Capturing the distinctive buzz of reality

As Virginia Woolf — whose birthday all right-minded literary types are celebrating today — tells us, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” Our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might like to add, however, “Yes, but that does not mean that everything that has ever occurred on the planet Earth would necessarily make a good scene in a novel, or even a plausible one. And that goes double, perversely enough, for memoir.”

Are you wondering just how that is possible, those of you devoted to writing about reality? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers: just because something actually occurred does not mean that it will ring true on the page. In a book, it’s the writer’s job to make everything that happens seem plausible; within the world of the story, everything has to make sense.

That can be a daunting task for the writer devoted to truth-telling, because, let’s face it, the world as we actually experience it on a day-to-day basis frequently defies understanding. Storylines meander; villains do not receive their well-earned comeuppances; virtue is not always either its own reward or lauded by anyone else.

In fact, when you come right down to it, quotidian life is usually dramatically unsatisfying, and have you ever paused to consider the kinds of characters reality routinely introduces onto its stage? Totally unbelievable; the average reader would laugh ‘em off the page. And let’s not even begin to discuss how some of those characters talk.

All of which means, contrary to apparently popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, that simply jotting down a transcript of a real event and inserting it into a novel may not work particularly well; all too often, a purely factual account will not provide the reader accustomed to fiction’s standards of world-depiction with sufficient information to be able to picture what the writer experienced. Nor does lifting a living, breathing person and inserting him into a novel necessarily create a character that will spring to life on the page, unless the writer fleshes him out as fully as any character dredged up from her imagination.

There’s a reason that perennial cry of the realistic writer — “But it really happened that way!” — doesn’t particularly impress agents, editors, or contest judges, you know. With apologies to Aunt Virginia, no matter how true the facts, it’s the writer’s responsibility to make them seem true to the reader.

By the same token, while reporting accurately what happened in one’s own life is necessary in a memoir, it’s not the only storytelling requirement; it has to sound true as well. More than that, the narrative needs to present the memoirist’s world vividly enough that the reader can, to recycle a metaphor, walk in the protagonist’s shoes. Plausibility on the page is largely dependent upon style. As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there in the ether? “Fair enough, Anne,” writers of the real across the globe admit. “I never conceived myself as a mere recorder of human events. I want to add my unique authorial voice, trenchant analysis, and distinct worldview to the story I’m telling. But now that you’ve got me worried about the difference between factual accuracy and literary plausibility, how about sharing some tips on how to tell the difference on the page?”

A perfectly reasonable request, reality-lovers, but as it does indeed all depend upon the writing (where have I heard that before?), there really are not any one-size-fits-all criteria. Some plausibility faux pas crop up in submissions and contest entries more than others, however. So that you may learn to spot them in the wild, let’s take a gander at a few of them roaming about their natural habitat.

Here, for your Millicent-imitating pleasure, is an honest-to-God, hand-to-heart real event, rendered for the fiction page as professional readers often see it. Does it ring true to you, or could it use a reality overhaul?

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

Excited, Antoinette extended a shapely leg from the covers to test the air. Chilly, but bearable: surely, by the time she got down to work, the room would have risen to a temperature that would not cause her fingers to cramp. Antoinette clambered out of her cot and into her robe and slippers, shuffling to her cabin’s door.

Nothing there but freezing air and a bit of lingering snow on the doorstep. Laughing at her own optimism, Antoinette turned to fill the electric teapot next to her makeshift desk.

Strange that a place that boasted such an endowment would expect her to balance her laptop on a sheet of plywood resting on sawhorses made out of two-by-fours. It did not make Antoinette sanguine about breakfast down at the dining hall; maybe she’d wait for lunch before she ventured out. That would give Antoinette a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended. She was glad she’d had the foresight to slip some Lady Grey tea and a few protein bars into her luggage.

If you immediately cried, “In heaven’s name, why must every other female leg depicted on the printed page be described as shapely? Couldn’t some of them be, say, nicely-formed or well-rounded? Sometimes, I think that there are no other leg-related words in the language,” well, Millicent would agree with you there. She’s seen enough shapely legs trot across the manuscript page to keep the Rockettes fully staffed until the end of the next millennium. And not, as some genre snobs might assume, merely in the kind of hard-boiled mystery in which dames with gams that go all the way down to the floor lure tough guys into the kind of trouble of which film noir is made.

I tremble to report, though, that this description — and this type of description — is fairly common in both memoir and fiction based upon real events, especially if those events happened to occur in the writer’s own life. Any guesses why?

The answer is rather charming, I think: when writers are describing themselves, even fictionally, they tend to focus upon what they consider their best features — or their worst. Our writer friend above may well feel that the leg in question is what would catch a discriminating bystander’s eye first.

Neither Millie nor I have any reason to doubt that, of course. We just wish that the writer would have come up with a means of describing her leg with sufficient clarity that after having read about it, we could recognize it in a crowd of well-constructed torso support systems, if you catch my drift.

Does the sound of two thousand of you shifting uncomfortably in your desk chairs mean that I hadn’t mentioned lately that those of us who read for a living often develop some rather strong negative reactions to clich?s — or phrasing that turns up in submissions and contest entries so often that it might as well be on every set of lips in North America? That’s an inevitable side effect of screening, I’m afraid: after the 7,259th iteration, even a pleasing and apt description can seem a bit, well, overdone.

The moral, should you care to know it: a writer has no control over where a submission or contest entry falls in a screener or judge’s reading queue. It would behoove a savvy writer, then, to make sure that the page is phrased so it will come across as original and stylish if it’s Millie’s first of the day or her 105th. Give those gams a rest, will ya?

Now that I’ve lectured you into feeling good and protective about the text we’re discussing — oh, you thought I was being nit-picky for its own sake? — let me ask: did you notice the red flag that might have prompted Millicent to shout, “Next!” even if she personally can never get tired of the sight of a shapely leg? While you were at it, did you notice the yellow flag that might merely have irritated her a bit?

No? Perhaps it would help to see this excerpt as she would in a submission, on a page. If you’re having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. And if you really want to replicate the screener experience, read the following fifteen times, walk away for an hour, then return and read it again.

Did one or both leap off the page at you this time? If not, I invite you to try a practical experiment. First, look away from that page for at least fifteen seconds. Then glance back and read the whole thing as quickly as humanly possible.

Notice how much the name repetition grabs the eye when you’re skimming? That’s the yellow flag, and long has it waved over submissions. Why might it bug a tired-eyed screener? Those capital As are visually distracting, so it could feel to someone who has been screening submissions all day as though our writer friend has reminded the reader that the protagonist’s name is Antoinette far more than is strictly necessary for clarity.

Or, as Millicent might put it, “How short an attention span do you think I have, to remind me of this character’s name on every other line?”

A picayune objection? Perhaps, but since fiction and memoir submissions alike tend to name-check their characters over-much — and as writers often love the monikers they’ve given their protagonists most of all — a Millicent can frequently become sensitive to the practice. Especially in a text like this, in which there is only one character, so there is no possibility of the reader’s saying, “Wait — which she are we talking about now?”

Over-naming certainly isn’t limited to writing based upon real-life events, however, any more than the other major red flag here. To get a handle on the second, let me ask you: how much do you remember about the plot of the page you’ve now read twice?

If your answer even remotely resembled, “Um, not much, but then, not much happened on that page,” congratulations; you’re reading like a pro. While you are already meandering in Millicent’s moccasins, then, let me ask you: if you were a screener, would you turn the page and keep reading?”

Oh, don’t look at me that way; most manuscript submissions get rejected on page 1. Yes, even ones like this: properly-formatted, free of typos, and clearly written. Remember, this is not the only manuscript Millie will be screening today; she may well have dozens loading her desktop, or even hundreds. If the story and/or protagonist don’t grab her pretty quickly, she’s likely to move onto the next.

Again, though, slow openings are not endemic only to fact-based fiction and memoir — but that does not prevent some of you who write one or the other from taking umbrage, I notice. “But Anne!” reality-huggers everywhere protest, and who could blame you? “If I — I mean, Antoinette — really did all of these things on the occasion described here, isn’t it a trifle dishonest to pretend that she did something else? Didn’t Aunt Virginia tell us at the top of this post that the more closely I cling to what actually happened, the better I will write about it?”

That’s not quite the central point of this ubiquitous piece of writing advice, contrary to popular belief. Possibly because one so seldom sees Woolf quote in its entirety: “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction — so we are told.”

Part of the art of writing fiction lies in providing sufficiently detailed descriptions and character development that the reader can feel she’s inhabiting the scene along with the protagonist. The same holds true for memoir, right? As we’ve discussed, that’s frequently the problem with transcribing a verbal anecdote directly to the page: the way most people tell their kith and kin about a real event does not contain enough evocative detail or subtle characterization to be equally gripping in print. That’s especially likely to be the case when, as in our example above, the real-world inspiration isn’t all that action-packed.

And don’t roll your eyes and mutter that clearly, Millicent’s never read any Proust. No one could be a greater fan than I of sitting around and remembering things past, but let’s face it, what wowed the literati in 1917 would not necessarily receive a kind reception today. Literary tastes change. And, as half of the publishing industry’s denizens would be only too glad to roll their eyes and tell you, even habitual readers of high literary fiction have more demands upon their time than in days of yore.

Oh, you think you’re immune to the pacing expectations of our age? Okay, let me ask you — by the middle of that first page, you were mentally shouting at Antoinette to do something, already, were you not? You wanted her to nibble on a madeleine, at least, if you happen to be a Proust fan.

Or, as editors like to scrawl in margins, “Get out of her head and into the story, already!”

To be fair, most current readers have a much, much higher tolerance for protagonists’ sitting around and thinking about stuff than your garden-variety Millicent, especially after the story has shown the major character(s) act vigorously. The cool-down-and-reflect scene is a staple of movies and television dramas for a reason: it allows Our Hero(ine) to reflect on what has just happened and decide what to do next. Since the cinematic medium requires a voice-over to convey silent thought, this scene often consists of the protagonist’s providing a recap and analysis for her best friend, his law partner, her boss, somebody’s mother, or a random passerby, more often than not while consuming some form of liquid libation.

Which is why, in case those of you who regularly frequent writers’ conferences and workshops had been wondering, agents and editors who have been at it a while sometimes urge startled attendees to cut any and all scenes in which the protagonist and another character imbibe coffee, tea, milk, hot cocoa, or any other drink conducive to cozy conversing. It’s not that, as a group, people who read for a living are hostile to, say, caffeine. Far from it.

It’s that, like Millicent, they’ve just seen so many plots stop dead in their tracks for pages on end in order to tell the reader what he already knows — what’s just happened — and to preview what’s about to occur that they cringe a little at the first hint of it. And don’t even get me started on how often manuscript submissions open with a conversation in which the protagonist explains what has happened just before the story started, as a shortcut for introducing back-story to the reader.

I see you blushing, writers of narratives that open with the protagonist’s calling her mother/best friend/significant other/beloved dog Trey to tell her/him/it about the awful/wonderful/just so-so thing that’s just happened to her. Yes, people do this all the time in real life, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to depict it on the page. Or even that it’s solid storytelling strategy: remember, the more Millicent is confronted with a narrative trick, the less effect it will have on her.

At the risk of going out on an interpretive limb, on the page, repetition often seems redundant. And before anyone suggests it, as writers so often suggest to agents and editors, no, the fact that something was done or said more than once in real life does not matter. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: just because something actually happened does not mean it will work well on the page. Or even be interesting.

Stop reaching for that club to bludgeon me. I’m not talking about writing untruthfully about actual events here; I’m merely suggesting selectivity in narrative. Just because real life is, let’s face it, often so darned repetitious that it ought to be brought up on charges of plot plagiarism, that doesn’t mean that having your narrative faithfully reproduce that already literary quite well documented tendency will not run the risk of boring the reader.

No matter how true a story is, a writer owes the reader an entertaining yarn, right? Antoinette’s creator/alter ego seems to have forgotten that, and I think I can tell you why.

But first — see what I did there? I gave reality a small twist, for narrative effect. If I were married to literalism in storytelling, I couldn’t have said that, right? I write 99% of the examples I use here at Author! Author! — why would I have to guess the motivations of today’s text-producer?

That being said, let’s return to the rhetorical conceit already in progress: like so many aspiring writers of the real, the teller of Antoinette’s tale presumed that readers would be interested in a fairly mundane set of thoughts and activities not only because they actually happened, but also because those thoughts and activities appear in a novel. Or a memoir. In any case, in print.

Or so Millicent and her ilk surmise from the fact that so many submissions contain — and open with — the kinds of scenes that do undoubtedly occur in real life, but neither advance the plot of the book in question nor provide character development. So why, the reader is left to wonder, is that part in the book at all?

Especially if, as in today’s example, it appears on page 1. As a reader, I find it hard to believe that this particular moment is the most interesting of Antoinette’s no doubt fascinating journey across this terrestrial orb. Nor, as an editor, do I accept that this was the only conceivable place to begin the story– or that a page of set-up was necessary to establish a mood before the plot could possibly lurch into motion.

And, frankly, as an intimate of Antoinette’s — we could hardly be closer, even at this very moment — it rather irks me that the fictional version of the original rather scarifying event translated this way to the page. In real life, this was quite the action-fest.

How might I — that is, Antoinette’s amanuensis — have conveyed that better? Perhaps by getting out of the lady’s head and into the plot more quickly. At minimum, let’s lose the tea.

The petulant whine of the radiator woke Antoinette, but despite its annoying whistle, her mood was ebullient. If there was anything better than waking up in a cozy bed in one’s very own writing studio in an artists’ colony, she did not want to know about it. And was that coffee she smelled? The staff didn’t deliver, did they?

No such luck, but she could easily skip breakfast. That would give her a solid three hours of writing — heck, almost five, if she could stave off hunger long enough to scoot into lunch just before it ended.

She was deep into the middle of Chapter Three of her Great American Novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Startled, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s the fault of the original page 1, I’m afraid. By devoting its entirety to the relatively uninteresting details of quotidian life, it would have fooled Millicent into thinking that this is a pretty slow book.

And honestly, did you really miss all of the earlier rumination this time around? Heck, if we really wanted to get things moving, we could skip all of that naming of emotions (Millicent sees too many {Name} was {emotion} statements on any given day of screening, anyway) and simply throw poor Antoinette straight into her dilemma — and, not entirely coincidentally, into the plot.

Antoinette had just finished typing the fifty-third joke of her novel when the first hornet bounced off her forehead. Screaming, she shoved her folding chair back from the rapidly-splintering desk — or, rather, the bowed and frayed sheet of plywood balanced precariously upon makeshift sawhorses the It Shall Remain Nameless artists’ colony had seen fit to provide writers-in-residence. The second bee landed in her lap, the third atop her sleep-ravaged hair. She fled the cabin, sloshing through the March slush in her bedroom slippers.

Much more exciting, isn’t it? yes, Aunt Virginia, this quite different narrative is every bit as factually accurate as the original version; it’s merely told with an alternative emphasis and swifter pacing. Sticking to the facts need not mean relegating stylistic concerns to the compositional back seat, after all.

Two more common faux pas, and we’ll call it a night. See if you can spot what would raise Millicent’s notoriously easily-levitated hackles as the story moves through its next set of conflicts.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny window — was the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He’s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Did the level of word repetition bug you, so to speak? Again, it might help to see it as Millicent would.

By the time the wet had reached her toes, she decided she was being an idiot. Clearly, the poor bee had been trapped in the cabin last fall, when the retreat had been shut down for the winter. The whiny radiator must have warmed it back to unpleasant life. She would have been grumpy, too.

But that didn’t mean the darned thing had to be sharing her work space for the next six weeks. Having it moved onto a sunny windowsill — or, better still, to outside a sunny windowwas the utmost that could be expected of even the most karma-conscious person.

By the time she had sloshed her way to the administration building, she had many times cursed herself for not having been brave enough to venture back into the cabin for her coat. Teeth chattering like castanets, she begged the administrative assistant — who was a painter, if Antoinette was recalling the previous night’s introductions correctly — to send someone, anyone, to shoo the hornet out of her work space.

Clearly, the lady couldn’t be bothered. “Oh, that’s Joe’s job,” she said dismissively. “He‘s not going to be in until the afternoon. The late afternoon.”

Quite eye-catching, is it not? And entirely for the wrong reasons. For some reason that years of editing and writing experience have left me powerless to explain, word and phrase repetition — up to and including that clich? about the chattering teeth — is notoriously common in both fictional and nonfiction accounts of real events. The prevailing theory (to which I only occasionally subscribe): writers of the real tend to focus more upon recounting the facts accurately than upon how they recount them. In a laudable attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they sometimes forget to show off how well they can write.

I do think that explanation is sometimes applicable to real scenes committed to paper, because all types of writers fall into word repetition patterns at one time or another; when writers are in a hurry to get a good concept down on paper, style often falls by the wayside, at least for the first draft. I suspect, though, that a few other factors frequently nose their heads under the literary fence. The old verbal-anecdote-not-translating-well-to-writing trap, for instance: it’s hard to deny that even the most gifted raconteurs tend to reuse words more than the prevailing standards for professional writing smile upon in these decadent days.

If you still don’t believe that the spoken and the printed word are different, try reading that last sentence out loud. Tumbles awkwardly around the mouth, doesn’t it? Yet most readers would not have perceived it as especially awkward on a first reading. (I would — and did, as soon as I typed it — but hey, I’m a professional reader. Don’t try this at home.)

Writers of fact and fact-based fiction also occasionally fall into this pattern because in their aforementioned laudable effort to tell the truth, the whole…well, you know the rest, they conflate the goal of being factually accurate with a desire to be consistent. If an account is true, they reason, it should sound the same each time it’s told, right? And they’ve been telling it a certain way out loud for years. So telling it any other way can sound not only wrong to them, but actually untrue.

This logic, if you’ll pardon my saying so, drives many of us benighted souls that read for a living nuts. “What do you mean,” they bellow, rending their garments, “there’s only one way to tell this story? You’re a writer — there are a million ways you could tell this story!”

That response, in turn, drives many writers of the real equally nuts, especially if they happen to be writing memoir. “What do you mean,” they wail, bearding heaven with their bootless cries, “I should write about my life in a different way? I’m telling the truth here — so are you asking me to lie about what happened, or are you saying that I should have lived my life in some other way?”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate realistically. Naturally, a memoir editor wants the writer to present her life story accurately, but if you’ll pardon my repeating myself, it also has to be a good yarn — and well written, too, if the writer can possibly manage it. That means being selective about what real elements to include, as well as exerting narrative authority to ascertain that the story both flows plausibly on the page and entertains the reader.

Oh, holster that throwing knife. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will necessarily read as plausible on the page. All that nice professional reader wants you to do is tweak your account so the reader gets yanked out of the story by muttering, “Oh, that would never happen.”

Exercising some finesse can be quite necessary, as I think we can all agree that sometimes, reality can be mighty implausible. As I may have mentioned, the world is often a genuinely lousy writer, distributing punishments and rewards with little sense of dramatic fitness, jumbling together entirely disparate character traits within a single individual, and generally displaying a perverse affection for the trite and predictable. The real world wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in an editor’s chair.

Or a writer’s, for that matter, because to make sure that the written word is appreciably better than reality. That takes both a discerning eye for the actual and an acutely sensitive sense of story.

Sound like a tall order? You may be encouraged to hear — I know I am — that many writers of autobiographical fiction and memoir do exercise both talents in their submissions and contest entries, imposing a very strong authorial point of view onto the story arc. Sometimes, unfortunately, they go a trifle overboard.

How? See if you can catch the subtle narrative bias in the next segment of Antoinette’s story. Why might this factually truthful account rub Millicent the wrong way at the end of a long day’s screening? (Hint: verbal anecdotes are prone to this misstep, too.)

Antoinette felt as though every bee in the world had landed on her back, buzzing and pacing on its tiny legs. “What am I supposed to do until he gets back?”

The administrative assistant rolled her eyes, clearly thinking what a wimp. “Why don’t you try ignoring it?”

“Them,” Antoinette corrected her quietly. “I’m being dive-bombed.”

“Try opening a window.”

Antoinette dragged herself downstairs, hoping to delay her unexpected exterminator duties with some scrambled eggs, but the breakfast servers slammed the dining room door in her face. She couldn’t even snag a lousy cup of coffee. With envious eyes, she watched the well-fed sculptors, painters, and photographers amble back to their beautifully lit and undoubtedly bug-free workshops.

Has the self-pitying tone begun to grate upon you yet? No? Okay, I’ll ramp it up.

She waded back through the ankle-deep slush to her cabin, rolling up a newspaper she had snagged from the dining hall into what she hoped and prayed would be an adequate hornet-smasher. Opening the cabin’s door just enough to peek inside, she recoiled. The plywood desk was polka-dotted with groggy be. Dozens more lazily circled the old-fashioned bowl light fixture on the ceiling.

Terrified to her bones but determined not to lose a half-day’s writing time, she clamped her eyes and mouth shut, clenched her teeth, and ran across the room. Grabbing the nearest window by its sash, she wrestled it open, a worrying buzzing just off her right ear the whole time.

The storm window couldn’t be budged. Swatting wildly in all directions, she ran all the way back to the administration building.

“Back already?” the administrative assistant snorted. She called to workers in other parts of the office, laughing.

“Please,” Antoinette begged, “I don’t know what to do. I think there’s an entire hornet’s nest in the ceiling light. I can’t get to my computer to rescue it.”

Everyone laughed. “Can’t you write in longhand?” someone asked.

She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain polite. “I don’t mind trying to work someplace else for the rest of the day, but could I borrow an electric fan or something so I can get back into the cabin for some clothes? Or maybe even my laptop?”

More guffaws. “Look,” the administrative assistant snapped, “if you want, you can write a note for Joe.”

I was pretty flabbergasted at this reaction, I must admit; as I said, reality’s not a very subtle writer. Which is why, believe it or not, this narrative seems to lack authenticity: it’s too obvious where the reader’s sympathies should fall. Not only is our saintly heroine — who is, you will note, unflaggingly polite — entirely in the right while her faceless tormenters cold- and warm-blooded alike are entirely in the wrong, but the humans’ reaction doesn’t even make sense.

“Oh, come on,” the reader would have every right to huff. “What kind of retreat’s administrative staff would be this callous to danger to one of its guests? Some people are allergic to beestings, you know. And even if that possibility hadn’t occurred to anyone concerned, wouldn’t they be worried that a massively bee-stung former writer-in-residence might, if she lived to tell the tale, make certain that any writer who might even consider taking up residence there would hear this dreadful epic of woe and uproar?”

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The purpose of telling this story in writing, though, is presumably not to point a finger at the guilty — or at least not to do it so obviously that the reader perceives a narrative bias — but to beguile the reader with a true-to-life, entertaining yarn. Antoinette’s creator might try, for instance, limiting the dismissive reaction to only one character, the administrative assistant, rather than presenting the rest of the office’s staff and the dining hall’s personnel as uniformly hostile. Some individual character development might be nice. And why not seduce the reader into sharing the protagonist’s horror by giving more of a visceral sense of what it felt, smelled, sounded, and tasted like to be in that room stuffed with bees?

Let me answer that last question myself: I’d rather not relive that nasty moment any more intensely than I already have to write the story so far, thank you very much. If I were writing this scene for a memoir or autobiographical fiction manuscript, however, it would be my job to envision it down to the very last flutter of wings.

The truer the facts, the better the fiction, right? Otherwise, how could the reader possibly gain a true sense of what it was like to be living inside Antoinette’s skin? And wasn’t that what the writer telling her story set out to achieve?

Hey, nobody ever said writing about reality well is easy. Often, it’s not particularly fun, either. But you chose your subject matter because you wanted a writing challenge worthy of your ambitions and talent, didn’t you?

In the interest of factual accuracy, I should add that Joe did eventually turn up — he’d gotten embroiled in a still life — but since the hornet’s nest extended all the way into the cabin’s disused attic, he wasn’t actually able to stop the hailstorm of hornets until well until the middle of the next day. I slept on a crumbling couch between two other writers’ bedrooms. My slippers did not dry out fully until the beginning of Week 5.

P.S., I wrote roughly 200 pages while I was in residence. But I’ve never looked a hornet in its beady little eye again.

