did not have ADA-compliant doors, so leaving (or coming in, for that matter) required yanking open two thirty-pound glass doors.

How fortunate that the facility never had any visitors with leg or arm problems, eh?

Speaking of characters who evidently have trouble expressing themselves, I’m going to spend the next few days re-running dialogue-related posts from my extremely popular 2009 series on agency screeners’ pet peeves, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk. Actually, I’m going to run two today, albeit in a tricky manner: to save all of you brave and intrepid souls who worked through our recent Frankenstein manuscript series a bit of repetition, I’m smashing the relevant (and non-repetitive) bits together into great, big, Friday-worthy post.

That’s appropriate for Frankenstein manuscript-hardened readers, isn’t it? Enjoy!

I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons on the Idol first-page rejection list related to dialogue. (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.)

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1, plucked from the Idol list:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking a few days ago about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling of rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. (Can you tell that I would really, really like it if any of you who happened to miss that earlier discussion chose to go back and read it?)

However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this is legitimate to discuss as a dialogue problem. While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing.

And that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s just not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, perhaps there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story to follow.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: that’s quite a few questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing while she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context.

But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: {book released 5+ years ago} began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation. In the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall I pause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself, when that tends to annoy Millicent on page 1, too?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none.

Not one iota. It is devoid of any scintilla of character development. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 to find out whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines? Or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count. There is no such thing as a throw-away line on page 1 of a submission.

So let your dialogue reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

Opening dialogue that lives up to that hope is rarer than you might think. Don’t believe me? May I remind you that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol first-page rejection reasons were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect?

Be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, some agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly standard objection to dialogue scenes. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a relatively average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed, irritated and annoyed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most professional readers this kind of tag line use just seems repetitive — or, to phrase it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit more by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo.

Those two telling details made you reconsider your view of Joanna’s tardiness, didn’t they? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation. Make every line of dialogue count, campers, and keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part 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!


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.”


“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 VII: wait, did I doze off in the midst of all that loving harmony?

"If you call me muffin ONE more time, I will turn you into lover tartare!"

“If you call me Snuggums ONE more time, I will turn you into husband tartare!”

I had to laugh earlier today, campers: less than twenty-four hours after going on at great length in this very forum about how professors seldom sit around lecturing one another in real life, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with a professor wherein we were blithely lecturing each other. Actually, she had taken issue with my minor-league gloating over a Wikipedia spokesman’s coming out against using Wikipedia as the sole source for attribution in a footnote or article reference; even though many, many people use it as their primary research source, it’s intended to give an overview of a topic, rather than be the authority.

Quoth the spokesman: “Wikipedia should not be used as a primary source. We completely support that. We would not encourage people to cite Wikipedia in their [academic] papers. That’s not what it’s for.”

Editors have been telling indignant nonfiction writers this for years. So have professors nonplused by term papers whose references have all apparently been gleaned from open-media sources. But that didn’t stop my professor friend from gleefully implying all of us who would prefer bibliographies and footnotes to refer to books and articles, rather than to a source that is designed to change between the time an author uses it for reference and a reader could possibly try to follow up on that reference, are Luddites, fuddy-duddies, and destined to go the way of the dodo. Naturally, I responded by asking her whether she actually believed that the Knowledge Fairy was watching over all open-source media, assuring that in the long run, the only corrections anyone would ever post would be factually accurate, rather than simply adjustments to render the post closer to what the latest contributor had heard someplace might be true.

It was a rather interesting debate, actually. But can you guess why I’m not going to reproduce it as dialogue here? That’s right: because, like the vast majority of real-life exchanges, it would be deadly dull to read.

My friend’s willingness — nay, eagerness — to debate with me on a social networking site, despite the fact that she’s aware I have a hand injury did get me thinking about the Author! Author! community, I confess. And about the self-professed regular reader who selected this particular week to pick a fight with me over — and even I find this hard to believe — something I 2006. I should not, he told me flatly, have written about this topic at all; he hoped, he said, that I had evolved since I’d written it.

Although I’m quite positive that reader’s sainted mother would cringe at his manners, being told to shut up was not the part of his comment that most annoyed me; as those of you who participate in the discussions in the comments are already aware, I like a lively debate about the topic du jour. Nor was it entirely that I felt compelled to waste my scant daily typing time responding to his fit of pique.

