First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in YA: Suzi McGowen’s A Troll Wife’s Tale and Sherry Soule’s Dark Angel (a.k.a. Beautifully Broken)

Suzi McGowen author photoSherry Soule author photo

No, I haven’t taken a look at the daunting task that is Synopsispalooza and abandoned it in terror — I shall be posting again in that excellent endeavor this evening. This morning, however, I would like to press forward with the next of the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, the takers of second-place honors in Category II: YA, Suzi McGowen and Sherry Soule.

That’s Suzi on the left, Sherry on the right. Today, they are going to take us into the very trendy worlds of YA urban fantasy and YA paranormal.

Take a good gander at those well-constructed author photos — one of the reasons I asked the A!A!GFPMEB winners to provide them was to start all of you thinking about your author photos well before Authorbiopalooza in October. (It’s a Paloozapalooza this autumn at Author! Author!) Why think begin to ponder it well in advance? Well, two reasons. First, for most writers, coming up with a photo they like takes a few tries. Or a few hundred. Second, when the request for an author photo (or author bio, for that matter), it tends to be rather last-minute.

As in, “Oh, I’m going to start sending out your manuscript to editors tomorrow, Author McWriterly. Can you e-mail me a bio with a photo tonight?”

Trust me, you’ll be a much, much happier camper if you already have that photo — and that bio — in hand. (That’s true of synopses, too, actually, so be sure to tune back in tonight for more guidance on that front.)

Back to the business at hand. One of the problems faced by aspiring writers trying to break into a book category that happens to be hot at the moment — and remember, all publishing trends are temporary; what’s hot today may not be next year — is that, inevitably, there will be greater competition for the admittedly greater number of publishing slots. It’s an industry truism, as predictable as the flowers in spring: 1-2 years after a breakout bestseller appears, agencies will be flooded with queries and submissions with eerily similar premises.

And if there’s a series like TWILIGHT or HARRY POTTER that hits the big time? So many submissions for books like them will appear that entire subgenres may be formed.

In a way, this phenomenon is good for aspiring writers, especially for those who happened to be working on, say, YA paranormal romances when the first TWILIGHT book came out. The nice thing about the ever-changing book market is that it actually does tend to reward writers who keep weeding their own particular patch of it year in, year out: eventually, their chosen category may well become trendy.

That’s important to bear in mind, because there are always plenty of people, including agents and editors at conferences, eager to declare a particular book category dead — or impossible to sell, which in the publishing world amounts to the same thing. Just ask anyone who was trying to land an agent for historical fiction six months before COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise bestseller.

That’s why they’re called surprise bestsellers: even the pros don’t necessarily see ‘em coming. Then they spend the next two years actively soliciting similar manuscripts, the following two tolerating similar manuscripts, and the next four wondering why in heaven’s name aspiring writers keep sending them similar manuscripts. Don’t they know the market has moved on to the next trend?

Of course, the cycle is longer with a breakout series; one has only to read the daily acquisitions listings on Publishers’ Marketplace or Publishers’ Weekly to see that books similar to TWILIGHT are still being picked up in droves. So naturally, thousands upon thousands of writers continue to describe their YA paranormals in TWILIGHTish terms, their YA fantasies in Potterish language, etc.

That strategy makes quite a bit of sense at the front end of a trend, or even at its height. The longer a wave continues, however, the harder it is to make a case that a manuscript by a writer who has never published before in that book category — like, say, the million or so adult fiction writers who have stampeded into the YA market over the past few years — is adding something new and original to the current offerings. And all too often, queriers abet that difficulty by emphasizing how their work is akin to the iconic bestseller in the category, rather than how it is different.

Which brings me back to today’s winning entries. As those of you who entered the contest may recall, one of the required elements was an identification of the entry’s book category and a brief explanation of what this manuscript would bring to that category’s already-existing target market. As so often happens with the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, most entrants mistook this requirement for either a request for a boasting back-jacket-style puff piece (This book will revolutionize Westerns!) or, you guessed it, an invitation to compare one’s own work with bestsellers.

Both of these approaches tend to sell original writing radically short. No matter how many times agents march into writers’ conferences and declaim, “I’m looking for books like Bestseller X,” the publishing industry has never been very taken with carbon copies. What these agents actually mean is, “Since editors are eager to replicate the success of Bestseller X, I am looking for new writers whose manuscripts will appeal to the same target demographic, those folks who have already demonstrated that they are willing — nay, excited about — buying similar books. So I want to see a manuscript with a fresh voice that nevertheless shares certain selling points with Bestseller X.”

Given that motivation, such an agent is unlikely to tell her agency screener (our old pal Millicent, natch) just to request pages from every querier whose descriptive paragraph says this book is just like Bestseller X, right? If a book category happens to be trendy, 70% of what crosses Millicent’s desk will be able to make that claim; by definition, surprise bestsellers change the expected selling points for new manuscripts in their book categories.

So what’s a better strategy for catching her eye? Assuming that any agency that represents that book category is already aware of Bestseller X’s selling points. Instead of telling her that your book shares them, why not show her how it is different, yet will appeal to the same target audience?

I can feel some of you who write in currently hip categories fighting that last paragraph. “But Anne, you said throughout Querypalooza that a querier has only a few lines to grab Millicent’s attention. So how can labeling my book as one with similar bestseller potential possibly undersell it?”

Glad you asked, conclusion-resisters. A lot of aspiring writers believe that a generic comparison to an established author’s work — which most this is the next Bestseller X! claims boil down to being, right? — is inherently more effective at promoting a manuscript than a specific demonstration of the book’s original elements.

As it happens, today’s winning entries disprove that assumption quite nicely. Here is Suzi’s brief description for A TROLL WIFE’S TALE:

You’ve heard of urban fantasy? That dark and gritty world of modern day cities, where elves and witches roam? My novel is the Young Adult version. Call it a suburban fantasy, where a female troll sets out to right wrongs, save the world, oh, and become a tooth fairy.

And here is Sherry’s for Dark Angel. (Please note: between the time that Sherry entered the contest and when we informed the winners — admittedly, a long time; my apologies — she changed the book’s title to BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN. A good call, I think — BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN is a perfectly marvelous title — but obviously, the judges had to work with the original entry. I hope this does not cause any confusion in future web searches, after the book comes out.)

DARK ANGEL is a twist on the young adult, boy meets girl, supernatural love story. This time the boy is the “normal” one and the girl is the supernatural and attractive teenager.

Both of these descriptions make the books in question sound rather generic, don’t they? The first doesn’t bring up an original element until the last few words. Not the best structure, strategically, as Millicent is likely to find the first three sentences a trifle perplexing: there is already a well-established YA urban fantasy category, so why not just state the book category up front and move swiftly on to what’s fresh, original, and exciting about this book?

Especially since there is so very much that is fresh, original, and exciting about this book. Take a gander at Suzi’s one-page description:

Troll Wife could use a job, so when she finds the poster on the telephone pole that says, “Any fae may apply,” she does. She’s as surprised as anyone when she’s accepted for training as a tooth fairy.

She’s also surprised by the impressive number of injuries she racks upon the job. A broken bone and a concussion? Eh, maybe she should have expected that. After all, learning to fly isn’t as easy as it sounds. But the gunshot wound? That was because she was fighting a monster that she ran into while collecting teeth.

The monster, called Oubliette, was a soldier in the war between the humans and the fae, hundreds of years ago. Now Oubliette wants to start the war all over again. This time, it wants to kill all the humans, not just most of them. The other tooth fairies should be her allies in this war against Oubliette, but Troll Wife doubts that any fae that smells like cotton candy can help save the world.

Troll Wife only has days to learn how to fight the Oubliette, protect the human children from it, and make sure that she collects her quota of teeth. While she’s at it, she needs to find out what dark secret the tooth fairies are hiding, and rescue herself from their tangled web.

Sounds like a genuine hoot, eh? But did you gain a sense of that delightful whimsy in the brief description?

DARK ANGEL’s brief description falls into an even more common querying trap: it presents the story as merely a gender-flipped twist on a bestseller. It also assumes — wrongly, based upon the longer description and the first page — that the similarity to that bestseller’s premise is the most interesting thing about this manuscript.

That made the judges rather sad, since on the page, it’s the least interesting thing about this story. Furthermore, the stories do not seem very similar. Take a peek at her longer description:

A sixteen-year-old impetuous outcast has seen ‘shadows’ for as long as she can remember and they always turn up when something bad is about to happen.

When those dark companions follow, Serenity Broussard to church with her family it begins no differently than any other day, except that she gets her first glimpse of the hot new guy in town. It’s a small town so it doesn’t take long for the gossip to spread about Trent Donavon, especially when he moves into his family’s rumored-to-be haunted mansion.

Trent and Serenity began to date and the seemingly perfect state of their relationship is thrown into chaos after she takes a job as an intern, helping restore his family’s estate. It doesn’t take Serenity long to realize that something is terribly wrong. The mansion is full of ghosts and secrets.

The house awakens latent psychic powers in Serenity, who finds herself being stalked by a ghost who tries to communicate with her in terrifying ways. The shadows lurking around Serenity—ever present and insubstantial are something else. Lacking in the description is one common denominator unifying the different types of shadows entering our world—darkness—malevolence.

Shadows had another thing in common—an attraction to Serenity.

When Serenity finds Trent’s mother’s diary, it sends her on a quest to uncover the mystery surrounding the woman’s untimely death. Except things aren’t as black and white as Serenity thinks. Because not all ghosts want help crossing over, some want vengeance.

Admittedly, a few of the narrative choices here are genuinely distracting from the storyline being presented (are the dark companions in paragraph 2 the same as the shadows in paragraph 1, for instance, and if so, are they individual characters? Why is shadows in quotation marks — and why, for an American audience, in single quotation marks? Why risk Millicent’s wrath with two technically incorrect single-sentence paragraphs, when it would be so easy to form the concepts there into narrative paragraphs with at least two sentences? Why aren’t there spaces at the ends of the dashes, since any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format?), but those would all be quite easily fixed. What I want you to notice here is that the brief description and the longer description could be for entirely different books.

That wouldn’t be too surprising to Millicent — aspiring writers undersell their manuscripts’ originality this way all the time. Sad, but true. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, can we really blame Millicent for not being able to look at the first description of either of these books and extrapolate the second description?

That outcome would be a particular shame in the case of TROLL WIFE, because its premise is so darned charming and full of potential. (All of the judges preferred the title shortened, by the way, Suzi, although several of the judges — yours truly included — wondered if young girl readers would be a bit disturbed that the protagonist’s name and her social role are apparently identical.) That charm is apparent on page 1:

Suzi McGowen p1

Now, this page could use some revision — I suspect, for instance, that a hard-copy read-through would have caught that the narrative tells the reader twice that the protagonist is a tooth fairy, once at the end of paragraph one and again at the beginning of paragraph 2 — but is that why Millicent might start reading this with a jaundiced eye? Chant it with me now, campers: because professional readers stare at manuscripts all day, any deviation from standard format will leap off the page at them, distracting them from the writing.

There’s a reason I keep showing you so many before-and-after page 1s, after all. Take a peek at the same page after 2 minutes of cosmetic revision, and see if it doesn’t come across as more professional. For extra credit, compare it to the original revision and tell me what I changed.

Suzi revised

How did you do? I made five changes here: (1) moved the slug line to left margin (not mandatory, but the norm), (2) changed the chapter title from all caps to title case (thus the name: title case), (3) changed the spacing from an odd specific set to double-spaced, (4) changed the font from Courier to Times New Roman (again, not mandatory, but the norm for novel manuscripts), and (5) changed 14 in line 2 to fourteen. Of these five, only #5 — not writing out numbers under 100 in full — might have prompted Millicent to stop reading.

Yes, it really is that serious an offense against standard format — unfortunate, since so many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that the AP style restriction of writing out only numbers under ten applies to manuscripts. It does not: AP is for newspapers and magazines, and not all literary magazines adhere to it.

Having worked with Suzi and Sherry’s entries in soft copy (the better to show you before-and-after formatting, my dears), I suspect that both were relying on some sort of macro for the PC for their formatting — it was impossible, for instance, to alter the paragraph heading without deleting the title and the space above the text entirely and starting again from scratch. I realize that macros that purport to format a manuscript for a writer may be comforting, but actually, the restrictions of standard format are so simple that anyone reasonably familiar with Word should be able to set them up in five minutes flat. (If you don’t know what the requirements of standard manuscript format are, or indeed that there is a specific professional format for manuscripts, it would behoove you to take a peek at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

I hear some impatient huffing out there, do I not? “But Anne,” macro-huggers across the globe wail, “that sounds like a lot of extra work! I want my computer to do it all for me.”

Well, it is a touch of extra work — although not nearly as onerous as writers tend to speak of it as being — but let me put it this way: if a macro is wrong, its feelings are not going to get hurt when the submission gets rejected. The writer’s will. So who really should be in charge of making sure that the formatting is in apple-pie order?

True, one or two minor formatting gaffes are probably not going to be enough to trigger an automatic rejection. But then, it’s exceedingly rare that a first page gets rejected for only one reason. Presentation problems, like wolves, tend to run in packs.

So is it really all that astonishing that an experienced Millicent might open a submission packet, glance at a misformatted page 1, and assume that more presentation, proofreading, or even writing problems await her? Or that her patience for subsequent problems might be lower than for a perfectly-formatted page 1? Or, more to the point at submission time, that the first typo, grammatical error, or missing word in the text might combine in her mind with formatting problems to equal rejection?

See why I harp on formatting so much? To sharpen your eye for presentation, let’s see how the macro treated Sherry’s page 1:

The problems affect the sharp-eyed reader almost subliminally, don’t they? However, there’s one formatting error here that would draw Millicent’s eye as quickly as if the lines containing it were printed in red ink.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Here is the same page, properly formatted.

Did you catch it that time? If you are already jumping up and down, shouting, “I saw it the first time, Anne! The text uses an emdash instead of the standard format-requisite spacedashdashspace!” give yourself a gold star for the day. (Hey, I told you there was going to be extra credit for the eagle-eyed.) Because manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, the emdash — the Autoformat fix for dashes in Word that transforms them into straight lines connecting the surrounding words with no intervening spaces — is not correct in a manuscript. As you may see in the revised version above, the first word should be followed by a space, then two dashes, another space, then the second word. No exceptions.

Yes, I know that Autoformat will change what I just suggested into an emdash. Change it back, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

Okay, what else did I change? Interestingly, not what Suzi’s use of apparently the same macro might have lead us to expect: (1) moved slug line from the right to the left, (2) removed extra spaces in slug line (why have so many aspiring writers started adding spaces before and after the /s within the last year? It’s not correct, and it was not nearly so common before. It’s not as though standard format has changed in this respect.) (3) Moved the chapter title to the top line of the page, and, while I was at it, (4) changed the single space after the period to two, since that’s still the standard for manuscripts.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if the agent requesting your pages prefers the published book-style single-space convention, her agency’s submission guidelines should tell you so. If that’s what she wants, for heaven’s sake, give it to her, because for the agents who feel strongly enough about this to make public statements about it, it often is a rejection-worthy offense. Not only because they dislike the normal spacing, but because violating an individual agency’s stated submission standards just screams, “This writer not only cannot follow directions — he may not even have taken the time to check whether this agency had its own preferences!”

Why might that in itself render Millicent more likely to reject a submission? Because this is a detail-oriented business, writers who neglect the small stuff tend to be substantially more time-consuming for agencies to take on as clients.

“But Anne,” some of you new to the Author! Author! community — specifically, those of you who have not yet worked your way through one of my famous standard format series yet, I’m guessing — protest vehemently, “this is ridiculous. Surely, it’s the writing and the book concept that determine whether a manuscript gets accepted or rejected, not the petty little details. The agent or editor can always fix the small stuff before publication, after all. Even if a bunch of tiny, insignificant gaffes appear on page 1, I can’t believe that Millicent would just stop reading my submission.”

Oh, dear. I wasn’t going to do this, but if it saves even one good writer from undeserved rejection on formatting grounds, it’s worth it. Since Sherry revised her manuscript after the contest winners were announced, she was kind enough to send along the new version — indeed, the entire first chapter — for the judges to peruse. Obviously, it would not have been fair to the other entrants to judge the revised version, or even to provide extensive commentary upon it, but because it contained a couple of formatting problems that the original entry did not, I cannot in good conscience not flag them. One of them is, in fact, a presentation problem that might actually lead to Millicent’s not reading the submission featuring it at all.

So yes, you caught me: I have in fact structured this discussion to lead us to this point, necessitating showing you the revised version. Please, everybody, take these next examples in the spirit they are intended. (Seriously, I don’t want to see any snarky snickering about this in the comments; a tremendous number of aspiring writers make these particular mistakes, and we should all be grateful to Sherry for bringing them to our attention.)

So calmly, respectfully, wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and pretend you have just opened a submission packet to find this first page:

Beautifully Broken title

And this second one:

Beautifully Broken page 1

When you were expecting to find this:

Sherry's title

And this:

Sherry #2

Still don’t believe that formatting makes a difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript? From the aspiring writer’s perspective, it might not seem to make much of a difference whether the title page is professionally formatted, or if it is in a wacky typeface, or if the first page of text is numbered 2 instead of one. But to her — and to agents, editors, and well-informed contest judges — there’s more than just words on a page at stake.

This is about respecting tradition. The publishing world values its traditions, and even if it did not on general principle, as those of you who have followed my past series on standard format are aware, manuscripts look a particular way for a variety of practical reasons. Every industry has the right to establish and maintain its own standards; most of the assertions that this or that has changed in manuscript format come from the outside.

Also, favoring professionally-formatted submissions a matter of practicality: an aspiring writer who takes the time to learn how to present his writing professionally is usually also one who has found out how publishing does and does not work. Thus, he is more likely than the average aspiring writer (who does not do his homework, as a general rule) to have realistic expectations about what an agent can and cannot do for him, the kind of turn-around times to expect on submissions to publishing houses, the necessity for not pouting when the editor asks for revisions, the imperative to promote one’s own book after it comes out, rather than passively waiting for the publishing house (or one’s friends who happen to be bloggers) to do it for him, and so forth. He’s just an easier client to promote.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, first, that I should plan to add a Formatpalooza to this autumn’s festivities; it actually was quite surprising to me how few of this contest’s entries arrived properly formatted. I don’t want any of my readers to get rejected on technical grounds, if a few weeks of my effort every year can help prevent it.

Second, have you noticed that since I’ve had to spend so much time going over the presentation and formatting problems, I haven’t had the luxury of talking about the writing much? That’s a pretty accurate representation of how distracting these issues are for professional readers: if the presentation and formatting are off, it’s awfully hard for good writing even to get noticed.

And that’s a real shame here, because there were some writing choices that we could have discussed productively. The prevalence of the incorrect single-sentence paragraph that we’ve already discussed in this series, for instance — in English prose, a narrative paragraph properly consists of at least two sentences; established authors like Joan Didion began breaking the rule not because they were unaware of it, but because to the hyper-literate, it is genuinely shocking to see a non-dialogue single-sentence paragraph. Thus the emphasis that this narrative choice places on the offset sentence: it shouldn’t be that way without a very good reason.

Unfortunately, in common usage, as well as in both of these pages, single-line paragraphs are used not for emphasis, but for rhythm. To a professional reader, this is not a very sophisticated way to establish beats. Save the single-sentence paragraphs for only that occasion when what is being said in them is going to come as a genuine surprise to the reader.

I would also have liked to talk about the and then convention, a notorious Millicent’s pet peeve. In a written narrative that does not involve time travel, events are assumed to be presented in the order that they happened chronologically. Thus, professional writing typically avoids the and then so dear to aspiring writers’ hearts, because it is logically redundant. The pros reserve it for only those occasions when the then part seems to come out of nowhere.

Hey, where have I heard that logic before?

Then, too, there’s the trailing off with an ellipsis… trope. Quite a few Millicents, especially the classically-trained ones, will have a knee-jerk negative to a narrative sentence or paragraph that ends in that manner. It’s fine in dialogue, where those three dots are expressing an audible phenomenon (the speaker’s voice trailing off or the effect of being interrupted in mid-thought), but the practice of borrowing that dialogue convention to make a narrative voice seem more conversational is, again, considered a not very sophisticated writing trick.

Because, really: aren’t there thousands of ways a narrative paragraph could generate suspense without resorting to punctuation?

Oh, how I wish I had time and space to talk about all this. In lieu of that, I’ll have to content myself with just posting the marked-up versions. (And mailing them to their authors, of course, but I do that routinely, so those brave enough to submit their work for critique here do not have to squint.) Here’s Suzi’s:

Suzi edit 2

And here’s Sherry’s:

Sherry edit 2

Moral: there’s no such thing as a detail too small to escape a professional reader’s notice — and no such thing as a first page that could not use one last going-over before being submitted. Join me at 7 pm PST for the resumption of Synopsispalooza, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:

Moser/Perdition/1

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

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

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

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

Jens edit2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis edit

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

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

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

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

Curtis page 1 ands

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

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

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

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

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

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

jennifer_lyng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normal is synopsis

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

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

Lyng entry page 1

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

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

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

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

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

Lyng p 1 edited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jsjohnsonphoto1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divided States page 1

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

Check. What else renders this first page so compelling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divided States description

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pre-butchered fir tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

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

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

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

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

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

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

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

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

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

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

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

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

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

7. Unlikable protagonists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proofread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

Hey, I told you Updike’s work stood up well.

Notice anything else? How about that all of these criteria could be applied equally well to a memoir and a novel? That’s something that memoirists often forget: just because a story is true does not mean that it will be judged by less stringent requirements than a fictional one. A good memoirist, like a good novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller.

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or ‘Wow, great hook’ have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not necessarily a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than pure beauty of voice. Yes, they are seeking good writing with a genre-appropriate voice, but at first glance, they are looking to fall in love with a premise.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient AND able to draw the reader immediately into a pulse-elevating plot.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the loveliness and/or experimental nature of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. Thus, her question is much, much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, ABOUT SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have included both of these elements in your premise, and you have presented them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually.

If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, this avalanche of critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book. (You’re welcome.)

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements is only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough for a first book in the current market. (Unless, of course, you’re already established, like John Updike, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

On that note, I’m going to close this series. Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds tangible skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XIX: the quirkiness of real life, or, so long, Harvey

American Splendor poster

I am genuinely sad to record the passing of graphic novel pioneer Harvey Pekar. His intensely-observed presentations of both the most mundane and most trying aspects of everyday life not only stretched his genre, but demonstrated time and time again that accounts of ordinary life need not be ordinary.

I’m morally sure that Mssr. Pekar would have enjoyed the irony of his having joined the choir invisible right in the middle of our discussion of real-life vs. real-sounding dialogue. As any fan of OUR CANCER YEAR (co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) could tell you, he relied very heavily upon actual speech — something substantially easier to pull off when animation appears side-by-side with words on the printed page. Yet just when the dialogue seemed most mundane, one of his quirky characters would come out with a zinger:

“15 amps…15 amps! That’s all we’ve got, and I bet my computer uses half that. This place is a fire trap. You know what’s behind this wall? All our wiring is still in its original paper insulation. Melting copper, wrapped with newspaper. With headlines that read, ‘Jack the Ripper Still at Large!’”