Seriously, I could have constructed a far more dramatically satisfying resolution to that storyline, reality. You really do need to work harder on your craft and characterization.

But nice job on all of the shapely legs with which you’ve managed to stock the world. Keep up the good work!

The ever-knotty question of what constitutes good writing

An old friend presented me with a stumper yesterday, campers: although neither a teacher nor a writer himself, Nate had just been asked to teach a writing class at work. Specifically, he had been allotted six hours in which to transform the prose stylings of the fine folks in another department from argumentatively sound but hard to follow into…well, the company’s owner had not been all that clear about what better writing would mean in that context, but he certainly was adamant that he wanted it.

Oh, and would the day after tomorrow be too soon to offer the class? Under the circumstances, I would have called me in a panic, too.

Already, I see the logical conclusion-huggers out there scratching their heads. “But Anne,” the rational point out, as they are wont to do, “if this storyline popped up in a novel, readers would find it implausible. In the first place, if the owner doesn’t know what good writing is, how can he set writing standards for the department? If he does not know how his staff is falling short of those standards, how is the class — which, if my calculations are correct, should convene sometime tomorrow morning — to address the problems? And if the boss is so darned worried about his employees’ writing, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in someone with experience diagnosing writing problems and helping writers iron them out?”

There you go, expecting the real world to be as plausible as fiction. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: reality is a lousy writer.

Case in point: Nate’s predicament is exceptional not in that he’s fallen victim to the astonishingly pervasive notion that anyone who can express himself well on paper must perforce be capable of teaching others how to do it — which, as anyone who has attended an authors’ panel on craft issues at a writers’ conference could tell you, does not always bear out in practice — but insofar as he happened to have gone to elementary school with an editor willing to help him come up with a last-minute lesson plan. Makeshift workplace writing seminars seem to have been on the rise in recent years; I hear constantly from aspiring writers who insist that their queries must be in business format (left-justified, non-indented paragraphs, a skipped line between paragraphs) because, they claim, “the guy who taught my writing class at work said standards have changed.”

Upon further inquiry, that guy virtually never turns out to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, if you catch my drift.

To be fair, though, Since my primary experience of Nate’s forays into the realm of the Muse has been a paragraph or two in his annual Christmas card, I’m not really in a position to assess his writing — and since neither of us work in the department he’s assigned to teach, I had to ask to peruse his potential students’ writing specimens before I could even begin to give him advice. Every profession has its own internal standards for communicative excellence, after all; for all I know, Nate might be the Edith Wharton of interoffice memoranda.

As a writing teacher, however, I did know that his terrified, broad-based question, “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” was not one easily answered under any circumstances. Those of us who edit for a living hear this one fairly often, doubtless due to the widespread and erroneous belief in one-size-fits-all writing solutions — and universally-applicable writing advice, for that matter.

Which is why, one presumes, that the standard editorial answer is, “It depends. What kind of writing are you talking about?”

Did that resounding thunk of chins collectively hitting floors indicate that at least a few of you were unaware that what constitutes good writing varies not only by style and voice, but by context and intended audience as well? To those of us that read for a living, there’s no such thing as generic good writing, especially when one is discussing books. While clarity and voice consistency are desirable in any genre, specific standards vary by book category: what would be laudable in YA, after all, might bore a literary fiction readership to death, and vice versa. The conventions by which paranormals operate quite happily would seem absurd in a Western. And call me zany, but when I pick up a cookbook, I don’t expect it to read like a Sherman Alexie short story. (His new short story collection is terrific, by the way, even though it contains some old stories.)

So while a layperson might have responded to “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” with a handful of soothing platitudes about the importance of showing vs. telling or some light wrist-slapping on the subject of run-on sentences, Nate could hardly have asked a pro like me more challenging question, or one more likely to produce a three-hour answer. Since neither he nor his prospective students seemed to be looking to break into the literary market, however, I spared him the nuanced lecture on the many gradations of stylistic merit, contenting myself instead with asking what kind of writing these fine folks habitually did and what about their efforts had disturbed his employer enough to be willing to stop the enterprise dead in its tracks for a day in order to improve it.

The questions seemed to surprise him, or so I surmise from a pause long enough for me to have set down the phone, have my hair permed, and returned without missing his response. “Well,” he said eventually, “they’re expected to describe real-world situations.”

Was it callous of me to laugh? “That, I’m afraid, is the challenge faced by every memoirist and other nonfiction writer who has ever trod the earth’s crust — and a hefty percentage of the novelists as well.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but my folks are not very good at it.”

As I love you people, I shall not reproduce the eighteen minutes of cross-examination required to elicit what might charitably be regarded as a reasonable description of what kind of writing these excellent people were not doing well, for whose eyes it was intended, and how their literary efforts were not pleasing that target audience. To my ear, the problem seemed not to be entirely writing-related: the budding Hemingways in question were routinely expected to walk into conflict-ridden situations, rapidly assess the various potential and/or current combatants’ needs, desires, and aggressive capabilities, and produce a terse summary in the few minutes they had at their disposal before diving into the next fracas.

I’m inclined to believe that even the actual Hemingway would have found that a writing challenge, especially on a short deadline. And the more Nate talked, the more the tight deadlines seemed to be exacerbating the writing problems. In a move that might not astonish anyone familiar with either rushed writing or professional jargon — but evidently did come as something of a surprise to Nate’s employer — those harried scribblers had fallen into the habit of using stock phrases to save time. If not actually using the copy and paste functions to recycle entire sentences.

Obviously, that practice would over time try the patience of anyone tasked with reading many of these reports back-to-back, but not only for reasons of style. Specific descriptions would not be particularly conducive to reuse, right? In order to be easily portable, the less descriptive those statements could be, the better.

Better for the rushed copy-and-paster, that is, not for descriptive clarity — or, importantly for the credibility of the reports Nate’s students are expected to write, the reader’s ability to picture what’s going on. Even if one of these writers is a terrific observer and an obsessively honest reporter of fact, repetitive wordsmithing will convey a less-then-meticulous impression.

Let’s examine why. If Report #1 reads like this:

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

And Report #2 reads like this:

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

It’s pretty hard for the reader to tell these two battling groups apart, apart, isn’t it? That’s the nature of generic description: even if the writer’s has something specific in mind, stock phrasing represents generalities — and that’s what the reader is going to take away.

Lest those of you who write fiction be congratulating yourselves, thinking that this is one writing problem, thank goodness, that does not apply to your work, let me hasten to add that the same principle applies to any description. No matter how detailed the writer’s mental image of a person, place, thing, or situation might be, if the narrative uses generalizations to depict it, or holds back salient details, the reader’s going to end up with only a vague impression of the writer’s artistic vision.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post. It would be factually accurate, as well as quite speedy, to describe it as a picture of a piece of wood. A writer in less of a hurry could tell a reader that the wood is dry, has a knot in it, and that a small portion of it had apparently been slightly burned at some point in the dim past.

All of that would be true; you can see that for yourself. But if you had never seen the photograph in question, would reading either of those descriptions enable you to picture it? Couldn’t those descriptions apply to a practically infinite variety of photos of pieces of wood?

If we cranked our observational skills up to high, however, and set our literary skills on stun, we could easily describe that image so thoroughly that the reader would not only be able to envision it, but would know precisely how that particular hunk of wood differed from every other piece of wood on the planet. If the reader ever encountered it in real life, she would recognize it. (“That’s it, officer — that’s the lumber I read about!“)

If the description on the page does not show the relevant specifics, though, how is the reader supposed to learn about them? Guesswork? Telepathy? Showing up on the author’s doorstep and demanding a fuller description?

Obviously, at least from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s not the reader’s job to do any of these things; it’s the writer’s job to provide those specifics. How a savvy writer would chose to go about that, though, might well depend upon the type of narrative that would contain the description, as well as the writer’s individual stylistic preferences and the needs of the scene. In a thriller, for instance, a just-the-facts description might be appropriate:

The glass in the window rattled in the wind. Not too surprising, really, considering the state of the wood holding it together: dry, cracked, and full of knots. Even its garish yellow paint job seemed to have given up on holding itself together.

In an emotional YA scene, however, this treatment might make more sense:

I ran my fingertips along the warped wood of the window frame, wondering if I could pry it open. Old yellow paint flaked onto my sleeve as I worked a pencil into the largest crack in the wood. The last inmate must have been too depressed to try to escape — all she seemed to have done was crush out a cigarette on the yielding wood.

For literary or mainstream fiction, though, it could read like this:

No wonder the window leaked heat like a warped sieve — the very wood holding it together had dried out to the point of shattering. An ancient knot spun near the confluence of sill and frame, sending angry concentric circles of resistance shivering toward the glass. Deep, murky cracks wrinkled decades-old yellow paint.

Quite a difference from the window frame was made of wood and painted yellow, eh? While all of these descriptions are factually true, the reader would take away radically varying mental images.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take another gander at our two original examples. Now that we know that the reader’s sense of what’s going on could be substantially improved by including more specifics, what other style changes would be helpful here?

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

Did the word and phrase repetition catch your eye this time around? It would have maddened Millicent the agency screener, and for good reason. Even taking Report #1 and Report #2 individually, their repetitive phrasing is, let’s face it, not very interesting to read — and thus inherently less memorable, from the reader’s point of view, than more varied word choice.

Did that last contention make you do a double-take? Okay, here’s a test of whether it’s true: quick, without scrolling back up, explain the differences between what the writer observed in Situation #1 and Situation #2.

Did you come up with anything but a floor level, and perhaps a couple of the participants’ names? Neither would a reader. That’s a writing problem as much as a matter of content choice.

How so? Well, by definition, repeated phrases do not add new information to a description in the way that fresh wording can. Yet many writers deliberately repeat words and phrases, apparently in the mistaken belief that the reader will magically derive a more complex meaning from seeing the same writing a second, third, or fourth time than s/he did the first time around. Take a gander:

The sight made Zenobia sad, sad in a way that no sight had made her feel before. And that realization made her sad, too, because she realized that unless she could manage to change the course of history, she might well be the last human ever to see the sight at all.

Okay, okay, I get it: the lady’s sad, and she’s seeing something. But no matter how many times the narrative tells me Zenobia’s sad, I’m not going to understand her sadness better than I did the first time it used the word. And surely it’s not unreasonable for me as a reader to wonder what the heck she’s seeing — or to resent that the narrative keeps referring to a sight that it’s not showing me.

Seem like an extreme example? Perhaps this frequency of word repetition is on the high end, but you’d be amazed at how often manuscript submissions simply adapt few chosen words and phrases to many descriptive purposes. Verbs are particularly prone to this treatment.

The door was locked. That was unexpected, like the frustration downtown had been. He tried to break it down, but the door was too strong for him. Frustration made him grind his teeth.

He was down to his last idea. If he couldn’t get inside, or at least prove that he had tried, all of his plans would be down the drain. He would be broke. It was just like that time in Phoenix, when Ariadne had treated him like a dog.

If you don’t mind my asking, what does was convey to the reader the fourth time it appears that it didn’t in the first three iterations? Or, to stand the question on its head — a lot more interesting than any of the activity indicated by the verb choices here, I must say — what does this passage gain in either stylistic or in storytelling terms by recycling these words and phrases?

Come up with anything? I didn’t, either. But you’re starting to feel more sympathy for the conflict-describers’ supervisors, are you not, if not for Millicent, for having to read this kind of prose all the time?

I sense some furtive shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you fond of word repetition protest, and well you should, “isn’t word choice a matter of style? Maybe the writer here reused things deliberately. The phrasing above might not be your cup of tea, or Millicent’s, but it is stylistically distinct. In fact, read out loud, it might even sound pretty cool.”

That, as you say, is a matter of opinion, but even if Millicent or I did think it sounded cool (and I don’t), the limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing here carry distinct clarity costs. What, may I ask, happened downtown? Why was it frustrating, and what about it produced the same type of frustration as the current situation? For that matter, how is this situation like what occurred in Phoenix? While we’re asking, who is this trollop Ariadne, and in what way did her interactions with our hero resemble the manner in which she might hobnob with man’s best friend?

See the problem? Even if the manuscript prior to this point had simply throbbed with detail about that donnybrook downtown, conveyed a sterling sense of our hero’s door-battering capabilities, and devoted 70 pages to Ariadne’s emotionally questionable proclivities, the word choices here deprive the reader of a clear sense of what’s going on in this particular moment. Not all feelings of frustration are identical, so why present them as though they were? How does our hero attempt to breach the door, and how precisely did it resist him?

And don’t even get me started on how the inclusion of hackneyed phrases — down the drain, treated him like a dog — further obfuscate meaning. Yes, most of us will understand in general what these stock phrases mean, but it honestly isn’t the reader’s job to guess how these clich?d descriptions apply to this particular situation, is it?

Hadn’t thought of those phrases that way, had you? Most writers new to the game wouldn’t: if a phrase is in common use, they reason, it just sounds right. How else would someone put it?

That’s a dangerous question to tempt Millicent to consider, I’m afraid. “Well,” she is likely to snap, “a writer might want to phrase it in a more original fashion, just for the sake of style. While this one is at it, s/he might consider applying some thought to coming up with less expected ways to convey break it down and grind his teeth, too.”

You have a point there, Millie, and one that applies equally well to the workplace writing of our first examples and manuscripts intended for submission to agents and editors. Naturally, it’s important that writing sounds good to the writer, but that is not the only measure of whether a passage is well-written. It needs to sound good to the reader — and not just any reader, either. It must sound good to the reader in the writer’s chosen audience, the kind of reader who already reads books like the one the writer has produced.

Why? Because that’s the reader who will ultimately buy that writer’s work when it appears in print.

Millicent wants to help good writers reach that reader. So does her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor to whom he pitches manuscripts. Since agencies and publishing houses specialize in marketing to particular types of readers — thus book categories, right? — it’s a safe bet that all of these professional readers will be familiar with the kind of prose that’s currently selling well to your target audience.

That means, in practice, that they’re not just looking for generic good writing. They’re looking for what that audience will consider good writing.

Which, of course, will vary by book category. And if that doesn’t make you want to stop scrolling through this post, snatch up your hat, and race to the nearest well-stocked bookstore to check what kind of prose readers of books like yours are buying these days, well, you might want to reexamine your priorities.

I sense some purists gearing up to be huffy, do I not? “I’m appalled, Anne,” those who pride themselves on eschewing mere mercenary motives scold. “I thought we were talking about good writing here, not altering our artistic vision to conform to whatever bestseller happens to be dominating the literary market at the moment. I don’t want to sound identical the authors whose work happens to be selling well in my book category; my work is original.”

I applaud that — and it’s precisely my point. By definition, stock phrases, clich?s, and expected phrasing do not read on the page as the original phrasing of an exciting new voice; they’re generic. At submission time, that means that using them can never help a writer impress Millicent stylistically.

They’re a waste of page space, frankly. As your friend in the biz and sincere well-wisher, I would rather see you devote that space to what’s best about your writing: your individual vision, expressed as only you can describe it on the page, in a manner likely to appeal to your target readership.

No amount of one-size-fits-all writing advice is going to be able to tell you how to do that — and, frankly, that’s probably good news if you’re trying to develop your individual authorial voice. Generic style precepts that purport to be universally applicable presuppose a single notion of good writing. But you have too much respect for your intended reader than to buy into that oversimplified notion, don’t you?

Don’t squander your unique artistic vision by expressing it in vague terms or overused phrases. Trust me, your reader will want to gain a clearer sense of what you have in mind. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXII: if it be the winter of Millicent’s discontent, can spring be far behind?

Before I fling all of us headlong into yet another examination of what strategies do and do not work well on the query page — that’s why you tuned in tonight, right? — I’d like to take a moment to reiterate some advice I gave all of you eager New Year’s resolution queriers a couple of weeks back. Or, at least that hefty chunk of the January querying community that either lives in the United States, is planning to approach literary agents based in the United States, or both: no matter how tempting it may be to send out a query via e-mail over this long Martin Luther King, Jr., Day weekend, please, I implore you, resist the temptation.

“And why should I even consider taking that advice?” those of you joining us mid-Queryfest demand. “At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I have more spare time in the course of a three-day weekend than during the normal two-day kind. Why shouldn’t I hit SEND while I have the leisure to do it?”

Already, a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. I love how closely my readers pay attention. Go ahead and help me fill ‘em in, Queryfest faithful: just as our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, is predictably greeted by many, many more queries on any given day in January, as opposed to any other month of the year, she also finds her inbox stuffed with more e-queries than usual on Mondays than any other weekday, for precisely the reason the newcomers just cited — aspiring writers tend to have more time to send them over the weekend. As a direct result, not only does she typically have more work on Mondays. And as she, like so many people bent upon enjoying their weekends, is often a mite grumpier that day as well.

With what result? Chant it with me, Queryfesters: the rejection rate tends to be higher on Monday mornings than, say, Thursday afternoons. Our Millie simply has a taller stack of queries to work through, without any extra time in which to do it. Fortunately for her sanity, while it’s pretty difficult to compress the amount of time it takes her to process a paper query — about 30 seconds, on average, or less if the querier is helpful enough to insult her intelligence with a hard-selling statement like you’ll be sorry if you pass this one up! or this is the next DA VINCI CODE! — it is spectacularly easy to render the consideration and rejection of an e-mailed query a matter of just a few seconds. Especially now that so many agencies have adopted the to-a-writer’s-eye appallingly rude practice of simply not responding to a query if the answer is no.

Not sure how to speed up the consideration process? Okay, I ask you: how much time would it take you to twitch the finger nearest the DELETE key in its general direction? And how much more likely would you be to do it on a morning when your bleary eyes fell upon 722 queries in your inbox than the happy day when it contained only 314?

So, at the risk of repeating myself, I ask you: do you honestly want your query to land on her computer screen on a Monday morning?

Sad to say, though, it could arrive at a worse time: the Tuesday following a three-day weekend. Due to the aforementioned tension between aspiring writers’ free time and the rhythm of her work week, we may also confidently predict that she will be inundated with still more e-queries then than she would on an ordinary Monday, right? Just after Labor Day, for instance, or Memorial Day, it requires very little imagination to picture just how itchy her fingertips are going to be for that DELETE key.

It thus follows as night the day, then, that when a three-day weekend happens to fall in January, the dreaded month when a good half of the aspiring writers in North America who intend to query this year will be hitting the SEND key if they are going to take the plunge at all, Millicent’s e-mail coffers and mail bag will be as full as she is ever likely to see them. Need I devote more screen space to the predictable effect upon the rejection rate the following Tuesday?

I’m guessing not, with a group as savvy as this. Hint, hint, wink, wink, say no more, as the immortal Eric Idle used to say.

Speaking of Millicent’s a.m. stress levels, mine hit a peak this morning, triggered by the gentle snowfall pictured above. Not that I am anti-snow in general; indeed, I typically find the first — and sometimes only — snow of the year quite exciting. It snowed a grand total of thrice in the Napa Valley in the course of my childhood; it was something of an event. I didn’t actually see large quantities wafting down from a grumpy sky until my junior year of high school, in the course of an ill-fated let’s-show-the-kids-how-Congress-works field trip during which I got pushed sideways over a chair because I was the only student participant who believed Social Security was worth saving. (Hey, it was the 80s. And my sprained ankle is fine now, thanks.)

So I was darned excited to look up from my desk this morning to see great, big white flakes hurtling at my window. I can only plead the fact that I happened to be editing a manuscript at the time as an excuse for what happened next.

My SO came tripping into my studio, bearing a hot cup of tea. “Have you looked outside? It’s a winter wonderland!”

“I should think it would be obvious,” I said, gratefully accepting the mug, “from the fact that I am sitting right next to a window that I might have observed the snow. And couldn’t you manage to come up with a less hackneyed way to describe it than winter wonderland?”

And that, dear friends, is what reading even quite good manuscripts for a living will do to an otherwise charming person’s manners: I am certainly not the only professional reader who automatically revises everyday speech in an attempt to raise its literary value. Imagine how much touchier I would be if I had Millicent’s job on a Monday morning.

Had I mentioned that you might want to think twice about hitting that SEND button this weekend? Wouldn’t your time be better spent building a snowman?

To be fair to both Millicent and myself, stock phrases, clichés, and stereotypes do abound in your garden-variety query, synopsis, and manuscript submission. So common are they that one might well conclude that there’s an exceptionally industrious writing teacher out there, working day and night to inculcate the pernicious notion that the highest goal of literary endeavor consists in stuffing narrative prose to the gills with the most repetitive, prosaic elements of everyday speech.

In a sense, that is sometimes the case: as many, many writers can attest, the continental U.S. has not suffered in the past half-century from a shortage of English teachers bent upon convincing their students that good writing should flow as easily as natural speech. The most visible results of this endeavor have been, as we have discussed before, a superabundance of chatty first-person narrators given to telling, rather than showing, the stories through which they lead their readers, a general disregard of subject/object agreement (presumably because the proper everyone and his Uncle George contracted rabies strikes the ear less gracefully than the pervasive but incorrect everyone and their Uncle George contracted rabies), and, most irritating of all to the professional reader corps, texts peppered with the kind of catchphrases and polite phrases that show up in conversation.

Why is that last one problematic? Well, think about it: by definition, the stock responses to common stimuli (pleased to meet you, have a nice day, I’m so sorry for your loss), standard phrases exchanged in mundane interactions (sign right here, have a nice day, may I help you?), and mere polite murmurings (after you, excuse me, you’re welcome) are generic; their strength — and their social safety — lies in the very fact that people spout these statements all the time. As such, they do not have personal content: although Madge may genuinely mean it when she tells Bernice to have a nice day, chances are that when she said precisely the same thing to Herbert, Bruce, Ambrose, and Melchior over the course of the following two hours, she did not utter it with the same intent. It’s just something people say.

We’re all aware of that conversationally, right? So why does it frequently come as a surprise to aspiring writers that because such phrases are so very common, they lack the power either to convey characterization, illuminate relationships, or add complexity to an interaction?

Not sure why? Okay, let’s assume that Madge’s co-worker, the otherwise estimable Ima, decides to immortalize their workplace’s everyday speech on the novel or memoir page. Eager to depict darling Madge as the courteous, considerate lady that she is, conscientious Ima makes darned sure to include each and every stranger-charming statement. Unfortunately, the result is not particularly likely to charm a reader, much less one as page-weary as Millicent. Take a gander at a not-atypical opening scene:

“Excuse me.” The tall, handsome stranger handed her his paperwork almost apologetically. “I was told to fill out these forms and bring them to this window.”

“Hello.” Deliberately, Madge finished reorganizing the paper clips in their magnetic holder before glancing at the stack. “How are you this fine Monday morning?”

“Oh, fine. Is this the right window for these?”

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

He covered his watch with his sleeve. “Oh, yes. We’ve been swamped.”

“Well, it’s always like that after a holiday.” She stamped the top three forms. “We’ve been swamped, too. Did you have a nice long weekend?”

“Yes. You?”

“It was fine. Didn’t they give you a B/49-J form?”

“Oh, yes, it’s right here. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“I’m doing my best, sir. May I see some I.D., please?”

“Okay.” Clearly, the man was accustomed to his smile’s having greater effect on functionaries. He could have posed for a toothpaste ad. “Here it is.”

“Thanks. Just a moment.” She tapped on her computer, frowning. “We don’t seem to have any record of your existence, Mr. Swain.”

“What do you mean?”

She caught just a glimpse of the tentacle wiping the perspiration from his brow. “I’m sure there’s just been a mix-up in the database. You just hang on for a moment, and I’m sure we can get this cleared up in a jiffy.”

Pretty stultifying until that last bit, wasn’t it? Even less excusable from Millicent’s perspective, the narrative didn’t give the slightest indication until that last paragraph that this is the opening for a fantasy. While this sort of bait-and-switch between the ordinary and the unexpected is a classic short story plotting strategy — not to mention the dominant storytelling technique of the old Twilight Zone series, which continues to influence fantasy writers to this day — the speed with which the sheer volume of submissions forces Millicent to read renders the mundanity of this dialogue dangerous. She would have to read all the way to the end of this exchange to see that it’s not just the 274th exchange echoing everyday speech that she’s read this week.