No, it was the fact that there was an entire CATEGORY on the archive list that would have shown him, at the low, low cost of a couple of minutes’ worth of scrolling, that I had already addressed his objections at length in the intervening years — that, in fact, we were not fundamentally in disagreement on his primary point. He merely hadn’t bothered to check.

Normally, I wouldn’t trouble my regular readership with the story of a single ill-mannered reader, but as I have been posting less since the car crash (and, as today, rerunning some older posts), more readers than usual have been combing the archives. Or so I surmise, because for the last few weeks, I have been positively inundated with questions the comment section of posts I first ran years ago.

While I applaud those of you who have made the effort to leave your questions on posts related to the topic about which you are inquiring — that way, there’s a significantly greater probability of the next reader with a similar question discovering my reply — in practice, this has meant quite a bit of extra writing during my ostensible rest time. Although I have not been writing new posts every day, I have been one-handedly writing pages and pages of responses to these questions.

Buried in the bowels of the archives, where those of you who tune in regularly to read the top posts may never see them. Sometimes on topics for which there are three or four directly-related categories on the archive list.

Like the guy who hushed me, quite a few commenters evidently have not noticed how specific some of the category headings are — or that there is a keyword search engine located in the upper-right corner of this page. I’m certainly not averse to repeating myself from time to time (do I hear a few cheeky souls murmuring my mantra, read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it out?), but this does not seem like the most efficient use of my scant blogging time, does it?

So may I ask an indulgence of all of you archive-divers? If the post in question is more than a year old, would you mind checking the category list (conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this page for your perusal) to see if (a) I’ve written a more recent post on the topic that may address your concerns and/or (b) since I wrote that post, I’ve added an entire category or done an entire series on that particular topic.

It honestly won’t take all that long to check, and it really will save me quite a bit of typing time. Not to mention freeing up my sore hands for adding more new material to the blog.

But enough about research methodologies; today, we are going to be talking about love. Or, more specifically, writing and revising love scenes. Enjoy!

In my last post, I clued you in to the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different problem.) Within this context, I asserted — perhaps rashly — that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers routinely engage in this sort of banter: in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

Wow, your eyes are so blue, Yummikins!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?”

Or the ever-popular mutual protestation of affection:

“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. Do YOU love ME?”

“How can you even doubt it? I love you twice as much every time I blink. You can’t possibly love me even half as much as I love you.”

“That can’t be true, because I already love you five times more than anyone has ever loved anyone else.”

“Oh, darling, what a wonderful thing to say. I love you so much.”

“And you know what? I love you.”

Zzzz…oh, pardon me; I must have been indulging in a well-deserved nap while waiting for something interesting to happen during this love scene.

Do I sound cynical? I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, as well as much of the human race. But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Yummikins and Muffin themselves.

Why? Well, it’s just a TAD conceptually repetitious, is it not? Not to mention the fact that entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other. Count the seconds until the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads. They may be charmed by it, but are you?

News flash: such banter can be equally deadly to continued consciousness on the page — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation.

Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

”Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition – when we swam beneath skies of azure…”

True, someone might conceivably say something like this in real life, but let’s not kid ourselves here: you’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull off a speech like this without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike. And snores from Millicent the agency screener.

Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue. Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty (anyone? anyone?), one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6” (“Ooh, darling, I love all 66 inches of your length, as well as your half-meter of bouncy brown hair!”), even if that is indeed the case.

In fact, mentioning the latter fact in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors the average person is most likely to fudge. Lopping 20 pounds off your weight in casual conversation isn’t usually considered lying, precisely — after all, you’re not standing on a scale at that very moment, are you?

It’s not completely inconceivable that you’ve shrunk radically since breakfast, but it’s not precisely court testimony, either.

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application — but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form?

While we’re on the subject of doubting self-serving statements, aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, two years older at the time of her first real hit, and yet asserts that she has now, a long, full career behind her, aged at about half the normal human rate?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer – he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. Again, I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes for romantic effect?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other?

Such a scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing — and more interesting to the reader — than the usual transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

If a writer really wanted to get tricky, the narrative might not even make it clear in the moment precisely how and why Lover A is choosing to lie to Lover B. Conveying a subtle sense that there’s something more going on in this scene than meets the enamored eye is a great to increase tension.