That may sound like the extempore chat of any exasperated person, but as we discussed last time, simply transcribing actual speech is not usually the best — and certainly not the only — means of producing realistic dialogue on the page. There’s nothing wrong per se with lifting quotes from real life, but a savvy writer lifts selectively, judiciously.

And always, always with a definite point in mind. Dialogue that apparently serves no other purpose than to demonstrate that the writer is aware of normal, everyday speech tends to provoke an undesirable speech pattern in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener: “Next!”

Especially if, as often occurs in the opening pages of novel submissions, that meticulously-reproduced everyday speech either delays the action from beginning, slows down action already in progress, or — and Millicent sees this more than any of us might like to think — it takes the place of action happening offstage, so to speak. Many a potentially exciting opening scene has been smothered by the protagonist stopping to be polite — or just chatty.

Not sure what I mean? Okay, here are a couple of openings for the same story, each cut off at the point at which Millicent probably would have stopped reading. (Hey, you think it’s easy to come up with fresh examples night after night?)

“Why, Kathy!” Evan exclaimed. “I thought you weren’t going to make it?”

Well might he have asked. Kathy was not the sort of girl who typically turned up in dank attics, covered with cobwebs, soaking wet, and shaking with fear.

Still, her mother had brought her up right. “Hello, Evan. I thought you were going to Sharon’s party tonight.”

“My date came down with the flu.”

“That’s a shame. And after you got all dressed up, too.”

Evan glanced down at his normally spotless khakis. Climbing up that trellis might not have been such a good idea. He’d have to sneak his pants into the wash before Mom saw them, or he’d be in for it. “I hadn’t expected company.”

Kathy looked away. “Can you tell me what the Algebra homework
was?”

A trifle annoying, isn’t it? It’s fairly obvious that something has happened to Kathy just before the scene we’re seeing, but all of the narrative’s energies seem aimed toward delaying showing us what that something was. (And what is that called, campers? That’s right: false suspense.) Other than slowing the action, keeping the reader from knowing what’s going on, and probably pushing off the first scary happening of the book for a few pages, what purpose is this dialogue serving?

Before you answer, let me caution you that from Millicent’s perspective, but people really talk like that! is not a sufficient answer. Yes, two teenagers running into each other in a haunted house late at night might conceivably say things like this, but why does the reader need to see them say it?

Actually, why does the reader need to see this character say that? is a pretty good question for the reviser of a Frankenstein manuscript to ask early and often, especially when going over a scene that doesn’t go much of anywhere for a third of a page or more. (Hey, Millicent often doesn’t read more than that before deciding to reject a manuscript. Screeners read fast.) In a good submission or contest entry, there’s no such thing as a throw-away line, after all.

As we discussed yesterday, any line of dialogue unequivocally worth keeping exhibits one or more of the following characteristics: it either advances/complicates/resolves a plot point, reveals some interesting and relevant aspect of a character previously unseen in the book, or is interesting, amusing, and/or entertaining in its own right. As the closer readers among you may have noticed, practically none of the dialogue in the example above rises to any of these challenges.

So what’s a savvy reviser to do? Well, we have a number of options. We could back the timeline up a bit, to begin with an interesting character in an interesting situation.

Kathy felt fingers running gently through the sweaty tendrils on the back of her neck. So Evan did like her enough to meet her in the haunted house at midnight. “I don’t scare that easily.”

He didn’t answer. She tilted her head, resting it on his caressing hand. It was ice-cold. And bonier than she remembered.

“Okay, enough with the Halloween jokes.” She wiggled in his grasp. He was surprisingly strong for a chess club captain. “Your girlfriend may like this kid stuff, but…”

The side of her head hit the claw-footed bathtub so hard that she saw stars. She’d always thought seeing stars was a myth, just like the Holton Hall ghost. Water flowed over her face, smothering any further thought but escape.

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Thinking objectively, which opening would be more likely to spur you to keep reading, this or the first version?

And THAT is why, in case you were curious, writing gurus urge students to begin their works with a hook, to establish interest right away. But capturing a reader’s interest — particularly a professional reader’s interest — is not like tag: once you’ve hooked ‘em, they don’t necessarily remain hooked. Think of maintaining interest as being akin to love: no matter how hard someone falls for you at first, if you do not keep wooing, that interest is going to flag sooner or later.

Too many aspiring writers take their readers’ interest for granted, an often-costly assumption. So let’s talk wooing strategy.

In the industry, the standard term for what keeps a reader turning pages is tension. All too frequently, writers new to the game confuse it with suspense, but suspense is plot-specific: a skillful writer sets up an array of events in such a way as to keep the reader guessing what will happen next. In a suspenseful plot, that writing-fueled curiosity keeps the reader glued to the page between plot points.

Suspense, in other words, is why one doesn’t get up in the middle of a Hitchcock film to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge, unless there’s a commercial break. You want to see what is going to happen next.

Tension, on the other hand, can stem from a lot of sources, mostly character-generated, rather than plot-generated: the reader wants to know how the protagonist is going to respond next, a different kettle of fish entirely. Sometimes tension-rich dilemmas are plot points, but not always – and this gives the writer a great deal of freedom, since it’s a rare plot that can maintain a major twist on every page.

Or even every other page. (THE DA VINCI CODE, anyone?)

Some of the greatest contemporary examples of consistent tension in novels are the HARRY POTTER books. Actually, not a lot happens in most of the books in this series, particularly in the early chapters: kids go to school; they learn things; they have difficulty discerning the difference between epoch-destroying evil and a teacher who just doesn’t like them very much; Harry saves the world again.

Of course, the lessons they learn in the classroom ultimately help them triumph over evil, but that’s not what makes the HARRY POTTER books so absorbing. It’s the incredibly consistent tension. If J.K. Rowling’s publisher infused each page with heroin, rather than with ink, her writing could hardly be more addictive; there’s a reason that kids sit up for a day and a half to read them straight through. With the exception of the first 50 pages of the last book (hey, I’m an editor: it’s my job to call authors on their writing lapses), the tension scarcely flags for a line at a time.

Technically, that’s a writing marvel, a achieved not by magic, but by doing precisely the opposite of what the movie and TV scripts with which we’re all inundated tend to do: she gives her characters genuine quirks substantial enough to affect their relationships and problems that could not be solved within half an hour by any reasonably intelligent person.

Rather than making the reader guess WHAT is going to happen next, well-crafted tension lands the reader in the midst of an unresolved moment — and then doesn’t resolve it immediately. This encourages the reader to identify with a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) to try to figure out how that character could get out of that particular dilemma. The more long-term and complicated the dilemma, the greater its capacity for keeping the tension consistently high.

A popular few: interpersonal conflict manifesting between the characters; interpersonal conflict ABOUT to manifest between the characters; the huge strain required from the characters to keep interpersonal conflict from manifesting. Also on the hit parade: sexual energy flying between two characters (or more), but not acted upon; love, hatred, or any other strong emotion flying from one character to another, spoken or unspoken. Or even the protagonist alone, sitting in his room, wondering if the walls are going to collapse upon him.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for judging whether a scene exhibits sufficient tension: if you would be comfortable living through the moment described on the page, the scene may not provide enough tension to keep the reader riveted to the page. Polite conversation, for instance, when incorporated into dialogue, is almost always a tension-breaker.

“But wait!” I hear some of you slice-of-life aficionados out there cry. “I hate to be redundant with the questions, but shouldn’t dialogue EVER reflect how people speak in real life?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it should, insofar as good dialogue reflects plausible regional differences, personal quirks, and educational levels. I’ve heard many an agent and editor complain about novels where every character speaks identically, or where a third-person narrative reads in exactly the same cadence and tone as the protagonist’s dialogue. Having a Texan character use terms indigenous to Maine (unless that character happens to be a relative of our last president’s, of course) is very likely to annoy a screener conversant with the dialect choices of either area.

Yes, Virginia, the pros honestly do notice these little things. That’s one of the many, many reasons that it is an excellent idea for you to read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you mail or e-mail it off; it really is the best way to catch this flavor of writing problem.

But it’s just a fact of the art form that the vast majority of real-life dialogue is deadly dull when committed to print. While the pleasantries of manners undoubtedly make interpersonal relationships move more smoothly, they are rote forms, and the problem with rote forms is that utilizing them absolutely precludes saying anything spontaneous. Or original.

Or — and this is of primary importance in a scene — surprising. Think about it: when’s the last time someone with impeccable manners made you gasp with astonishment?

Even rude real-life conversation can be very dull on the page. If you don’t believe this, try this experiment:

1. Walk into a crowded café alone, sit down at a table near a couple engaged in an argument (not all that difficult to find, alas) and start taking notes.

2. Go home and write up their actual words — no cheating — as a scene.

3. Read it over afterward. Does it work dramatically? Is it character-revealing? Or do these people sound generic and their bickering dull?

99% of the time, even if the couple upon whom you eavesdropped were fighting or contemplating robbing a bank or discussing where to stash Uncle Harry’s long-dead body, a good editor would cut over half of what the speakers said. And if the two were in perfect agreement, the entire scene would probably go.

Why? Because real-life conversation is both repetitious and vague, as a general rule. It also tends to be chock-full of clichés, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, jokes that do not translate at all to print, and pop culture references that will surely be outdated in a year or two.

In a word: boring to everyone but the participants. It’s an insult to the art of eavesdropping.

So is, incidentally, dialogue that insists upon showing the reader every pause or hesitation, however miniscule. Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that a speaker stops saying anything for a moment is not invariably important enough to record for posterity. Nor is it, in itself, interesting.

You’re not believing me again, aren’t you? Okay, smarty pants, take a gander at this relatively commonplace example of this type of dialogue.

Sheila stopped in mid-step. “Edmond, what’s wrong? Are you…”

He hesitated before answering. “I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“But are you…I mean, is it something we need to worry about?”

“You worry too much, Sheila.” He paused. “But I should probably get to…a doctor. Or even…a hospital?”

“A hospital!” She couldn’t say anything else for a second. Then she grew brisk: “Edmond, you’re not…thinking clearly. I’m taking you to the emergency room, now.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. Do you need to lean on me to get to the car?”

Quite heavy ellipsis for just a few lines of text, isn’t it? Apart from being repetitive on the page, all of those dots aren’t really adding much to the scene. As those of you who are editing for length will be delighted to see, most of them could be cut entirely without changing the conflict or decreasing the tension of the scene at all.

Look at how painlessly those pauses may be minimized — and while we’re at it, let’s excise some of that redundancy as well:

Sheila stopped in mid-step. “Edmond, what’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. Just a minor arrhythmia.”

“Is it something we need to worry about?”

“You worry too much, Sheila.” He took in a shuddering breath. “But I should probably get to a doctor. Or even a hospital.”

She grew brisk: “I’m taking you to the emergency room, now.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. Do you need to lean on me to get to the car?”

See? All I retained was one reference to stopping and one ellipsis — but the scene is, if anything, more full of tension than when Sheila and Edmond were wasting all of our time by speaking so slowly.

That’s right, those of you who just gasped — I did say that wasting our time. Professional readers aren’t the only ones who tend to bore quickly when faced with dialogue whose primary recommendation is realism.

“But Anne,” the gaspers protest, “I thought the point of good writing was to show the reader the world as it actually is! If their eyes are going to glaze over just because I show a pause or two — which actual people do all the time in the real world, by the way — or include a few pleasantries, how is it going to be remotely possible for me to tell the realistic tale I want to tell?”

It’s more than remotely possible, reality-lovers — it’s probable, provided that you concentrate on what is surprising and interesting about that tale. Usually, the best way to achieve this is to focus upon what is unique about your self-described ordinary characters, rather than how they are just like everybody else.

That’s a taller order than it might at first appear, from an editing perspective. Far too often, slice-of-lifers and Everyman-producers will not differentiate between the expected ordinary details and the specific quirks of individual characters; their Frankenstein manuscripts tend to include everything, up to and including the kitchen sink. The trick to revising such text is to winnow out what the reader might expect to be there, so the genuinely unusual personalities of your real-life characters can shine forth.

Strong character development is as much about what the writer chooses to leave out as what s/he elects to leave in, after all. Mundane, predictable statements, however likely characters like yours may be to utter them in real life, seldom reveal much about the speaker’s personality, do they?

And that’s doubly true if more than one character says the same types of things. Yes, real people do frequently echo their kith and kin in real life, but unless you prefer to define true-to-life as synonymous with dull, I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that you can’t come up with something different for each character to say.

The same holds true for individual quirks. The more seemingly ordinary your protagonist, the more you ought to consider giving him a unique trait or two. Remember, one reader’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

Ah, the gaspers seem to have caught their breath again. Yes? “But Anne, what you’re saying is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality in our prose? Weren’t we all ordered to write what you know? Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I?”

Unfortunately, no — judging by contest entries and submissions, quite a few writers did. But let’s pause for a moment — you’ll like that, won’t you, slice-of-lifers? — to consider just how reflective of real life those Writing 101 standards actually were. Universality, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men; exhortations to write what you know led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle-class white teenagers, mostly male. And the popularity of the slice-of-life short story (it’s awfully hard to maintain for an entire novel) left many of us sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s point of view, all of the good students obediently following this advice has resulted in a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. Every day, she reads of universal protagonists (read: ordinary people) in situations that their authors know intimately (read: ordinary life) acutely observed (read: the ordinary seen through a magnifying glass).

It’s not that some of these many, many stories aren’t well-written; many of them are. And there’s nothing wrong with portraying all of that ordinariness, per se. It’s just that Millicent sees so darned much of it that it’s hard for an average Joe or Jane protagonist in an ordinary situation not to strike her as…

Well, you get the picture.

Whether that slice-of-life story is presented as fiction or memoir (a book category where it tends to work better on the page), ordinary characters may never be excused for being dull or predictable. Not in a manuscript submission, not in a contest entry, and not in a published book. Millicent is screening to find the extraordinary manuscript, the one with the fresh worldview, spin, or writing style applied to a story about a character (or characters) who are different enough from character(s) she’s seen before to remain interesting for the length of an entire book.

Aspiring writers, particularly memoirists, often seem to fail to take that last part into account when preparing their submissions: if the story presented does not appear from the very first line on page 1 to be about a fascinating person in an intriguing situation, the manuscript is going to be a tough sell to everyone from Millicent to her boss to an editor at a publishing house to a contest judge.

So if a book is about an Everyman living a life with which an ordinary reader might identify, it’s IMPERATIVE that he demonstrate some way in which either he or his story is not ordinary right away. Why? Because otherwise, the manuscript is far too likely to get dismissed as just not very interesting or surprising.

It’s not for nothing, you know, that agents complain about how many submissions they see that took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story took too much time to warm up, as well as the ever-popular not enough action on page 1. These complaints are reflective of the hard reality they see on a daily basis: many, if not most, first pages have no conflict on them at all, but are purely set-up.

Such an opening scene may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from the business side of the industry’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — a slow opening translates into hard to sell.

The ordinariness of characters, that is, is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. An interesting character in an interesting situation is featured in practically all of their personal ads advice on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOT paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie.

That sort of thing. In Millicent’s world, interesting and surprising are synonymous more often than fans of the ordinary might think.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure to his team? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?)

So I ask you: isn’t it possible for you to work an element of surprise onto page 1 of your submission, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

Before you chafe at that request, remember that lack of surprise can render a protagonist less likable, even for readers who do not, like Millicent, drop a book like a hot coal if the first few paragraphs don’t grab them. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, given how often writing teachers lecture about the importance of opening with a hook, this justification for keeping the opening lively is seldom mentioned, but it is in fact true: ordinary characters tend not to be all that engaging, precisely because they are average, and thus predictable.

For most readers, an unpredictable jerk is more interesting to follow than a beautifully-mannered bore, after all. It’s hard to blame Millicent and her cronies for that.

Or if it won’t work in your story to open with something surprising, how about vitally important? I don’t necessarily mean important on the global scale, but within the world of the story you’re telling.

Seriously, one of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to elevate the importance of what is going on in the opening to that character. A protagonist or narrator’s caring passionately about the outcome of a conflict practically always renders a scene more interesting, because it prompts the reader to care about the outcome, too. (Of course, this is a whole lot easier to pull off in an opening scene that features a conflict, right?)

Whatever you revisers of Frankenstein manuscripts do, however, do not under any circumstances allow the reader to become bored for even so much as a sentence of page 1. Or to be able to predict what the next line of dialogue will be. If your current opening scene cannot be edited to avoid both of these dreadful fates, consider beginning your submission with a different scene.

I ask you again: were you drawn into Kathy’s story faster when you saw her attacked by a water-loving ghost, or when she was chatting with a classmate after she’d fought off the spook?

Believe me, “boring” is absolutely the last adjective you want to spring to Millicent’s mind while she’s perusing your work. Even “annoying” is better, because at least then the manuscript is eliciting a reaction of some sort. But once the screener has a chance to think, “I’m bored with this,” if the next line does not re-introduce tension, chances are that the submission is going to end up in the reject pile.

That’s the VERY next line; you can’t count upon your manuscript’s ending up on the desk of someone who is going to willing to be bored for a few paragraphs. Or hadn’t I mentioned that as a group, professional readers bore fast.

Try not to hold it against them. I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: the vast majority of manuscripts suffer from a chronic lack of tension.

Dull dialogue that does not reveal interesting things about the characters saying it is a primary culprit. I know, I know, being courteous seems as though it should make your protagonist more likable to the reader, but frankly, “Yes, thank you, George,” could be spoken by anyone. It doesn’t add much to any scene. And reading too many pages of real-life dialogue is like being trapped in a cocktail party with people you don’t know very well for all eternity.

“Deliver us from chit-chat!” the Millicents moan, rattling the chains that shackle them to their grim little desks clustered together under those flickering, eye-destroying fluorescent lights. “Oh, God, not another attractive stranger who asks, ‘So, have you been staying here long?’”

You’re just the writer to answer their prayers, aren’t you? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVIII: were you leading up to a point, Chatty Cathy? Or just killing some time with conversation?

chatty cathy doll

When last we met, I was urging you, through the oh-so-subtle means of inundating you with example after example, into an appreciation of just how annoying redundant, non-character-revealing, or just plain dull dialogue can be to someone who reads manuscripts for hours on end. Like, say, Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge.

Why bring this up in the midst of an ongoing series on self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript? Well, several reasons. First — and it pains me to tell you this — more otherwise well-written submissions and contest entries drop precipitously in M & M’s respective esteems due to lackluster dialogue than is generally believed. Due to the pervasiveness of this phenomenon (and we’re gearing up for the second reason here), typically, one of the quickest, easiest ways to cut length off an over-long manuscript is to track down and excise the ordinary, everyday dialogue, the chatter that neither advances the plot, creates interesting conflict in the moment, or reveals character.

How can I state that so confidently? Because almost every writer who has taken an English composition course was told repeatedly that good dialogue should sound real, the average novel or memoir manuscript overflows with dialogue that’s apparently there simply because people say those types of things.

Which is not to say that striving to make your dialogue realistic is bad writing advice. It’s very good advice — but what the vast majority of composition teachers should have added immediately thereafter yet did not was an explanation that real-sounding dialogue and the things that people actually say in real life are not the same thing.

The former rings true on the page; while the latter can sometimes be very interesting, it can also lull the reader into a deep, deep slumber. Trust me, when people talk about an author with a good ear for dialogue, they’re referring to someone who consistently produces real-sounding dialogue, not someone who simply holds a microphone up to life and records the unedited results on the page.

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

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

“Oh,” Babette said. “You’re home.”

Rufus nursed the thumb the dodo trod upon earlier. “Yeah.”

“Have a nice day?”

“Um-hm.”

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

“Yeah. We sure got wet that day.“

“Ham sound good for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

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

Ordinary dialogue makes her especially antsy — again, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but if I don’t, who will? — on page 1. And that’s unfortunate, since this kind of chat is quite popular in the opening pages of manuscripts.

Why would the dialogue above have annoyed Millicent? Well, cast your eyes over it and tell me: what’s going on here? What is this story about? Who are these people, and why are 7 of the 10 opening lines of this story wasted on dialogue that doesn’t even begin to answer any of these questions?

Already, I see some hands raised out there in the ether. “But Anne,” writers of the real everywhere protest, and who can blame them? “It’s unfair to assume that every reader, even professional ones, would be turned off by the example above, even if it did appear on page 1. I think that Millicent and Mehitabel would be intrigued by its very terseness; I believe it would render them more likely to keep reading, not less, if only to find out what’s going on. I, for one, want to hear more about that dodo bite.”

I’m glad you brought that up, mythical hand-raisers, because the strategy of withholding basic information from the reader in an opening scene in order to create curiosity about what is to come is a suspense-building technique popular only with aspiring writers. Established writers soon learn not to do it, for the exceedingly simple reason that professional readers like Millicent, Mehitabel, and even Maury, Millie’s cousin who works as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, tend not to find this kind of opening titillating.

How do they regard it? Negatively, almost always. There’s even a term for it: false suspense.

That’s also the term for when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now. Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense.

I’m not here to talk about plotting today, however — but don’t worry; I’ll be coming back to it later in this series. For now, suffice it to say that even if you are one of those writers who absolutely adores reproducing everyday speech down to the last grunt and hesitation, you might want to keep those mundanities off of page 1 of your submission. Or page 2. Or, really, out of the opening chapter.

You wouldn’t want Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury to mistake your submission for the hundreds of thousands of others that don’t have as good an ear for dialogue as you do, right?

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

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

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

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

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

But I apply a slightly different twist to it. For each line of dialogue, I ask myself: Is this here because it needs to be, or just because it’s something a character like this would say? In memoir and reality-based fiction, it can indeed be there simply because someone actually did say it — but is this particular line essential to the story being told here? And regardless of whether it’s a quote or not, if it isn’t either plot-advancing, character-revealing, or interesting in its own right, does it really need to be on the page at all?

Why, yes, you’re right, everyone who just grabbed the nearest sofa cushion and screamed into it: that is an awfully high standard to apply to every single line of dialogue in a manuscript. Your point?

To help the rest of you understand why your fellow readers felt faint at the mere thought of placing their manuscripts under that powerful a microscope, let’s take a gander at a species of dialogue gets under your garden-variety Millicent’s skin like wet sand under a swimsuit: the de facto monologue.

You know, the kind of ostensible dialogue that involves one character talking about something, while the other character doesn’t really add much to the conversation. It tends to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Steve replied.

“You can say that again. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”

“Um-hm.”

“I’ll bet you did. You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No.” Steve was crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Antoinette dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?”

“Could be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You think I’m blaming the victims?”

“I never said that.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Steve serving in this conversation, other than providing validation, the opposite of conflict? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of mostly colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. We all know by this juncture, I hope, how Millicent and her ilk feel about that in a submission: “Next!”

Even if you find none of those excellent arguments for revision convincing, there’s another, quite practical one you might want to consider. Just look, self-editors concerned about the fact that your manuscript is 40 pages longer than the expected length for a first book in your category, at how much shorter this scene would be if it were presented as an actual monologue:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Antoinette fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car. I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Saying that women don’t know anything about cars is sure a lousy sales technique. Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

While Steve crawled into the passenger seat via the smashed back window, she dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. She set about hot-wiring the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition.