Lest anyone be tempted to dismiss her tendency to lump this interaction with all the others (including issuing the same cry of, “Next!”), note, please, just how little those polite, ordinary speeches reveal about either of the characters shown or the situation. This dialogue could take place in any customer service environment: in a bank, at the DMV, at the teleport terminal between Earth and the planet Targ. Because these statements are generic, they can’t possibly tell the reader anything specific. And while the writer and his writing group might well find that keep-‘em-guessing ambiguity hilarious, Millicent’s simply seen it too often to play along for very many lines.

Does the chorus of martyred sighs out there indicate that some of you Queryfesters are tiring of playing along as well? “Okay, I get it, Anne,” those of you impatient to get queries out the door moan, “dialogue on the page needs to be something better than just a transcript of everyday speech. Lesson learned. But why in the name of the seven purple moons of Targ did you decide to stop dead in the middle of a series on querying to tell us about this Millicent-irritant now?”

An excellent question, impatient moaners, and one that richly deserves a direct answer. Try this one on for size: since Millicent, like most professional readers, has an extremely low cliché tolerance, it’s poor strategy to include even one stock phrase in a query letter.

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed (the mind acoustics are phenomenal here on Targ), she sees cliché-filled queries all the time. See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having difficulties reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + several times to enlarge the image.

Oh, you thought I was going to use a real reader’s query to illustrate this particular faux pas? That would have been a bit on the cruel side, wouldn’t it? Besides, given a readership as savvy, fascinating, and creative-minded as this one, where could I possibly have found a query as cliché-ridden as this one?

Actually, although it pains me to say it, about a quarter of the volunteer queriers submitted letters containing one or more of Ima’s hackneyed phrases; although our fictional exemplar here is inordinately fond of them, you’d be astonished at how many real queries contain roughly this ratio of stock phrase to original writing. Odd, isn’t it, considering that as every syllable an aspiring writer sends an agency is a writing sample (you hadn’t been thinking of your query in those terms, had you?), that so many queriers would rush to make themselves sound exactly like everyone else?

Incidentally, about one in six of the queries I received from would-be volunteers also replicated a particular phrase in Ima’s letter — and that surprised me, because this all-too-common statement contains two elements that I frequently and vehemently urge Author! Author! readers not to include in their queries at all. Did you catch it?

No? Would it help if I mentioned that at most agencies, one of the deadly elements would render this query self-rejecting?

If your hand shot into the air at that last hint because you wanted to shout, “I know! I know! It’s because Ima said in the first paragraph that every reader currently walking the planet Earth — if not the planet Targ — would be interested in this book! From Millicent’s perspective, that’s a completely absurd claim, as no book appeals to every reader,” give yourself a pat on the back, but not a gold star. Yes, this particular (and mysteriously popular) assertion does tend to irritate most Millicents (especially on the Tuesday after a long weekend, when she will see many iterations of it), but it’s not always an instant-rejection offense.

No, were that boast the only faux pas here, Millicent probably would have kept reading until after the third or fourth unoriginal phrase. I seriously doubt, though, whether she would have made it past Ima’s first sentence. Any guesses why?

If your eye immediately pounced upon the phrase complete at 137,000 words, feel free to ransack the gold star cabinet. Why is this phrase — lifted directly from some maddeningly pervasive template floating around out there on the Internet, I gather — a rejection-trigger? It’s not, believe it or not, the fact that so many aspiring writers have been shoehorning it into their queries in recent years that it has effectively become a cliché, as far as Millicent is concerned. The real problem with it that it effectively bellows at Millicent, “Hey, lady — this querier does not know thing one about how books are sold in the U.S.”

An unfairly sweeping conclusion? Perhaps, but let’s don Millicent’s glasses and whip out her text-dissecting scalpel to figure out why she might leap at it. In the first place, this statement includes unnecessary information. If the book being queried is fiction, people in agencies will assume that the manuscript is complete, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible for a first-time, non-celebrity writer to sell an incomplete first novel. Fiction is sold on a completed manuscript, period.

Nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a full manuscript, so were Ima’s book a memoir, including the information mentioning that the manuscript is complete would not necessarily be a selling point, either. The only exception: the relatively rare nonfiction-representing agency that states point-blank in its submission requirements that it will consider a first memoir only if the writer has already completed a draft of it.

Why might they harbor that preference? Ask any memoirist: writing truthfully and insightfully about one’s own life is hard, doubly so if the life in question has been at all traumatic. The brain and the body often doesn’t make a huge distinction between living through something difficult and reliving it vividly enough to write about it explicitly and well. It’s not at all unusual for even an exceptionally talented writer to become heavily depressed, or even physically ill, in the course of fulfilling a contract for a memoir.

Since most of pulling together a proposal involves writing about the book’s subject matter, rather than writing the story from within — telling what happened, as opposed to showing it clearly enough that the reader feels as though she’s walking around in the narrator’s skin — many first-time memoirists worry, and rightly, that they might not have the emotional fortitude to finish the book. Others are stunned to discover that after months or years of effort aimed at landing an agent and selling the book concept to a publisher, they simply cannot bring themselves to complete it. Or, if they do, they balk at exposing their innermost secrets to the world.

There’s absolutely no shame in any of that — second thoughts are natural in this instance. However, an agent who has seen a pet project cancelled at the last minute because a client could not finish the book he was contracted to deliver might well become wary about running into the same problem in future. So while agencies that handle a lot of memoir tend to get inured to this sort of disappointment, it’s not at all unheard-of for a newly-burned agent or agency to establish a full manuscript-only policy.

Most of the time, though, that’s not the expectation; publishers buy memoirs all the time based solely upon a proposal packet and a single chapter. But they don’t, as a rule, buy incomplete fiction.

So when Ima makes a point of saying in her query — and right off the bat, too — that her manuscript is complete, probably merely because she saw an example online that used that phrase, she is effectively making a virtue of having lived up to the publishing industry’s minimum expectation of fiction writers. To Millicent’s mind, that’s just not something anyone familiar with how fiction is actually sold in this country would do.

But as much as most agents prefer to take on new clients who have done their homework about how publishing does and does not work, professional naïveté all by itself is seldom considered an instant-rejection offense. That unusually high word count, however, often is. In fact, many Millicents are explicitly trained to reject a query that mentions the manuscript it is promoting exceeds 100,000 words.

Why draw the line there? Cost, mostly. Although the average manuscript shrinks in length by about 2/3rds in the transition to print, it’s just far more expensive to print a long book than a shorter one. Since the publication costs rise astronomically at about 125,000 words — different binding is necessary, and trade paper binding is more problematic — and it’s so common for first-time authors to be asked to revise their books and add pages prior to publication, they like to leave themselves some wiggle room.

So pervasive is the prejudice against first books over 100,000 words (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman) that it’s not unheard-of for agents to tell clients with books pushing the upper limit simply to leave the word count off the title page. (If you were not aware that the word count is typically included on a professional title page, or that a title page is necessary for a manuscript, run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right.)

Did some of you do a double-take at the 100,000 words = 400 pages equation? “But Anne,” Ima cries, justifiably upset, “my manuscript is nowhere near 400 pages. But it is about 137,000 words. What gives?”

I’m guessing that you have been using actual word count, Ima, not estimated. For short stories and articles, it’s appropriate to report what Word says your word count is, but for books, that’s not historically how it has been figured. And unfortunately for your query, Millicent will just assume that any word count that ends in a zero is an estimate.

Actually, she’s likely to leap to that conclusion, anyway, because that’s how word count for books has historically been figured: 250 x # of pages for Times New Roman, 200 x # of pages for Courier. Yes, yes, I know, Ima: the resultant figure will bear almost no resemblance to the actual word count. That’s fine — expected, even.

But that expectation does carry some pretty heavy implications for using the stock phrase complete at X words, necessarily. Specifically, when Millicent spots your query’s assertion that your manuscript is 137,000 words, she — and a potential acquiring editor — will just assume that your novel is 548 pages long. (137,000 divided by 250.) And that, as we discussed above, would place it well beyond what her boss, the agent of your dreams, could hope to sell as a first book in the current fiction market.

“But Anne,” Ima protests, tears in her eyes, “I see plenty of fantasy novels that long in the bookstore. Because, yes, I am one of those great-hearted and sensible aspiring writers who realizes that if I expect bookstores to help promote my novel when it comes out, I should be supporting them now by buying books from them.”

While I approve of your philosophy, Ima — and would even upgrade it by pointing out that an aspiring writer who does not regularly buy recently-released first books in her own book category is shooting her own long-term best interests in the metaphorical foot — what you probably have in mind are novels by established authors. What a writer with an already-identified readership demonstrably willing to buy his books can get away with often differs radically from what a first-time author can hope to sneak past Millicent. And because market conditions change, it’s certainly different from what a first-time author might have been able to sell five years ago.

It’s a truism, to be sure, but people in the industry repeat it for a reason: in order to get discovered, a new writer’s work doesn’t merely have to be as good as what is already on the shelves; typically, it needs to be better.

Now, an aspiring writer can find that truth discouraging — apparently I’ve depressed poor Ima into too deep a stupor to keep formulating questions — or she can choose to find it empowering. Yes, that stock phrase gleaned from an online query template led Ima down the path of certain rejection, but honestly, can you blame Millicent and her ilk for wanting to reject queries crammed with prefab, one-size-fits-all phrasing?

Be honest, now: if you were an agency screener, wouldn’t you prefer to reward queriers who made the effort to sound like themselves?

Of course, it’s quite a bit more work to come up with original phrasing for what most aspiring writers regard, let’s face it, as merely an annoying hoop through which they have to jump in order to get agents to read their manuscripts. It’s more than that, though — to Millicent, it’s your first opportunity to wow her with the originality of your voice, the startling uniqueness of your story or argument, and, yes, your professional grasp of the realities of publishing.

Listen: every piece of writing you send to an agency is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that you can write. Millicent wants to see your literary voice on the page, not other people’s phrasing, and certainly not a pale echo of what anybody random person on the street might say. (I’m looking at you, Madge.) Read your query carefully to make sure that you sound like you and nobody else — and that the story you are telling or the argument you are making doesn’t read like anybody else’s, either.

A tall order? Most assuredly. But isn’t this what a good writer wants, people in the publishing industry taking her writing seriously enough to pay close attention to how she chooses to arrange words on the page?

Ponder that, please, until next time, when I shall once again be analyzing a reader’s actual query. Have the confidence to eschew those templates, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Details that tell it all: a post-Boxing Day story about excess baggage

Before I launch into today’s post, I am delighted to bring you some fabulous news about a member of the Author! Author! community, long-time reader and incisive commenter Kate Evangelista. Kate’s first novel, TASTE, will be published by Crescent Moon Press! Please join me in congratulating her on this wonderful leap forward in her writing career — and in looking forward eagerly to the day when I can let all of you know that the book is available for sale.

It sounds like a great read, too. Take a gander at the blurb:

At Barinkoff Academy, there’s only one rule: no students on campus after curfew. Phoenix McKay soon finds out why after she finds herself on school grounds at sunset. A group calling themselves night students threatens to taste her flesh until she is saved by a mysterious, alluring boy. With his pale skin, dark eyes, and mesmerizing voice, Demitri is both irresistible and impenetrable.

Unfortunately, the gorgeous and playful Yuri has other plans. He pulls Phoenix into the dangerous world of flesh eaters. When her life is turned upside down, she becomes the keeper of a deadly secret that will rock the foundations of the ancient civilization living beneath Barinkoff Academy. She doesn’t realize until it is too late that the closer she gets to both Demitri and Yuri, the more she is plunging them all into a centuries-old coup d’état.

Sounds exciting, eh? It also, if you’ll forgive my lapsing into the practical in mid-kudo, an awfully darned good role model for anyone on currently in the process of trying to write a descriptive paragraph for a query or a synopsis, by the way should anyone be interested. Kate’s charming author photo, too, is instructive: she comes across as friendly, interesting, and certainly literate, with all of those shelves in the background. Not to mention the playful gleam in her eye that promises adventure to come.

So well done on several fronts, Kate. It’s a genuine pleasure to see a writer who has worked as hard as you have receive recognition, and I, for one, want to read that book.

It just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Keep persevering, everybody — and keep that good news rolling in!

Back to the business at hand — or rather, back to the hiatus between the last theory-minded Queryfest posts and the rest of this week’s reader-generated practical examples. (Look for the latter to begin on Wednesday and continue through the end of the year!) After having devoted Sunday’s post to a Christmas-themed parable about the importance of vivid, original details to impressing every querier’s beloved nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, I fully intended to run this companion piece, another anecdote-based lecture on specifics, on Boxing Day. Then the lights went out (again!) but the oven remained operational (post-Christmas cookies!), and I never managed to post this yesterday.

I suppose I could just have skipped it and moved on to pragmatic query consideration today, but in case I was too subtle in my last post: just as the threshold between an opening page of a manuscript or book proposal that leaps off the page at a weary-eyed Millicent and one that doesn’t is frequently a turn of phrase, image, or specific that surprises her, the difference between a query that makes a weary-eyed Millicent jerk bolt upright, exclaiming, “Wow! This story/argument/memoir story arc has potential!” and one that leaves her unmoved is sometimes as little as a single, creative detail that she’s never seen before.

That’s harder than it sounds to pull off: as I pointed out on Sunday, Millicent — like her boss the agent, the editors to whom the agent pitches clients’ books, the members of the editorial committees to which those editors suggest manuscripts they would like to acquire, and any experienced contest judge — reads a heck of a lot. Not only in general, but in the book category that her boss represents.

And aspiring writers, unfortunately for their queries and submissions, often do not have the time, inclination, or the access to what others are writing to be anywhere near that familiar with what Millicent would and would not consider a cliché. Even writers who, bless their warm and literature-loving hearts, routinely improve their professional knowledge by not only keeping up with the new releases in their categories, but also seeking out works by first-time authors of books like theirs in order to see what has pleased the agents and editors who handle them recently, will often remain blissfully unaware that a pet plot twist, character trait, or turn of phrase is not original. To them, it just sounds good.

How could they know, poor benighted souls, those particular plot twists, character traits, and turn of phrase have turned up in a good quarter of what crossed Millicent’s desk within the last six months? Admittedly, if any of those things appeared in a recent bestseller in that book category, it’s a safe bet that our Millie will be inundated with them for the next two years — more if a movie version appears. And because so many writers define good writing in a particular category by what sells well — not the only criterion, I think, nor the best — a submitter is often genuinely unaware that his nifty description on page 14 echoes the same nifty description on page 247 of a bestseller, a fact that almost certainly will not be lost upon a well-read Millicent.

At least, not after she’s cast her eyes over the 53rd similar submission. Of the week.

Of course, not all popular elements are derived from established authors’ works. By some mysterious means known only to the Muses alone, the zeitgeist seems to whisper the same suggestions in thousands of writerly ears simultaneously. So often does this occur, and so lengthy is the lag time between submission to an agency and eventual publication for most first books, that even an extremely conscientious trawler of the latest releases would have a hard time predicting what types of details or story arcs to avoid this year, as opposed to next.

What does all of that mean in practice? Well, it’s pretty easy to bore Millicent, for one thing: see the same plot, plot twist, memoir story arc, or descriptive detail 1,700 times in any given year, and you might become a trifle inured to its charms, too. In order for a detail, image, or argument to impress her as original, she genuinely has never to have seen it before — or, more realistically, never have seen it done in that particular way before.

Or anywhere near as well. And even then, she has to like it.

That doesn’t mean, though, that going completely wacky or waxing surrealistic is necessarily the way to win her literary heart, either. As we have discussed before, publishing pros make a pretty strong distinction between the fresh, an original concept, twist, or voice that’s likely to appeal to an already-established book-buying audience, and the weird, an original concept, twist, or voice that doesn’t really fit comfortably into either the expectations of the book category for which the author is ostensibly writing or the current literary market. A fresh plot, story arc, or phrasing is the polar opposite of one that’s been done (see earlier point about the fate of original twists from bestsellers), or, even worse, is dated.

Confused? You’re certainly not alone: due to the market-orientated slant of freshness, a book idea that’s fresh today might well have been done by tomorrow — and will be downright dated a year from now. Complicating things still further, agents and editors will sometimes talk about a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

“Okay, Anne,” originality-lovers everywhere cry, scratching their heads. “I’ll bite: is that good, or is that bad?

Well, it’s a good question, for starters — but yes, a fresh take is a positive thing. Consider, for the sake of example, the story of the Ugly Duckling. That’s certainly been done a million times, right? Since most YA readers and virtually all literate adults currently buying books on U.S. soil may already be presumed to be familiar with the basic story, it would be hard to surprise any reader, much less one as genre-savvy as Millicent, with the essential plot twist there. But if, for instance, a writer felt that the UD’s turning out to be something completely different and pretty watered down the message of the early part of the tale — what, it would have been perfectly okay for the other poultry to have made fun of an ugly duck who actually was a duck? — and presented essentially the same premise, but had UD possess the ability to foresee that the duck pond was shrinking and lead her waddling brethren and sistern to swampy safety elsewhere, thus winning their respect, that would be a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

Oh, you may laugh, but a clever author did in fact create a similar variation on this story that was very successful, both artistically and commercially: it was a little number called THE COLOR PURPLE. Very fresh — in 1982. But do I even need to tell you how many Ugly Duckling variations the Millicents of the mid-eighties saw tumble into their inboxes? As anyone who perused women’s fiction bookshelves regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s could no down tell you to her sorrow, it was done. Over and over again. And since that essential plotline has been done so many times since, can you imagine how dated the same manuscript would appear if it showed up on Millicent’s desk today?

So get your thinking caps on, campers. We’re going to devote the rest of today’s post to learning to walk the fine line between the Scylla of what’s been done and the Charybdis of the weird. But before I launch into the how-to part of our program, allow me to tell you a little story.

To set it up for those of you who have not boarded a commercial airliner lately, since the airlines have started charging to check bags, many passengers have simply begun wheeling their bulky suitcases down the center aisle, fighting with one another to find space for them in the overhead bins. During the holidays, this battle royale necessarily entails jostling some passengers’ shopping bags full of presents too delicate or valuable to pack in checked luggage. In the midst of this ongoing conflict between the crammers and the fearful, we join our intrepid memoirist.

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

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

Up by row six, a tall woman in cashmere with faux fur cuffs knocked me sideways — right into in the lap of the man in 6C. I repeatedly apologized for treating him like Santa Claus (he didn’t seem to mind much), but I could not budge: the imperious woman was blocking the aisle too thoroughly while searching for a place to stow her immense roll-on luggage in the already crammed overhead bins.

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

Clearly, though, that baggage had to be placed just so. As my assailant made her noisy way down the aisle, I was able to free myself of my human seat cushion and follow, clambering over the flotsam and jetsam the flight attendant could not manage to scoop up. I felt like the caboose in a slow-moving train.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is right? Well, it depends upon what kind of narrative the author is creating — and where the scene is going. In a memoir, the reader expects the narrator’s character to be revealed through her reactions to the events around her, so I might well want to ramp that up. Getting out of the narrator’s head and into her body might be a good place to start: I felt my chest tighten is a strong detail in that respect; it makes the same point as I began to worry, but does so by showing how the emotion manifested, rather than just naming it.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned lately that most of the memoir Millicent has been seeing lately seldom mentions a reaction occurring below the narrator’s neck? I guess one has to read an awful lot of memoir manuscripts to know about that.

While showing, rather than the dreaded telling, is good strategy in many kinds of writing, there honestly isn’t a one-size-fits-all revision strategy for fiction. How a savvy writer might go about showing what’s going on in the scene above and what kind of details might make the piece sing would vary. In a romance, for instance, the reader would probably want a slightly different focus, perhaps showing my companion’s dismay at being first left alone, then saddled with another seatmate, or more complex interactions with the gentleman with the lap. So the smart specifics to add here would illustrate the relationship between the narrator and her companion: he could make an ineffectual grab after her as she flees the cologne, for instance, or try to convince Santa to switch seats with him, so the pair could travel together.

If, by contrast, this is a scene intended for a thriller, and the reader has some reason to suspect that one of the passengers on the plane is carrying something lethal, this semi-amusing bit of business might merely be a means of prolonging the suspense, right? In that instance, I would want to edit to speed up this scene, so Millicent would not become impatient at a too-lengthy digression. Or I would have the protagonist spy another character doing something odd out of a corner of her eye, allowing the reader the fun of speculating whether the obnoxious woman was some sort of decoy, creating an intentional distraction from the real threat. If I really wanted to ratchet up the danger, our heroine could feel something cold and hard beneath her after she tumbled into Santa’s lap: a gun?

Or, to surprise Millicent more, how about a titanium leg that can receive radio signals?

The possibilities are legion, right? Many self-editors, though, as well as a hefty percentage of writers’ group critiquers, would not take intended book category into account when making decisions crucial to revising this scene. All too often, short and terse is deemed appropriate for any type of book.

But it doesn’t always work, because — wait, I’m going to let you see why for yourself. Here’s that scene again, winnowed down to a just-the-facts-ma’am telling. This, too, is a style Millie sees quite often in memoir submissions.

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

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

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

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

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

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “The humorous voice is gone!” lower that hand 18 inches and pat yourself on the back with it. Very, very frequently, insecure self-editors will sacrifice narrative voice to pace, resulting in the kind of tale you see above.

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

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

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

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

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

Not necessarily — if the characterization is achieved not through analysis or lengthy descriptions, but through the inclusion of vivid, unexpected details and interesting phrasing. Such as:

The lanky woman seemed barely muscular enough to drag her leopard-print suitcase behind her, yet she surged up the aisle, flinging open every single overhead compartment on both sides as she passed. A small child bashed in the head by a pink umbrella moaned in her wake. The flight attendant leapt to keep the morass of holiday gifts, rolled-up winter coats, and overpacked suitcases from tumbling onto the passengers who had arranged their carry-ons so carefully just minutes before, but to no avail. Within moments, rows seven through twelve resembled a picked-over bargain bin at a thrift store.

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

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

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

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

Vivid details are the gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little tidbits that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which such details appear in a manuscript is often one of the primary factors professional readers use in determining whether to keep reading — and if such unusual specifics are incorporated skillfully into a query’s book description, they often prompt a request for pages.

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

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

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

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

Okay, so his political beliefs were not particularly well-hidden in his social novels. Neither was his evident belief that the primary purpose of female intellectual development was for those pesky women with brains to make themselves more attractive to men with brains. But his eye for social nuance — and social comedy — was exceptionally good.

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

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

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

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

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s a series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1, a pretty sobering group of posts.) And to anticipate your next cri de coeur, yes, you should make an effort to provide such evidence in the book description section of your query, for the exceedingly simple reason that at most agencies, that’s all the page space you have to convince Millicent that her boss needs to read your manuscript.

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

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

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

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

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

Lest we forget, Millicent can sometimes be the world’s most impatient reader. While some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millie is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

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

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

It’s also good querying strategy. Assume a bored Millicent longing to be startled out of her malaise by an exciting detail, and you’re halfway to perking up your query.

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

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

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

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

Still think it’s a good idea bore her, as long as your writing is strong enough?

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

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

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

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

Oh, and do make an effort to share those overhead bins; you never know when the guy upon whom cast-off luggage tumbles will turn out to be Millicent’s brother. Although that’s an ending to an Ugly Duckling story she’ll never see coming. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps one: aspiring writers are also apt to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect. Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge.

Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it. To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

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

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

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

Actually, that was a set of trick questions. The answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary.

That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question — something that Millicent, by definition, would not walk into the scene possessing. Nor would any other reader who was neither there when the incident occurred nor had heard the author complain vociferously about it.

In other words, what we have here is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon. Because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion.

Or any other, for that matter. It’s just an anecdote. Yet most self-editing writers, especially those who happen to be writing memoir, wouldn’t notice this narrative lack. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shouted that it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, help yourself to four peppermint cookies from the holiday table. In the writer’s mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

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

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. If I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, however, it’s incumbent upon me to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premises, premises

I honestly hadn’t intended to take the last few days off from blogging, but I assure you, I have a dandy excuse. To give you a hint, I invite you to contemplate the riddle of the Sphinx: what animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?

On to the day’s business — or rather, the business of last week. Scouring my to-blog-about list for amusing and thought-provoking topics to while away the time before the advent of Queryfest, my annual foray into all things query-related, I came across a terrific question from reader Kelly:

I have a question about plot clichés, if you have the chance to address it. Obviously, the ‘it was all a dream’ won’t fly. What other common plot twists do those of you who see so many manuscripts just groan about? Thanks and feel better soon.