Provided, of course, that the narrative doesn’t immediately stab the rising conflict in the heart by explaining in minute detail precisely what’s going on. This has been the death blow to many a promising love scene.

What might that look like in print, you ask? Let’s take a look at a scene where mixed motives have been handled with restraint.

Angelica backed off slightly, instinctively when Desmond kissed her, but lips pressed to hers, he failed to notice. Or if he did, her enthusiastic embraces soon quelled any qualms he may have had.

After a few minutes’ slurping passion, she loosed her lips enough to ask, “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

He toyed with the come-hither straps of her meter maid uniform. “Not until half-past one. And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule.”

Angelica sighed, pulling him closer. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security.” She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Gives a pretty strong impression that Angelica’s motives in pursuing the tryst might not be completely identical to his, doesn’t it? The slight tension between her actions and her words convey that easily, without a lot of heavy-handed justification or acres of internal monologue.

Which, alas, is how many manuscript submissions would have approached it. Here’s a sample — note all of the named emotions, explanations through thought, and just how quickly the reader’s ability to speculate about what might be going on evaporates:

Oh, God, Angelica thought, stunned by the onslaught of Desmond’s cologne, not again. Didn’t this lummox ever think of anything but sex, sex, sex? Still, she had been ordered to keep him here until after the President had been assassinated, and if a little nookie was the most pleasant way to achieve that goal, well, so be it.

She hoped that it would not take very long; her husband, Ivan, would be expecting her home soon. “When do you need to be back at the White House, darling?”

“Not until half-past one,” Desmond panted. “And even if I’m late, the republic won’t fall if the President gets his security briefing is a few minutes behind schedule. It’s not as though anyone out there is planning to perch atop the Washington Monument during his speech on the Mall and shoot him with a crossbow in front of 210,000 people, right?”

Angelica stiffened with fear. How on earth had he ferreted out the details of their plan? Had she been betrayed by a careless or treacherous fellow spy? Was Desmond merely toying with her, in order to extract further information?

She pulled him close. “Promise me that I’ll always be more important to you than national security,” she whispered, shuddering inwardly at the irony of her own words. She glanced over his shoulder at the alarm clock; if only she could keep him here until after Reginald had charged the herd of maddened elephants into the assembled throng, all might still be well. “Right now, I feel as though we’re the only two human beings left on earth.” Little did he know how soon they might be.

“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured into her shapely neck.

Kind of stops the tension dead in its tracks, doesn’t it? The suspense builds naturally when the narrative merely hints at the underlying plot, rather than screams it from the rooftops.

The same technique also works beautifully in anti-love scenes, by the way. If you want to ramp up the tension, try both muddying the players’ motivations a little and conveying those mixed emotions through action, rather than having them say precisely what they mean at all times.

Yes, yes, I know: your tenth-grade composition teacher told you that good dialogue should be able to convey all of the emotional nuances of a scene without additional narration. Let me guess — s/he came up with that pearl of wisdom while either trying get you to read Hemingway or to stop relying so heavily upon adverbs to express a character’s feelings, right?

Adults don’t let ten-year-olds drive Mac trucks, either; one needs to be trained to use dangerous tools safely before running amok with them.

Which is to say: I tend to doubt that s/he intended it as a lifetime embargo upon certain parts of speech. The kind of writing s/he was probably trying to train you to avoid with her prohibition runs a little something like this:

“I can’t pay the rent!” Polly exclaimed distressedly.

“But you must pay the rent,” dastardly Donald declaimed determinedly.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she wailed helplessly.

“But you must pay the rent,” Donald insisted violently.

“But I can’t pay the rent!” she sobbed unhappily.

“I’ll pay the rent!” nattily-dressed Nathan called helpfully.

“My hero!” Polly cried relievedly.

“Curses,” Donald said morosely, “foiled again.”

I seriously doubt that s/he was hoping you would never use another adverb as long as you lived. The dear thing was merely hoping that you would learn to use them with discretion.

But as with so many of the old writing saws, the creaky old chestnut has mutated over time in the conversation of the literal-minded from

don’t use adverbs to describe how every speech was said; how about letting the dialogue itself show tone?


it’s bad writing to use an adverb ever, under any circumstances. Purge your manuscript NOW of all -ly verbs, or you’ll tumble into a pit of burning pitch.