“Or maybe it’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it?” The engine roared. “Bingo, baby! I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Steve murmured, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

See? Steve’s silence makes his unwillingness to argue every bit as clear as his bland continual agreement did above. So what would have been the payoff for retaining his chatter?

Perhaps more to the point, if such lightly-disguised monologues provide neither character development, interesting inter-character conflict, nor, frankly, many sentences worth preserving for posterity, why are they so very popular with aspiring writers? Expediency, mostly: there’s no denying that having a protagonist, villain, or crucial minor character suddenly hold forth like Hamlet is a mighty efficient way to convey information to a reader.

But from the professional reader’s point of view, this use of page space is not efficient at all: it’s the narrative equivalent of having a play’s lead excuse himself to the other characters mid-scene, walk to the edge of the stage, and say, “Look, I really don’t have time to convey everything you need to know in dramatic form, so I’m simply going to tell you what would have happened in the next couple of scenes if we had bothered to stage them, okay?”

It’s not okay, at least according to Millicent. She’s reading your manuscript partially in order to find out how you tell a story — is it honestly in your interest to make her read through filler before reaching your best writing?

Ditto with dialogue that repeats what the reader already knows, as in that archetype of easily cut-able scenes, the one where the protagonist tells another character what happened in a previous scene. As in what the reader has just read. This might be defensible if the protagonist were adding a new twist on the information, but most of the time, s/he recaps the information exactly as the reader has already experienced it because — you can see this coming, can’t you? — it’s what a reasonable person might do in real life.

How easily cut-able are such scenes, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s rare that an accurate retelling, even one that takes up pages of text, could not be summed up in a single sentence: Sheila ran back to the classroom and told everyone what had happened.

Here’s an axiom for the ages: by definition, redundant text adds nothing new to a narrative. It merely takes up space.

That answer didn’t mollify some of you reality-huggers, did it? “But Anne, isn’t realism valuable in and of itself? I know plenty of people who effectively have their own catchphrases.”

As do I, as it happens. In fact, I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, both her father AND her uncle spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no. So I ask you: would it or would it not be a good means of revealing the background of a character from my home town to incorporate it repeatedly in the text? What about using it as that character’s personal catchphrase?

Pardon my asking, but what precisely would it reveal about her character — other than the not-very-interesting fact that she uses this phrase often? If it does not add anything to the dialogue other than repetition, what possible incentive could I have to reproduce this verbal tick except so readers who already knew the person upon whom the fictional (or memoir) character was based would recognize her?

Is that honestly a good enough reason to bore all of those potential readers who have never had the pleasure of making her acquaintance? Would those excellent souls gain anything but chagrin out of my fidelity in reproducing a rather annoying true-life speech pattern on the page?

The answer to all of those seemingly rhetorical questions was no, by the way. The fact that a real-life person a writer has chosen to use as a character in a book really speaks repetitively does not justify forcing the reader to put up with it.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of the phrases that actually were typical of my home town, real-life tropes that actual people say bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

Mrs. Price: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

Mrs. Darter: “I was picking peaches. Sure is a great crop this year. How did your dentist appointment go?”

Mrs. Price: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

Mrs. Darter: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. Haven’t seen her for a while. She’s not married yet, is she?”

Mrs. Price: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie.

Dr. Mini: Oh, hello, Mrs. Price. Hello, Mrs. Darter.

Mrs. Darter: I haven’t seen you in a long time, dear. Moving back to town, I hope?

Mrs. Price: Or just visiting friends who have been loyal enough to return to the town that nurtured them as babes?”

Dr. Mini: (Seeking escape route.) How’s your son, Mrs. Price? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to significant other, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

Mrs. Darter: And how’s your mother?

Dr. Mini: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you both.

Mrs. Price: Give my regards to your mother. Tell her that we hope to see her soon.

Dr. Mini: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to (thinks hard) Bobby.

Mrs. Price: Well?

Mrs. Darter: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Mrs. Price: Just wait until I tell Bobby. At least he’ll be pleased.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not, as I mentioned, necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality? And why oh why do we learn so little about Bobby?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life. (But trust me, you don’t want to know more about Bobby. His character strikes me as inherently hostile to development.)

More to the point of this series, the boring bits of this ripped-from-reality dialogue would be significantly more difficult to edit out of a manuscript than a linguistic trope such as my old pal’s “like I said…” Cutting the latter would a particularly easy edit, not only because the writer could simply use the FIND function in word to excise it, but because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice).

But reworking the exchange above to render it snappy? That would take an almost complete rewrite. Nevertheless, one of the best places for a self-editor to start looking to trim manuscript fat — or even eliminate entire scenes — is generally in scenes taken directly from real life. Most writers cut-worthy include elements in such scenes simply because it happened that way, not because those elements or lines of dialogue add crucial elements to the scene.

To put it bluntly, blandness tends to linger in reality — and that’s potentially problematic at the submission stage. To paraphrase one of Millicent’s most frequent exclamations, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”

While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener — and an even worse agent — his observation might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: some screeners and contest judges’ maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is well under a minute.

So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15; it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito. Not that every Millicent, Mehitabel, or Maury would stop reading that quickly — but enough of them would that it just doesn’t make strategic sense to take a chance.

Especially on page 1. Had I mentioned that?

Oh, seven or eight times? Funny, I hadn’t noticed. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XVII: minimizing dialogue predictability, or, hot enough for you?

beach day

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m rather proud of this photograph, one of the best I’ve taken in an awfully long time. Over and above the fact that I like how it turned out (especially the wave details), I shot it while flat on my back (my injured back, to be specific) at an extremely crowded beach, yet it looks as though these two fine fellows were the only beachcombers for miles around.

It just goes to show you: whether you are taking a snapshot of friends or constructing a narrative, perspective choice is key. So is knowing what to cut out — in this case, the three surfers, arguing couple, and half a dozen assorted tanners lying around just outside this shot.

Ah, once the urge to edit creeps into the soul, it’s hard not to let it creep into every aspect of one’s life. Wouldn’t those of you caught in the heat wave currently sweeping the U.S., for instance, just love to have the ability to cut from reality iterations #2 – 742 of “Hot enough for ya?” you’ve heard within the last week?

Oh, you laugh now. But just see if you aren’t reaching mentally for the Liquid Erase the next time you hear someone say it.

On the page, of course, such conversational redundancy tends to make one reach for something else — a scissors, to cut the repetitive (and thus predictable) dialogue right out of the book. Of course, Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge don’t need to slice and dice dull dialogue literally; all they have to do is reject or disqualify it.

Not sure why characters echoing one another — which, after all, people do all the time in real life; there’s a reason most sitcoms lean so heavily on catchphrases for laughs — gets old fast on the page? Okay, let’s listen in on a representative sample:

Absent-mindedly, Barb wheeled her loaded grocery cart into the next aisle. “Oh, hi, Ellen.”

“Hello, Barb,” Ellen replied. “Hot enough for you?”

“Sure is. How are the kids?”

“Oh, fine. They grow up so fast, don’t they? How are yours?”

“Oh, I can’t complain. We sure could use some rain.”

“We sure could. Oh, here’s Ed. Hello, Ed.”

Ed was indeed slouching his way toward the canned goods. “Hi, Ellen. Hi, Barb. Hot enough for ya?”

“Hi, Ed,” said Barb. “It sure is. How’s the wife?”

“Oh, fine, fine. How’s yours?”

“Just fine,” Barb said.

“Mine, too,” Ellen added. “How are your twins doing, Ed?”

He shook his head ruefully. “They grow up so fast. Hey, here comes Jeremy. Hi, Jeremy! Hot enough for ya?”

Everyone laughed merrily. “It sure is,” Jeremy said, clutching a swiftly-melting carton of ice cream to his chest.

Had enough? They haven’t — but Millicent, I assure you, abandoned this page long ago. Why? Well, it’s just not very interesting, is it?

That made some of you drop your ice cream cones, didn’t it? “But Anne,” lovers of realism exclaim, mopping your dripping brows, “that’s how people talk in real life! You don’t seriously expect us to believe that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Actually, yes, I do. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on in a scene. Or not character- or situation-revealing. Or, as we’ve seen above, just not all that exciting.

To put it as Millicent might: is it the writer’s job to be a transcriptionist, furiously scribbling down everything a real person does or might say in a particular situation — or is the goal of writing well to improve upon reality, offering the reader not merely what s/he might hear on any street corner, but dialogue that exposes emotion, creates conflict,

That immense mouthful was a rhetorical question, by the way. From Millicent’s perspective, if any given line of dialogue doesn’t either advance the plot, reveal character, increase conflict, or add some new dimension to the scene, it should go.

Yes, even if people say it all the time in real life. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, and excu-u-u-se me!

(Note to readers under 30: that last bit would amuse readers who happened to be watching American TV in the late 1970s, just as “You look mahvaleous,” might still bring a grin to viewers who recall the mid-1980s. As you will note, the phrase that had ‘em rolling in the aisles then are not particularly amusing now, but people did in fact repeat them with astonishing frequency back then. You had to be there, I guess.)

Nothing dates a manuscript so fast as TV or movie catchphrases. (”I don’t know karate, but I do know car-azy.” Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) That may not sound like much of a problem for those of you planning to see your work in print imminently, but frankly, it’s likely to worry Millicent or Mehitabel.

Why, you ask? Because — long-time readers, feel free to sing along with me now — manuscripts take a while to make it into print. A catchphrase that’s sweeping the nation today may well be passé or even forgotten by the time a book containing it hits the shelves.

Let’s be practical for a moment, shall we? Even if a manuscript wins an agent’s heart tomorrow, the agent will probably request revisions before submitting it to agents at publishing houses. Editors’ desks are almost invariably piled high with a backlog of submissions, so again, even if it wows the first editor who reads it, she may not have time to read it for a few months. Few novel manuscripts sell on their first round of editorial submissions, so multiply the number of editors your agent wants to see it by even a couple of months, and the book may be circulating for a year or two. Then, once some lucky editor acquires it, even if he does not want revisions (which he probably will), it’s usually at least a year between contract signing and book release. Sometimes more.

For nonfiction, the timing’s even less predictable. Yes, it’s substantially less time-consuming to write a book proposal than an entire book, but once you have it in hand, all of the same time restrictions on agents and editors’ reading time still apply. And don’t forget to add in the time you will need to write the book itself after a publisher picks it up — publication contracts vary, but anywhere from six months to a year and a half is fairly standard. After that, the publisher will have to approve the manuscript (which may entail, you guessed it, more revision) before it can be placed in the print queue…and that’s not even taking into account the fact that certain types of books tend to be released at certain times of year…

Oh, and some of you are working on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, aren’t you? How long do you anticipate that will take?

Getting the picture? More importantly, are you still absolutely certain that the catchphrase that seemed so hip and trendy when you originally typed it last spring will still read as fresh when the first edition of your book first falls into grateful readers’ hands?

To compress all of this into a revision tip: unless your story is set in a specific period in the past, consider cutting current cultural references and colloquialisms. Believe it or not, the day will come — and it’s probably not all that far in the future — when teenagers will roll their eyes when adults-trying-to-be-cool say, “Whatever!”

That’s SO 2005, Grandpa.

Even if your chosen catchphrase is historically appropriate for the setting of your book (dig it, man!), keep an eye on how often it crops up in the text. Repetition is repetition, after all, and a character who repeats herself too often is, among other things, predictable.

It’s also very, very easy to go overboard with the cultural references; one too many, and your character may come across as a stereotype. It’s perfectly fine to differentiate between a pair of sisters by having one’s junior high crush be on David Cassidy, while her young sister later swooned over Shaun, for instance, but must the elder also continually hum John Denver tunes, creating macramé plant holders, and talking about Watergate while wearing her Laurie Partridge pantsuit over a burned bra as she sports a yin-yang ring to P.E. classes still unaffected by Title 9? And is it really necessary for the younger to toss her Farrah over her Leif Garrett albums while simultaneously watching the Muppets and mourning the demise of Sid Vicious?

Hands up, any of you who caught all of those cultural references. If you did, please turn to the blank-eyed person next to you and explain them. Don’t be deterred by their persistent yawns; I’m sure the young will be amused to learn what albums were.

And if your first instinct was to point out huffily that there was never actually an event where bras were burned (the cliché actually comes from the public burnings of Vietnam-era draft cards, transposed into a different social movement), or that a Leif Garrett fan would NEVER have been listening to the Sex Pistols, well, you’re right. But having a firm grip on historical realism does not give you carte blanche to start carting in cultural references by the wheelbarrow load.

I assure you, they are not indispensable. Whenever you find one in your text, ask yourself: is this detail meaningful enough to keep? Or could I convey an accurate feeling of the time and place through more unusual — and therefore less expected — means?

While you are scanning your text for redundant dialogue, catchphrases, and soon-to-be-dated cultural references, bear in mind that television and movies often shape day-to-day speech in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the standard first response upon hearing that someone has experienced bereavement: I’m so sorry for your loss.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with expressing sympathy that way, inherently, but think back a decade or two: did real people say this much before police officers on TV shows and in movies began spouting it every time they encountered a victim’s family?

Even if you want your characters to sound as though they’re playing bit parts on a Law & Order spin-off (because that’s not a cultural reference that will puzzle stumblers upon this post ten years hence), is parroting a standard impersonal phrase really the most character- or situation-revealing way those characters could respond to something as inherently dramatic as the news of a death? Isn’t saying precisely what anyone might say something of a waste of dialogue space?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: predictability is the enemy of snappy dialogue, and while the polite phrases that everybody uses are nice to encounter in real life, they can be deadly dull on the page. Compare, please, this series of events, ripped from real-life dialogue:

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thank you for telling me, Sergeant Jones.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The officer gave a sympathetic smile. “But I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Oh, of course, of course.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, Shane excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss,” Ted said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, nothing.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“That’s okay,” Shane said vaguely, wondering if thank you were actually the proper response.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” the desk clerk said. “You’ll find the forms you need over there.”

Eloquence did not come easily. Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

“Well, you can take it home and bring it in later.” The clerk smiled at him. “Don’t worry.”

“We’re sorry for your loss,” the receptionist called after him as he stalked out of the building.

As you may see, these characters are simply say what is socially acceptable these days. Again, people do this all the time in real life, but does it make for either exciting or character-revealing dialogue? Are at least some of these stock responses substitutes for some potentially interesting dialogue.

You be the judge — but before you decide, let me stack the deck with some evidence that this scene could have been handled to better effect.

Shane wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I suppose I should be grateful, Sergeant Jones.”

“Nobody likes hearing bad news.” The officer gave a sympathetic shrug. “Or what I have to say next: I’m afraid you will need to fill out some paperwork.”

“Of course,” Shane muttered. “It’s not as though I have to break the news to my great-grandmother or anything.”

Becoming overwhelmed the midst of a seemingly endless series of questions, her excused himself on the pretext of wanting a cigarette. He called his boss to explain that he wouldn’t be coming to work in the afternoon, either.

“Well, I suppose we could have somebody else rearrange the cat food display.” Ted’s tone implied that the lack of Shane’s unique stacking savvy might well send Cats R Us into immediate bankruptcy. “But get here as soon as you can.”

No, thanks: there’s nothing you can do. I’m fine, really. “I appreciate it.”

Two cigarette breaks, five cups of watery coffee, and a bad case of writer’s cramp later, Sgt. Jones said he could go. “The rest can wait until tomorrow.” He stood up to shake Shane’s hand. “I know it’s hard, but you’re doing a great job.”

“Thank you?,” Shane said vaguely.

Just when he thought he had taken care of everything, he remembered the newspaper. Actually, his wife did. At Jennie’s prompting, he made a detour to the Tribune Dispatch Examiner Times.

“Oh, God, you’re the third walk-in today.” The desk clerk pointed to a cluttered table on the far side of the room. “You’ll find the forms you need over there. The deadline for tomorrow’s edition is in ten minutes, so chop-chop.”

Eloquence did not come easily to him under normal circumstances, but with the clerk helpfully counting down the minutes like some misplaced staffer from the NASA launch command center, he found it difficult even to spell Terry’s middle name correctly. Feeling like a failure, Shane crumpled the half-filled-out obituary form in his hand and went sheepishly back to the front desk. “I don’t think I can fill this out right now.”

The clerk sighed gustily. “Well, I didn’t know the guy.”

The obituary editor caught him just as he was in the act of slamming the office door. “You can take the form home and fill it out there, you know.” He produced a fresh copy. To Shane, its very blankness was a threat. “You can bring it back whenever you want. Or,” he lowered his voice, presumably so the clerk would not hear him, “mail it in.”

Just one of a multiplicity of possibilities, of course. Frequently, too-polite interactions stifle genuine human interaction. While manners ease social tensions, drama demands conflict.

So here’s a suggestion for revising polite chatter: make at least one of the parties less polite, and see what happens. Maybe it will be interesting.

Speaking of interesting reactions, I have been hearing faint howls of protest for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “that first version felt more real to me. Surely Millicent will be willing to put up with the occasional polite platitude in the interests of realism?”

Think of what you’re saying. Remember, in addition to being predictable, canned polite responses tend to be clichés. Why precisely would Millicent be inclined to skim over hackneyed phrases, except in the hope that something more original may ensue?

More importantly, why would a reader — especially if those predictable courtesies make up any or all of the dialogue on page 1? (Oh, it happens.)

Lest any of you be tempted to dismiss those questions as yet more evidence that marketing concerns are antithetical to art, let me provide you with a solid creative reason to excise the stock responses: real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as writers sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Gary.” Monique picked up the crumpled wad of paper before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the administrative assistant’s desk.

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

“It was on the floor,” Monique stammered awkwardly. “I thought you had dropped it.”

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

“But the recycling bin’s right under your desk!”

“March!”

“I’ll save you a seat in the meeting,” Gary offered, embarrassed.

Celeste turned to him with exaggerated courtesy. “How kind of you, Mr. Coleman, and what a nice tie. It sure is hot out today, isn’t it?”

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Monique obediently took the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the hall. Her boss hated it when anyone missed his opening remarks.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Celeste is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Celeste ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Celeste’s response; fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

Nor does the scene achieve much than make Monique seem like the better person. But if Celeste is not important enough to the storyline to be fleshed out as a character, why should the reader care?

This, in short, is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty, because Celeste was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Celeste — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you attributed it to the fact that his memory of Celeste the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a great big popsicle. (Because it’s hot where you are, isn’t it?) In his mind, the character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

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

And yes, I was darned annoyed, now that you mention it. Yet because I am a good writer and most excellent human being (better than some I could name, at least), I have changed the names, the context, and several significant details to protect the guilty.

But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this tale of woe and uproar, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read AND it advances the plot.

I also might want to keep in mind, while I’m at it, that it’s both unnecessary and annoying to keep reminding the person visibly baking in front of you that it is in fact a hot day. Or humid night, as it is right now. Excuse me while I go drink 17 glasses of ice water, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VIII: but, then, what’s your function?

conjunction junction train

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions. (To summarize their reaction for those of you joining us mid-series: not at all well.) While we’re on the subject, I’d like to digress from classic Frankenstein manuscript problems to tackle a related issue. I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

(And if that very thought made you long to rush out and find a copy of the old Schoolhouse Rock videos for your kids, you may find them here. You can buy them on other sites as well, but this one also features those great old Bop-Em Bozo inflatable punching bags! What’s not to love?)

Undeterred by that rare (for me) parenthetical commercial plug, positive legions of hands shoot into the air, waving for my attention. Yes, grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

In the first place, you’re right: when used properly, then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — include it here.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “they may not BEGIN a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and largely scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

Despite Uncle Alex’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already. Back to your celestial poker game, boys — your heavenly cacophony isn’t going to work.

Arguably, there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph:

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jason stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look like this:

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jason stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes — sorry, Uncle — this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Emily’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Which is, of course, why any of us pay a visit to Conjunction Junction, right?

Before the next train leaves the station, though, a pop quiz: did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first example? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

Any guesses why I made those three changes?

Award yourself a big, fat gold star for the day if you immediately said, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Jason in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And give yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is logically rather redundant. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear all of your muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is nit-picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation (i.e., that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person), back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, so the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Not sure how that might work? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. But you are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to come after me with an axe?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair, but you are fleet of foot in the face of danger; therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to come after me with an axe?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

I’m not going to give you an example of this, because we all hear it so much in everyday speech. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party (they’re coming back, I hear):

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why.)

(2) Tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: it discourages interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

For this reason, aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: to create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to create that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. It’s in their interest: just think how much time Millicent can save in rejecting a submission if she assumes that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over some of your heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

No comment.

Let’s concentrate instead on what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not just matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to my late relatives’ heavenly cohort? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thus risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties, “not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), I’m going to give you some hints about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out the first 5 pages of your submission; if you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

(2) Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and one for then.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even — yes, I see it all the time — per sentence.

(3) Mark where those words appear in your manuscript.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time these words show up on those pages.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most of the ones thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: many professional readers have a visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then that sometimes borders on the paranoiac.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text, because in written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, thenis almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

Yet it is very widely used in submissions as a matter of style — or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice. To professional eyes, though, it’s logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Which brings me back to my earlier suggestion: in your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now THAT’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(5) Turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest, after all.”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next. What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused.

How may you tell the difference? Let’s take a look at some practical examples:

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen was in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this paragraph, because each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, however. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis IS a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, though, it’s worth it, for this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, impatiently waiting for her latte to cool (for once), “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie.

Varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics. That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept flinging THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA at us and quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market. For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice.

Now, however, it’s considered less a matter of style than of marketing. Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome projected for a less erudite audience not liable to electrify a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have (to be fair, the film never indicates that she has any, although her boyfriend does), he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this character would ever use. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but authorial affection is not always sufficient justification. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

Don’t toss out those marked-up Frankenstein pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands!

Yes, yes, I know: today’s picture might well have led a reasonable person to believe that ands would occupy us today, but a girl can only do so much in a single sitting. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part III: the light at the end of the passage, or, but wait, I WANTED it to read that way!

light along castle walls

Over the long holiday weekend (originally dedicated, in case those of you reading this from abroad had been wondering, to remembering the fallen on both sides of the Civil War), I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript. This alarming entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. To professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal Millicent, the agency screener — this kind of patched-together manuscript is indicative of a not-yet-fully-developed authorial voice.

And why is that, boys and girls? Chant it with me now: because a fully-developed voice is consistent throughout the entire narrative.

Everyone with me so far? Except, perhaps, those of you who have had your hands in the air since I started this series?

“But Anne,” the patient many protest, and with good reason, “were we or were we not talking as recently as five weeks ago about multiple-perspective novels? I could see how a third-person novel could maintain an even tone and voice while dealing with different perspectives, but stylistically, I kind of like it when the writing is different when different perspectives are being portrayed. Also, wouldn’t it actually be a very bad idea indeed for a multiple first-person novel to have the same voice throughout?”

Excellent points both, multiple perspective-lovers. An argument, and an exceptionally strong one, could be made for structuring a multiple-perspective third-person narrative so the text ran slower when a more dim-witted character dominated, quicker when a more impatient one prevailed, and so on. An even better argument could be made for giving each first-person narrator a distinctively individual voice. Acting upon either argument well would require a lot of writerly pondering and meticulous craft.