That bit at the end will tell you just how long even very good questions sometimes linger in my hey, that would make a great post pile: kind Kelly was wafting me positive energies immediately after my car crash last year. There’s been some recent progress in that area, by the way: after 14 months, I’m finally walking without a cane.

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

So if I’m honest about it, responding to Kelly’s question is really the business of last year. That seems oddly appropriate, given one of the publishing world’s most common complaints about writers: a fondness for procrastination.

Oh, don’t grimace; everyone procrastinates a little. It’s healthy not to be too rigid. Besides, one of the most important lessons any writer of book-length work has to learn is that a full-length manuscript is not the kind of thing that even the most gifted crafter of prose can polish off in a day, a week, or a month.

Oh, some writers (including yours truly) can indeed draft new text very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Writing a book requires consistent, patient application, not merely short, intense bursts of endeavor. So does revising a manuscript. Yet since most of us do our best work if we can devote some unbroken time to it, it can be very tempting to put off diving in — or diving back in — until we can devote a whole day, week, or month to it, isn’t it?

And that temptation, boys and girls, is why most serious writers have woken up on at least one fine spring morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, “Wait — how much time has passed since I swore that I was going to finish that revision? Or start it?”

Or exclaimed, “Hey, wasn’t my New Year’s resolution to send out ten queries per week? Have I sent out even one this month?”

Or moaned, “Oh, my God — the agent of my dreams requested pages six months ago, and I’m still revising. Should I take another run at Chapter 152, or should I pop the whole shebang in the mail as is? What if she doesn’t want it anymore?”

I’m not bringing this up to depress all of you who swore that Labor Day (or the Fourth of July, or Valentine’s day, or St. Swithin’s day) was going to be the moment you sprung into action, honest. Nor am I passing judgment on the many, many aspiring writers whose lives swamped their good intentions. I’m not even changing the subject so that I may put off answering Kelly’s excellent question for a few more minutes.

I’m bringing it up, if you must know, because writers who procrastinate so often create characters that procrastinate. Seriously, it’s one of Millicent the agency screener’s most frequent complaints about how novelists and memoirists plot books: characters irk her by sitting around and thinking too much.

Or, to mix things up a little, by sitting around and talking through the problems with their best friends, coworkers, mothers, fathers, or, depending upon book category, the people they are about to try to murder. Especially, as is often the case in novel submissions, when these little chats over coffee, in bars, over lunch, over a telephone, or in hastily-improvised torture chambers consist largely of the protagonist recapping conflict that reader has already seen.

How, from an editorial standpoint, could that not seem redundant? “Criminy, move on,” Millicent scolds the text in front of her. “The point of novel narration is not to convey every single thing that happened in the book’s world, but to tell a story in a lively and entertaining manner!”

Because I love you people, I shall spare you what she hisses at memoir submissions in which the narrator agonizes for fifty or sixty pages on end about whether to confront someone who clearly needs some confrontation — only to decide not to do it after all. In fiction and nonfiction alike, her preference nearly always leans toward the active protagonist given to making things happen, rather than a passive one to whom things happen.

Half of you clutched your chests at some point over the last four paragraphs, didn’t you? Relax; I’m not about to suggest the all-too-often-heard advice on this point: telling writers never to show their protagonists thinking is akin to asserting that no character, however devoted to the color pink, may ever be depicted wearing it. Intelligent characters frequently think, and one-size-fits-all writing rules are almost invariably wrong a great deal of the time.

What I am suggesting, heart-clutchers, is merely that Millicent, like most professional readers, has from long experience developed a finely-tuned sense of how much rumination is too much, as well as when it starts to feel repetitious. To eyes trained to spot textual and conceptual redundancy, even a single repeated thought pattern can jump off the page. Small wonder, then, that showing the complexity of a problem by depicting the protagonist revisiting the same set of doubts over and over again is a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

Frequently, their impatience is justified: while deeply-felt internal conflict can be quite interesting on the page, most protagonists in first-person and tight third-person narratives don’t think about problems differently each time. Instead, the writer seeks to have the page mirror the way people mull over problems in real life: with redundant logic, facing the same fears and rehashing the same options on Monday as on Friday.

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

“God, I wish that this writer had never seen a production of Hamlet,” Millicent has been known to murmur over the fourth slow-moving protagonist of the day. “Would it be too much to ask the narrative to get out of this character’s head long enough for her to do something? It wouldn’t even have to advance the plot — I’d settle for her taking up lion-taming or developing a sudden passion for spelunking. Anything, so she gets out of her chair and moves around the world!”

“But Anne!” I hear some of you chest-clutchers point out, and with good reason, “people honestly do fall into thought loops when they’re worried about something, especially if they lean toward the compulsive in general. I’m sorry if it bores Millicent, but I’m trying to represent reality here: the human psyche is not always bent upon producing entertainingly diverse thought patterns.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but you should be. It’s a writer’s job not just to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, but to create a result that will be a pleasure to read. Redundant thoughts, like redundant action, have a nasty habit of discouraging readers from continuing to turn pages. Obsessive characters can be very interesting, but as the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing: it’s very, very easy for realistic depictions of recurrent thought or even feeling to become positively soporific on the printed page.

Not as easily spotted a cliché as it was a dark and stormy night or you may be wondering why I called you all here, admittedly, but the rumination-obsessed protagonist is actually more common in submissions these days than either of these well-worn tropes. None of these are as ubiquitous as teenagers who roll their eyes, of course, or people under 50 who say whatever and like, but all are equal-opportunity Millicent-annoyers.

Now the rest of you are clutching your chests, but at this late date, most adult readers, even non-professional ones, have seen enough compulsive thought patterns on the page to recognize it within a line or two. At most, it will take them a couple of paragraphs to catch on. How, then, is the writer to maintain interest and tension throughout pages and pages of it?

Honestly, a little obsessive-compulsion goes a long way on the page. Millicent’s seeing less of it these days than when the TV show MONK rendered OCD such a popular character quirk; if a hit TV show or movie contains a noteworthy character trait or plot twist, it’s a safe bet that agencies will be receiving hundreds of iterations of it over the next 2-5 years. The Millies of the early 1980s could have wallpapered both North and South Korea entirely in manuscripts that resembled M*A*S*H, for instance; for the last decade, it’s been rare that a police procedural submission does not include a scene reminiscent of LAW AND ORDER or CSI. And frankly, our time on earth is too precious to waste time toting up how many SF and fantasy submissions fairly reeked of the influence of STAR WARS and STAR TREK.

It’s not that some of the borrowed characters and quirks are not inherently entertaining; in a good writer’s hands, they certainly can be. There’s also something to be said for adhering to the conventions of one’s chosen book category: in a Western, readers expect a confrontation between the fellows in the white hats and the black, just as readers of women’s fiction expect their protagonists to grow and change over the course of the story.

By definition, though, what none of these elements can ever be is fresh.

Which goes right to the heart of Kelly’s question, does it not? While the list of premises, plot twists, and character traits that might set Millicent’s teeth on edge changes perpetually — what might have riled her Aunt Mehitabel when she was just starting out as a reader in the mid-1970s is substantially different from what might occur often enough to get on Millie’s nerves today, or her younger sister Margie five years from now — the basic principle remains the same: even if the writing is good, if she’s seen it before, it’s not going to seem fresh or surprising on the page.

Remember, Millicent is not only charged with the task of sifting through submissions to find great writing and original voices; she’s also looking for unique takes on reality and plots that she hasn’t seen before. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), at submission time, not seeming like a rehash of the most recent bestseller or blockbuster film is a significant asset.

I know, I know: it’s not all that uncommon for agency submission guidelines to sound as though their Millicents are eagerly awaiting a carbon-copy of whatever is hitting the top of the bestseller lists today. Indeed, sometimes they are looking for copycats. Even with monumental bestsellers like the TWILIGHT series or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, though, it usually doesn’t take too long before Millie and her boss are saying, “Oh, no, another knock-off? I want the next great bestseller, not what was hot two years ago.”

Don’t believe me? How hard do you think it would be to sell BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY as a fresh manuscript today? It would simply seem derivative.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, those oft-repeated experiments in which some bright soul submits the first 50 pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) to an array of present-day agents and/or publishing houses, in an attempt to test whether their Millicents would know great literature if it fell in their laps, invariably fall flat. Of course, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would get rejected today; as a new manuscript, it would seem completely lifted from Jane Austen. To a reader familiar with English novels of the period, even the title would seem unoriginal: the phrase PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in all caps, no less) is repeated no fewer than three times in Fanny Burney’s novel of a generation before, CECELIA, OR, MEMOIRS OF AN HEIRESS (1782).

Besides, have you seen how much time Austen’s protagonists spend thinking?

I know that this might come as a shock to the many, many writers raised on 19th-century literature, but what seemed fresh on the page in 1813 is unlikely to strike Millicent as original or even market-appropriate today. Ditto for 1913, 1943, 1983, or 2003. In fact, what would have wowed ‘em at the agency in any of those years is likely to seem positively dated now, even if the cultural references did not.

Remember, too, that Millie lives in the same media-heavy culture you do: while she might not watch enough T.V. to know what a Snooki is, to catch an Arrested Development reference, or to be able to pick any of the current crop of presidential contenders out of a police line-up, it’s unlikely that she would be lucky enough to have missed any public discussion of these phenomena. If you loved the Saw movies enough to borrow some elements of them for your horror manuscript, chances are that a Millicent working in a horror-representing agency will be harboring some affection for those movies, too.

Which is not to say that a plot similar to the Saw movies might not have done very well, had it hit Millicent’s desk right after the first film in the series came out. Many a writer who has been toiling away quietly for years on a manuscript has suddenly seen it become sought-after as soon as a similar book, movie, or TV show hits the big time. Agents and editors do often clamor for something similar to what’s hot at the moment. Since it takes so long to write a book, however, it’s generally the writers that were already working on a book, not because it was cool, but because they liked the subject matter, who are in the best position to take advantage of such a trend. Or writers who can produce a manuscript with similar appeal within a year or two. After that, imitation is likely to make the book seem dated.

Not sure what a dated manuscript is, or why it might be hard to sell? Okay, let me ask you: if you picked up a book stuffed to the gills with references to Ross Perot, would you (a) embrace it as a book about contemporary politics, (b) assume that it had been published sometime in the mid-1990s, and turn to another book for insights on the current political scene or (c) wonder who in the heck Ross Perot was?

If you said (b), you’re beginning to think like Millicent: the 1992 election was a long time ago. If you said (a), I’m guessing you do not follow politics very closely. And if you said (c), well, ask your parents, but don’t be surprised if they remember his ears more than his politics.

Even if a manuscript avoids the specific pop references that tend to age so poorly on the page — nothing seems more tired than yesterday’s catchphrases, right? — borrowing the plot twists and premises of yesteryear can make a book seem dated. One of the surprisingly immortal premises: neighborhoods where none of the mothers work outside the home, or even consider it. While it’s not beyond belief that such communities still exist, it’s far enough from the mainstream American experience these days that it would require fairly extensive textual explanation.

Embracing writing fads of years past also tends to make a manuscript seem dated. When STAR WARS embraced the Jungian heroic journey structure, it generated a lot of buzz — and for the next two decades, the viewing public was inundated with movies with that same structure. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocating that structure for novels became extremely popular, resulting in manuscript after manuscript with essentially the same story arc falling on Millicent’s desk with clockwork regularity. Because Millicent’s boss was screening manuscripts back then, Millie’s been trained to regard that structure as old-fashioned.

Not to mention predictable. And speaking of repetitive premises, does it bother anyone but me that the mortality rate for mothers in the STAR WARS movies is close to 100%?

Seriously, it doesn’t pay to underestimate just how predictable adhering to a well-worn plot device can render a manuscript, especially to someone who reads as much as Millicent. People drawn to work in publishing tend to be both plot-retentive and detail-oriented: I was surely not the only future editor who walked out of the original STAR WARS saying to her big brother, “You know what would make more sense than that ending? If Leah was Luke’s sister? I mean, honestly — why begin their names with the same first letter, something screenwriters usually take wincing pains to avoid, unless we’re supposed to guess that there’s a familial relationship?”

Okay, so this was probably not how most elementary schoolers reacted to the film, but I read a great deal. Not only science fiction, but fables — and the heroic journey story arc was supposed to surprise me? Nice try, Mr. Lucas.

An original plot twist or premise should surprise the reader — and that’s legitimately hard to do. It’s also often difficult for an isolated writer to spot just how much his plot, premise, or characters might resemble what Millicent is receiving from other writers. Even if the writer can successfully weed out conceptions of dramatic fitness culled from stories floating around the zeitgeist — from movies, television, books, even major news stories — that might be turning up in other submissions, rooting out or even noticing stereotypes (what? The guy with tape on his glasses is a computer expert? Who saw that coming?), stock plot twists (the murderer isn’t the first person the police arrest? Alert the media!), overused premises (the police partners who made the arrest are experiencing some romantic tension? The school bully targeting the gay teen is himself fighting urges in that direction? The guy bent on revenge is actuated by the trauma of having seen his wife and small child murdered out of the reader’s sight and before the story began?) and hackneyed phrasing (“I’m sorry for your loss,” anyone?) can often require an outside eye.

Why? Often, such well-worn story elements are so familiar to the writer, as well as to her nearest and dearest, that they don’t seem like clichés. They just seem like the constituent parts of a story. Therein lies the essential paradox of trafficking in the already-done: that plot twist that feels dramatically right may well come across that way because you’ve seen it before.

And so has Millicent. Remember, clichés don’t irritate agents, editors, and contest judges the first time these fine folks spot them on the manuscript page, typically, or even because the pesky things are repeated over the course of a particular submission or contest entry. What chafes their sensibilities is seeing the same phrases, characters, plot twists, and even premises over and over across hundreds of manuscripts.

Hey, if you’ve seen one completely selfless mother, a lady completely devoid of any personal preferences unrelated to her children, you might not actually have seen ‘em all. After screening the forty-seventh synopsis featuring a selfless mother within a week, however, it might well start to feel that way.

That’s a pretty good test of whether a manuscript might have strayed into over-nibbled pastures, by the way: if the synopsis — or, sacre bleu, the descriptive paragraph in the query letter — makes reference to a well-established stereotype, it’s well worth looking into how to make the characters less, well, predictable.

And now two-thirds of you chest-clutchers are mopping your weary brows. Honestly, this is beginning to read like a word problem on the math section of the S.A.T.

By definition, stereotypes and clichés are predictable: they are the shorthand a culture uses for archetypes. The mean tenth-grade girl, for instance, or the dumb jock. The absent-minded professor who can’t find the glasses perched on top of his head. The sociopathic lawyer who cares only about winning cases, not justice. The tough drill sergeant/teacher/physical therapist who seems like a bully at first, but turns out to be concealing a heart of gold.

Hey, what happened to all the floozies harboring hearts of gold? When did they fall out of the collective mind? Sometime during the Reagan administration? Or was it a decade earlier, when librarians and schoolteachers lost the right to yank the pencils from their collective hair, remove the eyeglasses that they apparently don’t require in order to see, and have the nearest male exclaim, “Why, Miss Jones — you’re beautiful!”

Now, poor Miss Jones would to be an expert in particle physics, save the world in the third act of the story, and look as though she had never eaten a cookie in order to engender that reaction. It’s enough to make an educated woman bob her hair.

Naturally, what constitutes a cliché evolves over time, just as what seems dated in a plot does, but as far as characterization goes, one factor remains the same: a stereotype telegraphs to the reader what kind of behavior, motivations, and actions to expect from a character. A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission?

For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability, especially in the opening pages of a manuscript or contest entry:: because being able to see what’s going to happen in advance tends to bore Millicent. If a professional reader can tell instantly from a story’s first description of a character precisely how he is going to act and how he is likely to speak, where’s the suspense?

The same holds true for too-common premises, by the way. Those two coworkers of opposite sexes squabbling? They’ll be in love within fifty pages. That child the woman who swore she never wanted children inadvertently acquires, by accident, theft, or some inconsiderate relative’s leaving him on her doorstep. It will completely transform her life. The completely irresponsible man who discovers he’s had an unknown child for decades? He’s going to be integral to that kid’s life, and vice versa. That wish the protagonist makes on page 2, even though the text explicitly tells us that she never wishes on passing stars? It’s going to come true.

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

Oh, you thought that Millie wouldn’t catch on that teenage Billy was going to wreck his new motorcycle by the second time his parents are shown to be worried about it? I hate to burst anyone’s plotting bubble, but at this juncture in literary history, most professional readers would have said, “Oh, he’s doing to crash it,” halfway through the scene where he bought the bike.

She’s also going to foresee that the character a bystander identifies as having had a hard childhood is going to be the mysterious murderer decimating the summer camp/isolated hotel/submarine’s crew, the grandmother/grandfather/elderly neighbor giving the youthful protagonist with nowhere else to turn sterling (if predictable) advice is going to have some sort of a health scare by three-quarters of the way through the book, and that the otherwise clear-thinking lady who wisely retreated to someplace her violent ex-husband/evil boss/corrupt Congressman isn’t will be startled when he shows up.

Quite possibly standing behind her while she is gazing soulfully into a mirror. A cat will have startled her first, however. That fellow also not going to be dead the first time she, her knight in shining armor, or the few remaining members of that light-hearted weekend canoeing party think they have dispatched him.

Hey, the monster always returns is a cliché for a reason.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but reading manuscripts for a living often results in a serious decrease in the ability to be astonished by plot twist at all. Avert your eyes if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, but I had twice suggested to my date that the psychologist was a ghost before the end of the first therapy scene. I kept asking, “But if he’s alive, why isn’t he talking to the kid’s mother? And why doesn’t she have any interests or concerns unrelated to her child?”

To anyone who has been reading manuscripts for a living for more than a week or two, there’s another problem with stock characters. Millicent tends to associate them with rather lazy writing — and certainly with lax research. I’m not just talking about the astonishingly common phenomenon of novels saddling their protagonists with professions with which their writers are clearly unfamiliar (if I had a nickel for every tax specialist character who takes an annual month-long holiday on April 16th because the writer who created her isn’t aware of how many people file their taxes late, I would be able to afford a month-long holiday right now) or the equally common fish-out-of-water stories in which the writer seems as out of his depth in the new environment as his protagonist (my personal pet peeve: protagonists who inherit wineries, then proceed to run them with a whole lot of heart — and learning valuable life lessons — while clearly learning virtually nothing about the actual practicalities of making wine).

I’m talking about characters, usually secondary ones, that are different in some fundamental way from the protagonist. You wouldn’t believe how often subtly-drawn primary characters share page space with downright cartoonish villains or minor characters.

When writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up writing in generalities, not plausible, reality-based specifics. A common result: characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader? Great — send me twelve.”

Seen once on the page, one-note characters are kind of annoying. When those cheerleaders come cartwheeling across a good 40% of YA set in high schools, even a hint of waved pom-pom can get downright annoying.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s looking to see — feel free to chant it with me now — originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

“But Anne,” writers of reality-based fiction and nonfiction alike protest, “sometimes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, just as clichéd truisms are frequently, well, true. Isn’t it possible that Millicent sees certain character types over and over again because they pop up in real life so often, and writers are simply reflecting that? Should she not, in short, get over it?”

Ah, editors hear that one all the time from those writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction manuscript. In fact, it’s an argument heard in general conversation with some fair frequency: many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the policeman enraged at the system, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the father-to-be who faints in the delivery room, that same father helpless if he is left alone with the child in question, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Oh, you don’t regard stereotypes as shortcuts? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “Isn’t this all going a little far afield from Kelly’s original question? Wasn’t she really asking for a list of overused plot twists and premises a savvy aspiring writer should avoid?”

Possibly, but that’s precisely the conundrum of freshness. What would have struck Millicent as fresh a year ago, when Kelly first brought this up, is not what would seem so to her now. Freshness is an ever-moving target, difficult for an aspiring writer — who, after all, usually takes at least a year or two to fashion a premise into a full manuscript — to hit predictably. Since nobody can legitimately claim to know what will be selling well a couple of years from now, committing to a premise is always going to be something of a risky proposition.

All a writer can do is strive to make her plot and characterization as original as her voice — and, ideally, as surprising. The best means of figuring out what will come as a pleasant surprise to her is to read widely in your chosen book category. What kinds of plot twists are used, and which overused? What’s been done to death, and what’s new and exciting? What’s considered characteristic and expected in your type of book these days, and what’s considered out of bounds?

Once you have come up with provisional answers to those questions, ask yourself another: how can I make my book’s premise, characterization, and plot even better than what’s already on the literary market?

Speaking of conundrums, have you solved the riddle of the Sphinx yet? It’s the humble human being: as babies, we crawl; in our prime, we walk on two legs; in old age, we use canes.

Actually, people tend to use walkers now, but who are we to question the wisdom of the Sphinx? All I know — and this is so far from a standard premise that I can’t recall a bestselling novel of the last twenty years that has dealt with this subject in any significant depth — is that after one has been hobbling around on three legs, it’s astonishingly tiring to wander around on just two. And that, my friends, is the explanation for my recent blogging silence: I’ve been taking a long change-of-season nap.

All the better to launch into Queryfest next time, my dears. Keep up the good work!

Phrases a savvy writer should not touch with a hundred-foot pole

Hello, campers —

I’m planning on posting a lovely, long post this evening, an in-depth answer to a reader’s intelligent question about writing clichés, but until the dark and no doubt stormy night allows me to suggest that perhaps you have all been wondering why I asked you all here, let me state here and now that the murder is — BANG!

Just kidding. Seriously, I’ve been swamped the last couple of days (speaking of editorial clichés), and I want to devote some serious time to this important and under-discussed topic. Rather than leave you pining for a fresh post another twelve or fifteen hours (or longer, should I decide to do something radical like take a nap before blogging next), I’m rerunning a post from last February. Not only does it strike me as a perfect lead-in to any discussion of hackneyed phrases and concepts, but it addresses an extremely common professional readers’ pet peeve: manuscripts that misappropriate or misuse the aforementioned well-worn tropes.

Oh, and I’m going to nag you a little on submission strategy first. So fasten your seatbelts, everybody — it’s going to be a bumpy night day. Enjoy!

Can we talk?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to bring this up for quite some time now, but the moment never seemed quite right. You were gearing up to send out a flotilla of queries, perhaps, or were intent upon getting a submission out the door. Maybe we were all focused upon how to prep a writing contest entry, a verbal pitch, or a synopsis.

In short, there always seemed to be something more pressing than having this painful discussion. But as your writing advisor and, I’d like to think, your friend, I just can’t stand around and watch you hurting yourself any longer without saying something. I say this with love, but you’ve been engaging in self-destructive behavior, behavior that is making it harder for you to land an agent, get published, and get your good writing in front of the readership it deserves.

Oh, I see you roll your eyes. It’s easy, isn’t it, to blame a system stacked against the new writer? But this is something you are doing to yourself, I’m afraid, something as lethal to your manuscript’s marketability as taking a match and setting it on fire instead of mailing it to the agent who requested it.

I refer, of course, to the average aspiring writer’s addiction to sending out requested materials without taking the time to proofread them — or having someone else proofread them.

I’m not even talking about the to-my-mind deplorable practice of submitting those pages before reading them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD — although as I may have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, that’s the single best way to catch typos, dropped words, logic problems, half-revised sentences, and the fact that your protagonist’s hated coworker was called Tisha for the first 57 pages, Patricia in Chapters 4, 8, 17, and parts of 24, and Trish for the rest of the book. I’m talking about just assuming that a quick computerized spell-check will be sufficient because, hey, you’ve got a busy life.

Or, as is common with contest entries that need to be postmarked by a certain date and time, performing it when one is so tired that one inadvertently hits the REPLACE ALL button instead of IGNORE ALL. The result: 300 pages in which political coalitions are invariably described as political cotillions, leaving the poor judge in that historical fiction contest to wonder why nobody ever seems to be dancing.

Or, even more common, dispensing with even the computerized spell-check in your eagerness to get the pages a real, live agent has requested sent off before another sunset has passed. Never mind that Millicent the agency screener is unlikely to have any sympathy whatsoever for your unfortunate habit of consistently mistyping receive with the e and the i inverted, or the fact that somehow, you missed the day of English class when the difference between there, their, and they’re was clarified beyond any risk of future confusion. You had been working on that manuscript for years — you simply couldn’t bear to wait the additional few hours it would take to proof those requested pages.