Just a SLIGHT difference between those two iterations of that rule of thumb, eh? I know I’m going out on an editorial limb here, but I suspect you’ve progressed enough as a writer to be trusted not to over-use adverbs, haven’t you?

There, I absolve you: from now on, you’re allowed to use all available parts of speech, if you do it with discretion. Fly on your merry way, allowing your shackles to fall to the ground.

Just don’t start using adverbs to describe how every character says every speech, okay? Oh, and while you’re at it, you don’t need to add a tag line (he said, she averred, they bellowed) to every line with quotation marks. Use them sparingly, just enough to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking when.

Which means, in case your tenth-grade composition teacher forgot to mention it to you, that in a two-person exchange where the opinions expressed are not identical, simply alternating speeches after the text identifies who is saying what initially is usually sufficient.

It’s perfectly acceptable to tuck narrative sentences between the bursts of dialogue, but surely you can come up with something more character-revealing than he said morosely, can’t you? There’s more to conflictual dialogue than just tone, after all.

If you feel ready to implement a more advanced writing technique, try varying the tone a little throughout confrontation scenes. Watching two characters spit vitriol at each other unceasingly can get a rather old rather fast. For instance:

“I hate you, Ted Fairfax, more than any human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a message for you, Tammy: I haven’t been able to stand you since high school.”

“But you and I dated in high school!”


“Ooh, you’re a jerk, Ted.”

Perhaps I’m an overly-critical reader (actually, I’d better be, or I wouldn’t be good at my job), but a little bit of barb-trading goes a long way for me. Call me zany, but I would rather be shown Tammy and Ted’s mutual loathing through action, rather than merely hearing it in their words.

Or, to put it as your crusty old writing teacher might have, by showing, rather than telling.

Ted could, for instance, be lying about what his feelings for her were in high school. That would automatically render their relationship more complex — and thus more interesting — than simple mutual hatred. Mixed emotions are almost always more intriguing on the page than simple, straightforward feelings.

Especially if, as we’ve seen in pretty much all of today’s examples, the characters are going around bellowing about their feelings at the top of their lungs, as if they were traipsing about in the last act of La Bohème — and expressing those emotions with a pinpoint accuracy that would make living and dead poets alike turn bright green with envy.

Allow me to make a subversive suggestion: people aren’t always telling the truth when they say that they’re in love. Or in hate, for that matter.

Occasionally, they have been known to change their minds on the subject. Some are reluctant to name their emotions at all, and still others are prone to aping the emotion that they believe the person sitting across from them expects them to be feeling.

Here’s a shocker of a revelation: human beings are complex critters, far more so than they appear in the average interview scene in a manuscript submission. Individuals have even been known — sacre bleu! — to mislead total strangers who show up, demanding information about that set of sextuplets who fell down the well thirty years ago.

Or did they?

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just passively nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you,” or spouting Hollywood narration like “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his once-lucrative sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

After all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers routinely show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what certain well-known deceased authors were REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews by would-be biographers who evidently just tumbled out of the sky, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions apparently just assume that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And most of the time, that assumption turns out…to be…zzzz…correct. (Oh, did I doze off again?)

Yet in an interview scene — especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between any two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There’s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, despite the success of the Greek chorus first person plural narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: interpersonal conflict is, generally speaking, far more interesting than pages at a time of harmonious agreement.

Let your characters disagree; allow them to quibble, providing that they do so in character-revealing ways. And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

More thoughts on dialogue revision follow next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part VI: as my dear old professor used to say…


Happy Monday, campers —

Well, I have a bit of good news on the recovery front: I’ve been cleared to type a bit with my right hand again. Before anyone gets too excited, I should add: it’s not an all-clear, by a long shot, but it does mean that I’m moving closer to being able to get back to composing brand-new blog posts again.

However, I typed that last paragraph with both hands. I shall probably be completing this one the same way. And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

In the spirit of necessary moderation, then, here is today’s revisit to a former post on our current topic. Its holiday references may not be quite apt for August’s annual publishing industry break, but its dialogue-revision suggestions could not be more so for late-summer self-editors. Enjoy!

Did everyone have a nice Fourth of July? In order to teach me a lesson about realistic dialogue, apparently, Someone Up There arranged for me to spend it with a bevy of college professors. Nice people, all, full of charming chat about…

Wait a minute; I’ll bet I can read your minds. 90% of you have already decided that the conversation was stuffy, learned, and generally uninteresting to anyone who doesn’t happen to be conversant with particle physics, James Joyce, and/or the Bourbon Dynasty, haven’t you?