Acting on either would also require an even greater editorial attention than to a manuscript with narrated by a single voice throughout, however. Why? Well, if a writer is going to wow readers by switching between compelling multiple voices, he must (a) develop equally compelling multiple voices, so the reader won’t tire of one or another, (b) render those voices different enough that the reader can easily tell the difference between a scene written in one voice and a scene in a second, and (c) make absolutely sure via rigorous re-reading and revision that there’s no blurring of those voices.

In short, every voice in the book would need to be separately consistent.

But craft wasn’t all that concerned you hand-raisers, was it? “That’s right, Anne,” they instantly reply. “I was thinking more of how Millicent would respond to my multiple-perspective novel’s switches in voice — particularly the one between the first scene (pp. 1-3 of my current manuscript) and the second (pp. 4-17). Isn’t she likely to, you know, assume that my book doesn’t have a consistent voice?”

The short answer: yes — if you do not make it clear in the text whose perspective is whose.

The long and infinitely more disturbing answer: unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, voice-meandering Frankenstein manuscripts are common enough that tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly — at least, if those manuscripts were produced by first-time authors. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally receive in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

Before anyone cries out upon the inherent unfairness of this, allow me to do it for you: there are many, many fine examples of good books where authors have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. It’s especially common in literary fiction.

For instance, if you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE. In this novel-cum-historical account-cum narrative nonfiction book, Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person point of view (POV, for the rest of this post, to spare my back a bit of typing time), straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession.

It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she, Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

Which is, in case you had been wondering, one of the primary reasons Millicents usually object to narrative shifts: in multiple POV manuscript submissions, it’s not always clear when the perspective switches from one character to another. It’s especially confusing if the different viewpoints — or worse, various narrators in a multiple first-person narrative — are written in too-similar voices.

Is everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? A Frankenstein manuscript often displays unintentionally displays a multiplicity of voices, tones, vocabulary levels, etc. A well-written multiple POV novel, by contrast, presents each point of view and/or first-person narrative voice as distinctly different, so the reader doesn’t have any trouble following who is in the driver’s seat when, plot-wise.

Or, to put it another way, the Frankenstein manuscript is evidence of a lack of authorial control, consistency, and often, proofreading; a good multiple POV narrative is beautiful evidence of a sure authorial touch, a strong sense of character, and great attention to detail.

That does not, however, mean that the latter would necessarily find favor with Millicent, it is just a hard fact of submission that it’s a whole lot easier for an established author to impress professional readers with a multiple POV novel — or, indeed, any sort of experimental writing — than someone trying to break into the biz. I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its arguably Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance.

The result, I must admit, might confuse a reader who wasn’t already in love with his writing from other books. One might be tempted, upon encountering the third or fourth startlingly radical shift in tone, vocabulary, and apparently intended audience, to conclude that this is just a Frankenstein manuscript by a writer who couldn’t make up his mind what the book is about.

Personally, I admire Vargas Llosa’s dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess.

He lost the election, incidentally — and he, too, has been rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time. But if he were trying to market AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER right now as a first novel…

You know the tune by now, don’t you?

The rather sticky moral: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. So please don’t kid yourself that just because your favorite author got away with an experiment, you can necessarily do so as well.

Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize. And as I mentioned last time, in SEEING, José Saramago treated us to an entire narrative devoid of punctuation that I, for one, consider necessary to clear communication, and he won the Nobel Prize.

But that doesn’t mean you should try either of these things at home. It’s just too likely that Millicent will take one look at your fascinating experiment and exclaim, “Here’s another one who doesn’t know how to use a semicolon!” or “Criminy, what makes this guy think I’m going to read more than two sentences of a book without any periods?”

Sad, but true. In your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be immistakably marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance.

Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee seriously believed that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes pellucidly clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, my tactics seem downright clever to the reader — or so my spouse/mother/best friend since the age of 2/beloved cocker spaniel tell me. Do you mean to say that if my narrative strategy is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

The short answer is yes. Next question?

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, take a moment to consider the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you; stitched-together corpses seldom are.

As a freelance editor, the first thing the sight of a Frankenstein manuscript says to me is that it’s going to be unusually time-consuming to edit — and thus probably quite a bit more expensive, in terms of both money and revision time, for the writer. At minimum, I’m going to need to sit down with the writer, have a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and help guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process will entail identifying and compiling a list of all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author.

It takes time, and it’s generally worth the effort. But had I mentioned that freelance editors are generally paid by the hour?

When a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript, however — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if Millicent absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation.

She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits her boss agent (or, in the editor’s case, himself) to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or s/he can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think Millicent will select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. Mehitabel the judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is.

Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck — and first readers — next year.

The moral, I devoutly hope, is obvious: if you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is magnificently clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess what you’re up to, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

How might one pull this off, you ask? Consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there — and, at the submission stage, at least toy with devoting the entirety of the first chapter to a single voice. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky — and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

Or, as critics of modern art used to like to snipe early and often: what’s the difference between a canvas painted by a 5-year-old and a canvas by a serious artist in the style of a 5-year-old? Intention, my dears, and craft.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion.

But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

I haven’t dissuaded many of you intrepid literary experimenters from trying, though, have I? “But I don’t want to exaggerate my stylistic choices,” some of you argue, and who could blame you? “I’m a big fan of subtlety, as it happens. So how can I revise my work in order to avoid running afoul of Millicent?

Well, your first step should be to steel yourself for a certain amount of rejection. When the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple points of view, for instance, or changes in voice, or structural alterations in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of Frankenstein array of incompletely-realized narrative ideas.

Many years ago, I met Stan, a promising writer, at a writers’ conference. Stan described his novel impeccably: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, Stan told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I wasn’t all that enthused by his description; it didn’t seem like a particularly fresh book concept. But being well aware that I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys, I gave him a patient hearing. (Why am I not ideally suited for such stories, you ask? As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town bad girl, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just a fluke of my upbringing.

From a marketing perspective, I think that at this point in literary history, such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this: Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOU tells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers — particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes — you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.)

So as I say, I was leery, but we exchanged manuscripts, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Imagine my surprise.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise — even to yours truly, who knew the premise of the book going in. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact.

However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked Stan and thought he was a pretty good writer on the sentence level, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself, as a cinematic footnote from my childhood.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

To put it mildly, Stan did not cotton to this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. (Again, imagine my surprise.) Obviously, he said huffily, we all just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh.

We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud.

Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, for the exceedingly simple reason that any professional reader sees so very, very many in any given year. So from that perspective, Stan’s trouble was not that he was trying to do something original; it was that his manuscript had an extremely common consistency problem.

Yet Stan was absolutely convinced that what was being critiqued was his artistic vision, rather than his presentation of it, so while he was perpetually revising to sharpen the differences between the segments, he never seemed to get around to sitting down with the entire manuscript to see if his critics might have had a point about the overall manuscript. Predictably, he continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, as I mentioned last time, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story.

In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology. I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although if I have not yet sufficiently hammered into your brainpan that it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together, I can only advise scrolling back up to the beginning of this post and re-reading it from the beginning.

No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. Our old pal, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary.

It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow — and almost invariably conducive to the reader’s getting pulled out of the story from time to time. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book. And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose.

It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s difficult to sell a piece that meanders stylistically. Just ask Stan.

Next time, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm, but before I sign off for the day, I should mention one more confluence of writing events that may result in a Frankenstein manuscript: when the writer doesn’t realize until several revisions in how she wants the book’s voice to sound.

Stop laughing. This happens to talented new writers all the time.

A few years back, an editing client of mine called me in the dead of night (a practice I discourage, as a rule) burbling with excitement because she had just made a major breakthrough with her book. This surprised me a little, I must admit: she had, to put it mildly, not been particularly receptive to feedback; I have it on good authority that she once took a match to a marked-up page of text, just so she would not have to look at my suggestions about comma use again.

One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she had never before perceived to be experimentation, but finished draft — she suddenly stumbled upon precisely the tone and perspective that worked for the book, an engaging voice she could maintain consistently throughout the entire story. As happens sometimes, what had been a mess of words just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

It was beautiful. So beautiful, she was overjoyed to report, she was quite confident that I would have nothing whatsoever to write in the margins this time around.

She was wrong about that, of course; when one does not listen to one’s editor about proper comma usage, one attracts marginalia.

Which just goes to show you that even a beautifully-written manuscript can usually stand at least a bit more improvement — a fact that tends to fill first-draft enthusiasts with dismay. “But it’s done!” they cry, whipping out their cigarette lighters to singe feedback off the edges of their pages. “I’m the author — I get to be the one who decides when it’s finished!”

That’s not true, actually, at least if one wants to get a manuscript published. As far as folks in the industry are concerned, a manuscript is never finished until it is printed and sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble — and for nonfiction, sometimes not even then. As a direct result, writers under contract are frequently expected to revise their books long after the point that they consider the darned things complete. It’s not even uncommon for them to have to make requested revisions that they firmly believe will harm the book.

So put those lighters away, first-drafters: to the pros, unwillingness to revise is simply a mark of inexperience. And rightly so, because — who knows? — that next revision may abruptly reveal a book far more beautiful than you ever dreamed.

Hold that positive thought until next time, please, when I shall be delving back into practicalities. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VIII: taming the many-headed beast, or, what do you mean, you want me to sum up a 12-protagonist novel in a single page?

gargoyles at Mirapoix2

The very title of today’s post made most of you cringe, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. Although they require great care and effort in construction, they’re not documents that one’s fans are ever likely to see, after all: they are used purely to market one’s books to agents, editors, and, frequently, contest judges.

In short, anyone who might be inclined to judge your manuscript without reading it. Hard to imagine why any writer would resent that, eh?

But our feelings about synopses run even deeper than disliking their potential substitution value, don’t they? As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces. That, too, is understandable: obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to 1, 3, or 5 pages.

Does all of that bated breath out there indicate that those of you who have been following this series on juggling protagonists are hoping that I’ll tell you that you don’t even have to try?

Sorry, my dears: not this time. If one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time.

The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. Distract your mind from trying to visualize it by looking at the pretty picture of gargoyles above, please. (Oh, you thought I included all of these photos just to separate the posts?)

The bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s also the basic goal of the query letter descriptive paragraph and any length of pitch. Unlike a query or pitch, however, the synopsis needs to show the entire story arc, not just the premise of the book.

If you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect may seem quite daunting. If you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done.

Once again, the key lies in telling the story of the book, not the protagonists. Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option.

Before I elaborate upon that horrifying thought, I should set a few ground rules. Since I’ve gone over the ropes of short-short synopsis-writing in some depth in this forum (for a few dos and don’ts for writing a 1-page synopsis, please see the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right. Or if you dug up this post in the archives in the midst of a frantic last-minute search, try starting here), I don’t propose to start from scratch here.

What I would like to do instead is talk about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. (Is it more helpful or terrifying to think of it that way, do you think?) Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in our protagonist-juggling series? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

In a single-page synopsis, the goal is to tell what the book is about. So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere protest, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. To answer it, write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the book. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript. Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story briefly may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most aspiring writers to try. Do bear in mind, though, that opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — in chronological order, for instance, if your narrative jumps around in time, or by leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book. Just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags, trying to regularize your breathing again: believe me, this suggestion is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically, though: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of a synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may strain your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts. “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that showing off that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of the synopsis?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this series. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short. Which brings me back to another suggestion from a few days ago.

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more strategy in the writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. And there’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which isn’t for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel, but bear with me here; it’s what I have on hand):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complex plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the second example exhibits in spades but the first avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses. Don’t be afraid to do some trimming, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VII: describing your book well is a matter of focus

leaves in bird feeder

Sorry about the odd timing of my posts this week, campers — a nasty, lingering migraine leapt through my studio’s window and gobbled up a couple of days. I emerged only long enough yesterday to announce the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, then crawl back into the dark cave under my blankets.

Just in case my brain-befogged state rendered the rules less than perfectly clear, what YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I are inviting the Author! Author! community to do is submit the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages. Phoebe and I will critique the lucky winners’ first pages in a future blog post.

In other words: if you’d like to know what Millicent the agency screener would say about your first page before you send it to her, this contest would be a great opportunity.

Let’s get back to business. In my last post in this series, we discussed . Regardless of whether you chose to emphasize only one of the characters’ storylines or tell the story of the novel, not of each protagonist, I encouraged you to emphasize the most original parts of your story.

That’s not a bad rule of thumb for writing a query for any manuscript, by the way, regardless of your voice choices within it. Since agents tend to specialize in just a few book categories, Millicent sees a whole lot of queries promoting rather similar-sounding stories — or so they start to seem to her, after she’s read 20,000 of them. The more unexpected details you can work into that descriptive paragraph, then, the more likely your query is to cause her to exclaim, “Hey, I want to read this manuscript — it sounds fresh.”

I also suggested that attempting to summarize the entire plot of a 400-page manuscript in a scant paragraph is a Herculean task for even a single-protagonist novel; trying to pull it off for a seven-protagonist novel is akin to the labors of Sisyphus. For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, he’s the guy the gods condemned to roll a giant rock up a steep hill, only to have it keep rolling back down again, for all eternity.

Which I’m guessing sounds like a lighthearted romp in the park to those of you who have spent months trying to concoct an effective query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel.

Instead of continuing to push that boulder up the hill, why not borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book, and leave some of the story to Millicent’s imagination? After all, as we’ve discussed, all a successful query or pitch really has to do is show Millie an interesting protagonist(s) in an interesting situation(s), right?

Or, to put it in terms that would be easier to describe in a hurry, a good query or pitch introduces the player(s), their goal(s), and the barrier(s) to achieving them. Like every page of a strong manuscript, the descriptive paragraph should contain conflict.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to dismiss your query as offering her a book about a passive protagonist, would you?

As I’ve been typing those last few paragraphs, I could hear the trees outside my window buffeted by some pretty massive gusty collective sighs. I understand: many, if not most, of you multiple-perspective lovers feel — and with good reason — that how you have chosen to tell your characters’ stories is as integral to your book as the stories themselves. Necessarily, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your query or pitch, in practical terms.

Remember, neither the descriptive paragraph in a query or a two-minute pitch is intended to be a substitute for reading the manuscript in question. Their sole purpose is to get Millicent or the agent to whom you are pitching to ask to read it.

So it honestly is not in your interest to give away too much of the story, or even to talk too much about all of the nifty narrative tricks you’ve worked into the text. Let all that come as a pleasant surprise. Instead, try regarding your descriptive paragraph or pitch as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can tell a story — and a fresh one at that.

Part of it, anyway.

How does one decide which part? You’re the one who understands your storyline well enough to divide it up into multiple perspectives — you tell me.

The cedar tree in my yard is still bending with the force of those sighs, I notice. “Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see why I might need to lighten my storyline a bit in order to query or pitch it, if we want to reduce the discussion to mere marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my query or pitch. From where I’m standing, its complexity is its main selling point. Wouldn’t narrowing the focus of my description just make it sound, well, simple?”

Well, there’s are a couple of practical reasons narrowing the focus usually helps — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a query-reader or pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within the first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the description makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, Millicent will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to describe a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out on everybody but Melissa. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in the course of a two-minute pitch doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue. Even the most hardened Millicent is likely to start to experience plot blurring after a few hours of screening.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only query or pitch that agent has seen or heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re not trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone ask about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important single fact about your novel?

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to any complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener or bleary-eyed Millicent will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers and queriers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the second descriptive paragraph above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching or querying the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean entire. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, even the most patient agent may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

So how well do you think it’s going to work if you open the descriptive paragraph of your query that way?

Word to the wise: keep your description snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place.

Yes, in answer to that indignant gasp, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches and queries all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but few in the publishing industry are likely to care about why you wrote a book until after they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but publishing is a business, after all.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: perspective choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself. And in the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, it’s the only meat.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the querying/pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Or to put it in more practical terms: hands up, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels who have seen an agent or editor’s eyes glaze over just after hearing the words, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question, come to think of it.

There’s another very good reason not to overload your query or pitch with too much in-depth discussion of how the story is told, rather than what the story is. Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book before it get published.

Let’s face it: the main reason writers query or pitch a manuscript is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility, isn’t it?

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple point of view narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting throughout this entire post. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

What does this mean in practical terms? If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your query or pitch may raise some red flags for Millicent. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

Does the fact that a branch just flew off my cedar tree indicate that my arguments have not quelled all of the righteous indignation, out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “all I want to do is to present my manuscript honestly in my query or pitch. If I ignore 90% of the story, isn’t that misleading?”

Not really, considering that you’re presenting your book in a context that absolutely precludes telling the entire story — and everyone involved understands those limitations. Trust me, once Millicent and her boss fall in love with your manuscript, neither is ever going to say to you, “Hey, the descriptive paragraph in your query letter led me to expect a simpler, less delightfully complex narrative! Begone with you, lying scum!”

Brevity is simply the nature of the beast. If you accept that the point of the query or pitch is not to distill the essence of the book, but to convince someone in a position to help you get it published to ask to read it, all you’re doing is delaying Millicent’s delighted discovery of just how complex your narrative is.

Preserve some of the mystery the first time out. A query or pitch is not a synopsis, after all.

Before your gasps do my cedar any more damage, let me add hastily: next time (probably this weekend, headaches permitting), I shall be giving you some tips on how to construct a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. So regularize your breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part III: a few ways to make Millicent’s day, or, the living are nice, too.

Mother Goose's grave

Why open one of my normally quite friendly posts with such a grim image, you ask? A couple of reasons: first, according to several official-looking placards scattered about the Boston graveyard where I took this photo, this stone marks the final resting place of Mother Goose, of fairy tale fame. What writer wouldn’t be glad to have readers remember her name more than three hundred years after her last book came out?

Second, I begin today with a horror tale. A few years back — right around the last time I ran an entire series on constructing multiple-perspective narratives, if memory serves — I sat through a movie that seemed calculated specifically to appall the editors in the audience, a crowd-pleasing independent horror film called CRIME FICTION. Even presented within a film festival that positively gloried in depictions of violent death, the kind where protagonists shooting their girlfriends were the norm, this was a standout. (Okay, so one of the films killed the girlfriend off with an overdose of ecstasy, and she did get to come back as a zombie, but honestly, after the sixth dead paramour in a row, who is making fine distinctions?)

In CRIME FICTION, the protagonist killed his girlfriend (of course), but her gory death wasn’t what made me cover my eyes and scream. Nor did the premise — an unsuccessful writer of spy novels becomes jealous when his doomed-because-she’s-in-the-picture girlfriend’s beautifully-written memoir gets a great review from the NYT Review of Books — chill my blood too sharply. Naturally, violence was going to be in the offing, given the focus of the festival.

I didn’t freak out at these developments primarily because I had been queasy since one of the first scenes in the movie. In it, the protagonist sat down to write, and…oh, it’s almost too horrible to describe.

Okay, deep breath: I can convey this. He already has a published book out, but when the audience sees his freshly-written first page, IT’S NOT IN STANDARD FORMAT.

Oh, the humanity! I could barely keep my eyes on the screen. The 3/4-inch top margin! The uncentered chapter title! The too few skipped lines before the text began! And — avert your eyes, if you have a sensitive stomach — the paragraphs were not indented!

After that level of debauchery, frankly, I was barely surprised when he shoved his girlfriend out a window. Clearly, the man had no regard for the norms of civilized society. But then, later in the movie, another, more successful author’s first manuscript page fills the screen, and guess what? It isn’t in standard format, either!

I spent the rest of the film peeking through my fingers, hyperventilating. Would the paper-generated terror never end? Could the second writer’s killing spree be far behind?

Even after several years of seeing manuscript-free movies where positively no one’s girlfriend gets slaughtered, those two scenes of improperly-formatted pages still make me cringe; think of all the poor souls lead astray by such careless imagery choices! (If that last thought does not make you instantly picture Millicent the agency screener shouting, “Next!” I STRONGLY recommend that you review the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right before sending off your next submission.)

What does any of this have to do with crafting a multiple-perspective narrative, you ask? Glad you brought it up.

Last time, we discussed structural means a savvy writer can use to help alert the reader to perspective shifts in multiple-protagonist manuscripts. Separating points of view by chapter, section breaks, or even paragraph breaks can go a long way toward preventing reader confusion.

Which should be a primary narrative goal in a multi-protagonist novel, right? Unfortunately, sometimes structural signals are not practicable, or even a good choice.

Take, for instance, a scene where two or more of protagonists interact. Often, as I mentioned a few days ago, it works beautifully to pick the more active character’s perspective and stick to it. But what about the case where the primary interest of the scene is the difference in Protagonist A and Protagonist B’s views on what is going on?

A thorny problem, you must admit. Let’s take a look at the same scene, told first from a single perspective, then in a narrative that shows both points of view.

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? I do seemed unlikely to be the universal solvent of thick-headedness.

She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish dessert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

“See you at dinner, my pet.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this exchange, right? It’s a tad tell-y (as opposed to show-y), but it demonstrates both perfectly good reasons for Delphine’s annoyance and Charles’ lack of response to it. So far, so good.

Yet if the reader has been following the latter’s perspective for half the book, it might make sense to add a counter-current to the scene by including his perspective as well. Take a gander:

But what if the cooling system fails again? Delphine thought. It would take more than a hastily-snatched hairpin to mend the reactor next time. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

Charles smiled automatically, remembering too late the blackberry seeds that must be embedded between his widely-spaced teeth. He hid his mouth behind his napkin, remembering the vicious look she had cast him at the state dinner with the Prince of Wales. The offender had been strawberry mousse that time. “The pie is excellent. Won’t you have some, my dearest?”

Would he be this obtuse after they married? She took a miniscule sip of cool water, to calm herself. Someone here needed to act like an adult, and if the President of the United States weren’t up to the task, by God, his future First Lady would have to be. She rose from the table. “You finish desert. I’m going to have a chat with that shady-looking engineer.”

She was beautiful when she was worrying about core meltdown. “See you at dinner, my pet.”

Yes, I have brought a structural device into play here (alternating perspective by paragraph), but I have included a stylistic one as well: making the tones of the respective protagonists’ thoughts distinctive enough that the reader can easily tell who is thinking at any given point. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) still won’t like it, but at least it’s clear which perspective prevails when.

There are a number of ways to render perspectives distinct from one another. Content, as we have seen here, is the most obvious, but worldview and tone form a close second and third. One sees this type of differentiation in novels about families all the time. If Sister A is an introvert, Sister B is bound to be loud and bouncy; if Brother C is a bookworm, Brother D’s usually good at sports. Given these different orientations, all of these protagonists are likely to see the world around them in disparate ways, so the reader would simply understand by a few chapters into the book that the quiet observations are most likely Sister A’s and the rampant baseball analogies Brother D’s.

Pop quiz for those of you currently engaged in self-editing: does your manuscript reflect that expectation?

To put it another way, if you picked a narrative paragraph at random from your manuscript and it did not contain the protagonist’s name, would a reasonably careful reader of the book so far be able to guess whose perspective it contained? Or is the primary difference between Protagonist A’s chapter and Protagonist B’s that they are participating in different events?

Care to guess how often Millicent sees the latter? Uh-huh.

