Who said that? Wait, I did. Or was it Oscar Wilde?


All this week, I have been discussing the Frankenstein manuscript, the text whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles. Today, I would like to talk about the Frankenstein manuscript’s prettier and more socially-acceptable cousin, self-plagiarized repetition.

Where the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: scenery described the same way, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 16.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once.

My point is, most of the time, self-plagiarization is inadvertent; a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that she’s used it before. A great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, had I suggested that before?

Sometimes, though, self-plagiarization is deliberate. If a line was clever once, the writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe — mistakenly, often — that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. (Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers.)

Nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarization more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. And if you doubt that, tell me: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only ONCE in his famous March on Washington speech?

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

And, as anyone who has listened to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, political speeches often sound the same from year to year. No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, self-plagiarization is of epidemic proportions.

On paper, phrase repetition is problematic, but in and of itself, it is not necessarily self-plagiarization. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done here). A lot of good writers choose to repeat phrases within a single paragraph for rhythmic reasons, which can bring a passage a feel of invocation. Take the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V, for instance:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now THAT’s a political speech.

Unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this device, too, so it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or even in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet. To professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, “we few, we happy few” will not necessarily jump off the page for its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change “we few” to “we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want.

Let’s see if you’ve been paying attention for the last few days: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job?

That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent the agency screener is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Self-plagiarization tends to raise red flags with professional readers for other reasons, however. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it. Remember, the pros are trained to catch redundancy; editors are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

I am no exception: when I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even remember who wrote the original.

As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which reminds me to tell you that paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon than outright literal repetition. That’s why, in case you were wondering, while very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from a professional reader, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the self-plagiarized bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

However, in a shorter piece, or in those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe, so it is best to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, oh grumblers. You might also have bolstered your argument by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what — after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you what tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

All writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another; if a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us.

These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. A thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

Why our Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you.

Usually, though, self-plagiarization is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright line reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or as it often appears in the case of successful writers of series, once per book — self-plagiarization may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

For example, E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To mention but three examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,” and

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another so.

Admittedly, it’s not a bad analogy, if not a startlingly original one. The problem is, as a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with three of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf. These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

Here, yet again, is an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind; to my sorrow, I am already well aware of that fact. Remember what I said earlier this week about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first-time author, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development.

While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your reading of your manuscript for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for breath, so cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Remember to allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

Oh, bother; I’ve written past the time I allotted myself for blogging today; on retreat, one needs to adhere to a schedule. Oh, I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

Keep up the good work!

PS: to repeat a footnote from yesterday, the deadline for submitting entries to the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence is now Monday, June 1, at midnight wherever you are. Follow this link to the rules and descriptions of the fabulous prizes, and may the best writer win the ECQLC! (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, that is.)

An antidote to literary naysaying — or at least a slim volume to keep within reach of your writing space


Before I begin today’s show-and-tell, I want to blandish those of you who haven’t yet done so into entering the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. Entry is free, the topic interesting (your very own contribution to our fascinating ongoing series on subtle censorship and other factors that discourage writers from writing what and how they want), and fabulous prizes await the winners.

Not to mention the immortal fame and ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy) that winning such an award would doubtless entail.

The deadline for entry is Monday, May 18. To get those of you who have not yet entered inspired, I shall be devoting the rest of this week to continuing our discussion of ways in which writers are discouraged from sharing their stories, their writing, or even their opinions with the world at large.

In other words, to further exposition on the contest’s essay topic.

Not entirely coincidentally, today, I’d like to talk about a brand-new collection of essays on censorship edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, BURN THIS BOOK: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (HarperStudio). Given the subject matter, I had picked it up in the expectation that it would provide a tremendous amount of food for thought about our ongoing subject; what came as a pleasant surprise was how squarely some of the essays in it spoke to writers about the problems of self-expression that are not externally imposed.

Before I get too carried away, here’s the publisher’s blurb for the book. I added the links, so anyone who is interested may learn more about the authors cited:

Published in conjunction with the PEN American Center, Burn this Book is a powerful collection of essays that explore the meaning of censorship, and the power of literature to inform the way we see the world, and ourselves. Contributors include literary heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman, Nadine Gordimer discusses the role of the writer as observer, and as someone who sees “what is really taking place.” She looks to Proust, Oe, Flaubert, and Graham Greene to see how their philosophy squares with her own, ultimately concluding, “Literature has been and remains a means of people rediscovering themselves.” “In Freedom to Write,” Orhan Pamuk elegantly describes escorting Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter around Turkey and how that experience changed his life.

As Americans. we often take our freedom of speech for granted. When we talk about censorship, we talk about China, the former Soviet Union. But the recent presidential election has shined a spotlight on profound acts of censorship in our own backyard. Both provocative and timely, Burn this Book includes a sterling list of award winning writers; it is sure to ignite spirited dialogue.

If some of those names sound familiar, it’s because the only reason that some of them aren’t on the current short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature is that most of these writers have already won it, and some of the others have already passed on to That Great Literary Salon in the Sky. (That, and the fact that I mentioned Graham Greene on this very blog only yesterday might have left him rattling around regular readers’ brainpans.)

This is, in other words, not just a book of commentary by writers on writing. It’s a book of commentary by WRITERS on WRITING.

The Who’s Who line-up is part of the fun of this book, actually, insofar as a serious collection of essays on the horrors of censorship can be said to be fun: quite a number of these essays involve exceedingly well-known authors whom we all admire writing about the work of exceedingly well-known authors that they admire. Let me tell you, if you’ve never seen John Updike gush about the bravery of Henry Miller’s early novels, or Francine Prose sigh about how she wishes she had known Roberto Bolaño — well, suffice it to say the besotted reader is a side of an Eminènce Grise one seldom sees.

Since pretty much all writers start out life as besotted readers, it’s rather refreshing to behold the greats owning up to it. And hey, I’m not too proud to admit it: I did feel incrementally cooler, literarily speaking, upon seeing that Ms. Prose and I share an admiration for Wallace Shawn’s THE DESIGNATED MOURNER — but of that excellent play, more follows below.

This volume’s tendency to praise means, among other things, that BURN THIS BOOK is an absolutely terrific source for what I like to call good book surfing — learning what books have influenced authors one loves, tracking those works down, and reading them. I know of few better ways to gain a sense of being part of a literary tradition.

(The months I spent following the reading tips Jane Austen so carefully laid out in NORTHANGER ABBEY completely changed my understanding of 18th-century female authorship, for instance. Aunt Jane’s shelves were apparently stuffed to the gills with women’s writing — which I imagine would come as something of a surprise to all of the compilers of English literature syllabi who habitually present her as having sprung into literary history as a complete anomaly. And don’t even get me started on what Anne Brontë — whose brilliant novel about substance abuse, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, was dismissed by contemporary critics as “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls,” speaking of disregarded voices — or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were reading in their spare time.)

I also found it both fascinating and amusing to see really, really famous authors incorporate the same essay-writing tactics that, say, a high school junior might use in making a case against censorship. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Updike, surely enough of a literary name to express his own opinions unaided, would feel the need to justify his statements about how difficult writers find their work by citing what Flaubert said of his own struggles?

And after having spent many years patiently explaining to university students that defining one’s terms in an essay did not mean just opening the nearest dictionary and reproducing what’s printed there, what was I to make of Nadine Gordimer’s using the Oxford English Dictionary in precisely that manner in her essay? Oh, how glad I was that I’m no longer lecturing when I saw that. My students would surely have waved Ms. Gordimer’s piece in my face endlessly, as proof positive that it is possible to incorporate a verbatim dictionary definition gracefully into a written argument without boring readers to death.

But I would still urge amateurs not to try it at home. The twins goals of defining one’s terms in an essay are to demonstrate that one knows what one is talking about and to make sure that the reader does as well, not merely to plagiarize what some underpaid linguist at Funk & Wagnall’s said about a particular word or phrase. For this reason, hyper-literalists tend not to make the best essay-writers.

Despite undermining one of my first rules of academic essay-writing, I would highly recommend BURN THIS BOOK to readers of high school and college age. Why? Well, because this book contains so many good examples of the kinds of essays high school and college students are so frequently asked to write, it’s an inadvertently helpful how-to manual on how to structure and argue a piece on an abstract topic.

(Are the standardized test folks still giving vaguely provocative essay topics like, Censorship: is it ever a good idea? and Should a government try to legislate morality? They seem so open-ended, but the graders are invariably looking for a particular type of argument. In my day, the Achievement Test scorers would automatically spot you quite a few points if you managed to work Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride into your essay, regardless of the topic. The point of academic writing is not necessarily knock-your-socks-off style, if you catch my drift.)