What makes me leap to that (in your case, possibly unwarranted) conclusion? Reading manuscripts for a living, that’s what. Rare is the professorial character who walks into a bar, sits down, and doesn’t immediately start spouting the greatest hits from his latest lecture.

Usually right before he does something spectacularly absent-minded.

Seriously, the prating professor is one of the great unsung stereotypes of the literary world. Just ask any professional reader (agent, editor, contest judge, writing teacher, Millicent the agency screener) who happens to hold an advanced degree herself: it’s bound to be among her pet peeves.

And with good reason: even manuscripts that conscientiously eschew the sulky teenager, the ditsy flight attendant, the corrupt politician, and the unattractive computer genius have been known to embrace the ever-lecturing lecturer with a vim that makes one wonder just how many aspiring writers were bored to death in college. Or high school. Or merely have never had the good fortune to hobnob with doctorate-holders at a social function.

The ugly, ugly result: like many a reader before her, a Millicent with a master’s degree is fated to roll her eyes over unrealistic dialogue.

Why, we were talking about that just the other day, weren’t we? If memory serves — and I’m quite positive that it does — just before I elected to ski down the slippery slope of dissecting all of the problems Hollywood narration can bestow upon a manuscript, I was already perched upon a soapbox, pointing out the pacing, voice, and storytelling dangers inherent to sneaking too much background information or physical description into interview scenes early in a novel submission.

Today, I’m clambering back up on that soapbox. Because, honestly, I’m reading as fast as I can, but I’m just not going to be able to read every manuscript in the English language before it lands upon the always-crowded desk of our old pal Millicent.

No doubt spilling her too-hot latte on her master’s hood, like the ones depicted above. Because, naturally, like everyone who has ever earned an advanced degree, she never takes of her robes, right?

While I’m adjusting my purple velvet doctoral tam — yes, really — allow me to recap a bit for those of you who missed the earlier posts in this series: an interview scene is one where a character, generally the protagonist, obtains information critical to the plot and/or character development from another character, extracted through dialogue. An inefficient interview scene is one in which, as is all too often the case in submissions, the narrator is not a particularly good interviewer. Or thinks that s/he is being clever by not just coming out and demanding the information s/he has ostensibly walked into the scene to collect.

Can you blame a reader for becoming a tad impatient with an interviewer who NEVER ASKS THE LOGICAL FOLLOW-UP QUESTION or JUST SITS THERE WITHOUT ASKING ANYTHING, waiting for the interview subject to spill his guts spontaneously?

If the reader in question happens to be Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, or her Aunt Mehitabel the noted contest judge (hey, they’re a literary-minded family; advanced degree-holders, all), the consequences are usually even more serious: if s/he loses interest in the manuscript before her, she tends to stop reading.

In other words, “Next!”

How may a writer avoid this grisly fate? Here’s a good rule of thumb: while not everything that people say in real life makes good dialogue, it’s an excellent idea to make sure that all of your dialogue is in fact something a real person in the real-life equivalent of your fictional situation might CONCEIVABLY say.

And here’s a secondary rule of thumb — a rule of forefinger, so to speak: that goes double for any dialogue that sounds anything remotely like Hollywood narration.

Yes, even if you have heard with your own tiny, shell-like ears a real person speak that way. Present-day Anne here: or perhaps — brace yourself for this one — even if you actually heard a real-life professor once speak like the fictional professor in your book. Just because it might theoretically be possible to produce a recording of someone like your character speaking in that manner does not mean a transcript of it will ring true on the printed page. At least, not to someone personally acquainted with more than one professor.

Or doctor. Or firefighter. As convenient as it might be for writers on a deadline if adopting a profession immediately caused an individual’s speech to drop all personal characteristics and simply become representative of that profession, that just doesn’t happen in real life.

That absent-minded professor you met once notwithstanding.

And don’t even get me started on how often fictional male professors are depicted as having affairs with students (which, over and above being a very tired cliché, would be a very good way to get fired on most U.S. campuses today), female psychiatrists with their patients (ditto), detectives with murder suspects, and so forth. Hackneyed actions are just as likely to strike Millicent as clichéd as jargon-stuffed dialogue, after all.