Oh, it’s all quite understandable. Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living and has served as a writing contest judge, however, it’s also completely understandable that a professional reader might reject those pages on the basis of all of those typos alone.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s not at all uncommon for a professional reader to stop reading at the second or third typo, skipped word, or grammatical problem. So if you are not routinely proofreading your work before you submit it or enter it in a contest — or having some sharp-eyed soul do it — you may well be dooming your manuscript to rejection.

So I ask you: what are you actually gaining by not taking the time to make sure that your pages are clean?

A clean manuscript, for the benefit of those of you new to the term, is industry-speak for a manuscript completely devoid of misspelled words, grammatical gaffes, dropped words, incorrect punctuation, logic problems, formatting errors, clichés, or any of the many, many other small errors that make those of us trained to read for a living grit our teeth because we see them so very often. Indeed, Millicents and contest judges are often specifically instructed to consider seriously only clean manuscripts.

What happens to the rest, you ask with fear and trembling? They are subjected to the most common word in our Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Why? Well, several reasons — and far better ones than you might expect.

The first and most straightforward: if a manuscript is riddled with errors, some luckless soul is going to have to fix them all before an agent could possibly submit it to an editor with any hope of placing it successfully. The same holds true for a submission to a publishing house: copyediting is very time-consuming and costs real money. And few literary contests will want their good names sullied by awarding top honors to an entry that looks as though the entrant conceived of it 24 hours before the contest deadline, typed it with fingers blurring across the keyboard, and ran panting to the post office three minutes before it closed.

Nobody, but nobody, likes to read a first draft. And I say that as a writer who once actually did pull together a literary contest entry — the first chapter of a book, synopsis, and entry form — in 23 hours and 32 minutes.

I won, too, despite the never-sufficiently-to-be-deplored typo on page 17. Do as I say, not as I did.

Why? Well, to a professional reader — like, say, Millicent, her boss the agent, the editor to whom the agent might conceivably sell your book, or a contest judge — all of these seemingly little writing problems are not merely the hallmark of a writer in a hurry or easily-fixed trivialities that merely mar the surface of the deep, deep pool that is a brilliantly-written story, annoying but not particularly important. They are a sign that the writer is not professional enough to realize that this is an industry in which spelling does in fact count.

Or that presentation in general counts. One of the hallmarks of an aspiring writer who has yet to learn much about how publishing works is an apparent belief that agents and editors sit around all day, casually reading through submissions and acquiring any that happen to catch their fancy.

“Oh, this writer has promise,” these fantasy pros murmur over their snifters of warm cognac as they leisurely turn pages, perched on intricately tufted chaise longues. “He can’t spell, but that’s easily fixed at the editorial stage. I’m so fascinated by this story and the voice in which it is written that I’m just going to ignore the fact that the writer clearly didn’t bother to read his own book. I’m going to read it until the very last word of the very last page before I make up my mind about it, but I have a strong feeling that the answer is going to be yes.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s simply not how professional readers operate: they just don’t have time to read every submission in its entirety. Nor could they possibly take on every writing project that tickled their fancy. An agent or editor who routinely embraced projects without thinking about her ability to sell them would soon be out of a job, after all.

As a direct result, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses look first for reasons to reject manuscripts, scouring each line for problems. Only those submissions that pass this scrutiny for hundreds of pages stand a chance of getting picked up. Even setting the bar this high, a well-respected agency or contest will still receive so many perfectly clean (or nearly so), nicely-written submissions that they can afford to reject everything else.

I sense some trembling hands tentatively raised out there. “What do you mean by scouring each line?” some of you quaver, thinking perhaps of that writing sample you entered into that online submission form without proofreading. “It would be impossibly time-consuming to read an entire manuscript that closely, especially with the high volume of submissions the average agency receives. Why, the only way they could possibly pull it off would be to stop reading when they encounter a problem, and move on to the next one.”

That’s precisely what they do. Oh, not necessarily at the first problem, but certainly before the fourth or fifth.

Was that great whooshing sound that just deafened us all the result of half of you gasping as you frantically tried to open your manuscript files to begin revising them? A clean manuscript suddenly sounds like a very, very desirable thing, doesn’t it?

That’s a smart orientation. The competition for those very few client openings at agencies — and even fewer new author openings at publishing houses — is unbelievably fierce, far too fierce to expect a charitable reading.

Millicent forms the first line of defense — I feel you cringing, but that’s how agents and editors think of her — against the blizzard of submissions battering against their mailroom doors. Even an agent unusually hungry for clients usually can take on only three or four a year. That means, in practical terms, that for every submission she approves, there are hundreds she or her Millicent must reject.

The same holds true for queries, of course. Except that for hundreds, substitute tens of thousands.

Fortunately for Millicent (but unfortunately for writers), most submissions honestly are self-rejecting. How so? Well, one of the most popular methods is by combining improper formatting with a few typos on page 1.

You know, the sort of thing that the combination of a little research into how the publishing industry works and a few minutes of proofreading would easily have caught. To Millicent, a writer who hasn’t put in the time to do either isn’t ready for the publishing world. The hypercritical way that professional readers scrutinize manuscripts might kill him.

Which is to say: a savvy writer expects her future agent and editor to expect a completely clean manuscript every time. Yes, even when the writer has only three weeks to revise the last quarter of the book because a new editor has just taken over the project from the acquiring editor, and the newbie has some exciting new ideas about plot resolution.

Oh, it happens. To an agent, a good client is a flexible client.

Which brings me to another excellent reason Millicent is specifically trained to regard a clean manuscript as the minimum requirement for serious consideration: a client who does not proofread (or possess the skills to do it well) is inherently more time-consuming for an agency to represent than one who habitually produces clean manuscripts. While an established author can get away with being high-maintenance, one trying to break into the biz for the first time cannot.

Oh, an agent expects to hold a new client’s hand a little; submitting to publishing houses can be a long, drawn-out, and extremely stressful process. But if that client cannot be relied upon to provide the agent with clean pages, who is going to end up proofing them?

The agent, that’s who. See why she might instruct her Millicent to select clients likely to spare her the trouble? Or why if the writer hasn’t bothered to read this manuscript, why should I? is such a common mantra amongst professional readers?

Or, to be blunt about it, why I saw fit to stage an intervention for those of you who aren’t already scrutinizing your submissions to prevent them from falling into this most common of self-rejection pitfalls?

To be fair, though, not all rejection-triggers would necessarily turn up in a quick proofreading — or even when reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Often, for instance, writers new to the game will miss another of Millicent’s pet peeves, the use of clichés.

Or, an even surer professional reader-annoyer, the misuse of clichés.

That caused some of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you cry, rubbing your sore necks, “isn’t a misused cliché not a cliché, by definition? Doesn’t it at least have the charm of surprise?”

Yes and no, in that order — to professional readers, at least. Allow me to explain.

Since so many aspiring writers are under the mistaken impressions that (a) dialogue in a book should read precisely like conversations in real life, despite the fact that most real-world conversations are so repetitious that they would plunge readers into profound slumber, (b) a narrative voice should sound like the way someone might actually talk, regardless of whether the narration is in the first person or not, and/or (c) an essential tactic for achieving either (a) or (b) is to incorporate those pat little catchphrases most speakers use into one’s writing, discovering clichés on the submission page is the norm, not the exception.

Because writers who embrace (a), (b), or (c) believe — and with some reason — that there is inherent virtue in echoing everyday speech, they usually don’t think of these common phrases as clichés. Let’s take a gander at a few dozen of them in action.

Jeremy strode through the door, bold as brass. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” He mussed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was glued to the family’s pride and joy, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, shrimp. Where’s the beef?”

“Blow it out your ear,” Tad snarled without taking his eyes off the nine-inch screen. His Davy Crockett cap had slid off his head onto his cowboy suit. His discarded hula-hoop rested on top of the crumpled Twister set and a signed photo of Marilyn Monroe. “And sit on it. It’s almost Howdy Doody time.”

Betsy rolled her eyes, gritted her teeth, and shrugged her shoulders. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as pie, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything you read. Let the buyer beware. “Does that mean it’s time to put on the feedbag? I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to traipse through that door.”

Jeremy had already tuned her out: his Walkman, whatever that was, was turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him upside the head and give him a piece of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that noise,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your eyes. My goodness, if I had a dime for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his eyes like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be doing these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handed to him on a silver platter. When she was a girl, walking to school through three feet of snow, year in, year out, rain or shine, come hell or high water, without fail, her mother would have given her what for if she had flounced into the house like a movie star. Just who did he think he was?

“Just wait ’til your father gets home,” she muttered under her breath.

Granddad shuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his mouth, clutching his low-hanging pants, and longing for the return of the Taft Administration. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary brow. “There’s only so much I can do. I only have two hands. I do and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get. A woman’s work is never done.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking sharp, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s meow, don’t you, you young whippersnapper?”

“Hey, chill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘do. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a headache, Dad. The kids have been running me ragged.”

“You think you have a headache? Back in my day, we had headaches.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we had some rain. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her brow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her apron while the clouds rolled by. It looked like stormy weather. Still, she could look for the silver lining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Every time it rained, it rained pennies from heaven. “I’ve been worried sick about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table, since I don’t have a daughter to do it for me, and I can’t ask either of the boys to do it in this time period?”

“Boys will be boys.” Granddad shuffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbugging at the malt shop to that newfangled jazz? Doing the Charleston with some flibbertigibbet with rouged knees and a beaded dress?”

“You should come clubbing with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and crazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own business,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say…”

Had enough? Millicent has — and did, by the middle of the second paragraph.

Stock phrases are problematic on the page for much the same reasons that standard polite exchanges are. They’re predictable, and because everyone does say them, a character’s uttering them does not reveal anything about his emotional state, mental gymnastics, or even the situation at hand. (Sorry — once one starts generating hackneyed phrases, it’s hard to stop.)

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that polite chitchat is also a common type of cliché? Because literally anyone might say these phrases, they are the opposite of character-revealing. Take a gander:

“Why, hello there, Gladys,” Ambrose said. “How are you today?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Fine. How is your husband, Terrence, and your four children, Maude, Eleanor, Franklin Delano, and Frances? All well, I trust.”

“Yes, fine. How’s your cocker spaniel, Macguffin?”

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

“Very. We could use some rain, though.”

“Sure could use it.”

“Sure could. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

“Still have those nasal allergies, eh? They must be quite annoying.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad. At least I don’t have toe fungus.”

“Thank goodness for that. May I hold the door for you? Ladies first.”

“Thanks. Watch out for that puddle.”

“I appreciate your telling me. I wonder how it got here, considering that we haven’t had any rain. O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Ambrose, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come, here, as before, never, so help you mercy, how strange or odd soe’er I bear myself, as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on, that you, at such times seeing me, never shall, with arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake, or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase, as ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’ or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’ or such ambiguous giving out, to note
that you know aught of me: this not to do, so grace and mercy at your most need help you, swear.”

“Whatever you say, Gladys.” Ambrose tipped his hat politely. “Have a good day.”

“You, too, Ambrose.”

Okay, so I got bored enough to throw a slight twist in there. But see how stultifying all of that politeness is on the page?

Once again, I spot some timid hands in the air. “But Anne, isn’t this just what nice people say? And if I want the reader to like my protagonist, don’t I need to show that he’s polite, rather than telling it by some such statement as Nate was a polite guy?”

If you really want to induce Millicent to take a shine to ol’ Nate, I would strongly suggest that you do neither. Most readers will come to dislike a protagonist who bores them, not matter how nice his words or actions are. Since Millicent is paid to get bored a whole lot faster than the ordinary reader (see earlier comments about weeding out as many submissions as possible), her threshold of impatience with nondescript polite conversation is exceedingly low.

I wouldn’t push it. Instead, why not have Nate win her heart by doing and saying unexpected kind things?

“Okay, Anne,” those of you prone to flinging your hands skyward concede reluctantly. “I can see why I might need to trim both the stock phrases and purely polite exchanges. But weren’t you going to tell us about misused clichés?”

Ah, yes, I was, campers; thank you so much for reminding me. And how’s your mother doing?

No, but seriously, folks, while stock phrases bore professional readers, misstatements of these same phrases tend to drive Millicent into apoplexy. While such clichés as it’s a dog-eat-dog world, take another tack, and I couldn’t care less often — and incorrectly — turn up in conversation as it’s a doggie-dog world, take another tact, and the irritatingly immortal I could care less, the only reason to use the incorrect versions on the page would be to make the character saying them seem ignorant, right?

Right? Anyone out there?

Even ironic use is dangerous, though: because Millicent sees these misstatements so often, she’s likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to their appearance. And it’s hard to blame her, isn’t it? Not only do these phrases imply that the writer has a rather poor ear for dialogue, but even had these tropes been rendered correctly, they would still be hackneyed phrases, and thus unoriginal.

Call me zany, but don’t you want Millicent to judge you on your writing, rather than someone else’s?

Then, too, misstated clichés often reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the original. What would a doggie-dog world look like, anyway? Why bother to mention that someone could care less than he currently does? And while taking a different tack while sailing makes some sense as a metaphor, what would taking a different tact involve? Diplomacy in another language?

My favorite example comes by way of a roommate of mine in graduate school, a young lady who had grown up without a television in the house. She loved stock phrases, but she was perpetually getting them wrong.

“What do you mean, you wouldn’t touch it with a 100-foot pole?” I would cackle. “The standard length is ten. How would you even lift a hundred-foot pole?”

She was also prone to misapplying such metaphors. “I can’t find my keys,” she would say. “They’re like a needle in a haystack.”

“I wish you would tell me how,” I would say, lifting the sofa cushion under which her personal items so often worked themselves. “Not everything that’s lost is like a needle in a haystack, you know.”

She would look as startled as a deer in the head lice. “It isn’t?”

Okay, so perhaps there were some undiagnosed mental health issues involved. And now that I see it in print, as startled as a deer in the head lice may well be my new favorite faux cliché. It’s actually quite evocative of panic, is it not?

But you see the overall point, right? A misused familiar term may well produce a laugh, but even if you are writing comedy, you might want to use it sparingly. In submissions, misappropriated clichés often result in bad laughter, a chuckle at the expense of the story, a giggle that the author did not intend.

Now that you know what such misstatements look like individually, let’s revisit our first example, so you may see how and why they might annoy Millicent on the page.

Jeremy scrod through the door, bold as copper. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and ducks out there.” He missed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was taped to the family’s pride and happiness, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, petunia. Where’s the mutton?”

“Blow it out your nose,” Tad snarled without taking his gaze off the nine-inch screen. His Daniel Webster cap had slid off his head onto his sailor suit. His discarded Pet Rock rested on top of the Pong remote and a signed photo of Theda Bara. “Sit on something. It’s almost time for the Miniskiteers.”

Betsy rolled her mouth, gritted her ribs, and shrugged her arms. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as cake, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything. Let the biller beware. “Does that mean it’s time to don the fedbag? I’ve been praying over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to lapse through that door.”

Jeremy had already turned her out: his Walkmen, whoever they were, were turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him beside the head and give him a place of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that sound,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your posture. My goodness, if I had an orangutan for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his cigarette like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handled to him on a silver tray. When she was a girl, walking to school through three inches of snow, year in, bear out, rain or more rain, come Milwaukee or high water, without failure, her mother would have given her what for it if she had flounced into the house like a movie preen. Just who did he think he could be?

“Just wait ’til your father gets here,” she muttered under her breathe.

Granddad snuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his and clutching his low-hanging tie. “Is dinner prepared yet? I’m staved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary hair. “There’s only so many I can do. I only have two hand. I do and do and do and do and do for your people, and this is the thanks I git. A woman’s work is never down.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking bark, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s leisure suit, don’t you, you young whipperstinger?”

“Hey, take a bill pill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘roo. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a backache, Dad. The kids have been running me rugged.”

“You think you have an ague? Back in the day, we had agues.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we accumulated some significant rainfall. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her blow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her ape while the clouds rolled near. It looked like stormy seasons. Still, she could look for the silver pining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainblow. Every time it pains, it pains good fortune. “I’ve been worried ill about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table with silverware, plates, and gasses?”

“Boys well be boys.” Granddad sniffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbeetling at the salt shop to that newfinagled bock-and-roll?”

“You should come with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and lazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own bees’ honey,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say what the Buick…”

Have I made my point yet, or do I need to keep greeting that red horse?

In the days to come, I shall be going over more seemingly small Millicent-irritants. Not the big stuff, mind you, but the tiny, niggling narrative choices that make her teeth…well, I was going to say grind, but that would be a cliché. Once you are aware of precisely how and why these tidbits annoy the pros, you may keep an eye out for them while you are proofreading.

That’s while, right, not if? Keep up the good work!

But enough about you — what about me?

Today, I had planned to launch headlong into my annual foray into how to construct a graceful and effective query letter, campers, but frankly, didn’t we devote an awful lot of the summer to discussing how to pitch? After so many weeks on end of dealing with practicalities, I feel that the artist in each of us deserves a little holiday.

So let’s refresh ourselves by talking craft for a while. Queryfest will be every bit as useful next week.

Memoir-writing and writing about reality as fiction has been much on my mind of late, and not merely because my memoir remains in publishing limbo. (Yes, still. Let’s just be grateful that not every memoirist’s extended family has the wherewithal to make credible $2 million dollar lawsuit threats.) While we writers talk endlessly amongst ourselves about craft and structure for fiction, it’s actually quite rare to stumble into a knot of literary conference attendees avidly discussing how to make a personal anecdote spring to life on the page.

Why is that, when it is so very hard to write memoir well? All too often, the prevailing wisdom dictates that all a writer needs to produce a successful memoir is an exciting life, an ability to write clearly, and, if at all possible, celebrity in another field, so the writing will matter even less. The writer’s platform and the inherent interest of the story, we’re told, are all that matter in a memoir. Anything beyond that, presumably, is gravy.

As to structure, that’s held to be self-evident. In the immortal words of Lewis Carroll,

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

As a memoirist and an editor who works regularly with same, I must disagree. While a chronological structure can work, not all human events start out scintillating; depending upon the story, another structure might work better.

Then, too, a memoir cannot really be deemed a success unless readers find it entertaining, enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. That’s not merely a matter of story. Any long-form writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, will benefit from a strong narrative structure, a consistent, likable narrative voice, a plausible and engaging story arc, believable, well-drawn characters, a protagonist the reader would be happy to follow for a few hundred pages…

In short, many of the elements one might find in a well-constructed novel. But that’s not all that a good reality-based story requires, is it? After all, few readers will want to read a story, whether it is presented as memoir or as fiction, simply because it really happened. It needs to feel real on the page — and it needs to be enjoyable to read.

What makes me think that this might be news to many writers of memoir and reality-based fiction, you ask? For my sins, I have served quite frequently as a contest judge, assessing both memoir and novel entries, and I’m here to tell you, they look more similar on the page than one might think.

How so? They tend to share a few characteristics: a one-sided approach to scenes, as if the protagonist’s perspective were the only possible one; an apparent assumption that the reader will automatically side with the protagonist, regardless of what is going on, and bolstering both, a propensity for relating conflictual exchanges as though they were verbal anecdotes, light on detail but strong on emotion. Or, to boil all of these down to a single trait, these narratives tend to be disproportionately weighted toward a single point of view.

And memoirists’ hands fly heavenward all over the world. “But Anne,” they point out, and who could blame them? “My memoir is my story. Why wouldn’t it be biased toward my perspective?”

It should, of course — but in the interests of representing one’s own point of view, memoirists and writers of the real often render the narrative so one-sided that the situation neither seems plausible nor fairly presented. It just reads like a diatribe in scene form, a piece of prose whose primary point is not storytelling, but getting back at someone.

About half of you have started to blush, have you not? I’m not surprised; in both memoir and reality-based fiction, the scene where the reader is evidently expected to take the protagonist’s side, not because the antagonist is shown to be particularly awful, but because the narrative presents the antagonist without any sympathy — or, usually, any redeeming characteristics — is a notorious pet peeve of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. And not just as a generality, either. When Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, the annoying coworker stereotype often crops up in conversation.

As in, “You think you’re tired of conceptual repetition? I’ve read fourteen submissions this week alone with omitable annoying coworker scenes.”

It’s perhaps not altogether astonishing that memoirs would be rife with interactions between the protagonist/narrator and the people who happen to rile her, told in a breathlessly outraged tone, but aspiring writers of fact-based fiction are often stunned to discover that they were not the first to think of inserting actual conflicts into fictional stories. They shouldn’t be: there’s a pretty good reason that such scenes are ubiquitous in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Care to guess?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Given how often aspiring writers resent their day jobs — and, by extension, the people with whom they must interact there — that such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn, fully fleshed-out glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as any other stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of having the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of memoirs and novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the response is identical: “But it really happened that way!”

No surprise there. These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way she anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute. Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action.

Many writers assume, wrongly, that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt. To prevent confusion, I’m going to offset the narrative from the discussion.

A few years before I began blogging, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

A word to the wise: it pays to do your homework before you apply.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for the month of March was a writer, sculptor, photographer, or painter. While world-class painters and sculptors were imported up ice-covered rural roads every few days to critique and encourage those newer to their respective arts, the National Book Award winner scheduled to give feedback to the writers didn’t bother to show up for the first week of her residency. Amenities like kilns, darkrooms, and ladders to facilitate the construction of 20-foot woven cardboard cocoons seemed to appear whenever the visual artists so much as blinked. The writers, a tiny minority, had been shoved into a dank, dark cellar with cinder block walls; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the caves to which they had been assigned.

See what I just did there? I skewed the narrative so you would resent the visual artists.

But was that necessary? Objectively speaking, they were not the villains in this situation; they, like me, were visitors to the retreat. Besides, since the overwhelming majority of the Author! Author! community is made up of writers, couldn’t I simply have assumed that my readers would identify with the cave residents pretty much automatically?

Or, better yet, couldn’t I have included a vivid detail or two that would have nudged the reader in that direction without the narration’s appearing to be presenting a myopic account?

What kind of detail, you ask? Let’s try this one on for size.

Due to the musty dampness of the writers’ cellar, I elected to write in my assigned bedroom, in order to catch the occasional ray of sunlight. Sure, there were certain drawbacks — the desk had been designed for a hulking brute twice my size, while the desk chair had apparently been filched from a nearby kindergarten — but at least the heat worked. Too well, in fact: an hour and a half into my first afternoon of writing, a sleepy hornet emerged from the gaping hole around the charming antique light fixture and aimed straight for my head.

It was not the best moment to learn that the windows had been sealed for the winter. You know writers: we can’t be trusted not to let all of the heat out. Unlike, say, painters, whose windows might safely open onto vast vistas of forested hillside.

As the afternoon sun warmed the room, hornet after hornet emerged from its long winter’s nap. After the eighth had expressed its displeasure at my having had the temerity to have turned on either the light or the heat, I shook the bees off my jacket, wrapped my head and shoulders in several scarves, and plunged into a blizzard. By the time I reached the administration building, I was chilled to the bone.

Perhaps naïvely, I had assumed that the hornet’s nest in my room would come as a surprise to the retreat’s administrators. The writer who’d had the room the previous November — the local authorities had deemed it inadequately heated for winter residence — had complained about the bees, too. The painter-in-residence charged with rooting them out had simply not gotten around to it.

And didn’t for three days. He was too busy with a canvas that just couldn’t wait to be handed down to posterity. The administrators encouraged me to regard sleeping on a couch next to the dining hall as my contribution to the world’s supply of art. I had to wait until after dark in order to retrieve my laptop.

That engaged your sympathies more robustly, didn’t it? It’s still my experience and my perspective, told in my voice — but I’ve allowed you to draw the conclusion. That’s simply better storytelling.

Don’t see it? Okay, contrast the fleshed-out account above with the following series of summary statements.

Sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned side, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Aren’t you already longing for me to show you how specifically they were annoying, rather than merely telling you that they were? Let’s exacerbate the problem in the manner so many writers of the real do, creating the illusion of narrative distance by switching the text almost entirely into the passive voice.

Of course, such problems are endemic to large artists’ colonies. One classic means of dealing with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. I am of the school of thought that retreating entails leaving the trappings and the personnel of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the hornet-ridden New England village. Or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not.

Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

And let’s see how this telling, not showing thing I’ve got going works for character development, shall we?

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his personal favorite, explicitly sexual. The dining hall’s Lothario, one constantly spotted him flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin.

Amusing, but wouldn’t some details have brought his predilections more clearly before the reader’s eyes? Let’s try showing some of his work.

His eyes flickered over the female residents so persistently that I wondered if he was looking for a model. On day three, when he invited me to his palatial sculpture studio, I realized that he might have been seeking a lady to encase in plaster of Paris: practically every flat surface held representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, and breasts. He practically backed me into a backside. Murmuring some hasty excuse about needing to get back to my hornets, I slipped away from his grasping hands and dashed out into the pelting snow.

Still don’t see why that was better? Okay, let’s revert to generalities.

Being possessed of skin myself, I naturally came in for my fair share of Hansel’s attentions. (How’s that for a colorless summary of the proceeding story?) Generally speaking, though, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

This is precisely the type of paragraph that will absolutely slay ‘em in a verbal anecdote, or even in a blog, but often falls flat on the page. Yes, it’s amusing; yes, people actually do speak this way, so it’s a plausible a first-person narrative voice. But it’s vague. It’s character development, in the sense that it purports to tell the reader something about the narrator, but the reader just has to take the narrative’s word for it. Is that really the best way to convince the reader what a protagonist is like?

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I was, after all, the only other artist in residence who had read any Henry Miller. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room, battled away the wildlife, and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I do have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I simply started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Let’s pause here to consider: what do you, the reader, actually know about Gretel at this point? Are your feelings about her based upon what you have actually seen her do or my conclusions about her motivations? And are the facts even clear: was I the only resident of whom Gretel was jealous, or did she fume over the salad bar with anyone possessing two X chromosomes?

Wouldn’t it have worked better had I just shown her slapping peanut butter violently onto some white bread while I tried to make pleasant conversation with her, or depicted her veering away from me with her cracked metal tray? In short, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show this as a scene, rather than telling it as an anecdote?

Often, this fix is expressed rather confusingly: writers are told to insert some narrative distance into such scenes. I’m not a big fan of this language, for the simple reason that most memoirists and writers of the real new to editor-speak tend to interpret it as a call to make the narrative appear objective by, you guessed it, retreating into the passive voice. Let’s take a gander at this strategy in action.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, painters and sculptors had to fling their studios open to public scrutiny once a week. Each writer had to do at least one public reading in the course of the month.

Feels like you’ve been shoved back from the story, doesn’t it? That’s how verbal anecdotes tend to read on the page: as rather vague summaries. When they are in the passive voice as well, the narrator can come across as the passive puppet of circumstances, rather than as the primary actor of the piece, the person who makes things happen.

Let’s borrow a tool from the novelist’s kit and make the protagonist active, shall we?

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. By the end of the second week, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I had flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

Aha, so Gretel had singled me out. Was there a good narrative reason not to make that plain earlier? It almost certainly would have been funnier — and made both my reactions and my conclusions as narrator make more sense to the reader.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and National Book Award winner who had finally deigned dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Wow, I’ve left you to fill in a lot of details here, have I not? How could you possibly, when the narrative so far has given you only a very sketchy view of time, place, and character?

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

See how I worked in the false suspense there? Rather than showing precisely what her venomous glance was like — impossible for you to picture, right, since I have yet to tell you what she looks like? — I embraced the ever-popular storytelling shortcut of having the protagonist’s reaction to an event or person take the place of showing what was actually going on. Think that was the best strategy for this story?

Let’s try another tack. How about getting a little closer to what’s happening in that crowded room, so the reader may feel more like she is there? Or at least more like she’s standing in the narrator’s shoes?

Gretel settled a much-abused spiral notebook onto the podium and began to read a lengthy interior monologue in stentorian tones. Her eyes never left the paper, and with good reason: the plotless account depicted Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the interaction, in terms neither titillating nor instructive. It was simply a straightforward account of a mechanical act, structured within a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…a literarily uninteresting piece whose primary point seemed to be to inform the uncomfortable audience that she and her husband had consummated their marriage?

See how I used my response to develop the narrator’s character? Memoirists and writers of the real too often forget that the narrator is the protagonist of the story they are telling, and thus needs to be fleshed out as a character. If I’d attacked that last paragraph with a big more descriptive vim, I might have worked in some interesting insights into both Gretel and Hansel’s characters — how did her account jibe with his sculptural depictions of the act, for instance?

Oh, you thought that all of those body parts were languishing around his studio solo? Alas, no; I’ve seen less accurate models in biology classes. Again, wouldn’t it have been more effective storytelling to have shown that — or even made that last comment — while the protagonist was in the studio?

That would also have been the natural time to work in that Hansel’s sculptures did not…again, how to put this tactfully?…appear to have been based upon his wife’s womanly attributes. Artistically, he favored curves; she was so angular that she could have cut vegetables on her hip bones.

Lingering too long in the narrator’s head can be distracting from the action, though. Throughout the next paragraph, I invite you to consider: as a reader, would you have preferred to see the action more directly, or entirely through the narrator’s perspective?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. They seemed not to notice that although the monologue was from a female perspective, there were no references whatsoever to the narrator’s physical sensations, only what Hansel was doing. The part of Gretel might have been quite adequately played by a robot.

Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants seem to be counting the seconds until the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. “Three…two…one.” No one applauded but Hansel.

In first-person pieces, the narration will often switch abruptly from inside the protagonist’s head to an ostensibly objective set of descriptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You be the judge: how well do you think the next paragraph carries the story forward from the last?

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, {expletive deleted}!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled anyone within the sound of her voice to pick me out of a police line-up?

Wouldn’t it have been both more interesting and better character development to have shown the opening of Gretel’s second piece, rather than leaving it to the reader’s imagination? Ponder how that choice might have affected your perception of whether this scene is funny or tragic, please, as the narrative belatedly tells what it should have shown in the previous section.

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

Had I been telling this anecdote verbally — and believe me, I have — this spate of summary statements and analysis of what the reader has not been shown might well work beautifully. Memoirists tend to be fond of paragraphs like this, commenting upon the action as if the reader had also been there. It makes abundant sense, from the writer’s perspective: after all, I was actually there, right?

But talking about events creates a very different impression on the page than writing about them vividly enough that the reader can picture the action and characters for herself. If I had shown you the story Gretel was reading, at least in part, you could have judged this character based on her own words — much more powerful than the narrator’s simply telling you what you should think about her.

A professional reader like Millicent — or, heck, like me — might well raise another objection to that last section: since the narration is so skewed to the protagonist’s side, some readers may feel that this account lacks credibility. Could Gretel actually have been as vitriolic (or unstrategic) as I’ve depicted her here?

Actually, she was, every bit — but does that matter, if the narrative can’t make her seem plausible on the page? The fact that Gretel existed and that she chose to act in this extraordinary manner is not sufficient justification for the reader to finish this story. It also has to work as a story, and that’s going to require some serious character development for not only the narrator, but the other characters as well.

You’d be astonished at how often memoir submissions do not treat either as characters. Frequently, Millicent sees memoirs — and slice-of-life fiction, for that matter — that are simply commentary upon what was going on around the protagonist. Yet a memoir isn’t a transcript of events, interesting to the reader simply because they happened to the narrator; it’s one person’s story, skillfully pruned to leave out the dull parts. If the reader doesn’t get to know that narrator, though, or come to experience the other characters as real, the memoir is likely to fall flat.

Why? Because it will read like a series of anecdotes, rather than like a book.

Fictionalizers of real life tend to have an easier time thinking of their protagonists as protagonists, I notice, but as any Millicent could tell you, they often give away the narrative’s bias by clearly siding with one character over another. Or by depicting one character as all sweetness and light and the other as all evil. A popular secondary strategy: describing other characters’ reactions to the antagonist as universally in line with the protagonist’s, as though any onlooker would have had exactly the same response.

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

At last, we come full circle, back to my original point in sharing this anecdote in the first place: if your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses.

Or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you. Or your narrator.

If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please seriously consider joining a writing group. To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human — which renders me a more interesting protagonist in a memoir, right? As a memoirist, I have to assume that my readers too intelligent to believe that I was 100% perfect in this trying situation (I must admit, I did make an unkind joke or two in private), or that Gretel was 100% nasty (in actuality, she was rather nice to people her husband did not appear to be obsessed with sculpting), I suspect that most readers would also wonder whether Hansel actually stood by passively while his wife seethed with jealousy (he didn’t: he egged her on, in what appeared to me to be characteristic of their relationship). Were I planning to use this dynamic in a memoir, it would be in the story’s best interest to develop those less-neat elements into a more plausibly complete account.

If I hoped to fold this frankly pretty darned annoying incident into a novel, the imperative to flesh these people out into fully-rounded characters would be even stronger. Showing their foibles through action and dialogue, rather than just telling the reader what conclusions to draw, is not only better storytelling — it’s less intrusive narration.

Would I feel as vindicated? Perhaps not. Enough time has passed, however, that I now see this story as fundamentally sad: instead of befriending a more experienced writer who could have conceivably helped her on the long, twisty road to publication, Gretel allowed the troubled dynamic of her marriage to become the central focus of a bunch of not-particularly-sympathetic strangers. She, too, was in that dank basement, while her husband created his fantasies of women who did not resemble her in comparative comfort. If he hadn’t chosen me to as the prod with which to keep poking her insecurities, I’m sure he would have found somebody else.

So who is the actual villain of this piece? You decide; that’s the reader’s job, after all.

Keep up the good work!

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXII, and Structural Repetition, part IX: who is that handsome devil in the mirror, and why shouldn’t I consider him the sole arbiter of clarity?

Before I launch into what we all devoutly hope will be my next-to-last post on structural repetition (for the nonce, at least), a recommendation for all of you who write YA: because it’s always a good idea to familiarize oneself with the roots of one’s chosen book category, I would highly recommend that you take a gander at this quite interesting interview with YA grande dame Beverly Cleary. Actually, any writer planning to be a legend in her own time might want to take a peek at it. It’s both fascinating and falls into an interview trap that’s become surprisingly common of late — when asked what books she reads in her own category, Cleary, said that she doesn’t read any. Not too long ago, Philip Roth told a reporter essentially the same thing: readers should continue to pick up his novels, but he no longer reads fiction.

“I wised up,” he said.

I have to say, this strikes me as a trifle tone-deaf, given the difficulties the literary market has been facing of late. If writers don’t read (and buy) books in their own categories, who will? And how is a writer to know how his type of book — and his type of reader — is growing and changing unless he keeps an eye on what’s come out recently?

To be fair, it used to be considered rather chic for authors to pretend that they never thought about their readerships’ tastes while constructing what turned out to be bestsellers. No, art was art and commerce was commerce, and ne’er the twain shall meet: the only thing on the author’s mind, we were given to understand, was the inspiration descending from on high and his own fine sense of what would work on the page literary.

This, like the still-pervasive interview implication that what ends up on the page is first draft, is not a reflection of the realities of authorial life; it’s spin. And it’s unfortunate spin, because statements like these give aspiring writers everywhere the false impression that being a successful author has nothing to do with pleasing one’s readership, or even bothering to learn anything about their tastes. No, this argument goes, a truly gifted writer never seeks to please anyone on the page but himself.

It sounds tempting at first blush, doesn’t it? Art for art’s sake has always appealed to artists. But as a reader — as the overwhelming majority of good writers are, bless your hearts — doesn’t it strike you as a trifle insulting to be told what to like? Especially if the person telling you to like his work one moment is telling you the next moment that he doesn’t read anyone else’s work, and thus cannot provide a well-informed comparative assessment?

I leave the answers to those salient questions to further debate between you and your muse. For our purposes today, let’s take away three things. First, interview styles are as subject to change over time as writing styles; what sounded cool in 1963 may produce a significantly different impression now. It’s not a bad idea, then, for a first-time author to invest some time in reading and listening to recent author interviews, to see what works now and what seems like an idea whose time has passed.

Second, while established authors can sometimes afford to be cavalier about how their writing will strike their readers (although I suspect that you’d be hard-pressed to find a publishing house that would be thrilled about one of its authors doing so in public), those seeking to break into the biz cannot. It’s just not smart marketing to avoid thinking about who your target reader is, why your book will appeal to him or her, and how your book will satisfy an already-existing group of book-buyers’ literary tastes and/or interests in a manner that nothing else on the market currently does.

Obviously, in order to answer those questions, a writer is going to have to learn something about who is reading books like hers already and why. Sensing a pattern here?

Third, and most important for revision purposes, it’s vital to recognize that what the writer takes away from any given scene or paragraph might not be what a reader takes away – or what a reader who does not know the writer personally would glean from it. If the action on the page is confusing to a reader — especially if that reader happens to be an agent, editor, or contest judge — it’s the writer’s responsibility to clarify the writing, not the reader’s to figure out what is going on. Especially if that would mean going back and re-reading the sentences in question; Millicent simply doesn’t have time to do that.

I feel an editing axiom coming on: if a reader finds a passage unclear, it does not matter that the writer can explain glibly what’s going on; the reader can judge only what’s actually on the page.

This is especially important precept to bear in mind if you are editing for humor. All too often, aspiring humorists proceed upon the assumptions that

(a) anything that makes them laugh is inherently funny,

(b) anything that makes their kith and kin laugh is funny,

(c) any anecdote they have ever told out loud and elicited a chuckle is funny, and/or

(d) any reader will find writing based on assumptions (a)-(c) funny.

All of these are palpably untrue, as Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, and she should know: humor that doesn’t quite work on the page shows up in submissions so often that it has become one of her pet peeves. It’s also untrue that

(e) having a character laugh at something either he or another character has just said will render it funny to a reader.

That’s likely to come as a surprise to all of those submitters who tried to convince Millicent that their protagonist was the next Hawkeye Pierce by depicting bystanders roaring with laughter at his antics and quips. This exceedingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve tends to run a little something like this:

Bored with the lesson, Chuck glanced out the window, searching for amusement. He leap to his feet. “Look, Miss McStraightlacedson! A tiger’s escaped from the zoo!”

Half the class ran to the window while he leaned back in his chair, grinning while his classmates searched for a beast that existed only in his imagination. His friends leaned forward on their desks, cracking up at how gullible the others were.

The teacher alone had not budged. “Back to your seats, everyone. I’m afraid Mr. Hilariouskid has been putting us on again.”

Several boys slapped him on the back as they regained their seats. “That was a good one, Chuckles!” Mopey Wanabefunny cried.

A professional reader’s response to this subtle giggle-prompting tactic is seldom laughter, I’m sorry to report, but eye-rolling. Most often, accompanied by, “Next!”

In other words, it might make Millicent laugh, but not for the right reasons.

While we’re talking about editing for humor, did you catch the other problem with this passage? Hint: the writer probably thought this made this scene’s hilarity clearer, but from the reader’s perspective, it watered down the joke.

If you immediately leapt out of your chair, yelling, “I know the answer, Miss McStraightlacedson! The narrative over-sold the joke,” allow me to hand you the Milton Berle Award; feel free to hang onto it for a while. While the old writing truism that brevity is the soul of wit is not always accurate (as anyone who has ever enjoyed a shaggy dog story can attest), explaining to the reader after the fact why something is humorous almost always renders it less amusing.

As we discussed earlier in this series, this kind of overkill also has another side effect: to a professional reader like Millicent, it indicates some doubt in the writer’s mind that the situation itself is funny enough to prompt laughter without the explanation, which in itself raises a question about its humor value. Basically, it’s a sign that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to get it.

In my experience, though, most of the writers who fall into this trap do so not because they are thinking poorly of their audience’s reading comprehension skills, but because they are not thinking of the reader at all. Something strikes the writer as amusing — so it must be so to the reader, right?

Frequently, no. If it isn’t, the text’s going on to tell the reader why something that hasn’t been shown to be funny should make her laugh is not going to help.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here is that scene again, with the laughter prompts excised, as well as the explanation; while I’m at it, I’m going to change the too-obvious character names as well. Judge for yourself whether the humor doesn’t stand up better.

Bored with the lesson, Charles glanced out the window. He leap to his feet. “Look, Miss Bates! A tiger’s escaped from the zoo!”

Half the class ran to the window. Only a pellucidly blue sky and well-kept lawns greeted them.

The teacher alone had not budged. “Back to your seats, everyone. And you, Mr. Spencer, will report for detention after…Mr. Spencer? Where are you?”

Even the kids who hadn’t rushed to see the tiger screamed. All that remained of Charles was a red-stained tennis shoe occupying his chair.

While his classmates wept and Miss Bates dashed to the principal’s office, Charles walked whistling down the path to the river. Fishing was a much better use of a sunny day than learning about how Hannibal crossed the Alps.

Come on, admit it — you weren’t expecting one new plot twist, were you, much less two? The unexpected is often funny on the page. So much so that if I were editing this piece, I might recommend that the last paragraph be beefed up with another surprise.

While his classmates wept and Miss Bates dashed to the principal’s office, Charles walked whistling down the path to the river. Fishing was a much better use of a sunny day than learning about how Hannibal crossed the Alps. As he slipped through the hedge and off school grounds, he heard a low growl behind him, the faint sound of padded feet.

Whether the pursuer turns out to be a tiger or Miss Bates teaching him a lesson, you must admit, the revised version is quite a bit more amusing than the original. In the second, the writer trusts the reader to be able to follow what’s going on AND to have a sense of the absurd.

Should the writer have explained that Charles reddened his shoe with the ketchup packets he always kept concealed in his desk? Possibly, but not necessarily. If the reader already knew from an earlier scene that the boy believed in being prepared in case any stray hot dogs might find their way to his desk, smuggled from the lunchroom (oh, that rapscallion!), the joke would fly just fine without it. Ditto if we’d already seen him brandishing a red Magic Marker or dabbing a cut with iodine.

There is, in short, no single, hard-and-fast editing rule dictating the right amount of set-up for humor. It all depends on the situation — and the target audience.

Why bring any of this up while either author interviews or revision are on our collective mind? Simple: not taking your reader’s likely response into account renders pulling off either well quite a bit more difficult. A writer who thinks only of his own reaction to what’s on the page tends to overlook clarity problems, logical leaps, redundancy, and anything else that didn’t strike him as important when he composed the passage.

He also is inclined not to consider the reader’s enjoyment — and that’s a real drawback, as far as Millicent is concerned. As we’ve seen in this series on structural repetition, it’s not nearly as much fun to read prose that’s repetitive in sentence structure or vocabulary as writing that’s more varied.

Because writing is a solitary art — yes, even after one lands an agent and sells one’s book to an editor — it’s astonishingly easy to lose sight of the end reader, particularly in the revision stage. When we writers are up on our high horses, we tend to talk about our artistic visions and the importance of being true to our voices, but while we’re being down-to-earth about it, we have to admit that if we can’t (or won’t) take the time to make those visions and voices accessible to the reader AND at least somewhat pleasant to read, we aren’t completing our mission successfully.

Does that mean dumbing down complex concepts or compromising original voices? No, not if revision is performed intelligently. It does mean, however, that the writer of a Frankenstein manuscript owes it to any complex concept that might be lingering with in it, as well as to her own narrative voice, to try to read the text as a reader might.

An author reading I attended last year provided a glorious pragmatic illustration of the necessity for a good reviser (or good writer, for that matter) to consider not only his own point of view when deciding whether a passage of text was clear, but also a reader’s. As is lamentably often the case at such readings, the author read excerpts from her book in a monotone, without once lifting her eyes from the page to connect with her audience.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that her gorgeous prose fell flat. The characters blurred together; the dramatic arc of the scene was lost; the quite amusing punch line failed to invoke even a single smile in an audience member. A great and preventable pity, because the scene she chose to read was well-written, beautifully paced, and contained some genuinely astonishing plot twists.

As if the muses had gone out of their way to demonstrate to this author just how much she was underselling her own excellent prose stylings, the venue had booked a second author to read at the same event, one whose obviously well-rehearsed, excitingly voiced reading, punctuated by frequent merry glances up at her fans, kept the crowd enthralled. Guess which author sold more books?

Now, I have nothing but sympathy for the shy; I happen to enjoy public speaking, but I know that it positively terrifies many. Reading one’s own work in public is hard, so I would STRENUOUSLY recommend that any and all of you who intend to see your work in print some day start practicing reading it in front of others as soon as humanly possible. Reading well out loud is something that few of us manage the very first time we try, after all.

Like so many other skills required of a professional writer, giving good public readings is a learned skill, one that requires practice to perfect. It also requires — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — the writer to take the time to consider what that passage of perfect prose might sound like to someone who, unlike herself, might not have read it before.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: a writer’s ability to step outside his own head and consider what’s actually on the page, rather than what he thinks is on the page, is crucial to good revision.

Case in point: the question we have been discussing over the last couple of posts, the delicate balance between referring to characters by name often enough for clarity, but not so much that all of those capital letters distract the reader’s eye and prompt Millicent to grope for the form-letter rejection stack. This is a problem that’s not likely to trouble the sleep of a writer who doesn’t think much about what her readers might be taking away from any particular page of his story, right?

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

If the writing on that page is clear, his intended meaning may well be obvious. If not, his submission could well end up confusing Millicent — or, still worse, expecting her to fill in gaps in logic, background scenery, character motivation…

You know, all of those thrilling, character- and plot-revealing details that we talk about so much here at Author! Author! as the hallmark of expressive prose. Millicent’s on the lookout for style, recall, not just a gripping story. If she — or any reader, for that matter — has to devote even a few seconds of her scant time with your submission to sorting out confusing logistics, unclear character motivations, or just plain trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s a few less seconds she is spending noticing how likable your protagonist is and how gracefully you describe cloud patterns.

I couldn’t help but notice that not all of you immediately shouted, “Right, by Jove!” Does it strike you as a trifle hostile to literature that our Millie tends to concentrate far more on a submission’s faults than its beauties? Okay, let’s step into in her practical two-inch heels for a moment, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the kinds of manuscripts we’ve been discussing.

Got your Millicent cap firmly pulled down around your ears? Excellent. Picture four manuscripts before you, each written by a talented writer eager for a break. Which one will you decide to show to your boss, the bigwig agent, and which three will you reject?

Your choices are (1) a narrative that assumes you will put in extra effort to sort out what is going on in certain confusing passages, like so:

He woke up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways. Trees swayed outside the unfamiliar window, giving him no clue of his whereabouts. Ow — his knee! He pulled on his boots.

(2) A submission that just summarizes the story, leaving you to fill in most of the details, rather than providing interesting and surprising specifics from which you might derive your own impression of what’s going on, thus:

Bart woke up dazed, disoriented, under what seemed to be a pouf of somebody else’s hair. There was a girl next to him; for the life of him, he could not remember her name, nor did the trees swaying outside the window give him any clue about where he was. His knee hurt, as if something had smashed against it recently. He had to get out of there. He crept out of bed, pulled on his boots, and left.

(3) the most extreme form of Frankenstein manuscript, one so rife with spelling, grammar, perspective, and consistency problems that even its author appears not to have taken the time to read it all the way through:

But, I wake up with her hair in his mouth. She rolled sideways, pearing at the unshaven face near to her foot. No help there so quite as a mouse, I syruptitiously looked at the trees outside the window, but they didn’t tell me where I had managed to get myself to. Something had cracked against his knee. Where had those darned boots gotten to, and who was this girl anyway?

(That one was genuinely hard for me to write, by the way; I kept having to undo my instinctive corrections.)

(4) A manuscript where the writer has taken the reader’s perspective into account sufficiently to clarify all of the relevant issues of the page, skillfully using a plethora of vivid details to convey to the reader a complex reality and consistent enough in tone that you can discern, however faintly, an individual authorial voice:

Bart woke up gasping for breath. Was he being smothered under a fuzzy scarlet blanket, or had his bangs grown down to his mouth, choking him with a lamb-like pouf of curly hair? Wait — his hair hadn’t been curly since he had been the spelling champion of Mrs. Chellini’s third-grade class. His dim memories of her classroom seemed like Technicolor spectaculars, compared to his recollection of last night.

He yanked a particularly wavy red lock from the corner of his mouth, following it gingerly — better not move too much, head — across the rough Navaho blanket to its source. The mascara-streaked face wasn’t familiar, but the Hooters t-shirt was. Tammy, maybe? Tina? And was that blood on his bare knee? No wonder it hurt: that gash would need stitches.