For this reason, BURN THIS BOOK seems like a natural to assign in a composition course, to teach young writers the tricks o’ the trade, as it were. Or perhaps it would make more sense in a literature class. I would slap it onto the syllabus right after THE GRAPES OF WRATH, to provoke some interesting discussion about the hows and whys of banning books, and just before THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Speaking of Nobel laureates, are you surprised to hear that THE GRAPES OF WRATH was ever banned? No kidding: schoolteachers all over the US had a hard time assigning it for decades, and not always because of that left-leaning speech that Henry Fonda, the Tom Joad of the movie, gives at the end. (But usually. You’d be amazed at how seldom clamorers against a book have actually read it; it’s not unheard-of for parents to go roaring into school board meetings to scream about a scene from the movie version of an assigned book, only to learn that the objectionable bits were the filmmaker’s invention. The protests over the movie version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, for instance, were over a love scene that wasn’t particularly startling in the book; what brought the threat of excommunication onto novelist Nikos Kazantzakis’ head was the book’s treatment of Judas‘ role in the story, not the Big Guy’s.)

Wondered long enough what anyone who wasn’t worried about Communist infiltration of America’s high schools might have had against THE GRAPES OF WRATH? Not surprisingly, it’s a scene that didn’t make it into the movie, although it’s far from explicitly written: Rose of Sharon feeds a man who’s starved too long to be able to ingest solid food what, ahem, she might otherwise have fed her stillborn baby.

The reason I’m being a bit vague here, incidentally, is that some of my readers have access to this blog only through their school or public library computers. If I described the ending of the book any more clearly, the individual words that I would have to use might result in this page getting blocked by what are euphemistically known as parental control programs.

I know; it’s not pleasant to contemplate. But like it or not, it is the world in which we write.

By suggesting that BURN THIS BOOK might make for some interesting classroom discussion, I don’t mean to imply that that all of the essays here are equally good; they’re not. At times, the reader is left wondering what some of this undoubtedly well-written rambling has to do with the topic at hand, or even if there is a single topic tying the book’s many entries together. (Also, semicolons are not always used correctly throughout, something that’s likely to bug a teacher charged with explaining to students that ; and is in fact redundant in a list that contains a series of semicolons, since the earlier semicolons were ostensibly replacing and.)

The authors’ assigned briefs seem to have been rather disparate, as if contributors were merely asked to contribute an essay, rather than an essay on book-banning: collectively, this is a better collection of writing about writing than writing about censorship. As a result, the subtitle (PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word) is a substantially more accurate indication of what lies between the covers than the title.

Of course, being a book about writing is not necessarily a drawback in a collection of essays whose target market is writers. As one would expect from an edited volume by such a terrific bunch of writers (a contributor list that also includes Paul Auster, Pico Iyer, Russell Banks, and Ed Park, in case you were wondering), BURN THIS BOOK abounds in really glorious quotes, the kind that aspiring writers like to jot down on little scraps of paper and tape to their computer monitors to inspire them in moments of creative desperation.

Seriously, there is some lovely, inspiring stuff here. Take, for instance:

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” -Toni Morrison

“When we write, we feel the world in flux, elastic, full of possibilities — unfrozen…I write, and the world does not close in on me. It does not grow smaller. It moves in the direction of what is open, future, possible. I imagine, and the act of imagination revives me. I am not fossilized or paralyzed in the face of predators. I invent characters. Sometimes I feel as if I am digging people out of the ice in which reality has encased them. But perhaps, more than anything, the person I am digging out at the moment is myself.” — David Grossman

“Thus the true task of the novelist is to dramatize first for himself or herself and ultimately for the rest of us what it is to be human in our time and for all time. What it is to be human in our place and in every place. As a species, we have always depended upon our storytellers to tell us what it means to be human. To be ourselves.” — Russell Banks.

“The artist’s personality has an awkward ambivalence: he is a cave dweller who yet hopes to be pursued into his cave…J.D. Salinger wrote a masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, recommending that readers who enjoy a book call up the author; then he spent his next twenty years avoiding the telephone.” — John Updike

Okay, so I thought that last one was sort of funny. My point is, there’s a lot of rich ore here for the writer searching for insight to mine.

Finally — and most relevant to our ongoing series — despite a certain range of topic, most of these essays have quite a few interesting things to say on censorship. Or, more precisely, about the kinds of things than can happen to people who write the truth when those in power don’t want those truths bruited about.

As Wallace Shawn’s THE DESIGNATED MOURNER (I told you I’d be coming back to it) makes so mournfully clear, the writers, the artists, the truth-tellers tend to be among the first carted off in times of great fear. The world is substantially less interesting for it — and less safe, my friends, for people like us.

BURN THIS BOOK reminds us to ask ourselves every so often when we look at the world around us, gathering impressions to inform our writing: what stories are going unheard? Whose voices are not particularly audible, from a literary perspective? Which voices are actively discouraged, and which do the fine folks who run publishing houses just not think will sell very well?

To share some questions that popped into my mind when I first began to contemplate running this series: what does the reader of mainstream memoir currently know about the kind of prison conditions that guest blogger Shaun Attwood told us about last weekend? Heck, how much does the mainstream novel reader know about the other side of the legal equation, what goes on behind the beautifully-veneered doors of the high-powered law firms Mary Hutchings Reed wrote about? If those inside these institutions don’t share with the world how they run, how precisely are the rest of us to find out? Telepathy?

And how much does the fear of riling nay-sayers affect what we ask readers are able to find on the shelves? Considering how hot narrators with mental disabilities have been over the last few years, why do readers so seldom see book either about or by people with physical disabilities, as Eileen Cronin brought to our attention in April? Does a hot-button political debate actually have to be over before the publishing world would get excited about an intriguing memoir like Beren deMotier’s, which couldn’t possibly be more timely? How much does the prospect of negative reader reaction cause even established authors to alter their content in order to avoid controversy, as Bob Tarte discussed?

These questions trouble me in the dead of night; honestly, they do. And what’s more, they should.

Yet while all writers are potentially affected by censorship, subtle and otherwise, we don’t tend to talk much amongst ourselves the more draconian ways in which it is wielded, up to and including imprisoning or even killing outspoken authors. Those possibilities certainly deserve more of a place in writerly discussion of what does and doesn’t get published than we usually hear — and, to be candid, what you hear from me here on this blog.

For the most part, the untold stories and as-yet-undiscovered voices we discuss are ones that are having trouble pleasing someone with the authority to get them published, rather than the ones that must overcome actual legal barriers or strong social taboos in order to see the light of day at all. As a result, writers’ conferences, writers’ fora, and yes, blogs like this one tend to focus upon finding a market for our work, or better ways to touch the heart of a reader, or decoding the often perplexing ways of agencies and publishing houses.

So an alien from another planet landing in the middle of your garden-variety North American writers’ gathering would probably assume that a great undiscovered writer’s voice not being heard is primarily the result of her submissions being rejected or ignored, rather than, say, a heavily-enforced prohibition upon writing anything remotely critical about her government, or laws that ban a writer from offending someone else religious sensibilities. “My, what a lot of freedom creative artists have here,” E.T. might conclude.

That’s not meant as a criticism of the very practical concerns of those trying to get published — far from it. It’s completely natural that worrying about freedom of expression worldwide may not be the most immediate concern for a writer who is trying to find an agent for a torrid romance involving a country doctor and a cowgirl or hoping to publish a science fiction trilogy on the colonization of the Crab Nebula. At that juncture, it’s certainly understandable if trying to second-guess what the gatekeepers of the book world want to see is of far more absorbing interest than which might be happen to a writer one doesn’t know personally someplace else.

Heck, after seemingly endless rounds of querying, a series of rejected submissions, and/or being told flatly by an agent or editor after a verbal pitch, “Oh, there’s just no market for that kind of book right now,” plenty of writers feel that there’s an active conspiracy against their kind of work.

In a moment of feeling unheard — which, let’s face it, forms a large part of the frustration of trying to find an agent or waiting for one’s agent to sell one’s books — a collection of essays like this that deals with more drastic means of keeping writing (and writers) out of the public eye can be very useful for reestablishing perspective. Sometimes, we could all use someone who has been down the path before us to remind us that it is indeed worth taking — and that as writers, we are all part of a global community that some people are always going to find threatening.

I just mention.

While I’m at it, I’ll also mention that BURN THIS BOOK is available on Amazon and at Borders.

Does all of this high-falutin’ talk about the importance of considering the situation of writers worldwide mean that I’m abandoning the attention to nit-picky, practical details for which Author! Author! has become so justly famed? Of course not; rest assured, bread-and-butter issues will once again abound here soon.

But in the meantime, consider giving some thought to the big picture. And, as always, keep up the good work!

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Character Names, by guest blogger Askhari Hodari

Hello, readers –
Well, I’m delighted to report that authorial blandishment has once again borne fruit: Askhari Johnson Hodari, Ph.D., author of the newly-released book to name-seeking writers, The African Book of Names (published by HCI Books), has very kindly agreed to share her terrific insights with us today. Specifically, she will be giving us some tips on how to go about naming a character.

I couldn’t be more thrilled: Askhari is absolutely tops at this, as anyone familiar with her latest book could tell you.