Do make sure, even if your protagonists’ perspectives are broken up by formal breaks — by chapter, section, scene, or even paragraphs — that their perspectives vary enough to be plausible as separate people’s perceptions. Trust me, Millicent has seen thousands of multiple-perspective novels where the thought patterns of Protagonist A and Protagonist B are so similar that they might as well be the same character.

“Why,” she wonders, sliding the latest into the reject pile, “did the writer bother to go to the significant trouble of establishing multiple perspectives if they were all going to have the same voice?”

You have a point there, Millie. There’s a reason for this phenomenon, of course: all of the characters in the book are the product of the same mind, and so even though the structure of the book may dictate that Chapter 3 should reflect a different mindset than Chapter 4, they’re frequently written in identical voices.

And that, dear friends, can lead to precisely the kind of point of view confusion that makes the POVNs feel justified in dismissing the entire multiple-protagonist ilk of novels. So here is your first homework assignment for the day:

1. Think about how your protagonists differ — especially any differences that could potentially affect not only recorded thought, but descriptive passages in their various chapters or paragraphs.

Do keep in mind as you ponder that the great pitfall of relying upon broadly-drawn characteristics to differentiate perspectives is the ease of falling into stereotypes — and I’m not just talking about genre tropes like dead girlfriend stories. What are the chances, for instance, that Brother D, the sports enthusiast, is going to be an insensitive boor, captain of both the school’s football team and the crowd who goes around shoving kids like Brother C into lockers? And what are the chances that the agency screener — who has, after all, read a hundred submissions in this genre already this week — will be able to guess that the jock is a jerk the instant he appears on the page?

To put it in terms the entire festival audience can understand, if Millicent were screening movies for film festivals, she would probably be exclaiming by two minutes into each, “Oh, terrific: another dead girlfriend. Next!”

The horror, the horror. But I’m not going to cover my eyes again: you’re not going to spring either a stereotype or a deviation from standard format on me, are you? Good; let’s move on.

2. Make a list of your protagonists and their major characteristics, likes, dislikes, areas of sensitivity, and so forth.

No, you may not skip this step or do it in your mind, but thanks for asking. Get it all down on paper, so you may refer back to it mid-edit.

3. Review the lists, circling any characteristic that might conceivably cause a particular character to misperceive or embellish upon what’s going on around him. Pay particular attention to any condition that might affect the workings of his eyes, ears, nose, tongue, sense of touch, sense of humor…well, you get the picture.

4. Read through your manuscript, searching for a place where perspective is not entirely clear. Whip out your list: would incorporating any of the circled characteristics in that section make plain whose perspective is dominating it?

5. Repeat Step 4 as often as needed to individualize every murky scene.

This is a terrific technique for keeping perspective shifts snappy, of course, but is also is a marvelous means of increasing character development for your various leading characters. The more protagonists you have, the more helpful this exercise is, potentially.

It’s a great way to get you brainstorming about ways that your protagonists’ respective sections of the narrative could reflect their different mindsets, worldviews, prejudices, charms — in short, subtle means of making it clear to the reader which chapter (or subsection, or paragraph) is focused upon which character. Rather than relying solely upon different events and brazen markers like names and job titles to signal the reader when perspective had changed, try a closer marriage between language and character.

Before anyone starts barking at me, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, if I’d wanted to write a multiple first-person narrative, I would have!” hear me out. There are quite a few excellent reasons to consider differentiating a tight third-person narrative by character being followed at any given moment.

First, and probably most important for character-driven novels, many protagonists equaling only superficial development for each is a classic downfall for multiple-protagonist novels in both the third and first persons. By incorporating worldview and personal quirks into the narrative itself — showing Natalie’s vision blurring as a result of her allergies to the roses Bevis insists upon bringing every time he visits, rather than just telling the reader that Natalie’s allergic to them — a writer can open up many more possibilities for interesting character development.

Second, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the marketing value of making your protagonists’ sections unique, if only for the sake of freshness. Narrative that never varies its tone, vocabulary, type of observation, etc. as it moves from perspective to perspective is actually the norm for multiple-protagonist novel submissions. Thoughtful variety, on the other hand, is so exceptional as to be practically unique.

And what have we learned about what usually happens to manuscripts that exhibit common weaknesses? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: they tend to get rejected rather more quickly than those that exhibit less ubiquitous failings, because the more an agent or editor sees a particular writing problem, the faster she can categorize it.

Think about it: which do you think is easier for the average doctor to diagnose, the flu that everyone in town has or the bubonic plague?

Uh-huh. Let’s talk about ways to stave off that flu that’s going around.

To do so, let’s revisit a rhetorical question from our earlier list: if you read a randomly-selected mid-book section aloud, is it apparent within a paragraph whose point of view it is? If so, how can you tell?

Because Harry is the subject of every sentence? (A popular choice.)

Because other characters keep saying, “Hi, Harry,” to him? (Reminiscent of the old Bob Newhart show; still quite common.)

Because the protagonist is going over the company books at 3 a.m., and Harry is a forensic accountant? (A close third.)

All valid — but let me suggest a more interesting possibility. What if Harry noticed things about ordinary situations that none of the other protagonists would — and those kinds of details only appeared in the parts of the narrative focused upon him?

I’m not talking about heavy-handed introduction of backstory, here, just little tweaks to descriptive passages. Obsessively detail-oriented accountants are kind of hackneyed, but what if Harry put himself through college and graduate school as a car mechanic? Wouldn’t he naturally observe passing traffic differently from, say, co-protagonist Maurice, who spent his teenage years tending his mad great-aunt’s collection of prize orchids? And wouldn’t Cecily’s abusive college boyfriend have left her with a sixth sense for when someone near her might be about to flip out?

Harry might, for instance, automatically diagnose a slipping fan belt from the sound of an anonymous car darting through an intersection as he is arguing with his boss. The squeaky belt would not be the primary focus of the scene, naturally, but it would lend a Harry-specific tone to the moment, wouldn’t it?

Maurice would never catch on to that — but then, he would probably be able to tell a co-worker almost without thinking about it which florist operating within the five blocks from the subway stop to the office habitually displayed the freshest flowers, or why the receptionist’s African violet produced only leaves, but no flowers. Harry wouldn’t have a clue, and Cecily might have developed a violent aversion to roses, because her hideous ex used to cover her dorm bed with them after he socked her.

The possibilities really are endless — and a fabulous way to increase the quotient of sensual details in a book’s descriptive passages, which in turn will make your writing stand out from the crowd. Remember, the vast majority of the descriptions our gal Millicent sees in a given week of screening are visual- or sound-based. Blame the fact that the average person now gets upwards of 85% of her information about the world around her visually (computers, anyone?), or snipe at my favorite bugbears, TV and movies, which can tell stories only through sight and sound, by definition.

However you explain it, Millie’s kind of starved for input from the other senses. She is, after all, typically trapped in a miniscule cubicle, reading under stultifying fluorescent light. A truly original description of a sea breeze might just make her day.

Too few submitting writers use this sad fact to their advantage. Harry’s nose would pick up a malfunctioning catalytic converter half a block away; Maurice would be far more likely to begin nibbling upon a dandelion in the park than someone who did not know that they were edible.

The more protagonists there are, the better this technique works, generally speaking. Protagonist Emily’s years of making gnocchi with her grandmother would certainly heighten her fingertips’ awareness of the texture of wallpaper as she leaned against it, crying because Harry has just been mean to her, and co-protagonist Cecily would be tasting some salt on her lips as she ran out onto the beach, to get away from that weird guy munching dandelions. Infusing the narrative in Harry’s section with his type of observations, and Cecily with hers, will lend both Millicent-tempting depths to the text and render their respective perspectives unique.

Not a bad payoff for the addition of a few details here and there, considering that their inclusion will also develop character in subtle ways, too. Particularly if you — hint, hint — start to regard how a character responds physically to the world around her as a means of revealing herself to the reader, rather than relying exclusively upon showing her thoughts, words and deeds.

A word to the wise about sensual detail: when the sense of smell does make a cameo appearance in a manuscript, the results are usually described only vaguely (The air in the cell stank.), or as if the aroma were invariable to the substance described (The room smelled like cheese).

What kind? Cheddar? Gouda? That nose-assailing goat cheese that nearly gets the protagonist thrown out of boarding school in HEIDI GROWS UP?

Most of the time, the reader is simply left to imagine; the protagonist simply wrinkles her nose and moves on. This is a real missed sensory opportunity, I think. Scents in manuscripts are almost always awful, terrible (as in garbage or a burning building), or intoxicating, gorgeous (as in flowers or perfume), with no further descriptors.

But why shouldn’t that awful garbage be redolent with the aromas of cast-off cheese, warm bananas, and bleach, and that terrible burning building reek of charcoal, soggy linens, and sharp chemicals? Why shouldn’t the flowers intoxicate with the bee-seducing odors of raspberry and honey, and the perfume bite the back of the protagonist’s throat with a whiff of pepper and magnolia essence?

Millicent would thank you if they did, I’m sure, if only as an alternative to the pervasive office odor of stale coffee and cast-off paper. Make her day with a few perspective-defining, character-developing details. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Plot flares, or, what have you got in that bag, and why is it meowing?

candles at Lourdes

I meant to post yesterday; honestly, I did. Then I got sucked into a conversation that a lot of us affiliated with the publishing industry have found ourselves having over the last year and a half: a debate about the presumed imminent demise of traditional publishing with people who frankly wouldn’t be all that sorry to see it go.

Specifically, in this case, with people who did not grow up cherishing the hope that sometime, someday, if they worked really, really hard at their craft, they might actually get PAID for their writing. (Hey, my SO has friends, too.) To the gleeful consumers of e-books who invaded my living room last night, the question of how — or even whether — the author of the story they’re enjoying so much will be remunerated was simply not all that interesting. They were too busy licking their chops at a vision of a world where they would never have to pay $25.00 for a hardcover again.

How could I tell that they weren’t particularly sympathetic to the authors’ plight? Well, let me put it this way: if I had one piece of bread for every time one of my guests airily voiced some dismissive iteration of, “Oh, the really good books will make money for their authors” (presumably through some magical process overseen by the Tooth Fairy’s older and more organizationally-minded sister), I’d make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for every writer I know. And I go to a lot of writers’ conferences.

To those of us who’ve been listening to the blithe declaration, “Oh, good writing will always find a home at an agency or publishing house!” for any length of time, this argument is eerily familiar, isn’t it? Most people’s faith in the inevitable discovery of every single talented writer who has ever lived borders on the intensity of a five-year-old’s confidence that Santa Claus is coming down that chimney to deliver presents, not to filch goodies from under the tree.

The possibility of disappointment just doesn’t occur to them.

The inevitability argument always makes me cringe, because its flip side is so harmful to aspiring writers. It runs a little something like this: if every good manuscript will necessarily be snapped up by the publishing industry (or an admiring web-browsing public, in my guests’ worldview), then by logical extension, if a writer’s having trouble getting a book published or finding an agent, the book couldn’t possibly be good.

It’s just not true. But writers hear this theory so often from the lips of non-writers — and even from other writers — that they can come to believe that if they were really talented, they wouldn’t have to struggle at all. So why keep pressing forward, if the Tooth Fairy’s older sister has already passed judgment on their books and found them wanting?

But try explaining that to a roomful of non-writers. Suffice it to say that after an hour and a half, I thought it might not be the world’s best idea to inflict my mood upon all of you, dear readers.

I’m more chipper tonight, though. Let’s get back to work.

Last time, I suggested — and none too gently — that while a writer is reading through his manuscript (preferably IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD) with an eye toward making his protagonist more active, it might behoove him to consider revising scenes where secondary characters are either passive or mirror the protagonist’s reactions. Not to mention looking to vary those characters’ reactions, so they do not become too predictable.

I’m bringing it up again, because most writers’ instinct is to cultivate reaction repetition, not to minimize it. All too often, writers proceed on the assumption that consistency is the way to make a character believable. The result? Generally speaking, the less complex the character, the more predictable he will become over the course of a book, because the writer keeps showing the reader the same reactions over and over again.

Why is this so common? Authorial fear, mostly, I suspect: fearing that readers may not recall important plot points or characteristics, many aspiring writers repeat such information throughout the book.

How common is this practice? Well, let’s just say that most of us who read for a living see the first repetition of a trait or plot point and say immediately, “Oh, okay — THAT little tidbit is going to be crucial to the climax.”

I like to call those tidbits plot flares, significant repetitions and emphatic little asides that the writer inserts early in the story so that the eventual plot twists won’t come entirely out of the blue. In your English classes, the teacher probably called it foreshadowing.

Plot flares can be a huge problem in a submission or contest entry, far more than most eager foreshadowers suspect. Millicent the agency screener is a pretty savvy reader, after all; like her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, she’s trained to pick up on foreshadowing. And when someone whose hint-discovery skills have been honed on page after page of similarly-themed manuscripts for years on end — as is almost invariably the case for an experienced agency screener or contest judge, since both agents and contests tend to specialize in certain book categories — encounters a less-than-subtle hint of what’s to come, she’s likely to draw conclusions about the rest of the book.

Which is not necessarily a drawback, if those conclusions are favorable. But if those conclusions include a sense that she’s read a similar foreshadowed twist recently, or that now that she knows what’s to come, she’s less inclined to keep turning those pages, we all know what her next decision is likely to be, right? “Next!”

Now, I have nothing against a little light foreshadowing — far from it. As a reader, I find it very satisfying if the villain’s main henchman’s nervous breakdown in Chapter 11 was suggested by a bevy of neuroses introduced with ever-increasing intensity in Chapters 2, 7, and 10, or if the protagonist’s long-lost father, known to the reader as the proprietor of the local haberdashery, evinces the occasional slightly-too-intense burst of emotion when the protagonist purchases a hat. That’s just good story construction.

Foreshadowing can devolve into plot flares when the narrative repeats same reaction, character trait, or even factual statement so that the reader is more likely to notice it. Instead of providing a subtle build-up for what’s to come, plot flares blare it.

Like so many manuscript megaproblems, the over-use of plot flares is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies and television shows: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. If the heroine is going to have to shoot the villain at the climax as her Own True Love lies bleeding and weapon-free, for instance, she will almost invariably make a statement about her (a) loathing for guns, (b) aversion to violence, and/or (c) having witnessed some incredibly graphic murder during her formative years during the first act.

Ostensibly so we poor viewers can understand why anyone might have an aversion to, say, picking up a gun and shooting someone in cold blood, or some other hard-to-grasp concept like that.

In novels, creative nonfiction, and memoirs, foreshadowing of the denouement often happens within the first 50 pages — or even the first chapter. Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for an actual SCENE from the climax to open the book as a prologue, with the plot jumping backward in time immediately thereafter to figure out how our hero ended up there.

Or, to put it in cinematic terms: “Rosebud.”

From the author’s perspective, these hints may seem quite subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t awfully subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it.

And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

There are, of course, the classics common to both the silver screen and the printed page. If the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy about to be called to action, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless.

Pathos, pathos. And at this point in storytelling history, predictability, predictability.

It’s not just lowbrow entertainment that embraces this strategy, either. These cliche’s transcend genre or even writing quality: that last example about the dead wife and child was the backstory for both half the action films Charles Bronson ever made and the Sidney Poitier character in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (courtesy of a car crash), as well as for the Antonio Banderas character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list of such common plot flares is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more to hire to play the part than the other actors?) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Christopher Walken, and/or a well-known British character actor in a US-made action picture — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re supposed to think did it, so the twist can be that somebody else did.

Wait — the Alan Rickman character doesn’t have an evil, dark secret in his past? Who saw that coming?

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry can continue to produce scripts featuring plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a completely forgettable thriller where one of the actors had, unfortunately, shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the final plot twist.

When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, your humble narrator), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer “had a tough childhood.” The screenwriter might as well have erected a neon sign with a big arrow that read “psychopath here.”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed, straight-faced.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film from the all-too-deserved charge of predictability. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack.

However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges are extremely unlikely to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

And that’s a problem, because, as I mentioned above, so many aspiring writers just love foreshadowing. They think it’s clever — so clever that they often fall prey to the temptation to repeat the clue. They wouldn’t want a skimming reader to miss it or anything.

If you feel you must foreshadow, keep it low-key. If you don’t trust the reader to remember the salient information later on, try introducing it in a different manner the second or third time.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, if it’s vital to the plot that the reader know before Chapter 15 that the protagonist’s best friend, a florist with a heart of gold, is prone to sudden violent bouts of allergy-induced twitching, you could show one — one! — incident early on in the book, say in Chapter 5. Or have a couple of different characters tease her about it in Chapter 8. Or have the protagonist reflect on an earlier allergic attack in Chapter 3, then have the florist rush into Marcie’s wedding late in Chapter 11, bright red from head to toe, muttering about her recent trip to the hospital after an inadvertent brush with a freesia.

What you should NOT do, that unless you’re writing fairly broad comedy, is having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.”

Not only is this brick-through-a-window foreshadowing, but the presentation doesn’t render this statement particularly memorable — not exactly the goal of foreshadowing, no? And can anyone out there give me even one good reason that a professional reader like me shouldn’t regard that statement about Harry as a glaring instance of telling, rather than showing?

Because it is, to my eye: the author has chosen to tell the reader point-blank that Harry has the qualities that would lead one to expect him to be president, rather than showing him exhibiting the individual characteristics through action.

Once again, Harry’s creator doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony…or the pathos, or the twist to come. (Harry’s going to enter politics? Who saw that coming?) Instead, it’s usually more effective to allow the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp aloud.

If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance. If s/he keeps turning the pages long enough to find out.

To avoid engendering the dreaded oh, I saw that coming a MILE away reaction, try to introduce the relevant facts or characteristics in such a vivid way the first time around — showing them, perhaps, instead of simply telling the reader about them — that you have no need to repeat them. If the initial scene is memorable, the reader may be safely trusted to recall 300 pages hence that the protagonist’s sister is allergic to the beets that are going to kill her on p. 423.

Tell me honestly: were you more or less surprised by that last sentence, given that I’d mentioned allergic reactions no fewer than five times earlier in this post?

Did that sudden stabbing sensation in my mid-back mean that some of you found that last observation a trifle harsh, or do I merely owe my chiropractor a visit? “But Anne,” the repetition-fond point out, “readers honestly do forget details — my first reader/writing group/my agent/my editor keeps writing in the margin, ‘Who is this?’ when I reintroduce characters toward the end of the book, or even, ‘Whoa — this came out of nowhere!’ when I’d thought I’d laid the groundwork in the first third of the manuscript. I’m just adding the repetition to address these concerns, because, frankly, unless the reader has that information, the conflict loses some of its oomph.”

You could do that, repetition-mongers, but I would translate this feedback differently. If your first readers are not recalling certain salient facts introduced early in the book by the time they reach the closing chapters, isn’t it possible that the earlier introduction is at fault? Rush back to the first mention of the information in question to see if it is presented in a memorable manner. Or if the reader is presented with so much information that the important bits got buried.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go back and double-check anytime you notice yourself repeating information. Is there a reason that you’re assuming that the reader won’t remember it if it’s mentioned only once?

Yes, that would require going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, now that you mention it — and an excellent idea that is. I’ve noticed that writers are very frequently unaware of just how much their manuscripts DO repeat themselves. There’s a very good reason for that, of course: repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time.

Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well. Most of us become inured through years of, yes, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Richard — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist with a summa cum laude from MIT, Evelyn, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

I’m sensing some squirming in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear some consistency-mongers protest, “doesn’t the fact that we are all accustomed to being spoon-fed the information we need when we need it mean that we writers should be assuming that our readers will have some memory problems? Especially somebody like Millicent, who might read the first 50 pages of my novel, request the rest, then continue reading a month or two later? Surely, I should be including some reminders for her, right?”

Good question, squirmers. But it may not be the same Millicent who picks up your full a few months hence, and even if it is, she’s likely to begin at page 1. She may jump ahead if she remembers your earlier submission vividly, but don’t count on it; she reads so many manuscripts that she may just have a vague feeling that she’s read this story before.

Why might she feel that way, even if six months have passed between readings? Because people who read manuscripts for a living are substantially more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Pop quiz for those of you who were with me throughout the GETTING A BOOK PUBLISHED BASICS series earlier this year: just how much control does the average submitting writer have over the other manuscripts Millicent might have already scanned that day before getting to hers??

That’s right: absolutely none. So while following the cultural norm for repetitive storytelling might not annoy a reader who curls up in a comfy chair with only your manuscript, if your tale repeats twice something similar to what the submission before yours saw fit to convey 37 times in 22 pages…

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of clichés entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a project for a rainy day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim.

Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s lifting lines doesn’t mean that Millicent won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it inadvertently from time to time. The rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are. Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance, something they apparently didn’t do before the 1930s.

But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting — or not come across as hackneyed — translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. It’s not only a great way to render your manuscript more original; it’s a fabulous means of minimizing plot flares. If you don’t allow yourself to repeat a character trait or relevant outright, you’re going to need to find another way to make sure the reader is aware of it before that crucial scene in Chapter 27, aren’t you?

However you decide to work that information in, keep those advance hints subtle. If there’s a cat in that bag, you’re going to generate far more suspense by keeping it there until it’s startling for it to pop out.

There’s no need to have it meowing constantly for a few hours first. Keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part IX: oh, and I forgot to tell you that I won’t be speaking to you for the next 34 pages

duck and geese

Yes, yes, I know: I thought we were done with this topic for the nonce, too. Yet just when I thought I’d said all I had to say on the all-too-seldom-discussed issue of passive protagonists, life once again intervened to provide me with a perfectly dandy example of how inactive and/or endlessly self-pitying characters can frustrate a reader.

Or in this case, viewer. For the past few months, my fiancé has developed a positive passion for toting home DVDs containing entire seasons of TV series and insisting that we watch them. This would be a trifle less odd if I habitually watched of my own accord anything except news, comedy news shows, and Project Runway (I admit it: I like a nice gown), but as anyone who has navigated a long-term relationship could probably tell you, compromise is the key to happy cohabitation. (That, and negotiating very, very clear rules about who does what housekeeping chore.) As day-to-day trade-offs go, my spending a few weekends locked up with whatever horde of mostly unsavory characters he might have happened to stumble upon at the video store while he brings snacks to my writing studio during the week isn’t bad at all.

I was very patient with the first season of the most recent show, I really was. Which says something for my general level of tolerance, given that Rick had decided he wanted to watch it based upon a recommendation from a friend of his who…well, let’s just say that at the Halloween party where I first met him, the friend stormed up to argue with me about what he considered the disturbing political implications of my costume.

In case you were wondering, I was dressed as a suffragette, wearing a banner that read VOTES FOR WOMEN. So I wasn’t precisely expecting very robust female characters in a show he strongly recommended, if you catch my drift.

Actually, since we were watching the first season during my passive protagonist series, I should have been grateful. Breaking Bad‘s protagonist, Walt, vacillates between feeling sorry for himself more or less constantly and trying to remedy his situation by making and selling drugs. Not that he isn’t entitled to a spot of self-pity: the show’s creators have loaded poor Walt with a plethora of problems that would have made Job turn pale: he is battling probably terminal cancer, his teenage son walks with crutches, and as the show opens, he and his wife are expecting an unplanned-for child.