Tell me, Millicent-for-a-day: which would you choose to pass on to your boss, and which would you reject?

There’s nothing wrong with expecting your reader to draw conclusions from what you say on the page, but as some well-meaning English teacher may have pointed out to you once or twice in the past, style often lies in the essential difference between showing and telling. If the writer chooses to beguile the reader with enough details about a situation that he walks away from the scene with the mental image the author intended, that’s showing. If, on the other hand, the writer elects to tell her tale in generalities, or to spell all of the necessary conclusions for the reader instead of allowing the reader to draw them for himself, that’s telling.

Of course, to write a complex tale, you’re probably going to have to do both. Let’s face it, telling can be quite useful from time to time, particularly in a fast-paced action scene or a chunk of narrative that needs to cover a hefty chunk of passing time. More often than not, however, writers use summary statements as a kind of shorthand writers to get past activities that are necessary to the plot, but just don’t interest them that much.

Which brings me, conveniently enough, to one of the most commonly over-used verbs in manuscript submissions — and, not entirely coincidentally, to one of Millicent’s lesser-known pet peeves. Contest judges complain vociferously about it, too, so I could not in good conscience polish off our discussion of textual redundancy without talking about it. Not that I mind: this particular phenomenon is a favorite bugbear of mine as well, because its astonishingly pervasive use tends, in my experience, to flatten description and characterization.

Have I piqued your curiosity sufficiently yet? Too bad — you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow’s post to find out what this classic Millicent-annoyer is. I know what I’m talking about here, and that’s enough for now.

See how frustrating it is when the writer considers only what she needs to get out of the words on the page, rather than her readers’ desire to know what’s going on? And have I given you strong enough evidence of the point I made yesterday, that false suspense — withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense — is darned annoying?

My work is done here for the day, clearly. Tune in next time for a few last concrete examples of Millicent-irritants before Pitchingpalooza begins on Wednesday. In the meantime, remember your readers, and keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

similar name page 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pronoun-only text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why ever not?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Those were the days, eh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

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

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

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions; what would be considered normal in one may seem downright poky in another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or it wouldn’t have, if you were Millicent. There are three — count ‘em on your fingers: three — of her other pet peeves just clamoring for her attention. Allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

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

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

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

Opening with an unidentified speaker: Millicent remains perpetually mystified by how popular such openings are. Depending upon the categories her boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

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

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

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

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

Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. As we have discussed, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as both old-fashioned and unnecessary. Which leads me to…

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

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

Chances are that you won’t find many — nor would you in second or third novel manuscripts by published authors. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts. So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism.

Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well — a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited. Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

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

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

“Wow.”

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

“Eww.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh,” he prompted breathlessly.

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

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

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

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

“Saving your skin?

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

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

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

“Thirty-eight years!”

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

“Rats? Raw?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth pondering, anyway. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

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

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

The writing is dull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet peeves on parade, part X: and the screen goes wavy — or is it the type?

My, the metaphorical halls of Author! Author! grew quiet while we were considering the winning entries in the Author! Author! Rings True literary competition. Was that because everyone was so impressed by the high quality of the writing — or so astonished to see what I looked like on film? Or did those of you who stop by regularly for self-editing and marketing tips merely take a pass on checking out posts about other readers’ work?

I hope not, because actually, quite a bit of my commentary on the winning entries concerned precisely the sort of professional readers’ pet peeve that we have been discussing throughout this series. No matter how creative my examples are (and I do try to make them a tad unexpected, as a door prize for those of you dedicated enough to read through my page shots), there’s no better way to see what kinds of gaffes make our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sigh over submissions than to take a gander at good writing that’s not perfectly presented.

I think we can glean three overarching lessons from this. First, no matter how beautifully-written or genre-appropriate a text may be, professional readers will respond to it better if it adheres to the rules of standard format for book manuscripts. There’s a reason I go over standard format a couple of times per year on the blog, people: to Millicent, anything else simply looks wrong. Formatting is not a matter of style, at least at the submission stage; any effort a creative-minded aspiring writer puts into making his manuscript resemble a published book is not only wasted, but a signpost to Millie that he hasn’t done his homework about how the publishing industry works.

Harsh? Perhaps? True? Undoubtedly.

So if you are not familiar with the rigors of standard format, please invest an hour or two in going over the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right. Even if you think you know the rules, but have never actually beheld a professionally-formatted manuscript, please consider a quick review. And if you still have questions about what your work should look like on the page, please ask.

Yes, it honestly is that important. As we saw in the winning entries, even a small formatting problem can prove very distracting from good writing. I would much, much rather that you post a question in the comments than for you to risk annoying Millicent in a submission.

Second, and closely associated to the first lesson, no matter how lovely the turn of phrase, typos, punctuation problems, and the missing words that so often result from multiple revisions will render prose less effective. It’s significantly harder to catch such faux pas on a computer screen than on the page. There’s just no substitute for proofreading before submission, preferably — feel free to shout it along with me, long-term readers — IN THE TEXT’S ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Third, since formatting and proofreading oversights are the norm, not the exception, in even very good submissions, producing a clean manuscript will give an aspiring writer the advantage of novelty at submission or contest entry time. Believe me, after seeing the same gaffes over and over again, in page 1 after page 1, a properly-formatted manuscript devoid of typos is a genuine relief. The old screeners’ adage that most manuscripts reject themselves honestly is true — and the sad part is that most of those mistakes are 100% avoidable.

Hey, there’s a reason that the pros don’t have qualms about rejecting a manuscript that’s only a quick polish away from being marketable. They assume that aspiring writers capable of creating such pages will be serious enough about their craft to revise, reformat, and try again.

Seriously, it often comes as a surprise to them to hear that a talented writer they’ve rejected has given up — or even moved on to working on her next book. To a professional reader, a rejected project is not dead; it may merely be not ready for the big time yet.

A surprisingly common indicator that a submitter still has a bit to learn: a manuscript that’s formatted like a published book. I’m not just talking about deviations from the norms of standard format or selecting a funky typeface, either — I’m talking about a style choice so common in published fiction that it never occurs to most of the aspiring writers who copy it that it might be problematic in a submission.

I’m talking, in short, of opening a manuscript with a short section in italics.

Was that giant “Huh?” that just shook the trees outside my studio window an indication of surprise or disbelief? “But Anne,” italics-lovers all over the English-speaking world protest, “I see this done in published books all the time.”

Precisely: you also see published books that are single-spaced, printed in wacky typefaces, and have bindings. None of these things are true of properly-formatted manuscripts, for the exceedingly simple reason that professionally-formatted book manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, people who deal with manuscripts for a living tend to start yawning when aspiring writers try to drag them into the pseudo-debate about whether it’s obsolete to hit the space bar twice after a period or colon when typing a manuscript. Invariably, the primary piece of evidence offered is that many published books now omit the second space.

At the risk of being overly prolix in my response, so what?

I can sense that some of you still cling to the belief that what appears in print will necessarily fly in a submission. Okay, let’s take a gander at a representative sample of the kind of italicized opening that lands on Millicent’s desk two or three times per day: italics intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the actual opening scene that follows immediately thereafter.

I didn’t fool you that time, did I? “Okay, Anne,” those of you who followed both this series and the recent prize posts chortle, “I know how this game is played. You’ve been trying to train us to catch Millicent’s pet peeves, so I kept my eye peeled not only for how italics are used here, but for other presentation problems that might have irked her.”

Well reasoned, chortlers. How many of them did you catch? For those of you who did not notice all 10 gaffes, here is the same page with all of the purely formatting problems corrected. (For your comparing-and-contrasting pleasure, I’ve touched nothing else.)

Seeing more of them now? If some of these differences jumped out at you, considering that Millicent stares at manuscript pages all day, every day, how many of them do you think she would spot within the first couple of seconds?

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page with her, so to speak, let’s go over the purely cosmetic problems FIRST. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The slug line is in different typeface than the text. The slug line is in Arial, the body in Times New Roman.

2. The incorrectly formatted slug line includes author’s first name and middle initial, instead of just the last.

3. The incorrectly formatted slug line has a space between the forward slash and the title. The spacing in a slug line should be continuous: Name/Title/#

4. The incorrectly formatted slug line does not include the page number.

5. The page number is in wrong place on the page. It belongs in the slug line, not on the other side of the page.

6. The page number includes the word page. Although many aspiring writers think this looks nifty, a professionally-formatted manuscript would never include the word.

7. There’s an extra space before first word of paragraph 2. Yes, Virginia, most Millicents would catch that in either a hard or soft copy submission.

8. There’s only a single space between each period and beginning of the next sentence, while there are two after every other period. This kind of inconsistency is a common result of confusion over the great one space/two space debate. There is no single right answer here: some agents prefer a single space, although the industry standard is still two; check each agency’s submission guidelines before you submit. If they do not mention preferring the single space, use two. Whichever you pick, however, be 100% consistent about spacing throughout the manuscript.

9. At the beginning of the last paragraph, a number under 100 is expressed as a numeral, rather than being written out as a word.

10. In the final line of the page, there are two spaces between thrown and herself. To a professional reader, this is a dead giveaway that the submitter did not proofread in hard copy.

Quite a lot of eyebrow-raisers for such an innocent-looking page of text, isn’t it? That’s how closely agency screeners read — and we haven’t even begun to talk about the writing itself, you will notice. Take heart, though: unless Millicent is having a spectacularly bad day, none of these problems by itself, or even all of them together, will necessarily result in an on-the-spot cry of “Next!”

Why not? Well, believe it or not, the first version might be one of the more professional-looking first pages Millicent sees today. Most of the elements of standard format are in fact done correctly here, and it’s relatively free of misspellings and grammatical problems. So an optimistic aspiring writer often can — and does — get away with submitting a first page like the former.

Most professional readers, including agents, contest judges, and Millicents, are willing to overlook a small cosmetic error or two, just as they tend to discount the occasional typo, provided that it is not repeated in the manuscript. (The prevailing logic: the first misspelling of a word might legitimately be a slip of a finger; the second indicates that the writer just doesn’t know how to spell the word in question.)

It doesn’t take too many tiny problems, however, to render a pro much less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been to a larger problem like an awkward sentence or the appearance of a cliché. And that’s on a good day — do you really want to take the chance that Millicent won’t just have burned her lip on a too-hot latte just before turning to your first page?

I see a forest of hands waving in my general direction. “But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly, “I’m finding this rather depressing. Taken individually, the deviations from standard format we’re talking about are all quite small; I just don’t want to believe that good writing could ever fall prey to what, frankly, looks at first glance like a pretty respectable formatting job. I’m not discounting Millicent’s ability to reject the submission that happens to be in front of her when she scalds herself, but surely nobody concerned really wants aspiring writers to believe that their work could be rejected based on anything but the writing.”

It depends upon whom you ask, actually. I’ve met plenty of screeners — as well as agents, editors, and contest judges, come to think of it — who regard writers that, as they tend to put it, “haven’t taken the time to learn the business,” just aren’t as ready to be published as those who have. (Hmm, haven’t I heard that someplace?) Part of working with an agent involves learning how to follow certain rules. It’s not as though any agent worth his salt would submit the first version above to an editor at a publishing house, after all; that would just be self-defeating.

Besides, these days, most good agents see so many cosmetically perfect submissions that they don’t lose too much sleep over rejecting those that are not. Or over Millicent’s having been more critical in the hour after she scalded her lip than on a normal day. They just figure that if a writer has real talent, s/he’ll go away, get better at presentation, and get picked up somewhere else.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, there’s no appeal for Millicent’s decisions: it’s not as though most agencies will run submissions past a second screener if the first did not like it, after all. Good writers are expected to be tenacious — and to take the time to learn how the publishing industry expects manuscripts to be presented.

So instead of regarding presentation as a secondary issue, try to think of paying attention to the cosmetic details as being polite to the person conducting the interview for a job you really, really want. Even if you have good reason to believe that some of the other interviewees are getting away with taking a few liberties, it honestly is in your best interest to be polite enough to show her your writing in the manner that Millicent is accustomed to seeing the best work in your chosen book category presented.

All that being said, did you spot the non-superficial reason this page might engender a knee-jerk rejection, even after just a superficial first glance?

If you flung your hand into the air and cried, “The second line of dialogue merely repeats the first, and thus adds nothing new to the scene,” good guess. This would indeed annoy most Millicents, particularly if this oh-so-common piece of redundancy appeared on page 1. Yes, people repeat what’s just been said to them all the time, usually as a means to indicate that they don’t understand the previous speaker’s last statement, but that doesn’t mean the repetition isn’t dull on the page.

But that’s a style issue. Any other guesses?

I can see the smoke rising from your thinking caps. “Well, what about the fact that the first line of dialogue is spoken by an unidentified speaker? There’s no legitimate reason to withhold that information from the reader, either at the outset or in this scene in general.”

Another excellent suggestion — the unidentified opening speech is indeed a very common professional readers’ pet peeve. However, the red flag I have in mind is a marketing issue. Hint: those of you who followed the contest winners’ posts carefully should already know what it is.

Need another hint? Okay, let me ask you the deceptively simple question that’s never far from Millicent’s thoughts while she is screening: based on this first page alone, in what book category does this manuscript belong?

It’s not readily apparent, is it? Depending upon the intended category, that could or could not be a problem. If this manuscript were, say, women’s fiction, this first page might not raise Millicent’s overactive eyebrows, but were it a mystery, the lack of species markings might well make her wonder when the mystery’s going to start. If it’s a paranormal, where are the supernatural creepy-crawlies? And don’t even get me started on what is missing if this were Action/Adventure, Western, any stripe of romance…

Well, you get the picture. Millicent needs to be able to tell if a submission falls into a category that her boss represents — and she likes to be able to tell by the bottom of page 1.

Seem strange that she would want to make up her mind on the subject so quickly? Her reason is very practical, I assure you: since every book category has its own particular style — language choices, conventions, stock characters, etc. — and no agent represents every book category, it can save Millie’s boss a heck of a lot of time in the long run if her loyal assistant weeds out manuscripts that don’t fit comfortably into the category. While many writers legitimately find this professional desire to place their work in a box a trifle maddening, it must be admitted that it’s usually far, far easier for an agent to sell a book if he knows which shelf it might occupy at Barnes & Noble. If any.

Why not wait until, say, page 50 before making that determination? Do you have any idea how many submissions Millicent has to get through this month? This week? Today?

It’s her job to narrow the field as quickly as possible. With that in mind, which Millicent do you think is most likely to reject the example above: one whose boss represents mainstream fiction, or one who represents primarily science fiction? Or, to put it another way, would you or would you not be surprised to learn that the page above is the opening to a fantasy novel?

Oh, you thought that Carla was going to be operating on humans, rather than refugees from the civil war on Planet Targ? Millicent would have leapt to the same conclusion. So wouldn’t Fledgling A. Writer have been better off, if not flinging the reader directly into an operating room stuffed to the gills with alien body parts, at least including a few recognizably fantastic elements on page 1?

Let’s go ahead and state the answer to that question as a general rule for revision: if a reader who knows nothing about your book cannot tell by the bottom of page 1 what type of manuscript it is, it’s very much in your interest to revise with an eye toward making the category more obvious from the get-go.

Don’t those of you who write exciting stories that begin in the everyday, mundane world, then leap into fast-paced action, wish you had heard that salient little piece of advice before you submitted for the first time? Yet I’m not sure how you would have known it — while it’s something that any agented writer could probably have told you, it’s one of those things that it’s just assumed every serious writer already knows.

“But Anne,” those of you not depressed into a stupor by that last statement point out, and rightly, “since we began this little foray into the joys of intensive nit-picking with a brief reference to italicized text, am I correct in assuming that even if ol’ Fledgling corrected every single problem we have discussed so far, and made it apparent from the first paragraph that this is a fantasy, the italicized part would still raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript?”

In a word, yes — but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

Let’s face it: many aspiring writers radically overuse italics in their texts: emphasizing every word in dialogue that might conceivably deserve vocal stress, for instance, or using it to indicate irony, foreign words, and song titles. Each of these uses is fine on its own, but cumulatively, it can add up to quite a lot of squiggly text. And chant it with me now, campers: like any other writing device, the more italics are used for emphasis in a manuscript, the less effective each use will be.

So unless it’s absolutely necessary, a big block of italicized text tends to look out of place in a manuscript — and that’s potentially a problem. Why? Well, as I may have mentioned at some point in the dim, unrecorded past, manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit. Because of the sheer volume of incorrectly-formatted submissions, instead of treating deviations from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters expect. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

Besides, in many instances — as in, not entirely coincidentally, today’s example — the italics don’t actually change the meaning, or even the implication, of the opening. Italicized or not, this opening simply a fragment of a scene that is not directly connected to the section that follows — a differentiation made abundantly clear by the section break. The italics are not actually necessary.

So why not just take them out, since they might irritate Millicent? Here’s that same page again, with the squiggly type gone.

Come on, admit it — it doesn’t make much of a difference in meaning. It simply looks more like a normal manuscript page. That’s not a very high price to pay for removing the implication that Fledgling has not done his homework well enough to be aware that the decision to italicize an opening would ultimately be the acquiring editor’s call, not the author’s.

But did you notice that in fleeing from one pet peeve, poor Fledgling stumbled right into another? Technically,

But she thought: this can’t be happening, not today.

is redundant. Why? Well, while indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider the version above correct, depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

“She’s in the hospital?” she repeated. But she thought: this can’t be happening, not today.

or:

“She’s in the hospital?” she repeated. This can’t be happening, not today.

As we saw above with spaces after periods and colons, the trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

When in doubt, I would lean toward losing the italics. There are quite a few professional readers out there — including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Bertrand!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing inherently wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

I just heard you italics-huggers gulping. “Um, Anne,” lovers of italicized openings whisper fearfully. “You’re not about to tell me that a Millicent in a hurry — and when is she not, given how much she has to read in a day? — might simply skip that nice italicized opening, are you? Please tell me that I’ve simply grown paranoid from too much close textual analysis in a single sitting.”

Oh, dear. Are you sitting down?

If Millicent happens to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening — as many, many agents do, I tremble to report — she will simply glide over it, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript. So she would see Fledgling’s page 1 like this:

“Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? At the risk of getting redundant with my outrage, published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that formerly-italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

Any luck? Would it help if I mentioned that the remaining red flag has historically been a deus ex machina favored by everyone from Victorian novelists to middle school short story writers?

That’s right: and then she woke up. The problem here isn’t merely because in narrative prose, if Sentence B follows Sentence A in the text, the action in Sentence B is assumed to have come after the action in Sentence A; therefore, and then is actually redundant in this instance. No, it’s that so darned many exciting openings have tricked Millicent into being drawn into what she thought was the story — but later turns out to be just another dream.

Do literally thousands of interesting novels open this way? You bet. Does it mean that Millicent won’t feel duped when it happens in Novel #10,001? Do you really want to take that chance?

If you’d had your heart set on a bait-and-switch opening that ended with your hero/ine waking up, do not despair. It’s possible to pull off this device well — as long as you are aware that (a) it’s a very, very time-worn device, (b) Millicent sees hundreds of such openings every year, so (c) you’d better do something with it that she’s never seen before.

And if that’s not a creative challenge, I should like to know what is. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part VII: why Millicent prefers casting calls to be open

It never fails, campers: every time I start talking here on the blog about Hollywood narration — when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader– the world around me hastens, nay, lunges to provide me with an abundance of examples. Indeed, one can hardly turn on a television set without encountering backstory being conveyed via dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well, and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all.

Nurse (catching up to Orderly in an antiseptic hallway): So how is Naomi doing today?

Naomi (seated sideways in wheelchair, limbs akimbo, face covered in bruises): Unnngh.

Orderly (clutching the handles of Naomi’s wheelchair passionately): “How should she be doing, Clara? What she needs is physical therapy and minute-to-minute care, but Dr. Barton treats her like a…thing. He doesn’t believe she will ever get better.

Nurse: Now, now, you know that Dr. Barton has a fine reputation. He’s been running Seacoastcliffwaterview Convalescent Hospital for seven and a half years now.

Orderly (lowering his voice): But what about those mysterious deaths in the wee hours of the morning, when, unlike most medical facilities that purport to give round-the-clock care, all of us on staff steal off to take four-hour naps?

Nurse (shaking her head thoughtfully): That is a mystery. But no good is going to come of asking disruptive questions.

Our hero (flashing identification from some city/county/federal agency too quickly for any human eye to glean any information whatsoever from it): Excuse me, but I’m trying to learn something about Mr. McGuffin’s death at two o’clock yesterday morning. Has anything unusual been going on here lately?

Nurse (exchanging meaningful glances with Orderly): No, nothing.

Naomi: Unnngh. Unnngh!

Orderly (patting her on her shoulder): There, there. I’d better get you back to your room for your 1:30 AM appointment with Dr. Barton. I just hope you’re going to last the night, honey.

Doesn’t exactly hide the goods, does it? Like much Hollywood narration, this sterling little exchange contains backstory that the reader (or, in this case, viewer) might legitimately need to know, but presented this ungracefully, Naomi might as well have been holding a blinking neon sign in her lap that read PAY ATTENTION — THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT TO THE PLOT.

Think about it — why else would the author bother to include such an improbable exchange unless it were going to be vital for the viewer (or reader) to remember later on? Like the otherwise unmotivated close-up in a movie (“Wait, I recognize the murderer now — the camera paused on his face for no apparent reason half an hour ago!), Hollywood narration is seldom subtle. It’s merely a shortcut for the writer.

It’s just so darned convenient, isn’t it? But as we saw above, it’s also conducive to another guaranteed professional reader-annoyer, a little something I like to call a plot flare: a line of text that warns the reader — sometimes in a subtle manner, sometimes by tossing a brick through the nearest window — about a plot twist to come.

The socially inept stepdaughter of foreshadowing, the plot flare believes it is being clever and unobtrusive, but usually, it’s anything but. It can pop up in the form of a coy clue, but it can also be as simple as an over-reaction to that old writing truism, never have a character vital to the book’s climax appear later than one-third of the way through the story:

Fiorello rushed into the thick of the dancing crowd, searching frantically for his baby sister. Bombarded by writhing bodies on all sides, he tried not to grope anyone as he pushed them out of his way.

He failed, apparently, vis-à-vis a punked-out blonde. “Hey,” she snarled, brandishing her spiked bracelet at him, “those belong to me.”

Fiorello blushed all the way from his receding hairline to his button-down collar. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss…Miss…”

“The name’s Allegra.” She flashed him a crooked smile. “Wanna dance?”

Was that Bitsy pogoing near the bandstand? “Oh, excuse me. I have to go.”

“Come find me sometime,” Allegra called after him, “when you’re in less of a hurry.”

Hands up, anyone who would be surprised when Allegra turns up in a coffee shop three scenes hence. Or 150 pages from now. Or if she — who could have seen this coming? — turns out to have a heart of gold that belies her tough exterior.

Believe it or not, this is actually rather subtle for your garden-variety plot flare. Most of the time, Millicent the agency screener finds herself gasping with annoyance over clues so broad that they seem to insult the reader’s intelligence. A popular choice: recounting what is about to happen under cover of a planning session.

Kirk mopped his manly but weary brow. “Here’s how it’s going to happen, everybody. Fifi, you keep the engine running outside the bank. George, you walk in wearing the Bugs Bunny mask. Arnold, you start juggling the flaming torches. While everyone is watching you, I’ll slip around behind the tellers, crack open the vault, and steal the million dollars. Then we’ll all meet back at the car. Any questions?”

Fifi raised a timid hand. “If it’s really that simple, why should anyone continue reading?”

“Ah, but we all know that any story focused on a heist won’t go exactly as planned.” Kirk tapped on his wrist. “Who lifted my watch? We need to synchronize them.”

Okay, so character aren’t always so obvious that they forget to pretend that they are not characters in a novel, but with common plotlines, they might as well be. If the path through the story is so well lit with plot flares that Millicent can tell the basic contours of the plot by page 6, she doesn’t have a lot of incentive to keep reading.

So here’s a radical notion: why not introduce some of that backstory later in the book, rather than within the first 5 pages?