They are also, just in case anyone doesn’t find the threat of her writing being dismissed as not containing original ideas sufficiently terrifying to eschew the practice, often used as shortcuts, substitutes for honest-to-goodness character development. Introducing stock characters can save a writer a lot of time, after all. (Burly thugs, anyone? Mousy librarians or schoolteachers? Dumb jocks?) But there is more to telling a story enjoyably than telling it rapidly, isn’t there?

The funny thing is, from a professional reader’s perspective, aspiring writers are often STUNNED to hear that such character behavior is clichéd, because, you guessed it, they have actually met real people who acted and spoke that way. I once read a manuscript where the philandering prof spent the opening scene sharing a friendly drink — and talking about Wittgenstein, naturally — with a Native American spouting earth-worshiping wisdom, a sympathetic bartender dispensing amateur psychology, a burnt-out teacher who had just had his faith restored by a single student’s abrupt progress, and a corrupt — wait for it — politician.

When I gently suggested to the author that perhaps the reader might have seen these characters before someplace, and that he might want to consider individuating them more, he acted as though I’d just recommended that he feed his left foot to a school of piranha. Since he had never seen precisely that array of characters together on the page, it had never occurred to him that these were stock characters, more representatives of their professions than fleshed-out characters.

Okay, I need to rest my hand now; back to the post already in progress.

Remember, please, that dialogue is not automatically realistic just because a real person has at some point uttered it. As I have been pointing out none too gently throughout this series, real human beings tend not to tell one another things they already know — except, of course, about the weather (“Some heavy rains we’ve been having, eh?”), the relative progress sports teams (“How about them Red Sox?”), and tidbits from the latest celebrity death scandal (in the interests of moving this along, I’ll spare you all my eulogistic renditions of Ben and I’ll Be There, despite the fact that they happen to fall smack in the middle of my flute-like soprano range).

In print, such iterations of mundane issues are notably primarily for their soporific value. (Translation: zzzzz.) As storytelling, such homely gems just tend to slow down the action of the scene.

Interestingly enough, adhering to these few rules while revising almost always results in trimming interview scenes substantially. This is particularly true for interviews that provide the opening conflict in novels, where Hollywood narration and dialogue stuffed to the gills with visual clues about characters tend to congregate — and thus are likely to do the most damage at submission time.

I sense some shifting in seats out there. “Yeah, yeah,” the impatient are murmuring. “You already yammered at us about this last week, Anne. Cut to the chase, already.”

Funny, that last sentence is precisely what Millicent is often heard muttering over interview scenes. Without the last week part, that is.

But you have a legitimate point, impatient mutterers. However, in my earlier discussion of the phenomenon, I left out one of the primary reasons Millicent tends to have that particular knee-jerk reaction: if the first couple of pages of text are a bit heavy-handed, agency screeners, contest judges, and other professional readers usually leap to the conclusion that the ENTIRE text reads the same way.

An assumption, as you no doubt have already guessed, that conveniently enables Millie and her ilk to reject the descriptively front-loaded submission immediately and move swiftly on to the next.

I have seen a LOT of good manuscripts done in by this tendency. Because this is such a common problem, as an editor, one of the first places I look to trim is that first scene — which, as I mentioned a few days back, is very, very frequently an interview scene. My editing antennae perk up particularly strongly if the opening scene relies far more heavily upon dialogue than narration.

Why, all of you interview-writers ask in trembling tone? Well, see for yourself, in this piece of purple-tinted prose:

“Don’t you go rolling those large hazel eyes at me, Thelma,” Marcel warned. “It hasn’t worked on me since our days in the chorus twelve years ago, in that bizarre road company of Auntie Mame. And you can save the eyelash fluttering, too. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “That’s a fine criticism, coming from a man wearing false eyelashes. Just because you’re a drag queen doesn’t mean you can’t dress with some taste. I mean, bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

“What about you?” Marcel shot back. “In your puce bathrobe with purple magnolias dotted all over it still, at this time of day!”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. “Because you’re my best friend in the world, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: you’re too heavy-set for a miniskirt now, darling. Certainly if you’re not going to shave your legs. What are you now, forty-five and a size twenty-four?”

Marcel smoothed down his Technicolor orange wig. “At least at six feet, I’m tall enough to wear Armani with style. Your cramped five foot three wouldn’t even be visible on a catwalk.”