Which is a strategy straight out of the make-your-protagonist-more-likable playbook, right? The more significant the barriers are to the protagonist’s achieving his goal, the more likely the reader is to root for him while he is pursuing it.

Normally, It’s also not a bad technique for rendering a protagonist more active — and to be fair, the vast majority of Walt’s plot-altering behavior in the first season did in fact come in direct response to his confluence of dreadful luck. However (and my apologies to both those of you who may love this series and those who are planning to view it anytime soon; the latter may wish to stop reading at this juncture), this potentially engaging premise also contains a plot conceit that virtually guarantees that most of the other characters in the piece will be primarily reactive: like a million other strong, silent men in a thousand other films and TV shows, Walt doesn’t like to share his problems with anyone he loves. Or anyone else, that matter.

Among the simply enormous problems he spends the first season not telling his wife or any members of his immediate family: his diagnosis and the fact that he’s started dealing drugs to make money to care for all of them after he’s gone (although his logic on this point remains a trifle fuzzy until well into season 2).

Sound familiar? It should: the Problem I Can’t Tell Anyone About (TPICTAA, for our purposes today) is an extremely common plot device. Essentially, it’s a means of increasing the difficulty of the barriers the protagonist must overcome; by definition, he cannot rely upon his ordinary support system, because then they’d know. Admittedly, it’s often a trifle mechanical in action, producing rather predictable plot twists — oh, if my parents find out that I’m secretly training for the Olympics before I win the gold medal, all will be lost…but wait, who is that in the reviewing stands, cheering me on? — but handled well, TPICTAA can be a very effective means of raising the stakes for the protagonist, creating additional sources of conflict, building suspense, increasing plot tension, etc.

The trouble is, at this point in dramatic and literary history, most audience members are already pretty familiar with the standard twists provided by this particular plot device; as a result, it’s awfully easy for a TPICTAA-wielding writer to tumble headlong into cliché territory. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw a protagonist’s belief that his loved ones wouldn’t understand his dilemma or what he felt he needed to do to solve it justified by a story’s denouement? How often does the wife/husband/sweetheart/mother/father/grandparent/child/best friend/dog not shake her/his/its furry head ruefully upon learning the PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET, simultaneously holding back tears and chuckling, and demand, “Why didn’t you tell me? Don’t you know that I love you, honey/Mom/Dad/Grandpa/Muffin/Bud/woof?”

Okay, so the dog really knew all along. No real suspense there; Fido’s the forgiving type.

Unfortunately, because this plot device is in such wide use, particularly in movies and TV shows, it’s become significantly less effective as a suspense-building technique. Think about it: if the reader already knows that revelation and reconciliation is the inevitable conclusion of all of the protagonist’s frantic secret-keeping, it can be hard to maintain — or even enlist — the reader’s sympathy. Particularly, as often happens, if the 90% of the central problem of the book could be solved if the protagonist simply walked up to the person he most fears will discover his secret and blurts it out in Chapter 2.

Instead of making precisely the same revelation in Chapter 26 of a 27-chapter book.

This is why, in case you’d been wondering, strong, silent men (or women, for that matter) so often make passive protagonists: the vast majority of their energies are going toward keeping that PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET the reader’s heard about in Chapter Three, but figures the SSM isn’t going to reveal formally until the aforementioned Chapter 26. A popular variation on this plotline, especially those featuring Protagonists With a Past: the reader doesn’t find out the content of the secret until Chapter 26, either.

Is that glint in the noonday sun an indication that some of you SSM-lovers out there are quick on the draw? “But Anne, I’ve read/seen plenty of stories with SSM protagonists, and they’re positively stuffed to the gills with action. Why, SSMs are constantly shooting back at bad guys, rescuing damsels and children in distress, and combing nighttime cityscapes to clear their good names!”

You’re quite right, pardners — an active SSM or SSW protagonist does indeed frequently perform many of these feats. But again, the writing challenge is to show him or her continually being active in pursuit of all of that name-clearing in a way that will genuinely surprise the reader: can you honestly say that it’s a great big surprise, for instance, when the protagonist first confronts the villain who smeared his good name — and the villain just laughs? Or when the SSM and the guy who slaughtered the SSM’s family as far as it can be traced have a showdown at the end of the story — and the SSM wins?

Predictability is, after all, the universal solvent of suspense. And let’s face it, not all SSMs or SSWs spring into action the nanosecond their good names are besmirched.

In fact, the primarily passive SSM or SSW’s reaction is the more common in manuscript submissions: yes, SS+ (I got tired of typing all of the ors) will rumble into movement occasionally, but usually, someone else instigates it. The bad guy butchers the SS+’s loved ones, so the retired gunman comes out of hiding — reluctantly, always reluctantly. Or the SS+ knows that an angry mob with pitchforks is coming to get her and that adorable moppet of a 9-year-old she’s picked up along the way (dare we hope that the child’s winning ways have melted the SS+’s notoriously inflammable heart?), so she holes up in the cabin where EVERYONE CONCERNED KNOWS SHE LIVES, waiting with bated breath for the mob to arrive and set fire to it. Or, most popular of all, the SS+ has very good reason to believe that conflict is inevitable, but instead of heading out to meet it, has a really long talk about it with his/her best friend — or him/herself.

I see those six-shooters waving in my general direction again. “Okay, Anne, I can see how other characters might be moving the plot along more than the SS+ — but is that potentially problematic? As long as there is conflict on every page, or at any rate in every scene, why does it matter if my SS+ is primarily reactive between Chapters 3 and 26? I’ve read many great books where the protagonist was buffeted about by forces beyond his control.”

As have I, of course, but as we’ve discussed many, many times in this forum, what will work for readers who pick up a book in a bookstore or library will not necessarily fly in a manuscript submission. Why? Because Millicent the agency screener, like pretty much every professional reader, assesses manuscripts one line at a time, not based upon entire chapters or the whole book.

In other words, her assessment of whether a protagonist is passive or not is not going to be based on the plot as a whole, but rather upon how s/he acts — and reacts — on page 1. Then on page 2. Then in the second scene. And so forth.

Those of you writing about protagonists who start out meek and learn over the course of the story to assert themselves just went pale, didn’t you? I can’t say as I blame you: the meek may well inherit the earth, but they tend to annoy Millicent in the early pages of a manuscript.

To put it a bit more bluntly: if your protagonist’s first plot-altering action doesn’t occur until later in the story, it may not matter for submission purposes.

But as we discussed earlier in this series, this need not mean that the only acceptable protagonist is one who goes through life bullying people. A shy person who struggles desperately against her feelings in order to pursue her heart’s desire can be a very active protagonist indeed. So can a depressed character fighting to regain interest in the world around him, or a basically peaceful person who has tried everything in his power to resist that bad guy before forcing a showdown with him in Chapter 26.

Okay, I’ll be blunt again: is it really the best strategy to have that gunfight at high noon be the first time in the book the SSM stands up for himself? And if your answer to that was a resounding yes, could the protagonist be fighting other forces or problems throughout the 23 chapters where he’s working up his nerve for that showdown?

Yes, there should be conflict on every page, but it needn’t always be the same conflict, need it?

The same basic principle applies, naturally, to TPICTAA-driven plots. All too often, a passive protagonist’s primary (or even only) motivation for action is keeping that PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET, well, secret. No matter how strong that impulse to prevent any possibility of the most emotionally important characters in the book from experiencing productive conflict on the subject prior to the terminal chapter (oh, dear — was I channeling Millicent again?) shield himself from rejection and/or other consequences may be, it’s awfully hard to keep coming up with new and fascinating evasive tactics for an entire book.

At least ones that don’t make the people from whom he’s trying to keep the PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET come across as dim-witted. Like any single-problem plot, TPICTAAs often run the risk of becoming one-note.

Seriously, the parents saw their physically slight son disappear for weeks at a time, returning with a physique that would have made Hercules sob with envy, and they had no idea that he might be engaging in some sort of training? Really? The incident when he accidentally ripped the front door off its hinges didn’t give them an inkling?

So how can a writer add more potential for conflict to a TPICTAA storyline? Give that secret-hider a disparate array of problems. After all, it’s a rare real-life person who faces only one difficulty in life, and the more different kinds of barrier the protagonist must struggle against, the wider the range of possibilities for interesting conflict.

You can also give the characters trying to figure out the protagonist’s secret — they’re not just sitting around passively, waiting for her to reveal it, are they? — more clues. I’m not necessarily talking about merely the antagonists here; consider the dramatic possibilities of one of the protagonist’s allies launching an independent secret-ferreting mission. Try giving that character more incentive to figure out what’s really going on. Or just plain make her smarter.

Specialized knowledge is always a nice, complication-generating touch. Who would be more difficult for our Olympic hopeful to fool, parents who never tear their eyes away from their computer or TV screens, or a mother who took the bronze in the shot put in 1976 and a father who lost an eye in that ill-fated world fencing championship in 1979?

While you’re going though your secondary characters, trying to decide which to beef up — look at me, already blithely assuming that you’re going to take that VERY GOOD piece of revision advice — start with the ones who don’t have strong, well-defined personal goals independent of the protagonist’s. The protagonist’s love object or best friend, for instance, often is saddled with nebulous desires like wanting the best for our family, just trying to be a team player, or even the dreaded I only want to see you happy.

Not that these aren’t perfectly lovely and plausible explanations — they are. However, allies motivated solely by their concern for the protagonist (or anybody else, for that matter) tend to give the protagonist an easier time of it than characters who have their own agendas. Particularly if those agendas are somehow at odds with the protagonist’s, knowingly or not.

Hey, you try making life plans while your wife/husband/sweetheart/mother/father/grandparent/child/best friend/dog is harboring a PERFECTLY TREMENDOUS SECRET from you. How are you to know that your dream of becoming the world’s first water-skiing lion tamer would throw obstacles in the way of your loved one’s hidden goal of moving to the middle of the Mojave desert to raise lop-eared bunnies?

The complication-generating part of your brain has already begun whirring, hasn’t it?

As tempting as it might be at this juncture simply to draw up a list of your book’s major characters, assign each a burning secret passion, and let the conflict flow, do bear in mind that any one-note character, protagonist or not, can start to get on Millicent’s nerves after a while. (What was that I mentioned earlier about predictability being the natural enemy of sustained suspense?) A few questions you might productively ask yourself about any character you’re looking to deepen — and all of these are equally fine questions to apply to a protagonist, by the way:

What does this person want most in the world?

What’s preventing her from getting it?

What’s she willing to do in order to get it?

What would she NEVER be willing to do in order to get it? Is there something close to that line that she could do in this story?

What or whom does this person love most?

What does this person fear most?

What’s this person’s good luck charm? What’s her pet superstition?

How does this person want others to view her?

How has this person settled for less than she could have achieved? Could she challenge herself more, and in a way that would make the story richer?

Don’t be afraid to give any character in your book mixed motivations or a lack of certainty about his desires. Real people are a welter of internal contradictions, after all — why not spice things up for your protagonist by having a secondary character act out of character every once in a while?

Oh, you wouldn’t have been surprised if your mild-mannered third-grade teacher had abruptly decided to engage in commando training? (A pursuit that might actually have softened my third-grade teacher’s personality, come to think of it. I still have nightmares about her classroom.)

I’m sensing a bit of restlessness out there, and unless I miss my guess, it’s not entirely the result of trying to picture one’s third-grade teacher leaping out of a helicopter, guns blazing. “Okay, Anne, I can easily see how this would be fantastic advice for a writer just starting a book, or even engaging in a first revision. But I’ve been over my manuscript over and over again; frankly, I’m trying to make it shorter. Won’t all of this complexity-mongering just, you know, add pages?”

Yes, probably, but think about it this way: for every unexpected, complex character-revealing interaction you add, you may well be able to cut a more expected one — or possibly more than one. How many times, for instance, does the reader need to see the protagonist kiss his wife good-bye as she leaves for work? Wouldn’t that nifty new scene where she comes out of their bedroom wearing a gas mask because she’s become obsessed with the idea of carbon monoxide poisoning make a dandy substitute?

Getting the picture? Most Millicents would be far happier reading even an extended scene about the difficulties of kissing someone wearing a gas mask than even a short exchange of predictable pleasantries of the Have a nice day, dear. You, too, honey variety.

Lest those of you writing about ordinary life begin to feel left out, I should hastily add that this sort of revision can be even more effective for your manuscripts than for ones that would happily support wackier plot twists. Real people are pretty interesting, on the whole, particularly once a writer makes a point of examining their hopes, dreams, and fears, rather than defining them primarily by their roles in the protagonist’s life.

Yes, yes, presenting a character AS his role is sometimes unavoidable and even desirable on the page, particularly for characters that are seen once and never turn up again. The ER doctor treating the protagonist’s daughter in Chapter 5, for instance, need not necessarily be fleshed out as a person, in addition to being a medical provider. But trust me, Millicent sees enough purely altruistic doctors, self-sacrificing mothers, emotionally distant fathers, bratty little sisters, sullen teenagers, men who never really grew up, and prim librarians in any given week to populate a small city.

I like to call it Cliché Falls. The fewer of its citizens you recruit to traipse past Millicent’s weary eyes, the happier she will be.

In the course of ramping up the complexity, do try to avoid giving more than one major character a similar problem — or a similar way of dealing with it. If every character in the book responds to imminent conflict by changing the subject, for instance, that’s going to become predictable pretty fast. Ditto if more than one character responds to the challenge of discovering the TPICTAA by getting upset with the protagonist for not spilling the beans.

I know: people do tend to respond this way in real life. But the goal here is not merely to hold the mirror up to nature, but to tell an entertaining story, right?

Let Millicent answer that one for you: “Great heavens, yes!”

Which brings me back to why I’ve summarily banned Breaking Bad from our household, even at the cost of foregoing warm baked goods, fruit, and tea appearing on my writing desk at gratifying intervals throughout my work day. A few episodes into the second season, I abruptly transformed into Millicent in the middle of a scene where the protagonist was actually being pretty active.

And let me tell you, donning the Millicent mask is seldom pretty. “I’m done with this series,” I snapped, shutting off the DVD player while the protagonist was in mid-sentence. “I could take the mostly passive protagonist, his purely reactive wife, and his completely inarticulate drug-making partner — who are, I should like to point out three of the six main characters in the series. I’ve made a monumental effort not to be annoyed by just how many of the protagonist’s problems would have been solved by a single line of dialogue spoken to the right character. I’ve even been tolerant of the show’s propensity to bolster his Strong, Silent Man credentials by offering him a perfectly plausible way out of his primary dilemma — an escape hatch that he refused because he’s unwilling to accept help from anyone. But in this particular episode, all three of the primary characters are using precisely the same coping mechanism. It’s predictable, it’s boring, and if I could walk into any of these scenes with a megaphone, I could stop 80% of the conflict by speaking less than ten consecutive words!”

I suppose I could have completed the Millicent impression by shouting, “Next!” but that seemed like overkill.

What had the show done to make me stop reading, essentially, in the middle of a line? See if you can detect the subtle repetitive pattern here: the partner gets evicted from his house; rather than telling anyone — like, say, the protagonist — why he needs a place to stay and/or money to pay for a place to stay, he keeps it to himself, only to end up surprised and frustrated when no one in his life takes his need seriously. The wife believes that her husband is lying to her, but rather than confront the protagonist about her suspicions, she just starts leaving the house for hours at a time. Even when he confronts her, she simply remains silent, only to end up surprised and frustrated when he doesn’t take her need to know (and her need for him to guess what she thinks she needs to know) seriously. The protagonist then takes his frustration out on the partner, who not unnaturally hits him up for a loan. Because neither party will actually divulge any of the relevant details that would enable the other to understand what each wants, both end up surprised and frustrated that the other does not take his need seriously.

Enough, already. Mutual emotional inarticulateness, desperately kept secrets that ten minutes of investigation would have revealed, and the silent treatment are all too common manuscript features for a professional reader to derive much enjoyment from them in yet another story. Yes, people do indeed engage in all of these behaviors in real life, but if I wanted to spy on real people, I’d invest in a pair of binoculars and read up on stalking law, wouldn’t I?

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t. But as devoted as I am to realism, I reserve the right not to be fascinated by a storyline so exclusively dependent upon not revealing TPICTAA that it’s evidently forced to strike its three main characters mute in order to prevent the most logical questions from being asked. As someone who sorts out complex plots for a living, I can’t help but believe that allowing at least one of these characters to be articulate and active would have resulted in a more interesting story arc.

So would giving any one of those characters even a single serious outside interest. Or a hobby.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad test of character development. If a protagonist — or any other major character — would be rendered significantly more complex by becoming even a fairly lackadaisical stamp collector, s/he could probably use some beefing up across the board. Or combining with another one-note character, to create a composite two-note character. Or even — dare I say it? — being cut entirely.

Does that mean that I think it’s impossible for two characters not speaking to each other, or not able to articulate their emotions, to provide the foundation of an effective, satisfyingly conflictual scene? Of course not; writers have performed miracles with wordless interactions, revealing astonishing and unexpected nuances of human relationships. But that kind of literary magic trick is awfully hard to pull off unless at least one of the characters is acting, speaking, or even thinking in a manner that will come as a surprise to the reader, isn’t it?

Like, say, restarting a blog series that we all thought was finished last week. Tune in next time for my return to multiple perspective-wrangling, and keep up the good work!

Spicing up your plot, or, that’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles

fortune side onefortune side two

These, believe it or not, are the two sides of the single fortune I found tucked into my end-of-the-meal cookie last night: a tactfully-phrased prediction of my future happiness — by mail, no less! — accompanied by a terse statement about my general standing in the world. Had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I rearranged vegetables and yogurt containers in preparation for fitting my leftover asparagus in black bean sauce and Hunan pork into my overstuffed refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the Constitutional obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, in a real-life fortune cookie-consumption situation, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Miranda warnings printed on Mars bars, for easy distribution at crime scenes? The First Amendment immortalized in marzipan, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly whilst purchasing fresh macaroons?) Had the protagonist in a novel or memoir stumbled upon this chatty piece of paper, however — and let’s face it, less probable things turn up on the manuscript page all the time — it would have seemed pretty significant, wouldn’t it?

Any thoughts on why that might be the case? Could it be that this bizarre means of communication is one of those telling details I keep urging all of you to work into the opening pages of your manuscripts, as well as the descriptive paragraph in your queries, synopses, verbal pitches, and contest entries? Could the paragraphs above be crammed with the kind of fresh, unexpected little tidbits intended to make Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge suddenly sit bolt upright, exclaiming, “My word — I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Hint: since I’m opening our foray into craft with it, chances are pretty good that I’m showing you some telling details. Or, to put it in terms the whole English class can understand, choosing to incorporate that wacky fortune cookie into the narrative shows, rather than tells, something about the situation and character.

How can a savvy self-editing writer tell whether a detail is, in fact, telling? Here’s a pretty reliable test: if the same anecdote were told without that particular detail, or with it described in (ugh) general terms, would the story would be inherently less interesting?

Don’t believe that so simple a change could have such a dramatic subjective effect? Okay, let me tell that story again with the telling details minimized. To make it a fair test, I’m going to keep the subject matter of the fortunes the same.

These, believe it or not, are the two sides of the single fortune I found inside a fortune cookie last night: a prediction of my happiness, accompanied by a statement about my standing in the world. Had I been a less secure person, I might have taken umbrage at my dessert’s presuming to judge whether I counted or not, but since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There was planning to reward the civic virtue of my outgoing mail with something fabulous in my incoming mail.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet popped my census form into the mail — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my census form. As I worked my Chinese food leftovers into my refrigerator, I would have kept wondering: is the census form the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand the legal obligation to be counted every ten years, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?”

Admittedly, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder? Police advising the arrested of their rights by given them candy? The First Amendment immortalized in baked goods, lest bakery patrons temporarily forget about their right to freedom of assembly?)

It’s not as funny, is it, or as interesting? I haven’t made very deep cuts here — mostly, I’ve trimmed the adjectives — and the voice is still essentially the same. But I ask you: is the story as memorable without those telling details? I think not.

Some of you are still not convinced, I can tell. Okay, let’s take a more radical approach to cutting text, something more like what most aspiring writers do to the descriptive paragraphs in their query letters, the story overviews in their verbal pitches, and/or the entirety of their synopses, to make them fit within the required quite short parameters. Take a gander at the same tale, told in the generic terms that writers adopt in the interests of brevity:

Last night, I cracked open a fortune cookie at the end of my meal and discovered something I had never encountered before: a two-sided fortune, one side predicting I’d receive something good in the mail, the other reminding me that it was important that everyone be counted for the census. Since I had already sent back my census form, I found the symmetry very pleasing: clearly, Somebody Up There (or at any rate, Somebody Working in a Cookie Factory) was happy that I’d already filled it out.

Imagine how dismayed I would have been, though, had I not yet done so — or, even worse, if I had not yet received my form. As I rearranged food containers in my refrigerator, so I could fit my leftovers inside, I would have kept wondering: is the census the mail I’m supposed to find so darned pleasant? I mean, I understand what the census is for, but who is this fortune cookie to order me to enjoy filling it out?” Admittedly, this might have been a bit of an overreaction. (Although what’s next, I wonder)

Not nearly as much of a grabber as the original version, is it? Or the second, for that matter. No one could dispute that it’s a shorter version of the same story, but notice how in this rendition, the narrator seems to assume that the reader will either picture the incident so clearly that no details are necessary — or, even more common in memoir manuscripts and comic scenes in novels, presume that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the details, not the writer’s.

If you ever plan to submit your writing to Millicent or Mehitabel, there’s something you need to know: as far as professional readers are concerned, it’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the story in a way that provokes the intended reaction in the reader, not the reader’s to guess what the writer meant.

In other words, a professional reading is seldom anywhere near as charitable as the average submitter or contest entrant hopes it will be. Blame it on the intensity of competition created by literally millions of aspiring writers seeking to get published: Millicent knows that if the well-written submission in front of her does not provide her with the reading experience her boss the agent believes will sell right now, chances are good that one of the next thousand submissions will.

According to her, then, it’s your job to draw her into your story so completely that she forgets about all of that. It’s your job to wow her with your storytelling, regardless of the category of your book.

As some of you may already have suspected, I am not bringing this up at the beginning of our discussion of craft by accident: being aware of the imperative to tell the story well, rather than merely present it in a series of well-written sentences, gives an aspiring writer a significant advantage in preparing a submission or a contest entry. Heck, I’ll go even further: one of the best rules of thumb an aspiring writer can adopt is construct and revise your manuscript assuming a critical reader who wishes to be entertained, rather than an indulgent reader who is looking for writing potential.

This is particularly good advice — and I suspect that this will come as a surprise to some of you — if you happen either to be writing memoir or a novel with scenes based upon your personal experience. All too often, reality-based narrators rely upon the fact that something really happened to render it interesting to a reader, regardless of how skillfully that story may be told. All that’s really necessary is a clear telling, right? Or that the kind of terse narrative that works so well in a verbal anecdote will inspire the same reaction if reproduced verbatim on the page.

How well do either of these extremely common theories work out in practice? Well, let me ask you: did you prefer the first version of the fortune cookie story, the second, or the third?

More importantly for submission purposes, which do you think would grab Millicent the most as the opening of a manuscript? Or Mehitabel as the first few paragraphs of a contest entry?