I just can’t put it down, actually. In addition to offering an absolutely fascinating list of more than 5000 names, indexed by character attribute (don’t you wish that every name book had the foresight to do THAT?) and region of origin, The African Book of Names offers in-depth advice on how to go about picking a name. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The African Book of Names: 5,000+ Common and Uncommon Names from the African Continent offers readers names organized by theme from 37 countries and at least 70 different ethnolinguistic groups. Destined to become a classic keepsake, The African Book of Names shares in depth insight about the spiritual, social, and political importance of names from Angola to Zimbabwe. The most far-reaching book on the subject, this timely, informative resource guide vibrates with the culture of Africa and encourages Blacks across the world to affirm their African origins by selecting African names. In addition to thousands of names from north, south, east, central and west Africa, the book shares:

• A checklist of dos and don’ts to consider when choosing a name

• A guide to conducting your own African-centered naming ceremony

• A 200-year naming calendar

As someone who tried desperately to convince her best friend from college to name her second child Harpo — how great a childhood would that have been, eh? — instead of Joe, the name lists fascinate me. My favorites at the moment are the Azanian name Chireshe (pronounced chee-REH-sheh, the book informs me), which means He mixes speech with little bursts of laughter — how charming is that? — the Nigerian Iyora (ee-YOH-rah), I am not a stranger to this community, and the Camaroonian Gukaa (goo-kah), the mouth talks a lot. If I had to christen this blog right now, I would choose these.

I’m going to stop my mouth from talking a lot and let you move on to a guest blog that I think everyone will find extremely helpful. Before I step aside, however, I should mention that THE AFRICAN BOOK OF NAMES is available in bookstores, at Powell’s (for those of you who prefer to support indie booksellers), as well as on Amazon. On the latter, you may also pre-order Askhari’s next book, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, due out in November from Random House’s Broadway. (With a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu!)

One more word before I go: I sincerely hope that all of you will give some serious thought over the weekend to how you go about naming your characters, what challenges you have encountered, etc. We’re going to be talking about naming for the next few posts, culminating in one of our valuable Let’s Talk About This segments, so please think about what you would like to share with the Author! Author! community.

Take it away, Askhari, and thank you for sharing some of your strategies with us!


People always call me for names. And not just for baby names, either. I help people come up with memorable, meaningful business and organization names, titles of stories, books, events and programs. And, characters. Characters. I love naming characters. So, I am no expert or anything, but I do know at least…

10 Things to Do When You Are Naming a Character

1. Give your characters names that tell readers something about the character.
For example, a feminist character may keep her maiden name, or hyphenate her name. She may give her daughters androgynous names like Drew, Alex, or Jesse. A formal character would prefer to be called by the formal form of his or her name- William versus Willie, or Constance versus Connie.

Whenever you choose a name, I recommended that you look up the name’s meaning to ensure the name either compliments, or does not conflict with the message you are trying to send.

2. Select names that are both age and time period appropriate.
A character’s name should give the audience clues to the age of the character. Do the names Beatrice, Victoria or Katherine sound like appropriate names for teenagers?

Albert, Alfred, Clara, Doris, Elton, Gladys, Rudolph, Helen, Lillian, Ralph, Sarah and Sadie are examples of old-fashioned names. Yet, some old fashioned names like Anna, Emma, Grace, and Hannah are now trendy. Christopher, Elizabeth, Matthew, and Michael are examples of names that never seem to age.

When selecting a name, I suggest you review old census records, looking for names that were popular in your character’s time. The Social Security site is also a good resource for this type of research.

3. Choose culturally appropriate names to help make the character and story realistic.
Character names should reflect the cultural world of the character. Names like Yang, Ito, Gupta, Lopez, Smirnov, Johansson, and Rossi provide immediate clues as to ethnic identity. However, America’s political reality is such that Blacks frequently carry the surnames of their former slave-owners; and Asians and Jewish persons have historically changed or altered their names so the names were more socially acceptable.

Some characters will have first and last names that reflect different or blended cultures. Christina Yang, and the real world names, Spike Lee and Shaquille O’Neal are examples. Culture can also refer to a non-race specific location- would you expect to have a “Billy Bob” in the middle of Boston? Or, would you expect to find someone named Sergei in Tuskegee, Alabama? No. Not really.

4. Make sure the name is pronounceable.
Say the name aloud several times to make sure it is something you and readers can pronounce readily. For example, I never really knew how Sethe was pronounced until I heard Toni Morrison read from her book. Was it like Seth, or Sethay, or Seththe. And, how would you pronounce Rande—is it Randy, or Randeh, or Rand?

Don’t make your audience walk around for four years pronouncing a character name incorrectly. Why spend time choosing a name readers don’t know how to pronounce? Don’t do it. Just don’t. But, if you do decide to use a name with an ambiguous pronunciation, write something to let the audience know how to pronounce the name. For example, “Rande hated her teacher for pronouncing her name wrong, like Randy, instead of like Randay.”

5. Choose names that are “character” appropriate.
You wouldn’t expect the plumber to be named Joseph, Frederick, or Edward. But Joe the plumber, and Fred the plumber and Ed the plumber sound realistic. Can you imagine a bus driver, or gravedigger with a “rich-sounding” name like Danforth, Witherspoon, Sinclair, Fairchild, or Maximillian? Could be interesting though…

6. Employ syllabic variety.
The length of the first and last name should vary. Tom Sawyer, Erica Kane, Huckleberry Finn, Molly Bloom, or Lennie Small, for example. For some reason, which I cannot explain, variety makes names more pleasing to the ear and easier to remember.

There are many resources for first names, but for last names/surnames, you can visit Nuts and Bolts Filmmaking or download a list here.

7. Choose names that are gender appropriate.
I really, really, really like androgynous names (and repetition). Wasn’t Scout Finch a great name for a girl? However, I would not be a good guide if I didn’t tell you things like short, one-syllable names with hard consonants are usually seen as masculine. Take Jake, Kurt, Max, and Dirk, for example. Likewise, folk seem to feel that names with soft multiple syllables suggest femininity- names like Heather, Gina, Sharon, Jennifer, and Suzy.

Sometimes names imply gender. There is a reason fictional male detectives have names like: Alex Cross, and Sam Spade; and fictional heroines have names such as Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina, or Annabelle Lee. (For a list of male character names, please visit here.)

8. When writing for a novel or television show that is populated with numerous characters, make sure the character names are distinct.
There are a few ways to make sure your audience does not get confused: 1) make sure character names start (and end) with different letters; and 2) avoid names that sound alike (i.e.Paul and Saul; Tim, and Tom).

The Color Purple is a good example of a well-named cast of characters: Celie, Mister/Albert, Shug, Harpo, Sophia, Nettie, Kate, Bub, Squeak and so on. With the possible exception of Celie and Nettie, none of the names sound too similar.

9. Save good names for the major characters.
Don’t waste a great name on a minor character, a walk on character; or an extra. What would have been the point of having an extra, walk-on, or one line character named Tony Soprano, Rhett Butler, Stringer Bell, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Vic Mackey, or Teacake?

10. Keep a handwritten or electronic list of potential character names.
Keep a running list. Whenever you hear a name you like, write it down. Save it. For instance, I had a student once named Harch Decar. Great name- right? You know I am going to change the spelling to something like Harsh DeKar and use that name one day.
So, see? I actually do have a list of some names I plan to use one day. Wanna hear some? Here they go: Ash, Blackbelt, Cade, Cairo, Chata, Cyri, Khaler, Kori, Queenie, Rizi, Ryder, Spell, Tansy, Tantrum, York and Zella. Now, I trust you not to use them before I do- okay?


1. Sula Peace
2. Yuri Zhivago
3. James Bond
4. Hannibal Lecter
5. Bigger Thomas
6. Easy Rawlins
7. Sherlock Holmes
8. Ishmael (Moby Dick)
9. Celie

8 Things To Avoid When Naming A Character

1. The obvious.
You know the names: a gardener named Herb Green; a nun named Virginia, a lawyer named Justice Scales; an accountant named Matthew…

2. Similar sounds.
Please, please, please, don’t end the first name with the same sound as the last name, and try not to name the characters with names that start with the same syllable. Even though spellings may differ, names can still sound the same. Take, for examples, the names Jack and Zachary; Mary and Terry; and Sam and Tammy.

3. Overly exotic names.
Okay, I am talking about names that are usually reserved for strippers, I mean exotic dancers, professional sex workers and soap opera stars: Remington Steele, Shy Love, Johnny Wad, Trixie Rain, Jack Hammer, Bunny Bleu, Cookie Anderson, Angel Long, Summer Haze, etc.

4. Alliteration and rhyme.
Sometimes, it is difficult to take names beginning with the same sounds seriously: Candy Cane, Mandy Matthews, Ted Thomas, Shay Sweet, and Vicky Vet. Again, these types of names bring exotic dancers (strippers) to mind. Or cartoon characters- Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, and Vicky Vale.

Rhyming names are also sometimes difficult to take seriously- Ned Ted, Sally Rally, and Chet Wet. These types of names are appropriate for children’s fiction (think Dr. Seuss), but adult work — not so much…

5. Names with negative or precarious connotations.
Did you hear about that three-year-old kid named Adolf Hitler? His sister was named Aryan Nation. And, even though Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein, means handsome, folk will forever tie the name Hussein to Saddam Hussein.
Other examples of names that have negative connotations include Butch, Pansy, Fanny, Gaylord, Dick, etc.