Most novels and memoirs front-load their opening scenes with information about their characters’ pasts, and with good reason: that is how the writers think of these characters. But if the initial conflict is exciting enough, why slow it down with details that aren’t actually relevant to the situation at hand?

You want to see concrete examples, don’t you? Here is a fairly typical front-loaded opening, complete with standard-issue Hollywood narration:

Exhausted from working a fifteen-hour day at the non-union coal mine, Almanzo stopped at the neighborhood bar before returning to his long-suffering wife of four years, Jenny. He peeled the work coat from his strong, wiry frame, shedding black dust everywhere.

“The usual?” Joe the bartender asked.

Almanzo grinned, white teeth contrasting oddly with powder-dark skin. “Isn’t that the definition of usual? Boy, I’ve had a terrible day half a mile below the earth’s crust. Those old-fashioned rope-pulled carts are bound to break and crush somebody someday.”

Joe chuckled, pouring neat cognac into the snifter he always kept warm for Al at the end of the day. “Don’t be silly. Those ropes have been holding steady for a hundred years now.”

Almanzo sipped the potent brew. “Gee, I hope you’re right. Now that the safety inspectors have all been laid low by that mysterious flu, I don’t know how many miners would be killed if there were an accident.”

Harboring any doubts about what’s going to happen in the pages to come? Neither is Millicent.

So why give her and other readers the heads-up? Wouldn’t it be more exciting to begin slightly later in the story, saving the background for later on? In a manner, say, rather like this?

Rope stretched beyond its capacity makes a sound like a giant, stressed-out violin: a mammoth twang of frustration. Almanzo felt it reverberate down the mineshaft even before he heard the sound. He scrabbled his way halfway to side tunnel before it occurred to him to warn the men down the line.

“Runaway cart!” he shouted, but the creak of wheels drowned him out.

More of a grabber, isn’t it? You’d be surprised at how many manuscripts contain both the slow, backstory-laden opening and the conflict-focused one, usually in that order. Aspiring writers often seem reluctant to jump into the story. Unfortunately, if plot flares have already tipped Millicent off about the trajectory of the plot, she’s not likely to keep reading as far as that interesting action scene.

I’m bringing this up not merely to alert you to the plot flare phenomenon — trust me, once you start looking for them, you’ll spot them everywhere — but also as a revision tip for the unhappy many seeking to trim pages from their manuscripts. You might want to take a long, hard look at your opening pages and ask yourself: does the story begin on page 1, or are the opening pages devoted to backstory? If it’s the latter, what would happen if I cut the lead-in and just tossed the reader right into the central conflict of the book?

You might also want to take a quick peek at all of the dialogue scenes in the book. Because Hollywood narration is about backstory, rather than the scene going on in the moment, it can usually be excised with no ill effect whatsoever on the scene.

I sense some raised hands out there. “But Anne, that seems counterintuitive. A paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can replace pages and pages of backstory. So won’t I end up with a longer text if I cut the summary statements out of the dialogue?”

Not necessarily — often, that information isn’t actually vital to the story. Oh, it may be essential to understanding the character to know that she has three children, two ex-husbands and a current one, as well as an English sheepdog, but since there are probably scenes in the book that feature at least a few of those players and relationships, why stop the early pages of the book cold in order to introduce the information?

For most aspiring writers, the answer to that last question is pretty straightforward: because we’ve all seen both plot flares and Hollywood narration used so often in TV shows and movies that it seems like normal storytelling. The latter is one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information, after all, and plot flares are almost as common. (Oh, does anyone out there hear, “I would be lost without you, Muffy,” spoken by the protagonist in the first third of a film and not spend the next hour awaiting Muffy’s unfortunate encounter with a speeding bus?) Because we’ve all seen and heard it done so much, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory and foreshadow in these frankly pretty clumsy manners.

The inevitable result: Millicent spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already be aware that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

That, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest.

Oh, you thought I was going to give that advice a rest?

Why read it out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be possible to speak aloud. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true, or if part of it should be cut. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or anywhere else, for that matter. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as the major characters in their novels. By saying the dialogue (or first-person narration) in your voice, rather than your favorite actor’s, you’re more likely to catch awkwardness.

C’mon, ‘fess up: practically every aspiring writer does a little mental casting. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood narration in screenplays, we’re all used to hearing actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. So imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.

Mentally casting a familiar celebrity voice as your protagonist’s can also render it more difficult to tell when a joke is or isn’t funny — and render it nearly impossible to ferret out what the pros bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy. You can tell that a laugh is a bad one when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or — wait for it — a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.

It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life. You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is notorious for provoking bad laughter. By this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, a couple of years ago, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Much of the remaining screen time consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a ghost story; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

Because that theory has never been tested cinematically before.

For the benefit of those of you who have never seen a horror film, should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But my braver film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (clearly weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to soothe my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was probably lurking in my closet. As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly titled “The Mysterious Key and What It Opened.”

Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor.

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.”

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.”

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Gregory Peck and Sarah Bernhardt to read those very lines to you (or the efficient séance facilities), I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s actors’ job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

And even if they were, Hollywood narration is not especially plausible. Generally speaking, real people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems, it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other descriptive delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for backstory for an awfully long time.

Novel and memoir openings are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins. Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning precisely what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance.

We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can call upon scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because all of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. See for yourself:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “Why, hello there. Are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in New York, New York. When my girlfriend left me two weeks ago, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (edging her way into his good lighting: “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me psychic, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well. Their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes come to believe that such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the world nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Sir Lawrence Olivier as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. So if your narrative was relying upon tone and/or delivery to make the dialogue or first-person narration funny, poignant, surprising, or anything else, you’re going to run into difficulties at submission time.

Chant it with me now, campers: a professional reader can only judge a submission by what’s on the page. Don’t expect her to guess what your casting preferences are. Oh, and keep up the good work!

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

bizarre crow

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

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

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

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

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

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just trying to keep those bird-lovers interested.

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

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

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

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

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

We all know the song, right?

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

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

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

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

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

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Tweetie. And keep up the good work!

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 Gisèle,” 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.

Gisèle’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 Gisèle,” 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!

Phrases an aspiring writer should not touch with a hundred-foot pole

Can we talk?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to bring this up for quite some time now, but the moment never seemed quite right. You were gearing up to send out a flotilla of queries, perhaps, or were intent upon getting a submission out the door. Maybe we were all focused upon how to prep a writing contest entry, a verbal pitch, or a synopsis.

In short, there always seemed to be something more pressing than having this painful discussion. But as your writing advisor and, I’d like to think, your friend, I just can’t stand around and watch you hurting yourself any longer without saying something. I say this with love, but you’ve been engaging in self-destructive behavior, behavior that is making it harder for you to land an agent, get published, and get your good writing in front of the readership it deserves.

Oh, I see you roll your eyes. It’s easy, isn’t it, to blame a system stacked against the new writer? But this is something you are doing to yourself, I’m afraid, something as lethal to your manuscript’s marketability as taking a match and setting it on fire instead of mailing it to the agent who requested it.

I refer, of course, to the average aspiring writer’s addiction to sending out requested materials without taking the time to proofread them — or having someone else proofread them.

I’m not even talking about the to-my-mind deplorable practice of submitting those pages before reading them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD — although as I may have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, that’s the single best way to catch typos, dropped words, logic problems, half-revised sentences, and the fact that your protagonist’s hated coworker was called Tisha for the first 57 pages, Patricia in Chapters 4, 8, 17, and parts of 24, and Trish for the rest of the book. I’m talking about just assuming that a quick computerized spell-check will be sufficient because, hey, you’ve got a busy life.

Or, as is common with contest entries that need to be postmarked by a certain date and time, performing it when one is so tired that one inadvertently hits the REPLACE ALL button instead of IGNORE ALL. The result: 300 pages in which political coalitions are invariably described as political cotillions, leaving the poor judge in that historical fiction contest to wonder why nobody ever seems to be dancing.

Or, even more common, dispensing with even the computerized spell-check in your eagerness to get the pages a real, live agent has requested sent off before another sunset has passed. Never mind that Millicent the agency screener is unlikely to have any sympathy whatsoever for your unfortunate habit of consistently mistyping receive with the e and the i inverted, or the fact that somehow, you missed the day of English class when the difference between there, their, and they’re was clarified beyond any risk of future confusion. You had been working on that manuscript for years — you simply couldn’t bear to wait the additional few hours it would take to proof those requested pages.

Oh, it’s all quite understandable. Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living and has served as a writing contest judge, however, it’s also completely understandable that a professional reader might reject those pages on the basis of all of those typos alone.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s not at all uncommon for a professional reader to stop reading at the second or third typo, skipped word, or grammatical problem. So if you are not routinely proofreading your work before you submit it or enter it in a contest — or having some sharp-eyed soul do it — you may well be dooming your manuscript to rejection.

So I ask you: what are you actually gaining by not taking the time to make sure that your pages are clean?

A clean manuscript, for the benefit of those of you new to the term, is industry-speak for a manuscript completely devoid of misspelled words, grammatical gaffes, dropped words, incorrect punctuation, logic problems, formatting errors, clichés, or any of the many, many other small errors that make those of us trained to read for a living grit our teeth because we see them so very often. Indeed, Millicents and contest judges are often specifically instructed to consider seriously only clean manuscripts.

What happens to the rest, you ask with fear and trembling? They are subjected to the most common word in our Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Why? Well, several reasons — and far better ones than you might expect.

The first and most straightforward: if a manuscript is riddled with errors, some luckless soul is going to have to fix them all before an agent could possibly submit it to an editor with any hope of placing it successfully. The same holds true for a submission to a publishing house: copyediting is very time-consuming and costs real money. And few literary contests will want their good names sullied by awarding top honors to an entry that looks as though the entrant conceived of it 24 hours before the contest deadline, typed it with fingers blurring across the keyboard, and ran panting to the post office three minutes before it closed.

Nobody, but nobody, likes to read a first draft. And I say that as a writer who once actually did pull together a literary contest entry — the first chapter of a book, synopsis, and entry form — in 23 hours and 32 minutes.

I won, too, despite the never-sufficiently-to-be-deplored typo on page 17. Do as I say, not as I did.

Why? Well, to a professional reader — like, say, Millicent, her boss the agent, the editor to whom the agent might conceivably sell your book, or a contest judge — all of these seemingly little writing problems are not merely the hallmark of a writer in a hurry or easily-fixed trivialities that merely mar the surface of the deep, deep pool that is a brilliantly-written story, annoying but not particularly important. They are a sign that the writer is not professional enough to realize that this is an industry in which spelling does in fact count.

Or that presentation in general counts. One of the hallmarks of an aspiring writer who has yet to learn much about how publishing works is an apparent belief that agents and editors sit around all day, casually reading through submissions and acquiring any that happen to catch their fancy.

“Oh, this writer has promise,” these fantasy pros murmur over their snifters of warm cognac as they leisurely turn pages, perched on intricately tufted chaise longues. “He can’t spell, but that’s easily fixed at the editorial stage. I’m so fascinated by this story and the voice in which it is written that I’m just going to ignore the fact that the writer clearly didn’t bother to read his own book. I’m going to read it until the very last word of the very last page before I make up my mind about it, but I have a strong feeling that the answer is going to be yes.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s simply not how professional readers operate: they just don’t have time to read every submission in its entirety. Nor could they possibly take on every writing project that tickled their fancy. An agent or editor who routinely embraced projects without thinking about her ability to sell them would soon be out of a job, after all.

As a direct result, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses look first for reasons to reject manuscripts, scouring each line for problems. Only those submissions that pass this scrutiny for hundreds of pages stand a chance of getting picked up. Even setting the bar this high, a well-respected agency or contest will still receive so many perfectly clean (or nearly so), nicely-written submissions that they can afford to reject everything else.

I sense some trembling hands tentatively raised out there. “What do you mean by scouring each line?” some of you quaver, thinking perhaps of that writing sample you entered into that online submission form without proofreading. “It would be impossibly time-consuming to read an entire manuscript that closely, especially with the high volume of submissions the average agency receives. Why, the only way they could possibly pull it off would be to stop reading when they encounter a problem, and move on to the next one.”

That’s precisely what they do. Oh, not necessarily at the first problem, but certainly before the fourth or fifth.

Was that great whooshing sound that just deafened us all the result of half of you gasping as you frantically tried to open your manuscript files to begin revising them? A clean manuscript suddenly sounds like a very, very desirable thing, doesn’t it?

That’s a smart orientation. The competition for those very few client openings at agencies — and even fewer new author openings at publishing houses — is unbelievably fierce, far too fierce to expect a charitable reading.

Millicent forms the first line of defense — I feel you cringing, but that’s how agents and editors think of her — against the blizzard of submissions battering against their mailroom doors. Even an agent unusually hungry for clients usually can take on only three or four a year. That means, in practical terms, that for every submission she approves, there are hundreds she or her Millicent must reject.

The same holds true for queries, of course. Except that for hundreds, substitute tens of thousands.

Fortunately for Millicent (but unfortunately for writers), most submissions honestly are self-rejecting. How so? Well, one of the most popular methods is by combining improper formatting with a few typos on page 1.

You know, the sort of thing that the combination of a little research into how the publishing industry works and a few minutes of proofreading would easily have caught. To Millicent, a writer who hasn’t put in the time to do either isn’t ready for the publishing world. The hypercritical way that professional readers scrutinize manuscripts might kill him.

Which is to say: a savvy writer expects her future agent and editor to expect a completely clean manuscript every time. Yes, even when the writer has only three weeks to revise the last quarter of the book because a new editor has just taken over the project from the acquiring editor, and the newbie has some exciting new ideas about plot resolution.

Oh, it happens. To an agent, a good client is a flexible client.

Which brings me to another excellent reason Millicent is specifically trained to regard a clean manuscript as the minimum requirement for serious consideration: a client who does not proofread (or possess the skills to do it well) is inherently more time-consuming for an agency to represent than one who habitually produces clean manuscripts. While an established author can get away with being high-maintenance, one trying to break into the biz for the first time cannot.

Oh, an agent expects to hold a new client’s hand a little; submitting to publishing houses can be a long, drawn-out, and extremely stressful process. But if that client cannot be relied upon to provide the agent with clean pages, who is going to end up proofing them?

The agent, that’s who. See why she might instruct her Millicent to select clients likely to spare her the trouble? Or why if the writer hasn’t bothered to read this manuscript, why should I? is such a common mantra amongst professional readers?

Or, to be blunt about it, why I saw fit to stage an intervention for those of you who aren’t already scrutinizing your submissions to prevent them from falling into this most common of self-rejection pitfalls?

To be fair, though, not all rejection-triggers would necessarily turn up in a quick proofreading — or even when reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Often, for instance, writers new to the game will miss another of Millicent’s pet peeves, the use of clichés.

Or, an even surer professional reader-annoyer, the misuse of clichés.

That caused some of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you cry, rubbing your sore necks, “isn’t a misused cliché not a cliché, by definition? Doesn’t it at least have the charm of surprise?”

Yes and no, in that order — to professional readers, at least. Allow me to explain.

Since so many aspiring writers are under the mistaken impressions that (a) dialogue in a book should read precisely like conversations in real life, despite the fact that most real-world conversations are so repetitious that they would plunge readers into profound slumber, (b) a narrative voice should sound like the way someone might actually talk, regardless of whether the narration is in the first person or not, and/or (c) an essential tactic for achieving either (a) or (b) is to incorporate those pat little catchphrases most speakers use into one’s writing, discovering clichés on the submission page is the norm, not the exception.

Because writers who embrace (a), (b), or (c) believe — and with some reason — that there is inherent virtue in echoing everyday speech, they usually don’t think of these common phrases as clichés. Let’s take a gander at a few dozen of them in action.

Jeremy strode through the door, bold as brass. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” He mussed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was glued to the family’s pride and joy, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, shrimp. Where’s the beef?”

“Blow it out your ear,” Tad snarled without taking his eyes off the nine-inch screen. His Davy Crockett cap had slid off his head onto his cowboy suit. His discarded hula-hoop rested on top of the crumpled Twister set and a signed photo of Marilyn Monroe. “It’s almost Howdy Doody time.”

Betsy rolled her eyes, gritted her teeth, and shrugged her shoulders. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as pie, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything you read. Let the buyer beware. “Does that mean it’s time to put on the feedbag? I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to traipse through that door.”

Jeremy had already tuned her out: his Walkman, whatever that was, was turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him upside the head and give him a piece of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that noise,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your eyes. My goodness, if I had a dime for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his eyes like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be doing these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handed to him on a silver platter. When she was a girl, walking to school through three feet of snow, year in, year out, rain or shine, come hell or high water, without fail, her mother would have given her what for if she had flounced into the house like a movie star. Just who did he think he is?

“Just wait ’til your father gets home,” she muttered under her breath.

Granddad shuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his mouth and clutching his low-hanging pants. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary brow. “There’s only so much I can do. I only have two hands. I do and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get. A woman’s work is never done.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking sharp, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s meow, don’t you, you young whippersnapper?”

“Hey, chill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘do. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a headache, Dad. The kids have been running me ragged.”

“You think you have a headache? Back in my day, we had headaches.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we had some rain. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her brow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her apron while the clouds rolled by. It looked like stormy weather. Still, she could look for the silver lining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “I’ve been worried sick about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table, since I don’t have a daughter to do it for me, and I can’t ask either of the boys to do it in this time period?”

“Boys will be boys.” Granddad shuffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbugging at the malt shop to that newfangled rock-and-roll?”

“You should come with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and crazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own business,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say…”

Had enough? Millicent has — and did, by the middle of the second paragraph.

Stock phrases are problematic on the page for much the same reasons that standard polite exchanges are. They’re predictable, and because everyone does say them, a character’s uttering them does not reveal anything about his emotional state, mental gymnastics, or even the situation at hand. (Sorry — once one starts generating hackneyed phrases, it’s hard to stop.)

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that polite chitchat is also a common type of cliché? Because literally anyone might say these phrases, they are the opposite of character-revealing. Take a gander:

“Why, hello there, Gladys,” Ambrose said. “How are you today?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Fine. How is your husband, Terrence, and your four children, Maude, Eleanor, Franklin Delano, and Frances? All well, I trust.”

“Yes, fine. How’s your cocker spaniel, Macguffin?”

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

“Very. We could use some rain, though.”

“Sure could use it.”

“Sure could. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

“May I hold the door for you? Ladies first.”

“Thanks. Watch out for that puddle.”

“I appreciate your telling me. I wonder how it got here, considering that we haven’t had any rain. O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Ambrose, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come, here, as before, never, so help you mercy, how strange or odd soe’er I bear myself, as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on, that you, at such times seeing me, never shall, with arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake, or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase, as ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’ or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’ or such ambiguous giving out, to note
that you know aught of me: this not to do, so grace and mercy at your most need help you, swear.”

“Whatever you say, Gladys.” Ambrose tipped his hat politely. “Have a good day.”

“You, too, Ambrose.”

Okay, so I got bored enough to throw a twist in there. But see how stultifying all of that politeness is on the page?

Once again, I spot some timid hands in the air. “But Anne, isn’t this just what nice people say? And if I want the reader to like my protagonist, don’t I need to show that he’s polite, rather than telling it by some such statement as Nate was a polite guy?”

If you really want to induce Millicent to like ol’ Nate, I would strongly suggest that you do neither. Most readers will come to dislike a protagonist who bores them, not matter how nice his words or actions are. Since Millicent is paid to get bored a whole lot faster than the ordinary reader (see earlier comments about weeding out as many submissions as possible), her threshold of impatience with nondescript polite conversation is exceedingly low.

I wouldn’t push it. Instead, why not have Nate win her heart by doing and saying unexpected kind things?

“Okay, Anne,” those of you prone to flinging your hands skyward concede reluctantly. “I can see why I might need to trim both the stock phrases and purely polite exchanges. But weren’t you going to tell us about misused clichés?”

Ah, yes, I was, campers; thank you so much for reminding me. And how’s your mother doing?

No, but seriously, folks, while stock phrases bore professional readers, misstatements of these same phrases tend to drive Millicent into apoplexy. While such clichés as it’s a dog-eat-dog world, take another tack, and I couldn’t care less often — and incorrectly — turn up in conversation as it’s a doggie-dog world, take another tact, and the irritatingly immortal I could care less, the only reason to use the incorrect versions on the page would be to make the character saying them seem ignorant, right?

Right? Anyone out there?

Even ironic use is dangerous, though: because Millicent sees these misstatements so often, she’s likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to their appearance. And it’s hard to blame her, isn’t it? Not only do these phrases imply that the writer has a rather poor ear for dialogue, but even had these tropes been rendered correctly, they would still be hackneyed phrases, and thus unoriginal.

Call me zany, but don’t you want Millicent to judge you on your writing, rather than someone else’s?

Then, too, misstated clichés often reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the original. What would a doggie-dog world look like, anyway? Why bother to mention that someone could care less than he currently does? And while taking a different tack while sailing makes some sense as a metaphor, what would taking a different tact involve? Diplomacy in another language?

My favorite example comes by way of a roommate of mine in graduate school, a young lady who had grown up without a television in the house. She loved stock phrases, but she was perpetually getting them wrong.

“What do you mean, you wouldn’t touch it with a 100-foot pole?” I would cackle. “The standard length is ten. How would you even lift a hundred-foot pole?”

She was also prone to misapplying such metaphors. “I can’t find my keys,” she would say. “They’re like a needle in a haystack.”

“I wish you would tell me how,” I would say, lifting the sofa cushion under which her personal items so often worked themselves. “Not everything that’s lost is like a needle in a haystack, you know.”

She would look perplexed. “It isn’t?”

Okay, so perhaps there were some undiagnosed mental health issues involved. But you see the point, right? A misused familiar term may well produce a laugh, but even if you are writing comedy, you might want to use it sparingly. In submissions, misappropriated clichés often result in bad laughter, a chuckle at the expense of the story, a giggle that the author did not intend.

Now that you know what such misstatements look like individually, let’s revisit our first example, so you may see how and why they might annoy Millicent on the page.

Jeremy scrod through the door, bold as copper. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and ducks out there.” He missed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was taped to the family’s pride and happiness, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, petunia. Where’s the mutton?”

“Blow it out your nose,” Tad snarled without taking his gaze off the nine-inch screen. His Daniel Webster cap had slid off his head onto his sailor suit. His discarded Pet Rock rested on top of the Pong remote and a signed photo of Theda Bara. “It’s almost time for the Miniskiteers.”

Betsy rolled her mouth, gritted her ribs, and shrugged her arms. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as cake, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything. Let the biller beware. “Does that mean it’s time to don the fedbag? I’ve been praying over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to lapse through that door.”

Jeremy had already turned her out: his Walkmen, whatever they were, were turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him beside the head and give him a place of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that sound,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your posture. My goodness, if I had an orangutan for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his cigarette like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handled to him on a silver plate. When she was a girl, walking to school through three inches of snow, year in, bear out, rain or more rain, come Milwaukee or high water, without failure, her mother would have given her what for it if she had flounced into the house like a movie preen. Just who did he think he could be?

“Just wait ’til your father gets here,” she muttered under her breath.

Granddad snuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his and clutching his low-hanging tie. “Is dinner prepared yet? I’m staved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary hair. “There’s only so many I can do. I only have two hand. I do and do and do and do and do for your people, and this is the thanks I git. A woman’s work is never down.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking bark, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s leisure suit, don’t you, you young whipperstinger?”

“Hey, take a bill pill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘roo. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a backache, Dad. The kids have been running me rugged.”

“You think you have an ague? Back in the day, we had agues.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we accumulated some significant rainfall. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her blow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her ape while the clouds rolled near. It looked like stormy seasons. Still, she could look for the silver pining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainblow. “I’ve been worried ill about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table with silverware, plates, and gasses?”

“Boys well be boys.” Granddad sniffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbeetling at the salt shop to that newfinagled bock-and-roll?”

“You should come with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and lazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own bees’ honey,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say what the Buick…”

Have I made my point yet, or do I need to keep greeting that red horse?

In the days to come, I shall be going over more seemingly small Millicent-irritants. Not the big stuff, mind you, but the tiny, niggling narrative choices that make her teeth…well, I was going to say grind, but that would be a cliché. Once you are aware of precisely how and why these tidbits annoy the pros, you may keep an eye out for them while you are proofreading.

That’s while, right, not if? Keep up the good work!