Uh-huh. As we’ve seen, the difference between those three renditions was not the voice (although a case could be made that part of the voice of the first was created through the selection of the details) or even the writing quality (although the last version did get a mite word-repetitive), but the narrative’s willingness to include telling details — and unusual ones at that.

Allow me to suggest a radical interpretation of these facts: what if the entertainment differential between the three lay not in an authorial failure of imagination in composing the last version, but in a failure to recognize that the point of including this anecdote is presumably to entertain and inform the reader? In telling the story as quickly as possible, can a writer sometimes defeat the purpose of including it at all?

Ponder those questions for a moment, novelists who make things up from whole cloth. I’m going to take a moment to address the billows of anxiety wafting from those who write the real.

“But Anne!” memoirists and reality-based novelists protest nervously. “The things I write about actually happened — I can’t just make up pithy little details, can I? I have to stick to what happened!”

True enough, anxious truth-tellers: if you are writing the real, you cannot control the facts. What you can control, what any writer must control, is how you present them to the reader. No matter what you write, the success of your narrative is going to depend largely upon your storytelling skills — they’re what separates your account of a particular incident from anybody else’s, right?

Frankly, this isn’t an easy task, even if dear self doesn’t happen to be the protagonist; it’s hard to represent the real world well on the page. And let’s face it, reality is sometimes a lousy storyteller.

Oh, your life has never been trite or obvious or just plain perplexing, even for a minute? Okay, all of you English and Literature majors, tell me, please, how the following 100% true anecdote rates on the symbolism front.

A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to give a eulogy for a dead friend of mine — a writer of great promise, as the pros used to say — at our college reunion. Because several of my classmates had, unfortunately, passed away since our last get-together, eight of us were to give our eulogies at the same event. Because I am, for better of worse, known to my long-time acquaintances as a teller of jokes, I was under substantial pressure to…how shall I put this?…clean up the narrative of my late friend’s life a little. Or at least tell a version that might not offend the folks who didn’t happen to know him.

No, that’s not the symbolic part; that’s all backstory. Here’s the symbolism: my throat was annoyingly, scratchily sore for the entire week that I was editing the eulogy.

Now, if I saw a parallel that obvious in a novel I was editing, I would probably advise cutting it. “No need to hit the reader over the head with it,” I’d scrawl in the margins. “Yes, it’s showing, not telling, but please. Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?”

(And yes, now that you mention it, I am known for the length of my marginalia. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but explanation is often the soul of clarity.)

Now, if my life were a short story written for a high school English class, the voice loss in that anecdote might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: outsiders move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat. Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.

But the fact is, in a novel or memoir, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced, or even trite. Certainly, it’s unlikely to make Millicent drop her latte and scream, “Wow, I never saw that coming!”

As I believe I may have mentioned, oh, four or five hundred times before in this very forum, just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction. My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo.

Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over the years since my friend’s death, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened. Maybe even anticipated it.

How much better would it have been, in storytelling terms, if our protagonist had dealt with all the different input with aplomb, not coming down with strep throat until scant minutes before she was to speak? That way, in fine melodramatic style, she would have to croak her way through her speech, while her doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.

The possibilities make the writerly heart swoon, don’t they?

Just think how long it would extend a funeral scene if a eulogizer were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the deceased’s secret admirer creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words.

Heck, just think of the dramatic impact of any high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.

Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist IS silenced. That’s just so…literal.

Besides, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if our protagonist had been not spoken about her friend since he passed away (which, in a sense, is quite true: I was unable to make it across the country for his memorial service — that could be transformed into an interesting flashback), then she would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now. Or if he and she had shared deep, dark secrets she had sworn never to reveal (no comment), how telling a slight sore throat might be on the eve of spilling the proverbial beans, eh?

But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Taken too far, it might even make the protagonist seem like a wimp.

Readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.

One of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long — at least, not if his problems rise to the level of requiring action to fix. Simply put, most readers would rather see a protagonist at least make an attempt to solve his problems than spend 50 pages resenting them.

I can feel authors of novels and memoirs where characters sit around and think about their troubles for chapters on end blanching, can’t I?

Frankly, you should, at least if you intend to write for the U.S. market. Domestic agents and editors these days expect first-time author’s plot to move along at a pretty good clip — and few characteristics slow a plot down like a protagonist’s tendency to mull. Especially in a first-person narrative, where by definition, the reader must stay within the worldview of the narrator.

Some of you blanching souls have your hands raised, I see. “But Anne,” these pale folks exclaim, “I’ve always heard that the real key to keeping a reader’s interest is to introduce conflict on every page. Well, most of my protagonist’s conflict is internal — she can’t make up her mind where to turn. Surely,” the pallor deepens, “a professional reader like Millicent wouldn’t dismiss this kind of thinking as whining, right?”

That’s a good question, blanchers, and one that fully deserves an answer. The short one is that it all depends on how long the equivocation goes on, how repetitive the mulling ends up being — and whether the protagonist (or the plot, for that matter) is doing anything ELSE whilst the wheels in her brain churn.

The long answer, of course, is that in order to formulate a really good answer to that particular question, you would need to go out and read a hefty proportion of the tomes released in your book category within the last couple of years. Not EVERY book, mind you: those by first-time authors, because the already-established have to impress fewer people to get a new book into print.

In recent years, most fiction categories have moved pretty firmly toward the action end of the continuum. As opposed to, say, virtually any novel written in English prior to 1900, most of which hugged the other, pages-of-mulling end of the continuum.

This preference isn’t limited to the literary realm, either — we often see this philosophy in movies, too. Don’t believe me? Okay, think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair.

No examples springing to mind? Okay, how about if the protagonist is the victim of gratuitous discrimination, or even just simple bad luck? I’m talking about serious drawbacks here, not just everyday annoyances, of course. ( For some reason, whining about trivial problems — “But I don’t have the right shoes to wear with a mauve bridesmaid’s dress!” — seems to be tolerated better by most readers and audience members, provided that the whine-producer doesn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt until she finds those shoes.)

Got a film firmly in mind? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes:

(a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled/unemployed/otherwise unhappy protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself,

(b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist (job counselor/spouse/friend) telling the protagonist that the REAL reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso/total lack of resources/loss of the love of his life, but his lousy ATTITUDE, and/or

(c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life?

In fact, don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers of books, too — routinely expect their characters to become better, stronger people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?

Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? Generally speaking, pain does not make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns.

Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky. Yet dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance.

Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.

Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for two full scenes about it, but is later seen to be crying so hard over the stain that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief.

Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition. Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.

So where does that leave us on the telling detail front — or the storytelling front, for that matter? Should we all shy away from giving our protagonists big problems, in favor of more easily-presented small ones?

Well, I’m not going to lie to you: there are plenty of writing gurus out there who would advise you to do precisely that. Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register. How trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.

So why, you may be wondering, am I about to advise you not only to depict your protagonists (fictional and real both) with many and varied problems, as well as significant, realistic barriers to achieving their goals? Have I merely gone telling detail-mad?

Not by a long shot. I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. In conference presentation after conference presentation, they’ve been advising that writers should give their protagonists more quirks.

It’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable, after all — and it enables the inclusion of lots and lots of luscious telling details. Give ’em backstory. If you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy.

Provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal. Interesting delay creates dramatic conflict; resignation in the face of an insuperable barrier, however, is hard to make entertaining for very long.

In other words, feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems. Just make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did not have those problems — or show her coming up with clever ways to make those liabilities work for her.

Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking writing that people read for pleasure here. We’re talking drama.

We’re talking, to put it bluntly, about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Erica, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your father’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Erica buried her beloved father only a couple of weeks before.

While a sympathetic soul might reasonably ask, “Um, why should she have gotten over it already, if she’s not completely heartless?”, strategically, even the deepest mourning should not cause the plot to stop moving altogether.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that professional readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings. They just see far, far too much wallowing in submissions and contest entries.

Why is that a problem, you ask? Well, in a short story or novel or screenplay, people who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s point of view. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.

Or to express it in Millicent’s parlance: next!

The plague of the passive protagonist is a very, very common manuscript megaproblem, one about which agents and editors complain loudly and often. What’s a passive protagonist, you ask? One who habitually stops the plot in order to think things over, rather than taking swift action. Or who stops to talk the problem over with another character, rehashing the background information that the reader already knows.

Whenever you spot these pondering scenes in your own work, even if the project in question is the most character-driven literary fiction imaginable, pause and consider: could the piece work without the pondering scene?

Often, it can, and brilliantly.

A more subtle form of this megaproblem is the protagonist who waits patiently for all of the pieces of the mystery to fall into to place before taking action. Why, the reader is left to wonder, did the protagonist NEED to know the entire historical background of the problem before doing something about it?

Because the author thought the background was interesting, that’s why. Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: from a storytelling point of view, “because the plot requires it” should never be the only reason something happens in a story.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and substantially more active, if the protagonist acted on partial information, and then learned from the results of what she had done that she needed to learn more? In the midst of manuscripts where 2/3rds of the book is spent hunting down every last detail before the protagonist acts, I often find myself wondering: is it really such a good thing that HAMLET is so widely taught in high schools?

Yes, yes, many of the speeches are mind-bogglingly lovely, but here is a protagonist who more or less sits around feeling sorry for himself and not acting until the final act of a very, very long play — is this really the best exemplar of how to construct a plot, sometimes the sole example shoved under the eyeballs of high school students? Yes, it’s beautifully written, but honestly, by the middle of Act III, don’t you just want to leap onto the stage, shake Hamlet, and tell him to DO SOMETHING, already?

Oh, yeah, right, as if I’m the only one who’s had that impulse…

Don’t panic, please, if in the dead of night you suddenly find yourself thinking, “Hey, Anne raised a whole lot of troubling points today — but what about strategies for dealing with them?” You may sleep peacefully, knowing that next week of posts is going to be devoted to precisely that.

Today was just to whet your appetite — a fortune cookie at the beginning of the meal, as it were, rather than the end. Keep those protagonists active, my friends, and of course, keep up the good work!

Allowing butter to melt in your characters’ mouths, and other little revisions you can make to brighten Millicent’s day

melting-butter2melting-butter3

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s ruminations about the ever-changing state of publishing, I happened upon this article about print-on-demand going on in a local independent bookstore. Basically, the buyer picks a book off an extensive list (most of whose items are in the public domain, neatly side-stepping the whole how-does-the-writer-get-paid issue), a clerk sets up an industrial print-and-binding machine, and violà! Roughly 18 minutes later, the customer is holding a physical copy of a 19th-century novel that’s been out of print for decades.

Progress, or just another sled on the slippery slope toward authors not being paid for their writing at all? What do you think?

While you’re pondering that Gordian knot, let’s revisit yesterday’s subject, politeness as a scene-killer. In fact, while we’re already on the topic, let’s make a day of it and take a guided tour of standard agents’ euphemisms for being bored by a submission.

Why should every reviser worth her proverbial salt be aware of these euphemisms, you ask? A couple of reasons, and good ones. First, as I have pointed out several times throughout our recent discussion of self-editing tactics, writers of first drafts often don’t actively consider during the composition process the possibility that their stories or arguments, while no doubt beautifully written and new to them, may be rather similar to other stories or arguments currently making the rounds of agencies. Particularly — and it pains me to say this, but it is true — if the story or argument in question happens to bear even the slightest to a bestseller that came out any time within the last decade.

Trust me, no matter how slight the familial resemblance between your novel and, say, THE DA VINCI CODE, Millicent’s seen so many iterations of the latter come across her desk in recent years that a similar paragraph or, heaven help us, 3-page chapters may well strike her as the identical twin of something she’s seen 20,000 times before. Thus that latte Millicent, the agency screener in my examples, keeps chugging, regardless of the danger to her oft-burnt tongue. She has to do something to stay awake as she’s leafing through the fifty submissions before yours turns up to brighten her day and gladden her heart.

Which leads me to the second reason: boring Millicent is one of the most common reasons for rejection at both the submission and query stages, yet interestingly enough, when one hears agents giving advice at conferences about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition, “Whatever you do, don’t bore me!” is very seldom heard. Partially, I think, this is due to people in the industry’s reluctance to admit in public just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them.

How little? Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: the average submission is rejected on page 1. Sometimes in paragraph 1, or even sentence 1. As with query letters, submissions arrive at agencies in sufficient volume that screeners are trained to find reasons to reject them, rather than reasons to accept them.

Why isn’t this fact shouted from the rooftops and hung on banners from the ceilings of writers’ conferences, since being aware of it could only help everyone concerned, including Millicent? Well, having met my share of conference organizers, I would imagine it has something to do with not wanting to discourage attendees into giving up. It is a genuinely depressing state of affairs, after all, especially for those who have been querying and submitting for a while, and I can understand not wanting to be standing in a room with 400 writers hearing this hard fact for the first time.

Also, whenever I HAVE heard the news broken at a conference, the audience tends to react, well, a trifle negatively. Which is perfectly understandable, since from an aspiring writer’s point of view, such a declaration almost invariably means one of two things: either the agent or editor is a mean person who hates literature (but loves bestsellers), or that the admitter possesses an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners and thus should not be submitted to, queried, or even approached at all.

Either way, writers tend to react as though the pro were admitting a personal failing. That, too, tends not to help anybody concerned.

Actually, the prevailing assumptions about Millicent’s notoriously short attention span aren’t entirely fair. She may have a super-short of attention span for the opening pages of submissions, but she’s been known to pore over the 18th draft of an already-signed writer whose work she loves three times over. So have her boss, the agent, and the editor to whom they sell their clients’ work. However, since none of the three want to encourage submitters to bore them, they might not be all that likely to admit the latter before a bunch of aspiring writers at a conference.

Something else you’re unlikely to hear: that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control. I cast no aspersions and make no judgments, but they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know.

But heaven forfend that an agent should march into a conference and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening first few pages, okay?”

No, no, the prevailing wisdom goes, if the reader is bored, it must be the fault of the manuscript – or, more often, with problems that they see in one manuscript after another, all day long. (“Where is that nameless intern with my COFFEE?” the agent moans.)

As it turns out, while the state of boredom is generally defined as a period with little variation, agents have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them. Presumably on the same principle as that often-repeated truism about Arctic tribes having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

Here are a few of the most popular — and don’t be surprised if they seem a trifle familiar, long-time readers. I cribbed them from the extremely-useful-but-utterly-horrifying list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 we discussed in last January’s HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page, incidentally). They include :

(1) Not enough happens on page 1.

(2) Where’s the conflict?

(3) The story is not exciting.

(4) The story is boring. (I know: not a very subtle euphemism, but bear with me here.)

(5) Repetition on pg. 1 (!)

(6) Took too many words to tell us what happened.

(7) The writing is dull.

(8) I didn’t care enough about the protagonist and/or his situation to muster the effort to turn to page 2.

Sensing a pattern here? Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be screening a hundred submissions a day, that all sounds like variations on snow, doesn’t it? But put yourself in Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: imagine holding a job that compels you to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting, boring, and I’m just not interested.

This probably wasn’t the glamour she expected when she first landed the job at the agency.

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but not enough happens on page 1 might confuse, as it is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. Many a wonderful manuscript doesn’t really hit its stride until page 4 — or 15, or 146. And you’d be amazed at how often a good writer will bury a terrific first line for the book on page 10.

That’s not criticism; it’s just a fact. Unfortunately, neither Millicent, her cousin Maury who screens manuscripts for editors at a major publishing house, nor their Aunt Mehitabel, the inveterate contest judge, tends to have the time or the patience to wait for a slow-moving manuscript to pick up momentum.

The screening process is not, to put it mildly, set up to reward brilliance that takes a little while to warm up — and that’s not merely a matter of impatience on the reader’s part. Remember, that burnt-tongued screener racing through manuscripts will have to write a summary of any manuscript she recommends to her boss. So will Maury. Even Mehitabel will have to jot down a little something in order to pass a contest entry on to the finals round.

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate are any of them likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about by the end of page 1? Please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, give the reader a sense of who the protagonist is and what the book is about quickly.

Yes, even if you are convinced in the depths of your creative heart that the book in its published form should open with a lengthy disquisition on philosophy instead of plot. Remember, manuscripts almost always change between when an agent picks them up and when the first editor sees them, and then again before they reach publication. If you make a running order change in order to render your book a better grabber for Millicent on page 1, you probably will be able to change it back.

Or at least have a lovely long argument with your future agent and/or editor about why you shouldn’t. In the meantime, you might want to revise those early pages with an eye to getting on with it.

Speaking of unseemly brawls, where’s the conflict? is an exceptionally frequent reason for rejecting submissions — and not merely on page 1. In professional reader-speak, this means that the opening is well-written, but lacks the dramatic tension that arises from interpersonal friction (or in literary fiction, intrapersonal friction).

Or, to put it less technically, it’s not clear to Millicent what is at stake, who is fighting over it, and why the reader should care. Oh, you may smile at the notion of cramming that much information, which is really the province of a synopsis or pitch, into the first page of a manuscript, but to be blunt about it, Millicent’s going to need all of that information to pitch the book to her higher-ups at the agency. Giving her some immediate hints about where the plot is going is thus a shrewd strategic move.

Perhaps more to the point, while that’s going to be problematic at any point in a submission or contest entry, if it’s the prevailing condition at the bottom of page 1, our Millie tends, alas, to revert by default to #8, I didn’t care enough about the protagonist and/or his situation to muster the effort to turn to page 2. Next!

Where’s the conflict? has been heard much more often in professional readers’ circles since writing gurus started touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey as the story arc of the book. Since within that storyline, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes.

(If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. Or you can rent one of the early STAR WARS movies, or pretty much any US film made in the 1980s or 1990s where the protagonist learns an Important Life Lesson. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character where the goal is attained and the chase scenes begin on page 72 of the script.)

While this is an interesting way to structure a book, starting every story in the so-called normal world tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter, by definition: according to the fine folks who plot this way, the potential conflict is what knocks the protagonist out of his everyday world.

I find this plotting assumption fascinating, because I don’t know how reality works where you live, but around here, most people’s everyday lives are simply chock-full of conflict. Gobs and gobs of it. And if you’re shaking your head right now, thinking that I must live either a very glamorous life or am surrounded by the mentally unbalanced, let me ask you: have you ever held a job where you didn’t have to work with at least one person who irritated you profoundly?

Having grown up in a very small town, my impression is that your garden-variety person is more likely to experience conflict with others on the little interpersonal level in a relatively dull real-life situation than in an inherently exciting one — like, say, a crisis where everyone has to pull together. Having had the misfortune to work once in an office where fully two-thirds of the staff was going through menopause, prompting vicious warfare over where the thermostat should be set at any given moment, either hot enough to broil a fish next to the copy machine or cool enough to leave meat, eggs, and ice cubes lying about on desks for future consumption, let me tell you, sometimes the smallest disagreements can make for the greatest tension.

I know, I know: that’s not the way we see tension in the movies, where the townsfolk huddled in the blacked-out supermarket, waiting for the prehistoric creatures to attack through the frozen food section, suddenly start snapping at one another because the pressure of anticipation is so great. But frankly, in real life, people routinely snap at one another in supermarkets when there aren’t any prehistoric beasts likely to carry off the assistant produce manager, and I think it’s about time more writers acknowledged that.

I’m bringing this up for good strategic reasons: just because you may not want to open your storyline with the conflict of the book doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t open it with a conflict. Even if you have chosen to ground your opening in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1.

Or, to put it a trifle less delicately, it will not outrage the principles of realism to make an effort to keep that screener awake throughout your opening paragraphs. Or, indeed, on any page of your manuscript.

What was that shopworn industry truism again? Oh, yes: in a novel or memoir, there should be conflict on every single page.

Do I spot some hesitantly raised hands out there, perhaps ones that have been waving in the air since I posted yesterday? “But Anne,” some courteous souls protest, “conflict to me equals fighting, and I’m trying to show that my protagonist is a normal person, a nice one that the reader will grow to love. How do I present my sweet, caring protagonist as likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? Is it okay to have the conflict going on around her in which she doesn’t actually get involved?”

Ah, you’ve brought up one of the classic aspiring novelist’s misconceptions, courteous protesters, one that’s shared by many a memoirist: the notion that what makes a human being likable in real life will automatically render a fictionalized version of that person adorable. It’s a philosophy particularly prevalent in first-person narratives. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of otherwise well-written manuscripts where the primary goal of the opening scene(s) is apparently to impress the reader with the how nice and kind and just gosh-darned polite the protagonist is.

Butter wouldn’t melt in any of their mouths, apparently. As charming as such people may be when one encounters them in real life, from a professional reader’s point of view. they often make rather irritating protagonists, for precisely the reason we’re discussing today: they tend to be conflict-avoiders.

Which can render them a trifle, well, dull on the page. Since interpersonal conflict is the underlying basis of drama (you might want to take a moment to jot that one down, portrayers of niceness), habitually conflict-avoiding protagonists tend to stand in the way of both plot and character development. Instead of providing the engine that moves the plot forward, they keep throwing it into neutral, or even reverse, in an effort to keep tempers from clashing.

Like protagonists who are poor interviewers, the conflict-shy have a nasty habit of walking away from potentially interesting scenes that might flare up, not asking the question that the reader wants asked because it might offend another of the characters, or even being just so darned polite that their dialogue doesn’t add anything to the scene other than conveying that they have some pretty nifty manners.

These protagonists’ mothers might be pleased to see them conducting themselves so well, but they make Millicent want to tear her hear out.

“No, no, NO!” the courteous gasp. “Polite people are nice, and polite people really do talk courteously in real life! How can it be wrong to depict that on the page?”

Oh, dear, how to express this without hurting anyone’s feelings…have you ever happened to notice just how predictable polite interchanges are? As I mentioned last time, they’re generic; given a specific set of circumstances, any polite person might say precisely the same things — which means that if the reader happens to have been brought up to observe the niceties, or even knows someone who has, s/he can pretty much always guess what a habitually polite character will say, and sometimes do, in the face of plot turns and twists.

And predictability, my friends, is one of the most efficient dramatic tension-killers known to humankind.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a gander at this gallant conversation in a doorway:

“Oh, pardon me, James. I didn’t see you there. Please go first.”

“Not at all, Cora. After you.”

“No, no, I insist. You reached the doorway before me.”

“But your arms are filled with packages. Permit me to hold the door for you, dear lady.”

“Well, if you insist, James. Thank you.”

“Not at all, Cora. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thanks. Please convey my regards to your mother.”

“I’m sure she’ll be delighted. Do send my best love to your wife and seventeen children. Have a nice day.”

“You, too, Cora.”

Courteous? Certainly. Stultifying dialogue? Absolutely.

Now, I grant you that this dialogue does impress upon the reader that James and Cora are polite human beings, but was it actually necessary to invest 6 lines of text in establishing that not-very-interesting fact? Wouldn’t it be more space-efficient if the author had used that space SHOWING that these are kind people through action? (“My God, Cora, I can’t believe you risked your life saving that puppy from the rampaging tiger on your way back from your volunteer gig tutoring prison inmates in financial literacy!”)

Or, if that seems a touch melodramatic to you, how about showing dialogue that also reveals characteristics over and above mere politeness? While you’re at it, why not experiment with letting some of that butter in your protagonist’s mouth rise to body temperature from time to time?