6. Initials that spell something undesirable or negative.
Avoid this especially when the spellings of the initials don’t relate to the character or to the story, and aren’t going to be used. Take Sarah Tanya Dennison, for example.

Other combinations you may wish to avoid: ASS, BAD, BUM, DIE, DUD, DUM, FAG, KKK, PIG, RAT, RIP, STD.

7. Unnecessary A’postroph’e’s.
Don’t even get me started on unnecessary a’pos’trophes. You know the names: Ta`Qwan, Ga’Nay, D’Angela, Che’nille… What does the a’postrophe actually add to a first name? And, why do this to the audience? Apostrophes are just messy. Messy, I say…

8. Names that end in “s.”
This tip seems trivial until you find yourself having an awkward time writing the possessive form of the name that ends in “s.”


1. Bucky Wunderlick
2. Ralph Malph
3. Renée Rienne
4. Bob Loblaw
5. Steve Urkel
6. Tess of the D’Urbervilles
7. Captain Marvell

6 Resources to Help You Choose a Name for a Character

1. Name books
2. Soap operas
3. Phone book
4. Bible
5. Television and movie credits
6. Comic Books

5 Electronic Resources to Help You Choose a Name for a Character

1. Muse Names.
40,000 names classified by country or cultural origin. What turns a long list into a powerful tool for writers is the way it selects a name to match a keyword.

2. Name Maker LE
Millions of possible combinations of first and last names.

3. Baby Name Genie
“Granting wishes for the ‘perfect’ baby names.”

4. Parenthood.com
A random name generator that allows you to search by first letter.

5. Sandra Petit’s site
Another random name generator.

4 Things to Consider When Naming a Character
1. Theme, motif.
Themes can add extra layers to the story and enhance the overarching themes of the book, movie, or novel. Often, character names can help clarify theme.

Take, for example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Several of the characters had names relating to birds: Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson.

In the movie Rocky, the characters have names that represent strength: Rocky, Apollo Creed. A god versus an indestructible force.

In Song of Solomon, several character names (and the title) are taken from the Bible: Reba, Pilate, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, and Ester. Morrison also had characters named Sweet, Circe, and Sing Byrd. What was the significance of these names? Figuring out the significance of character names also gives the audience something (fun) to do.

2. The Character’s Family.
If the parents of your character are very traditional, the characters should probably have more olde English or Victorian names like James, Mary, Elizabeth or Michael. Or, if the parents are religious, their children would likely have names from the Torah, the Quar’an, or the Bible. If you find character siblings named Diana, Smokey, and Marvin, isn’t it likely the parents are Motown fans?

3. Nicknames.
If your character is a main character, consider a nickname, or term of endearment to show the relationship of the character to other characters, parents and intimates, in particular.

4. Name Fame.
There are times when certain names have positive connotations because of a celebrity or famous person or character. For example, the name Kent now connotes strength, Elizabeth now sounds queenly; John Paul connotes purity, and Abraham or Lincoln suggest honesty.

3 Things People do too much of

1. Add “y”s to a name, unnecessarily.
Nychole, Mykenzie, Karsyn, Miakyel (for a male), etc.

2. Ruin a perfectly good name by adding “sha”, “ra”, “kwa” or “la”, etc.
For example, Kwatina, LaRenee, LaQuincy, DeShane…

3. Try to be too clever.
For instance, naming a writer Auther Book; naming a vegetarian Lett Us; naming an alcoholic, Hein A. Ken.

2 Things people don’t do enough of when naming characters

1. Use places and or things as people names.
There are an abundance of lakes, cities, mountains, numbers, and other constructs that would make great names. Think Africa, Britain, Chad, China, Cuba, Egypt, Everest, Freedom, Georgia, India, Kenya, London, Mali, Nile, Paris, Seven, and Sahara.

2. Use androgynous names for complex characters.
I just love androgynous names: Adrian, Bailey, Casey, Jordon, Justice, Parker, Phoenix, Riley, Sage, Shay, and Sidney. And, so on…


1. Everything I have shared here can be meaningless in a matter of minutes.
For example, who expects a “brother” to be named Bentley Fonzworth? I love the idea of creating a working class man with a wealthy, elegant sounding name. And, even though I said to avoid alliteration, Sam Spade and Marilyn Monroe are effective examples of times when alliteration works. And, my own name rhymes, but I love it—don’t you?

I could go on and on and on about names, but I am going to stop here, so if you want to know more about names, you could check out my recently released book, The African Book of Names. Naturally, the book is filled with African names, but you there is also information you might find useful like a guide to naming ceremonies and a checklist of what to consider when choosing a name.


black-facts-calendarAskhari Hodari, Ph.D., is a Birmingham-based freelance writer; former Black Studies professor, and the author of The African Book of Names (Health Communications, Inc., 2009); and Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs (Broadway Books, October 2009). She also developed the Black Facts Calendars.

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XVIII: sins of excess, purplish prose, and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities


Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to send out queries and pop those long-requested materials into the mail? Hurrah, if so, because the infamous New Year’s resolution should just about have petered out by now. (If you’re joining us late, half the aspiring writers in North America send out queries and manuscripts within the first three weeks of any given calendar year — and, like other New Year’s resolutions, the impetus to virtue tends to fade before February rolls around.) This is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably laboring toward that laudable goal this very weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the weekend’s backlog.

Why avoid weekend submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

That being said, shall we get on with the many, many reasons she is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can start prepping to send out that electronic submission come Tuesday? I’m going to keep this short today, so those of you using checking here at Author! Author! as a break in your marketing-prep endeavors may get right back to work.

As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

As we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all, so spotting even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up is a major red flag for them. In fact, it is likely to send them screaming in another direction.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have ben tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar from last time, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens mid-argument.

I know; it’s limiting. But being aware of this fact prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print, and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially wordy first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

That’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see WORD COUNT at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format (if you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right). If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly — actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.)

(4) Consider editing for length. If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

#59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the conclusions screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish: it’s seen as an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation, rather than through skillful sentences. Since this particular prejudice is shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class.

Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (they often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

#61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic opening considerably. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail™ of streets that is South London as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s flat, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.”

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes.

Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole. The Idol agents specifically singled out the use of phrases such as, She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of them see storms. That doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers, sighing as the sole indicator of protagonist disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more next week) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, virtually every agent and editor in the industry perceives him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell me as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails this weekend.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XI: fending off those pesky resentful teenagers, over-articulate tots, and ever-chattering corpses

Last time, I went on a bit of a tear about how infrequently those of us who regularly give advice to writers — speakers at writers’ conferences, folks like me who blog on writing-related issues, writing teachers, and sometimes even members of critique groups — talk about the practical implications of four of the classic knee-jerk rejection reasons: old-fashioned style, style or storyline too similar to a past bestseller, redundancy, and just plain lack of interest. Since writers chat about these so little amongst ourselves, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of submitters apparently don’t know to self-edit for these.

I’m sure that the sharp-eyed among you spotted a significant omission from that list of potential feedback-givers: the agents, editors, and contest judges who determine the fate of manuscripts. I didn’t include them for the exceedingly simple reason that until a writer is signed, the two former will seldom comment on her work, and most literary contests don’t offer feedback to entrants. 99% of the time, a rejected writer will merely receive a form-letter rejection, regardless of both the actual reasons for rejection and whether the decision to reject was easy or hard.

Did I just hear some jaws hitting the floor out there? I suppose I should explain. For those of you who have not yet begun submitting, it’s extremely rare for a rejected writer to receive any substantive explanation at all from the pros who passed on his work, even if the agent or editor requested the entire manuscript. It’s even become rather common for agents not to respond at all if the answer is no. And that is very frustrating for submitting writers, because such terseness prevents them from learning from the rejection experience.

Which means, incidentally, that since form-letter rejections are practically universal, you shouldn’t regard them as the particularly emphatic negative that they used to be ten years ago. Back then, submissions that were near-misses usually sparked a personalized rejection letter. These days, though, even very polished manuscripts are frequently met with a generic response like this:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to us, but it does not meet our needs at this time. The market for this kind of book is very tough right now, and I just did not fall in love with this enough to be confident that I can place it. Best of luck elsewhere.

All across the English-speaking world, rejected writers expend huge amounts of energy trying to read between the lines of missives like this in an attempt to extract some practical feedback from it, but the fact is, it means just what it says: the agency is passing on the manuscript in question because, for some reason that its staff doesn’t have the time or will to communicate, the book strikes them as difficult to market.

Which leaves the writer to guess precisely why they reached that conclusion.

After a writer has been submitting for a while — at least long enough to have figured out that the publishing industry has developed generic terms for justifying rejection — it’s only natural to start to chafe at this guessing game. It is likely to occur to one: yes, agency screeners read a lot of submissions in a day, but how hard would it be to scrawl a single sentence fragment in the margins at the point where they stopped reading, so the submitting writer would know why it was rejected? Or even just make a mark on the page, so the writer would know where the screener stopped reading?