Admittedly, the banter here is kind of fun, but a judicious mixture of dialogue and narration would convey the necessary information less clumsily, without rendering the dialogue implausible. Try this moderately snipped version on for size:

Thelma rolled her large hazel eyes. Even draped in a ratty puce bathrobe that barely covered her short, round form, she carried herself like the Queen of the Nile.

Unfortunately for her dignity, her icy hauteur act had grown old for Marcel twelve years ago, three weeks into their joint chorus gig in that chronically under-attended road tour of Auntie Mame. “You can save the eyelash fluttering, sweetheart. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”

Thelma laughed. “You’re a fine one to talk taste. Bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”

His thick, black false eyelashes hit where his pre-plucked eyebrow had originally been; his current fanciful impression of an eyebrow swooped a good four inches higher, threatening to merge with his Technicolor orange wig. Even for a career drag queen, his moue of surprise was a bit overdone. “Will you be getting dressed today, darling?” he asked brightly. “Or should I just get you another bottle of gin, to complete your Tallulah Bankhead impression?”

Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. He was getting too heavy to wear fishnets every night. Still, not bad gams, for a forty-five-year-old. “If you insist upon wearing a miniskirt, my sweet, you might want to consider shaving your legs.”

Same information, but more naturally presented, right? By having the narration take over the bulk of the descriptive burden, a rather amusing narrative voice has emerged, conveying a point of view distinct from either Marcel or Thelma’s.

I can hear my mutterers murmuring again, can I not? “Okay, so the second version has a stronger narrative voice,” they concede. “But even so, all of that physical description makes the scene drag a bit, doesn’t it?”

Yes, and that brings me back to my closing question from earlier in this series: other than the fact that television and movies have accustomed us all to having an instantaneous picture in our heads of a story’s protagonist, is there a reason that a narrative must include a photographic-level description of a character the instant s/he appears in the book?

I’ll go ahead and answer that one myself: no, there isn’t. TV and movies have simply accustomed us to the notion that our first impressions of any character should be visual, just as in radio, we first hear him speak.

In a visual medium, there’s plenty of reason to give the audience a snapshot, but books are not visual media; narratives can appeal to all of the senses. So the next time you sit down to ponder revising the first few pages of a novel, it’s worth investing a moment or two in pondering the possibility that your opening scene may actually read better without a meticulous up-front description of every character in the scene, his backstory, and where he bought his clothes. Or even how he got there.

Consider it, perhaps, while sitting with a hard copy of your first few pages in your hand. Is there backstory or physical description in your opening dialogue that could come more gradually, later in the chapter — or even later in the book?

Or – and this is a possibility that occurs frequently to professional readers of interview scenes, let me tell you — is that Hollywood narration or description-laced dialogue the book’s way of telling us that perhaps the book opens at the wrong part of the story?

I hope that didn’t make anyone out there faint; my kind of doctorate doesn’t allow me to resuscitate the fallen with impunity.

Might, for instance, we learn more about Thelma and Marcel in a more graceful manner if, instead of beginning the novel with the dialogue above, it opened with a short prologue showing them twelve years ago, bright-eyed, innocent, and slim — and then jumped ahead to this scene, to show how they and their relationship have changed?

Dramatic, eh? One might even say character-revealing.

Of course, front-loading an opening scene with physical description is not necessarily an indicator of a structural problem. I suspect that often, writers who use this technique as a means of introducing description are driven primarily by a panicked sense that the reader must be told what the characters look like the instant they appear in the text — combined with a recollection that their high school writing teachers said that extensive physical descriptions later in the narrative confuse readers who have already formed a mental image of the character. So they’re sort of trying to, you know, sneak the physical description in when the reader isn’t looking, so to speak, in that opening scene.

Trust me, a professional reader is ALWAYS looking. It’s her job.

Looking specifically, in the case of an agency screener or editorial assistant plugging through a mountain of submissions, for a reason to reject the manuscript in front of her. By avoiding the common twin traps of overloading the first scene with crammed-in backstory and physical description, a manuscript stands a much greater chance of cajoling Millicent into reading on to scene #2.

And we all want that, don’t we?

I sense more impatient shifting in the peanut gallery. “Um, Anne?” these fed-up folks say. “Isn’t this the same point you made above? I get it, already: using dialogue to have characters describe one another is a species of Hollywood narration, and therefore to be eschewed. Have you considered that there might not be a reason to keep telling us this?”