Heck, since manuscript problems repeat themselves across submissions, they could just place the appropriate sticker on each page, or invest in a few rubber stamps: Show, don’t tell, or Where’s the conflict? At least then, aspiring writers would know what the red flag was, so they could take steps to improve their pages before submitting them again.

From the rejecter’s point of view, the reasons for being terse in rejecting a manuscript are rather obvious, not to mention identical to why they utilize form-letter rejections for queries: a desire to minimize the amount of time they invest in a manuscript that is not going to make them money (because they will not be marketing it) and not wanting to provoke further argument.

Writers hear much more about the former than the latter on the conference circuit, of course: we’ve all been told over and over again that the sheer volume of submissions requires swift decisions merely in order to plow through them all within a reasonable period of time. Thus the all-too-frequent page 1 rejection — since agencies (reputable ones, anyway) are not actually paid to screen manuscripts, their staffs are encouraged to sift through the tens of thousands of pages they receive with all possible dispatch.

Which means, if we’re going to be blunt about it, that although Millicent the agency screener actually will have a specific reason for rejecting any given manuscript, she really doesn’t have time to communicate it. And honestly, if she’s read only the first page or a fraction of it, it’s not too reasonable to expect a fully fleshed-out analysis of the submission as a whole.

Not wanting to provoke further argument is less discussed on the conference circuit, I suspect, because the very concept is likely to raise ire in the average aspiring writer. By not assigning a specific reason for rejection, an agent reduces the probability that the rejected writer will write or call to demand, “What do you mean, my physical descriptions are heavy-handed? Explain to me precisely why you think so.”

Or, even more likely, to offer eagerly, “You said my protagonist isn’t very likable — but I’ve fixed that now. May I resubmit?”

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, these responses would make abundant sense: by giving specific feedback, Millicent would be opening a conversation about the book, right? Or, better yet, a negotiation. Essentially, by giving editorial advice, she would be implying, if not actually saying, “Revise and resubmit.”

Not entirely coincidentally, back in the days of personalized rejection letters, agencies did often request that writers of promise would revise their work and resubmit it, but that’s become exceedingly rare. Today, well-respected agents receive so many technically perfect manuscripts by talented writers that they can afford to let a fish that needs to grow a bit more get away.

I know, I know: not a very appealing way to think of one’s own work, but you must admit, it’s tremendous incentive to take a fine-toothed comb to your submission, isn’t it?

On that note of brave desperation, let’s return to the Idol list of rejection reasons. (If you do not know what I am talking about, please see the first post in this series.) Today, I want to concentrate on the rejection reasons that would make the most sense for agency screeners to rubber-stamp upon submissions if they were in the habit of doing so: these are the common technical problems that are relatively easy for the writer to fix.

If he knows about them, that is.

My favorite easy-fix on the list is #50, an adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often mistakenly assumed to be YA. This is funny, of course, because even a cursory walk though the fiction section of any major bookstore would reveal that a hefty percentage of adult fiction IS about teenage protagonists.

So why is this perception a problem at the submission stage? Well, in an agency that does not represent YA, the book is likely to be shunted quickly to the reject pile; there is no quicker rejection than the one reserved for types of books an agency does not handle. (That’s one reason that they prefer query letters to contain the book category in the first paragraph, FYI: it enables agency screeners to reject queries about types of books they do not represent without reading the rest of the letter.) And in an agency that routinely represents both YA and adult fiction, the submission might easily be read with a different target market in mind, and thus judged by the wrong rules.

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

Stop right there, oh murmurers, because you’re about to go down a logical wrong path. If you heed nothing else from today’s lesson, my friends, hark ye to this: NO ONE AT AN AGENCY OR PUBLISHING HOUSE IS LIKELY TO READ THE SYNOPSIS PRIOR TO READING THE SUBMISSION, at least not at the same sitting. So it is NEVER safe to assume that the screener deciding whether your first page works or not is already familiar with your premise.

Why is this the case? Well, for the same reason that many aspects of the submission process work against the writer: limited time.

Getting pretty tired of that excuse, aren’t you? So is Millicent, in all probability: she needs to figure out whether the submission in front of her is a compelling story, true, but she also needs to be able to determine whether the writing is good AND the style appropriate to the subject matter. An adult style and vocabulary in a book pitched at 13-year-olds, obviously, would send up some red flags in her mind.

So, given that she has 77 submissions in front of her, and she needs to get through them all before lunch, is she more likely to (a) devote two minutes to reading the enclosed synopsis before she turns her attention to the writing itself, or (b) only read the synopses for the submissions she reads to the end?

If you didn’t pick (b), I would really urge you to sign up for a good, practical writing class or attend a market-minded conference as soon as humanly possible; a crash course in just how competitive the writing game is would probably be exceedingly helpful to your writing career. From the point of view of a screener at a major agency, two minutes is a mighty long time to devote to a brand-new author.

I know; it’s sickening. But knowing the conditions under which your baby is likely to be read is crucial to understanding how to make it as rejection-proof as possible.

So for those of you who write about teenagers for the adult market, I have a bold suggestion: make sure that your title and style in the opening reflect a sensibility that is unquestionably aimed at adult readers, so your work is judged by the right rules.

This can be genuinely difficult to pull off if your narrator is a teenager — which brings me to #49 on the Idol list, narration in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate. (For the record, both an agent who represents solely adult fiction and one who represents primarily YA noted this as a problem.)

This issue crops up ALL the time in books aimed at adults that are about children; as a general rule of thumb, if your protagonist is a pre-Civil War teenaged farmhand, he should not speak as if he graduated from Dartmouth in 1992. Nor should a narrator who is a 6-year-old girl sport the vocabulary of an English Literature professor.

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

And yet screeners are constantly seeing openings where teenage girls practice bulimia simply because they want to fit in, where teenage boys act like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, where teenage characters flounce off to their rooms to sulk.

Yes, many teenagers do these things, undoubtedly, but in novels, these things have been reported so often that they come across as clichés. And teenage characters and narrators who diagnose these behaviors as an adult would are accordingly rife.

Also, NYC-based agency screeners and editorial assistants tend to be quite young: they weren’t teenagers all that long ago. Sometimes, they are still young enough to resent having been pigeonholed, and if your manuscript is sitting in front of them, what better opportunity to express that resentment than rejecting it is likely to present itself?

So do be careful, and make sure you are showing the screener something she won’t have seen before. Not to give away the candy store, but the best opening with a teenage protagonist I ever saw specifically had the girl snap out of an agony of self-doubt (which could easily have degenerated into cliché) into responsible behavior in the face of a crisis on page 1.

To submission-wearied professional eyes, reading a manuscript where the teenaged protagonist had that kind of emotional range was like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day: most refreshing.

One of the most common ways to set up a teenage scene in the past involves rejection reason #63, the opening includes quotes from song lyrics. Yes, this can be an effective way to establish a timeframe without coming out and saying, “It’s 1982,” but it is also very, very overused. I blame this tactic’s all-too-pervasive use in movies and TV: in the old days, soundtracks used to contain emotionally evocative incidental music, but in recent years, the soundtrack for any movie set in the 20th-century past is a virtual replica of the K-Tel greatest hits of (fill in timeframe), as if no one in any historical period ever listed to anything but top 40.

I’m fairly confident, for instance, that there was no period in American history where dance bands played only the Charleston, where every radio played nothing but AMERICAN PIE, or every television was tuned to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Yes, even when Elvis or the Beatles appeared on it.

We’re creative people — can’t we mix it up a bit more?

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

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

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

Remember what I was saying the other day about agents not liking to feel tricked by a book? Well…

I need to sign off for today — I’m off to have dinner with a sulky teenager who prattles on about peer pressure, a child who speaks as though she is about to start collecting Social Security any day now, and a fellow who may or may not have kicked the bucket half a decade ago; someday soon, I hope I’ll know for sure. Honestly, if agents and editors would only recognize that we writers are merely holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, all of our lives would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

More analysis of common rejection reasons follows next time. Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part X: Millicent’s frequent sense of déjà vu, or, the benefits of venturing off the beaten path

Revisiting my posts from a couple of years ago on reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1, I notice that I have been feeling compelled to add quite a bit of commentary, so much so that they are essentially new posts (which is why I’ve stopped doing the boldfaced introductions, in case anyone has been wondering). I’m not entirely sure whether this is due to how much the literary market has changed since I originally ran this list in the autumn of 2006, and how much is that, having edited, commented upon, and judged for contests scads of manuscripts in the intervening time, I have developed more pet peeves of my own.

I suspect it’s a combination of both. But I’m not the reader we’re discussing in this series, am I?

Here, we’ve been talking about the pet peeves of agents, editors, and the screeners they employ to accept or, more commonly, reject manuscripts. For the last couple of days, I’ve been going over something that is seldom discussed at writers’ conferences, in craft seminars, or even socially amongst aspiring writers, the possibility of submission’s getting rejected because it just doesn’t strike Millicent the agency screener as particularly exciting.

Funny, isn’t it, that although pretty much every writing teacher will underscore the importance of opening with a hook — an arresting conflict or strong image that draws the reader into the story from line 1, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a 1-line pitch for a book — very few seem to bring up the opposite possibility, inducing a yawn? Yet to understand what makes a hook effective, shouldn’t we writers give some thought to what might bore a reader in an opening?

More to the point of this series, shouldn’t submitters be casting a critical eye over their first pages before mailing them off, asking, “If I were Millicent the agency screener and this was my 25th first page before lunch, would I be turned off by anything in this opening?”

Yes, yes, I know — it’s painful to contemplate the possibility of even a line’s worth one’s own writing being less than scintillating, but it’s actually a much, much more useful exercise than the one usually conducted at the few writers’ conferences that devote seminar time specifically to opening pages. Some of you have probably been to these, right? They tend to be panel discussions where the published and their agents and/or editors discourse about what does and doesn’t grab them in an opening, using examples from books that have been out for years.

Can anyone see a problem with culling from that particular set of examples in order to help writers who are trying to land agents and publishing houses today?

If you said that what sold ten or fifteen years ago would not necessarily wow an agent or editor today, give yourself three gold stars and a pat on the back. When aspiring writers complain — admittedly with justification — that their favorite authors breakthough books probably couldn’t land an agent these days, the pros tend to shrug and say, “Why would anyone be surprised by that? The market is constantly changing.”

But you’d never know that to walk into most conference panels on craft, let alone on opening pages, where the examples tend to be rather long in the tooth. For instance, at a seminar on hook creation I attended not long ago, 5 of the 6 panelists selected as their favorite example of a stellar opening the first lines of Gabriel García Márquez’ A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

A stunning specimen of an opening for a book, certainly, but it was first published in 1991. Would it really work today, or would Millicent mutter, “Oh, great, another knock-off of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.” (Millicents tend to be rather well-read.) Or — and this is the most probable reaction — would she roll her eyes and say, “Make up your mind which timeframe this book will be in, already! Next!”

More proof, in case you needed it, that the times they are a-changin’.

Speaking of which, a writer friend of mine forwarded an interesting article in the New York Times that actually contained some good news about reading rates in this country, something of a novelty these days. Apparently, for the first time since 1982, the percentage of adults who say that they’ve read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the previous 12 months actually rose in 2008.

I suspect that I would be happier about this news if consuming a short story or poem didn’t require a rather different level of commitment to reading than polishing off an entire book, or if the markets for the various types of writing weren’t wildly different. We’re just supposed to rejoice over increased readership in general, I guess.

No word on whether these wordhounds bought the works in question or checked ‘em out of the library, though, or whether those newer to habitual reading were more likely to do one or the other. From the point of view of those of us who write for a living — or want to — this is a rather important follow-up question, but I gather that this particular census did not make specific inquires in this direction.

As a professional reader, I’m all about asking the follow-up questions. I look at a poll like this and immediately wonder, “Gee, are these new readers snapping up the latest that’s on the market, or are their friends who have been reading voraciously for years passing along their dog-eared paperback copies of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE?”

Oh, you thought that’s all there was to that conference anecdote? Not by a long shot — if you’d attended that panel I mentioned above, the first sentence of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE would instantly start rattling around in your cranium the instant anyone mentioned analyzing the dos and don’ts of book openings for the rest of your natural life.

Why was that particular example so memorable? Well, in addition to the panelists’ devoting a full 15 minutes of the half-hour seminar to enthusing about that opening and no other without once even raising the possibility that what agents and editors seek in a submission might have changed just a trifle since 1991, they also missed something else about this opening that rendered it a less-than-perfect example of what they were trying to show.

That something was so obvious to me that I actually started timing how long it would take for anyone to mention it. Five minutes before the end of the seminar, when the moderator finally recognized my impatiently raised hand, I asked, as politely as I could, “I love A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE’s opening, too, but could you give a couple of examples of great book openings that were written in English?”

5 of the 6 panelists looked at me blankly. Apparently, it was news to them that they had been reading GGM’s work in translation for years.

Why bring this up within the context of this series? Even in translation, A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was a magnificently influential book for English-language writers; for years afterwards, Millicents across the English-speaking world were seeing many, many manuscripts that opened similarly.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I doubt, personally, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose), Márquez should have been blushing for a decade, based upon those submissions. So how effective do you suppose Millicent found such openings in, say, year 8 of seeing them?

Exactly: what began as brilliant had through sheer repetition begun to seem banal and derivative.

Another novel that apparently affected masses and masses of novelists was Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES. How do I know? Well, take a gander at the opening:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

A grabber? Definitely. But look how many agents’ pet peeves it spawned on the Idol list of rejection reasons, just a couple of years after it came out:

9. The opening contained the phrases, “my name is X” and/or “my age is Y.”

44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.

45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.

In answer to what half of you just wondered: yes, when asked, all three of the agents who generated this list did spontaneously mention that they’d been rejecting many, many more submissions on these bases since THE LOVELY BONES had come out. Which just goes to show you why so many great books from the past would have a hard time getting the Millicent stamp of approval today: they would seem derivative of themselves.

Fame for originality can create its own type of predictability. Kind of an interesting paradox to contemplate, isn’t it?

While you’re busy pondering it, let’s revisit that subset of the list of rejection reasons dealing with the many ways submissions disqualify themselves by not grabbing Millicent the agency screener within the first page:

35. The story is not exciting.

36. The story is boring.

38. Repetition on pg. 1

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

57. The writing is dull.

Last time, I took issue with the difference between not exciting and boring, as well as the many, many reasons that a writer might be temped to repeat words, phrases, dialogue, or even action on page 1 without necessarily thinking of it as redundancy. This time around, I’m going to finish out this list with the style-oriented items on this list, the ones that involve a reader’s judgment about how the sentences in question are actually written.

Yes, I realize what I just said; I’m going to let the implications of that last statement sink in for a bit. In the meantime, let’s look into some more ways to avoid boring Millicent, shall we?

#55, took too many words to tell us what happened, is admittedly the most subjective reason on the how-to-bore Millicent list, as perceptions of wordiness are as personal to the reader as perceptions of beauty. For some writers, overwriting takes the form of sounding as though the word processor swallowed a dictionary and is coughing up every obscure three-syllable word in its technological stomach, but for most, it’s a matter of trying to cram too much information into any given sentence. In its simplest form, it tends to look a little something like this:


Bewildered yet not overcome, the lovely Clarissa pushed her long, red hair back from her fair-yet-freckled forehead so she could think better, a process with which she was not overly familiar, not having been brought up to the practice in her twenty-six years as Bermuda’s most celebrated debutante. Since the horrid pestilential fever that had so nearly claimed her life and had taken her handsome brother, harp-playing mother, flamenco master third cousin, and verbally abusive pet parakeet, she was ever-careful about over-heating herself through the the exercise of rigorous, excessive, or prolonged mental effort of any sort. Not for her the perplexing parliamentary papers of her grandfather, the stern advocate for planters’ rights yet friend of the downtrodden slaves who never failed to come near his petite lamb chop, as he had so loved to call her while he was still alive, without his august pockets crammed with sweets, pretty trinkets from far-off lands that he had picked up for a song at the local bazaar, and, always, a miniature of Clarissa and her mysteriously vanished yet equally beautiful twin sister, snatched at babyhood by brigands unknown.

Tremulously yet bravely, she sank gracefully against the gold-flocked wallpaper, gay with fleurs-du-lys, as tears of abject confusion clouded her usually sky-blue eyes and she felt for the comforting sofa beneath her, a gift from her now-dead but exceedingly generous whilst living mother back in their days of familial plenty, not to say opulence, before cruel Papa had been forced to auction off her favorite pony, Red Demon, who had merely mauled those silly Miller girls from across the river on that terrible day when Clarissa’s one true love, Roberto, had been swept away by piranha. If only she had listened to her beloved dog, Lassie, who kept barking vociferously at her as though trying to say, “Lady, your boyfriend’s fallen into the river!”

Seating herself with her delicate hands resting upon the still-sumptuous red velvet of her dress, a hand-me-down from Grandmamma, whose prowess at swordfighting was still the stuff of island legend…


Okay, what’s the problem here?

If you can’t see a number of reasons that this opening might make Millicent take umbrage, I can only suggest that you go back to the beginning of this series and read it all the way through again. But for our purpose of the moment, I ask you to consider only one question: what has actually happened in the course of this barrage of prose?

In the timeframe in which the story appears to be set, all that has actually occurred is that Clarissa pushed her hair off her forehead and sat down to think, right? Yes, yes, the author happened to stuff quite a bit of background information into this opening, too, but at the expense of moving the plot forward.

Or, as Millicent might put it rather less charitably, “I’m two-thirds of the way down page 1, and all the protagonist has managed to do is sit down and feel sorry for herself? Next!”

Overwriting tends to be forgiven a bit more readily in publishing circles than underwriting — partially because it’s a bit rarer than just-the-facts writing, partially because published authors’ first drafts tend more toward the prolix than the spare — but still, it’s not unusual for Millicent to get annoyed if a submission takes three paragraphs to say that the sky is blue and the protagonist is frightened.