Ah, but you’re assuming that I’ve already made my primary point. Far from it; like other doctors, we book medicos bill for our advice by the hour. Relax: we’ve still got some time left in our session.

So here comes some professional wisdom: after a screener has had the privilege of scanning a thousand manuscripts or so, it becomes pretty clear that many aspiring writers don’t really understand what the writing gurus mean when they urge us all to open with a hook.

A hook, for those of you new to the term, is a grabber located within the first paragraph of a story or book — preferably within the first sentence, according to some writing teachers — that so intrigues the reader that s/he is instantly sucked into the story. (This is not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a one- or two-sentence pitch for a script or book. See the so-named category on the list at right, if you are curious about the care and feeding of the latter.)

Often, aspiring writers will interpret the advice to open with a hook to mean that a storyline must open with violent or even bloody action, a mystery that the reader will want to solve, or a conflict-ridden scene. While admittedly Millicent sees a whole lot of manuscripts that open with a bang (with or without gushes of blood), all of these strategic choices can indeed work, if handled well.

Although let me tell you, they are such common choices that it’s a downright relief to most professional readers when a writer elects to open with a powerful visual or sensual image instead. Hint, hint. Especially if that strong opening image leads into a scene packed with character- or situation-revealing conflict.

What’s even more common than the submission that kicks off with conflict? An beginning that insists that the reader must be 100% up to speed on the plot and characters by the bottom of page 1 — or page 5 at the latest.

Again, that vexing question rears its ugly head: is this strictly necessary?

Brace yourselves, because I’m about to suggest a revision technique that may shock some of you: just as an experiment, try removing the first scene of your book.

Not permanently, mind you — and certainly not without having made a backup copy of the original first, in case you decide after mature and careful consideration that what I’m about to suggest next was a stupid idea: cut it just long enough to find out whether the story would make sense to the reader without it. If it can fly that way, consider cutting the scene entirely and starting fresh slightly later in the plot.

I’m quite serious about this — you wouldn’t believe how many good manuscripts don’t actually begin until a couple of scenes in, or that allow absolutely gorgeous opening sentences or images to languish on page 4. Or page 15.

Or, if I’m honest about it, the beginning of Chapter Three. Which, in a Frankenstein manuscript, may well have originally been the opening of Chapter One, before the writer heard that speech at a conference about hooks and decided to front-load the manuscript.

Yes, I know: what I’m suggesting is potentially pretty painful; as we discussed in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series (still conveniently accessible in the category list at right, in case you missed it), many, many aspiring writers regard the approach of the reviser’s pen with every bit of the fear and loathing that the published writer feels for governmental censorship. But it’s just a fact that when we’re first constructing a narrative, we writers are not always right about where the story should begin and end.

If you don’t believe this, I can only suggest that you take a gander at THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, an undoubted masterpiece that could have lost most of the first 200 pages without bugging the reader much at all.

(That’s a professional opinion, by the way. One of the great fringe benefits of having walls lined with diplomas from prestigious institutions is the ability make sweeping judgments like that about classics without fear of sounding ignorant. While I’m at it, allow me to add: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is a stupid play, and I found A TALE OF TWO CITIES far-fetched. So there.)

Try to keep an open mind while you’re revising. Be willing to consider the possibility that your story might be more effective — and hook the reader better — if you began it at a different point. Or at least do a little field testing to rule it out.

Believe me, you’ll sleep better at night if you do.

How do I know this, you ask? Because now, I’ve planted the doubt in your mind. As much as you might pooh-pooh the idea that all or part of your opening could be snipped away without fundamental harm to the storyline, you can’t be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s a stupid suggestion without going back over it pretty rigorously, can you?

You’re welcome — and I mean that very seriously, because an aspiring writer who is willing to examine and reexamine her writing before she submits it is going to have a much, much easier time coping with editorial feedback later on in the process.

Trust me; I’m a doctor. That diploma over there says so.

By the way, what the group of professors were discussing when I walked into the Fourth of July party was Charles Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE. After I laughed and told them that this was precisely the type of conversation people who didn’t know any professors would write for them, one of them said, “Yes, but the funny thing is, this is a conversation we normally wouldn’t have outside a Dickens conference.”

I rest my case. Keep up the good work!