Like redundancy, excessive overwriting is hard to sell to editors. Publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them. If you’re not sure whether you’re overburdening your opening pages, run them past a few first readers.

The last reason on our not-exciting sublist, #57, dull writing , also responds well, in my experience, to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. Unfortunately, I am far, far too talented to be able to produce a practical specimen of dull writing my own construction — not to mention far too modest to mention my brilliance and good looks — and I’m far, far too ethical to use any of the examples I have seen in my editorial practice.

But I’m betting that although writers often don’t know when they have produced it, pretty much everyone recognizes it when they see it in other writers’ work.

Dull writing usually runs to the opposite end of the terseness spectrum from overwriting: in many instances, it’s lean to the point of emaciation, with one verb doing the office of fifteen, adjectives reined in severely, and adverbs banished altogether. Its point is to tell the story — or, as commonly, a portion of the story that the writer doesn’t want to show in much detail or first-hand — as quickly and in as few words as possible.

This approach can work well for some book categories, but by and large, professional readers tend to regard the point of narrative prose not as an exercise in coughing up a purely bare-bones story, but as an art form in which the artist renders the story fascinating through how he chooses to tell it, the charming embellishments and insightful character development that render the reader’s journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point B enjoyable.

To understand why Millicent might feel this way, an aspiring writer need go no farther than your garden-variety cocktail party. We’ve all been cornered by someone who insists on telling us dull anecdote after dull anecdote, aren’t we? While successful anecdote-tellers are apt to please their listeners with building dramatic tension, amusing vocal mimicry, or even the choice of unexpected words that elicit a chuckle through sheer surprise, the dull anecdotalist makes the fatal mistake of assuming that the story itself is so inherently interesting that it doesn’t matter how he tells it.

And tell it he does, remorselessly ploughing forward despite his listeners’ glazed-over eyes, desperate glances toward other bunches of party-goers obviously having a better time, and repeated declarations that they must be getting home to check on kids they don’t actually have.

To Millicent, a run of dull writing is like being trapped in a closet with an anecdote-teller of this kidney for hours on end. All she wants is to get away — and the simplest expedient for doing that is to reject the submission as quickly as humanly possible.

The sad thing is, since the rise of the heroic journey story structure as novel blueprint, many novels open with material that even the writer considers the least interesting of any in the book — the normal, everyday world soon to be left behind. Since it is only the jumping-off point, many aspiring writers seem to think, why invest a great deal of narrative space and/or writing style to it? Or to the background information so many new writers are eager to stuff into the first page or two? There’s much better stuff in a page or two — or a chapter or two.

I can give one very, very good reason to open with your best writing, early-page style minimizers: because if Millicent isn’t wowed by that first page, she’s not going to keep reading. She’s going to assume, and with some reason, that what she sees on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing in the rest of the book.

Changes the way you think of a submission to know that, doesn’t it?

The best way to determine whether your first page has any of these problems is — and you should all know the tune by now, so please feel free to sing along — to read your submission IN HARD COPY, 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.

Trust me on this one. But now, back to the pondering already in progress.

Were you struck when I mentioned above that only the last couple of items on the how-to-bore-Millicent list were style-based? That’s reflective of a trend observable on the Idol list of rejection reasons as a whole: had you noticed how many more of them were about content and storytelling than about writing style per se?

I don’t think that’s accidental — or insignificant, especially given that this particular list of rejection reason concerned only the first page of any given submission, a point at which most manuscripts are far more concerned with providing background information than telling the story of the book.

Which leads me back to a boredom-defeating strategy I mentioned in passing yesterday, and clever and insightful reader Adam was kind enough to elaborate upon in the comments: while scanning the early pages of your manuscript for rejection red flags, you might want to consider the possibility that your book should start somewhere rather later than your current page 1.

I’m quite, quite serious about this. I can’t tell you how many great first lines for books I’ve found on page 4, or how many backstory-laden first scenes could have been cut altogether. Background, contrary to popular writerly opinion, does not necessarily have to come first in a book.

Or even — brace yourself — in the first chapter.

Just as explaining why a joke is funny right after telling it tends to kill its humor, overloading the first few pages of a book with backstory is often a major storytelling mistake. We’ve all see it work sometimes, of course, but in practice, an opening scene tends to grab a reader (especially an impatient one like Millie) a bit faster simply to introduce an intriguing protagonist already embroiled in an exciting situation, and fill in the backstory gradually or later on.

I’m not advising that you simply throw out your first scene on general principle — it pays to be wary of one-size-fits-all editing advice. But I would advise conducting this diagnostic test: save your current first chapter in one document, and open a new document. Write a fresh opening scene that presents something surprising about your protagonist; make that scene as active as possible. Then hand both your current opening scene and the experimental draft to a first reader you trust. Ask her to read both, wait half an hour, then have her tell you what happened in each. While you’re at it, find out which version of the protagonist struck her as more likable.

If her recall of the fresh scene is substantially better, you might want to consider changing the opening of your manuscript — not necessarily by substituting the experimental scene, but by lightening its explanatory load.

What makes me think that the scene with more explanation is not going to be as memorable? Simple: action in the moment is almost always more memorable to a reader than summarized backstory — and backstory in a first scene is almost always summary. It happens offstage, as it were.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen authors front-load opening scenes with backstory; it used to be considered perfectly acceptable. And at one time, the first lines of both A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and THE LOVELY BONES would have struck Millicent as absolutely unique and fresh.

The times they have a-changed. Being cognizant of that may help save you from falling into one of the most frequently-seen rejection-trigger traps of all: “I’ve seen this a thousand times before.”

Next time, to what I suspect will be everyone’s grateful relief, I shall be moving past the boredom-related rejection reasons and on to juicier ones. Keep those opening pages spicy and original, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part V: jumping through those flaming hoops


I can already hear some of my long-time readers groaning over the reappearance of the dreaded tiger-jumping-through-a-flaming-hoop graphic which, as some have pointed out loudly and often, is rather distracting to the eye. I’m afraid there’s no help for it: this graphic makes me smile every time I see it.

I tend to trot it out around this time of year, when I typically spend a few weeks running over how to prepare entries for literary contests, as entry season is going to be upon us soon. If any mere picture can convey the peculiar combination of talent and almost psychotic attention to detail required to win one of the major US literary contests for unpublished work, it’s this.

Why, you ask? Well, are you sitting down?

The fact is, an experienced contest judge’s level of nit-pickiness often makes our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s reading habits seem positively generous by comparison. Millicent may have been casting her eyes over queries and manuscript submissions for a few years; since most literary contest judges are the kind of dedicated perennial volunteer that forms the backbone of every good writers’ association that throws a conference, it’s not uncommon for a judge to be reviewing entries in the same contest for decades.

Which means, in practical terms, that by the time a judge sits down to evaluate your entry, s/he may have seen the same common first page error thousands upon thousands of times.

Did I just sense eyebrows shooting scalpward out there? Yes, conclusion-jumpers, I do mean precisely that: like the average submission, most contest entries disqualify themselves from finalist consideration before the end of the first page.

Often, they do this by dint of breaking contest rules, forgetting to grammar- and spell-check, and just plain not knowing about the strictures of standard format for manuscripts (and if you didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for submissions, I implore you to rush right over to the category list on the lower right-hand side of this page, select the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED headings, and invest a vitally important hour in learning how to make your submissions look professional). But like every other kind of submission, contest entries tend to exhibit certain patterns of mistake.

What does this mean for our purposes in this series? Why, that most of the rejection reasons we’re discussing in this series, the red flags that will cause Millicent to charge like a bull at the very sight of them, are tried-and-true anti-favorites that will also set your garden-variety contest judge’s hooves a-stomping.

So I don’t feel too many qualms re-running this series (which I notice that I have been punching up before I post, so I suppose they are technically new posts) during the time of year I have historically devoted to polishing contest entries to a high sheen. Yes, I still think entering literary contests is a dandy way for an aspiring writer to rack up some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, the credentials that make Millicent sit up and take a query letter seriously); as an author who landed her agent by winning the nonfiction book category of the country’s largest writers’ association’s contest, I would be the last to deny that walking off with top honors can prove very helpful to a writing career.

But this year, if no one objects too violently, I would prefer to spend the rest of the winter talking about craft and presentation issues like the ones in this series. Addressing these topics will help contest entrants, anyway, as well as everyone else who plans to submit her writing to professional scrutiny. And call me zany, but I suspect that fewer of my readers than usual will have the dosh to invest in contest entries this year.

So please pay close attention over the next couple of weeks, contest entrants: these rejection reasons apply equally well to the first pages of entries, too.

Looking over today’s post, I considered cutting out the early part where I talk about dealing with an editorial memo — for those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s the letter outlining requested changes an editor at a publishing house provides an author to guide the pre-publication revision process — for a novel of mine. It’s a trifle off-topic, admittedly, but as I know many of you are curious about what happens to a manuscript after agents and editors have control of it, I decided to leave this section.

Enjoy! Or if learning new and more terrifying problems a submission might have isn’t precisely your idea of a rollicking good time, I hope you find it helpful!

Were you surprised to see that I took the entire weekend off? It’s part of a new plan of mine, called GETTING A LIFE, over and above my writing. Having just finished a major revision — and composed a list of what I had and had not revised at the editor’s suggestion — I felt the need to, well, not work my usual 7-day week this week.

Call me wacky.

“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you cry. “A list of changes in the manuscript that the editor has in her hot little hand? Couldn’t she just look at it to check if you made all of the requested alterations? And why on earth would any sane person ask a writer to produce such a list immediately after completing a revision, when the writer is likely both to be exhausted and a trifle touchy about her choices?”

A list of revisions is not all that unusual a request, once an editor at a major house is involved with a book. Essentially, it’s a time-saving technique. (Remember earlier in this series, when I was telling you about how busy such people are? Well…) Since manuscript changes are often quite subtle, and the editor is not going to sit down and read the old version and the new side-by-side (sorry to be the one to break that to you), many agents like to have the author provide the editor with a list, to forestall the objection that not enough of the requested changes were made. Also, in the unlikely (a-hem) event that the editor does not have time to read the whole thing again, with such a list in hand, it would be technically possible for an editor to flip through and see what changed very quickly.

Essentially, the list is the equivalent of having the author produce the kind of 1- or 2-page report that editorial assistants routinely provide on a project being considered.

I’m giving you a heads-up about it now, because very frequently, such a request comes as the proverbial ball out of left field to the writer, who is then left scrambling to meet a revision deadline AND producing a list of changes. If you know it’s a possible future request, you can just keep a list while you are revising. Clever, no?

To forestall follow-up questions from those prone to borrowing trouble: no, Virginia, no one in the industry will ever ask you for a list of the revisions you performed BEFORE they saw the manuscript in the first place. So unless you want to get in practice maintaining such a list (not a bad idea, actually), there’s really no reason to keep track of your changes in such a concrete way until after you sign with an agent.

But thereafter, it can be very, very helpful to be able to say, “What do you mean, I didn’t take your advice seriously? Here’s a list of what I changed at your behest!” and be able to back it up.

Okay, back to demystifying the Idol list. (If that sounds as though I have suddenly begun speaking in tongues, please see the first post in this series.) I know I’ve been harping on it at some length now, but my theory is that general writing advice is not all that useful as long as it remains, well, general. I think it’s important to take the overarching principles and show how they might be applied to a specific manuscript.

That being said, today’s group of manuscript problems is the most literal, and thus the easiest to remove from a manuscript. (And the masses rejoice!)

These are the rejection reasons that are based upon sheer repetition: any agent in the biz has not only seen these phenomena before at least 1,147 times — and thus will automatically assume that a submission that contains them on the first page is not a piece of fresh writing that might take the literary world by storm — but has, in all probability, seen any particular one at least once already on that same DAY of screening.

So best to avoid ’em, I always say.

I know, I know: a great deal of the writing advice out there, including mine, is about standardizing your manuscript prior to submission. But adhering to standard format and avoiding certain common mistakes is, perhaps counterintuitively, a way to make the individuality of your writing shine more. To put it the way my grandmother would: fashion can make almost anyone look good, but if a woman is truly beautiful, wearing conventional clothing will only make it more obvious that it is the woman, and not the clothes, who caught the eye of the observer.

(Need I add that my grandmother was excessively pretty, and that a great many of her metaphors were style-related?)

The rejection reasons listed below are something different: they are common shortcuts that writers use, and thus, not particularly good ways to make your writing stand out from the crowd. Using the numbering from the original list, they are:

9. The opening sentence(s) contained the phrases, My name is… and/or My age is….

10. The opening contained the phrase, This can’t be happening.

11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, And then I woke up, screaming (an ever-popular choice) or otherwise.

12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.

13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.

14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. Specifically singled out: our old pal, a character’s long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame, her shapely legs.

21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a first-person or tight third-person narrative to describe her long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame, etc.

Why do I identify these as shortcuts, and not clichés? Well, obviously, the clichés are clichés, but the rest are the kind of logical shorthand most of us learned in our early creative writing classes. To name but a few:

Introduce the character –which manifests as My name is… and/or My age is…).

Show perspective — This can’t be happening.

Add a twist — And then I woke up.

The cumulative result of decades of such good generalized advice is that agents and their screeners see these particular tropes so often that they might as well be clichés. They definitely don’t scream from the page, “This is a writer who is doing fresh and interesting new things with the English language!” or “This story is likely to have a twist you’ve never seen before,” at any rate, and when a screener is looking to thin the reading pile, those are most emphatically not the messages you want to be sending.

Another early English-class lesson has shown up with remarkable frequency on this list. Guesses, anyone?

Hint: the applicable rejection reasons are #9, the opening contained the phrases,My name is… and/or My age is…, #14, a character’s long red or blonde hair, and
#21, the character spotting him/herself in a mirror.

Congratulations, all of you graduates of Creative Writing 101: they all stem from the oft-repeated admonition to provide physical descriptions of the character right away.

As in within the first nanosecond of their appearing in a scene, so the reader doesn’t waste any time at all picturing ‘em before being told precisely what they look like. The rise of television and movies have rendered this particular piece of writing advice practically universally observed in submissions. After all, almost without exception, viewers’ first impression of an important character in a TV show or movie is when he walks into frame.

Also, I suspect, a lot of us read short stories and books in our formative years that used the age, sex, and/or gender (yes, they’re different things, contrary to the way one usually sees them on government forms: sex is biological, gender is learned) as THE twist. I, personally, have never gotten over my disappointment that Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ 1963 novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE glossed over the single most shocking line in the book, when we learn that the thief, rapist, and murderer who has been narrating the story is only 15 years old.

Hey, that was still shocking, back in the 1960s. I encountered the book a decade and a half later, but still, you should have seen my fifth-grade teacher’s face when I told her about Alex’s age in my book report.

Basically, all of these rejection reasons share the same underlying objection: there’s nothing wrong with providing some physical description of your characters right off the bat, of course, but by all means, be subtle about it. And need a full description come on page 1?

Yes, yes, I know that movies and TV have accustomed us to knowing what a character looks like from the instant he’s introduced, but is there a particular reason that a READER’S first experience of a character need be visual?

We are left to wonder: why are characters so seldom introduced by smell? Or touch?

But no: day in, day out, screeners are routinely introduced to characters by front-loaded visual images, a good third of them bouncing off reflective vases, glasses of water, and over-large silver pendants. We’ve all seen it: the first-person narrator who catches sight of his own reflection in a nearby mirror in order to have a reason to describe himself.

Or the close third-person narration that, limited to a POV Nazi-pleasing single-character perspective, requires that the character be reflected in passing sunglasses, a handy lake, a GAP window, etc., so that he may see himself and have a reason to note his own doubtless quite familiar physical attributes.

Just once, could a passerby gag on a hero’s cloud of cologne?

Setting aside for a moment just how common the reflective surface device is — in the just over two hours of the Idol session, it happened often enough to generate laughs from the audience, so multiply that by weeks, months, and years of reading submissions, and you’ll get a fair idea — think about this from the screener’s perspective. (Did your tongue automatically start to feel burned by that latte?) That screener is in a hurry to find out what the novel’s story is, right?

So ask yourself: is that harried reader likely to regard superadded physical description of the protagonist as a welcome addition, or as a way to slow the process of finding out what the story is about? And how is she likely to feel about that, 5 minutes into her ostensible lunch break?

I know; it’s disillusioning. But as I keep reminding you, no one in the industry regards the submitted version of a manuscript as the final version. Nor should you.

Just jump through that flaming hope now. If you’re absolutely married to an upfront physical description, you can always add it back in to a subsequent draft.

The last remaining reason — #12, the opening paragraph rife with jargon — is, too, a shortcut, usually a means to establish quickly that the character presented as a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, President of the United States, etc., is in fact a — wait for it — doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, or President of the United States.

However, how often do you think a screener — or any other reader, for that matter — gets a couple of lines into a novel, then throws it down in disgust, exclaiming, “There’s just not enough esoteric technical talk here! I just do not believe that this character actually is a doctor/lawyer/police officer/soil engineer/President of the United States! If only there were more jargon properly interesting only to those actually involved in those professions!”

Doesn’t happen.

The opposite, however, does: when there’s too much profession-specific word usage right off the bat, it can be very off-putting for the reader. And for the screener. With predictable results.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? Is it possible that some of you saying, “But people actually do talk like that in real life!”

Yes, they do. There are also plenty of people who say, “Um…” at the end of every other sentence, and mobs of nice folks who interlard every conversation with, “like” and “ya’ know.” Heck, there are millions of people in the world who speak Estonian — yet you would not even consider submitting a manuscript to an English-speaking agent or editor where every third word was in that beautiful language, would you? Even if your story were actually set in Estonia?

Save it — if not entirely, then at least until after page 5. Or after you have successfully cleared the submission hurdle.

We’re just whipping through this list, aren’t we? Soon, all of our first pages will be so snazzy that none of us will get rejected until page 2. In that happy hope, keep up the good work!