“But Anne,” a few consistency-huggers out there shout, “you can’t seriously mean to suggest that I should have my protagonist act out of character! Won’t that just read as though I don’t know what my character is like?”

Actually, no — in fact it can be very good strategy character development. Since completely consistent characters can easily become predictable (case in point: characters on sitcoms, who often learn Important Life Lessons in one week’s episode and apparently forget them by the following episode), many authors choose to intrigue their audiences by having their characters do or say something off-beat every so often. Keeps the reader guessing — which is a great first step toward keeping the reader engaged.

And don’t underestimate the charm of occasional clever rudeness for revealing character in an otherwise polite protagonist. Take a look at this probably apocryphal but widely reported doorway exchange between authors Clare Boothe Luce and Dorothy Parker, and see if it doesn’t tell you a little something about the characters involved:

The two illustrious ladies bumped into each other at the entrance to the theatre. As it was an opening night performance and the two were well known to be warm personal enemies, a slight hush fell over the crowd around them.

In the face of such scrutiny, Mrs. Luce tried to rise to the challenge. “Age before beauty,” she told Mrs. Parker, waving toward the door.

“And pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker allegedly replied, sailing in ahead of her.

Polite? Not particularly. But aren’t they both characters you would want to follow through a plot?

“Okay,” my courteous questioners admit reluctantly, “I can see where I might want to substitute character-revealing dialogue for merely polite chat, at least in my opening pages, to keep from boring Millicent. But you haven’t answered the rest of my question: how can I make my protagonist likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? What if I just show conflict going on around her, without her, you know, getting nasty?”

For polite people, you certainly ask pointed questions, courteous ones: it means you’re starting to get the hang of interesting dialogue. As you have just illustrated, one way that a protagonist can politely introduce conflict into a scene is by pressing a point that another party to the conversation wants to brush off.

Nasty? Not at all. Conflictual? Definitely.

Not all conflict entails fighting, you see. Sometimes, it’s mere disagreement — or, in the case of a protagonist whose thoughts the reader hears, silent rebellion. Small acts of resistance can sometimes convey a stronger sense of conflict than throwing an actual punch. (For more suggestions on heightening conflict, please see the CONFLICT-BUILDING category on the list at right.)

When in doubt about whether the conflict is sufficient to keep Millicent’s interest, try raising the stakes for the protagonist in the scene. As long as the protagonist wants something very much at that particular moment, is prevented from getting it, and takes some action as a result, changes are that conflict will emerge, at least internally.

Note, please, that I did not advise ramping up the external conflict, necessarily, especially on a first page. In a first-person or tight third-person narrative, where the reader is observing the book’s world from behind the protagonist’s eyeglasses, so to speak, protagonists who are mere passive observers of their own lives are unfortunately common in submissions; if Millicent had a nickel for every first page she read where the protagonist was presented as little more than a movie camera taking in ambient conditions, she wouldn’t be working as a poorly-paid screener; she’d own her own agency.

If not her own publishing house.

Should any of you nonfiction writers out there have been feeling a bit smug throughout this spirited little discussion of protagonist passivity, I should add that the conflict insufficiency problem doesn’t afflict only the opening pages of novels. It’s notoriously common in memoirs, too — as often as not, for the two reasons we discussed above: wanting to make the narrator come across as likable and presenting the narrator as a mere observer of events around him.

Trust me on this one: in both fiction and nonfiction, Millicent will almost always find an active protagonist more likable than a passive one. All of that predictable niceness quickly gets just a little bit boring.

Mix it up a little. Get your protagonist into the game from the very top of page 1.

Then keep her there. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Where ARE my manners? Slowing down the story, probably

me in the Xmas ball

I intended to post this self-portrait a few days ago. Don’t blame me: the flu snuck up behind me, repeatedly bopping me on the head. Which perhaps explains why there are four iterations of me in the reflection, instead of the usual one; if you don’t think that this year’s flu has the power to shred the soul into several jagged shards, or at least bifurcate it into the part that’s coughing mercilessly and the part that’s anxiously looking out the window for the undertaker, well, I’m guessing you haven’t had it yet.

And I hope that none of you do. It’s not an experience worth living through, even for the sake of writing about it later. But here’s a tip, just in case infection does catch up with you: do not, I implore you, use your convalescent time to peruse the latest news about changes in the publishing world. It might just kill you.

When you’re ill, you want your will to live bolstered, right, not rapidly drained away?

Think I’m kidding? Okay, try this little experiment: turn your head, cough — and contemplate Amazon’s recent press release asserting that on Christmas Day, more customers bought Kindle versions of books than physical copies.

Now, do you feel better or worse than before you began the experiment?

Admittedly, this downloading fiesta is best contemplated while carrying a giant grain of salt in one hand and waving a banner reading caveat emptor with the other. After all, it’s only reasonable to expect people who got a Kindle for Christmas to hop right on the downloading bandwagon, pronto. Their ardor may well cool as the weeks pass.

But still, that chilling claim bears thinking about, if you happen to be a writer. At least, one who is — or ever plans to — making a living by writing books.

Strange days for writers, these; the miasma of murky copyright issues hovering around electronic publication has been engendering some pretty fascinating discussion — and, let’s face it, quite a bit of anger. Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, has just resigned from the Authors’ Guild because, she says, she felt that its settlement with Google did not adequately protect its members’ rights. That was both brave and generous of her — an author as established as she has been for many years (and deservedly) is unlikely to suffer anywhere near as much as the legions of authors who will come into print over the next few years.

So on behalf of all of us: thank you, Madame LeGuin, for thinking of us. I’m perpetually shoving fledgling SF and fantasy writers in the direction of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN as a crash course in craft. And what’s not to admire in an author of your stature’s tackling the TAO TE CHING?

She’s not the only one, either — to register a public protest of the changing writerly landscape, I mean, not to explicate Taoism.

Sherman Alexie has been arguing, and cogently, that authors are in a battle to the death for their rights. Kudos to you, sir — and I thought your most recent book, WAR DANCES, was far more interesting a literary experiment than many reviewers seemed to notice. May your inventiveness and copyright protections endure long.

And they are certainly not the only authors who feel that the book may be tumbling down the same slippery slope as new music: still profitable for the companies doing the releasing and those artists lucky enough to have established a fan base before the industry transformed, but darned hard for anyone newer to the game to make a living at it. The game is changing, and not in a manner at all likely to enable the struggling writer to move out of that picturesque garret, or even to quit his day job: as I mentioned the other week, over the last couple of years, the disparity between bestselling authors’ advances and first-time author’s is about as great as it has ever been, and just keeps widening.

Which would concern me less, I must admit, if pretty much every author I know weren’t being expected these day to invest more resources than ever before in promoting her own books. Is it me, or is there something wrong with the math here?

Still, the picture is not all gloomy. Until I know for sure that the Kindle and similar devices can be used to read in the bathtub without being potentially life-endangering, I have to believe that the physical book serves a necessary function that cannot easily be supplanted by electronics. I do read the writing trades every day, however — in electronic form, I must admit — so I’m not laboring under any illusions that publishing isn’t going to have to change somehow. I’m just not convinced that it’s going to be as radically as we’ve all been asked to believe.

Case in point: if memory serves, practically the instant the internet hit the mainstream — i.e., when it stopped being almost exclusively the playground of academics and computer geeks, two groups for which I harbor considerable affection, and became absorbed into the non-specialist’s everyday life — media types threw up their hands in a panic, insisting that conventional shopping was dead. Within just a couple of years, these minor-key Nostradamuses (Nostradami?) assured us, no one, but no one, was going to be buying so much as a can of beets at the local grocery store. The internet was going to handle all commerce, we were told; the storefront mercantile would soon be as dead as the dodo.

It’s years later now. Tell me: where was the last place you bought beets?

For me, it was my local farmers’ market. Very good they were, too. Lovers of good literature are still trekking to the corner store for those beets, bless their hearts, if in dwindling numbers, And in case nobody out there has noticed it, it’s only the sales of new books that are dismal — used books are, I’m told by thems as know, actually selling better since the beginning of the economic downturn.

See my earlier comment about reading the bathtub. It’s a socio-economic phenomenon worth considering, I tell you.

Soggy pages and beet salad aside, I am darned worried about the future — and present — of the working author. Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I skipped running my usual GREAT GIFTS FOR WRITERS WITH GREAT GIFTS series this year: right now, I think the best thing any of us can do to help ourselves or the authors we admire is to buy books by living writers.

Oh, any of the gifts I suggested in the GREAT GIFTS series (gathered for your convenience under the category of the same name on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page, should any of you still be trawling for gifts) would probably make a serious writer happy, particularly the one where kith or kin create time or space for the writer to, well, write. That invaluable present has the advantage of being either very expensive (some of the writers’ retreats out there are essentially resorts, and are priced accordingly) or very inexpensive (what writing parent wouldn’t love a hand-colored book of gift certificates for undisturbed writing hours from a 7-year-old willing to play quietly by herself?)

Yet for months now, whenever I have been asked to suggest a present, I’ve simply told the asker to run, not walk, to the nearest physical bookstore, preferably an independent one that truly supports living writers, like Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books or Portland’s Powell’s — both of which will happily issue gift cards in any amount, you know — and start exercising some literary taste toute suite. Because as I have said before here at Author! Author!, and shall no doubt say again, if we writers want a world where new voices can break into the biz, we need to keep buying books.

Speaking of which, a quick reminder: between now and the end of the year, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) author and hyper-generous soul Mary Hutchings Reed will be donating $1 per copy sold of her novel, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a Chicago organization providing pro bono legal services to emerging artists, as well as 50 cents per copy to the Seattle YWCA for its GirlsFirst project because, well, it’s a cause I like. Full details of the charity drive may be found here, but to whet your appetite for literature:

CKH_Cover FinalCourting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Please consider helping us raise some money for these very worthy causes, by the karma-fluffing means of — wait for it — buying a book by a living author. Amazon offers it both in hard copyand for Kindle. In case, you know, anyone wants to enjoy the irony of ordering the latter.

Better still, buy it “directly from the author or from a great independent bookseller like Village Square Books (and you thought I forgot your impassioned plea for indie booksellers, Pat! Never let it be said that a reader left a good argument in my comments in vain.)

If not this book, by all means, pick another. And another and another, selected from the part of the bookstore where you hope one day to see your magnum opus gracing a shelf. Because the best, the most unarguably successful means of convincing agents and editors that there’s a market for books like yours is for readers like you to buy, you guessed it, books like yours.

That’s enough preaching for one day, I think; I’m feeling quite winded. Before another coughing fit carries me off, let’s knuckle down for some more discussion of self-editing for pace.

Last week, we were chatting about the desirability of structuring your submissions to avoid that most subjective of pitfalls, being boring. The problem is, a lack of tension — an extremely common cause of ennui amid agency-habitué set — is one of the hardest traits for a writer to spot in her own work. Especially, for some reason, in novels and memoirs.

Partially, I think, this writerly blind spot tends to be the a side effect of working so hard on plotting. The protagonist needs to get from Point A to Point B in a scene, and if the narrative gets her there in a fairly expeditious and plausible manner, we tend to be satisfied.

For the first draft, anyway. Then, if we’re good revisers, we suddenly awake one fine morning and exclaim, “Wait — there’s more to telling this story than getting to the end of it, isn’t there? Might I conceivably make some changes that — dare I say it? — render the protagonist’s journey from A to B more enjoyable for the reader?”

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how often it comes as a surprise to aspiring writers who eschew revision that the manuscript not only needs to be a good story well told, but entertaining to boot. “But my novel/memoir/analysis of the rise of the Visigoths isn’t meant to be merely entertaining,” these first-draft lovers exclaim indignantly. “This is a story that needs to be told. If potential readers just want to be entertained, they’ll simply flop down in front of their TVs or computers.”

Precisely. Wouldn’t you rather that someone who liked to read would pick up your book and continue to peruse it with pleasure than surf the internet for, say, beets?

Like it or not, part of the job description for being an author involves entertaining people, regardless of the type of book. Good writing beguiles, among other things; it should not bore.

Before any of you begin rolling your eyes and decrying the decline of literature, allow me to add: Robert Louis Stevenson (after whom my junior high school was named, perversely enough) once compared the working life of the professional writer to that of a fille de joie. (If you can’t extrapolate what that is, your parents probably wouldn’t appreciate my filling you in.) Readers, even those who prefer the most literary of literary fiction, the most serious political analysis, or, heaven help us, in-depth discussions of semiotic theory, engage in the practice because they enjoy it.

As a matter of marketing, not to say ethics, I think it’s self-defeating to blame them for that. Or punish them with turgid prose.

Am I being a bit too subtle here? Okay, I’ll take off the gloves and take another swing: it’s pretty apparent to Millicent the agency screener — and, indeed, any other professional reader — when a writer who does not care enough about his readers’ enjoyment of his book to revise, or even re-read, his own manuscript before submitting it. Among other things, an obvious first draft (and they are often very obvious indeed to Millie) sends a signal that here might be a writer who will kick and scream if an agent or editor asks for any revisions whatsoever.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s a radical conclusion based on some pretty scant evidence. But remember, Millicent’s job is first and foremost to reject manuscripts, not to give them a nice, long chance to entertain her.

I suspect, too, that many, many writers worry a touch too much about making their protagonists seem like nice people, at the expense of other, more risky character development. Manners are certainly delightful and desirable in individuals, but when courtesy takes over dialogue for any length of time, the result can be deadly. Take, for example, this sterling bit of prose:

Everett lifted his hat, a well-creased Homburg inherited from his father, a man known all across the Back Bay for his impeccably-groomed head. “I’m delighted to meet you, Maude.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” Maude waved him to a chair. “May I offer you anything to drink? Coffee, perhaps? Tea? I could sacrifice a goat.”

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Nothing, thanks.”

Maude began to burrow in her purse. “I suppose you are curious about why I asked you here.”

“I am, rather.”

Did you notice how the pace of the scene stopped DEAD after Everett thanked Maude? There was a palpable lull, from which the reader was only saved by all of that purse-rummaging. Pretty remarkable, given that one of the characters here is evidently not averse to a spot of blood-shedding.

I tell you, lovely manners can be death to a scene. Minimize their appearance.

Don’t believe me? Okay, glance over that micro-scene again. Are you at all curious about what happens next? Do you want to hear more about either of these characters? To be blunt about it, have you in fact learned anything from that group of 103 words (yes, I checked) that could not have been easily conveyed in all of its glory in the following 36?

“Coffee?” Maude asked.

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Why did you ask me here?”

See how much snappier the second version is? Here we see in action tried-and-true editors’ trick: don’t have the characters answer questions just because they are asked.

Seriously — it’s often an almost instant scene-enlivener. While of course it is polite in the real world to respond directly and promptly to the queries put to one, a narrative that exhibits a slavish adherence to having all questions answered the very instant after they are put — and having characters answer them absolutely directly, truthfully, and completely — can get boring FAST.

Why? Well, characters who do this–– as most characters in most novels submitted to agents and editors do, I tremble to report — are the last thing you want an interesting character to be: predictable. REALLY predictable.

Take another gander at the shortened scene. Does Everett come across as particularly impolite? Not really. Both characters still come across as relatively nice people, but now, the reader is not invited to dwell on their manners — which, by definition, are impersonal, rather than habits that reveal individual character, right? — but instead is drawn into the mystery of why Everett has been asked to this strange dorm room.

Let me repeat something I just mentioned parenthetically, because it may be on the final exam: manners, like clichés, are reflections of social norms, not individual characteristics. Therefore, while showing a character deviate from good manners or mangle clichés can be effective character development, cliché-spouting (dangerous even as a comic device, in a submission) and courteous speech actually do not tell the reader much about the characters who emit them.

So when your protagonist shows what a nice guy he is by saying please, thank you, and asking about acquaintances’ mothers’ respective healths, he is not actually revealing much who he is as a person. He might be demonstrating something about the people who raised him, of course — while no one can deny that part of Elvis’ complicated charm was that he called people older than himself “sir” and “ma’am,” the fact that he habitually did so was certainly his parents’ and teachers’ doing, right? — but part of the point of good manners is that they are used socially to avoid insulting anyone.

Or to put rude people in their place. That, however, is conflict, and needs to be shown explicitly in the narrative; remember, however vividly the speaker’s tone may be heard in the writer’s head, the reader can’t know about it unless it shows up on the page. If the narrative simply assumes that the reader will fill in the necessary details, Millicent is all too likely to conclude with a yawn that politeness on the page is simply good manners, not tastefully-concealed conflict.

That’s not such an unwarranted conclusion: let’s face it, courtesy is generic. Manners are most people means concealing a part of their true identities, at least in the moment. Complete honesty tends not to be polite — and, as anyone who has spent 20 consecutive minutes with a small child can tell you, politeness is the learned skill, not truth-telling.

While absolute truth-telling is actually rather rare in adult life, except in small bursts — please tell me that no one is shocked to hear me say that — small, inadvertent pieces of self-revelation are lovely, aren’t they? I love to find them in a new writer’s work, as evidence of a good eye and a sharp insight into human nature.

I am not alone in this; telling little details are beloved by professional readers, partially because a manuscript peppered with ‘em is actually rather a rarity to encounter.

A shame, really — but let me turn the question around to you: given the choice, would you rather read a page of dialogue that showed a protagonist SAYING one polite thing after another? Or a page that showed the protagonist talking about something else entirely, perhaps engaging in conversation that reveals something about his relationship with the person sitting across from him, or a passion of his own — and then showed him leap to his feet, without even thinking about it, to give his seat to his grandmother?

Put like that, the choice is kind of obvious, isn’t it? Sounds like the first cousin of those old workhorses show, don’t tell and actions speak louder than words. Or the now seldom-used adage from before the crowned heads of Europe began to tumble, You can tell a lot about a man by the kind of lace edging his shirt.

Hey, times change. So do standards of what is and isn’t boring.

How can self-editing writers tell if the manuscript in their trembling little hands incorporates enough of this kind of telling little detail? Ah, that is one of the great burning questions of the writing life — and a subject for a future post, my friends. Like, say, tomorrow’s.

In the meantime, try not to be depressed by the trends in the industry; do your bit, however, small, toward creating the kind of literary market you want. Come up with ways to delight your readers, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Slicing and dicing life into interesting shapes, or, ordinary is as ordinary does

barcelona market

As I mentioned last time, I’m planning to spend the next few weeks going through my to-blog-about stack, concentrating on all of those great questions from readers that I answered briefly in the comments, but never managed to get around to devoting a entire post or two to expanding upon, as I intended. I’m well aware of the old saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but until today, I was not aware that the highway markers were provided by procrastination.

Case in point: intelligent and insightful reader Jen posted today’s question onmy post commemorating John Updike’s passing, an event that my archives tell me happened way back in January, and have I devoted a post yet to answering it? Well, have I?

I’m asking semi-seriously, because as of this morning, I honestly didn’t remember. I often so go to town in answering questions in the comments that I have the illusion that I have indeed blogged on a subject. But since the comments aren’t searchable via the wee-but-powerful engine at the upper right-hand corner of this page (I know; I think it’s weird, too), my waxing poetic over a question doesn’t really help anyone but the people who happen to check — and re-check — the comments on that particular post.

It’s kind of like forgetting to post any of my photos of Barcelona until seven months after I took them. The market’s pretty, isn’t it?

Okay, that’s one goal checked off my list. Here’s another. Quoth Jen way back when:

Anne, —in 2002, Dr. James Plath, an English professor, friend of the late writer, and specialist in John Updike’s work said, “While other people were writing about characters in the extreme, John Updike spoke and wrote about people who lived middling lives in the middle of the United States which is the anchor of this country.”

Especially with the higher standard unpublished writers must reach, middling Midwesterners, on the surface, have an extra challenge in getting past criteria #1 on panelists’ dream-date list. Yet, like the character development shown in your excerpt, isn’t it how we expose our characters that pushes them past the bell curve (or not)?

I should admit my Midwestern protagonist is feeling a bit ordinary today.

Jen, this is a question I hear in my craft classes all the time: how does one write about ordinary characters and ordinary life without the result being, well, ordinary?

I’m not sure that I would agree with your professor’s assessment — Updike was hardly the ONLY portrayer of Middle America in the post-war era. (Andre Debus, anyone? Rachel Ingalls? About a thousand other writers?) But it’s absolutely true that the portrayal of a so-called ordinary character can elevate that character above a dull normal.

In order to pull that off, however, that character — or lifestyle, or workplace, or situation — cannot be merely sketched out, however. The writer has to imagine a fully-rounded protagonist who is more complicated than what a casual observer would consider typical of his job, class, sex, race, political affiliations, sexual preferences, and so forth, because unless the writer conceives him as an individual, he’s likely to come across as a mere representative of a group, trend, or background.

Taken far enough, of course, the result is a stereotype. But haven’t we all seen enough mean-spirited cheerleaders (who invariably rule the school in fiction), sulky teenagers (rolling their eyes and sighing perpetually in submissions), absent-minded professors (or, even more common on the page, professors who constantly speak as though they were giving a lecture), intolerant small-town denizens (with or without pitchforks in their hands), and soulless corporate lawyers (okay, I’ll give you that one) to last a lifetime?

Or several lifetimes, if we happen to read a lot of submissions?

Updike was very, very good at elevating ordinary characters into something beyond representatives, at least for male characters. His men are not just stand-ins for their position in society or backgrounds, but fully-realized individuals operating within the rubric of what Wallace Stevens called the time and space in which we breathe.

So that’s the short answer, Jen: fashion characters that do not feel like characters, but people, occupying a world that is very much like ours, only more interesting. Not only to the author, or to people who live within the environment being depicted, but to readers who know nothing about them.

Well, that’s another craft problem neatly polished off. Moving on…

Oh, how I wish it were that simple — or that fewer good writers mistook the classic writing advice write what you know for a directive to reproduce even the not-very-interesting life around them. Bordering-on-boring slice-of-life submissions are so common that I’ve seen more than a couple agents and editors march into writers’ conferences and declare that slice-of-life fiction is just bad writing.

I think that’s a pretty radical overstatement — there’s plenty of excellent slice-of-life writing out there — but I can certainly understand how someone who read manuscripts for a living might be annoyed into that extreme a conclusion. Many, many aspiring writers take write what you know far too literally; originally, the advice was meant to discourage writers from speculating in print about social conditions and situations they knew little or nothing about.

Why? Well, in part, because doing that tends to result in stereotype-generation. Not to mention fiction that may not ring true. So a more sensible version of write what you know might be do your homework, then write what you find out.

Another unfortunate interpretation of write what you know is the quite untrue supposition that just because something happens in real life, it will necessarily be interesting on the page. Editors have been driven into madhouses by this one since the Brontë sisters first got the idea of placing pen to paper. Including too many details — or uninteresting ones — makes it hard for the reader to figure out what is and isn’t important in a scene.

Those of us who read manuscripts for a living have a number of terms for manuscripts that include mentions of every paper clip on a desk, as if each were as important to the scene as the dead body lying on top of them, but you probably don’t really want to know. They are not very polite. About the nicest is lazy writing.

That made some of you realism-lovers out there sit up in your chairs, didn’t it? “But Anne,” fans of the mundane sputter indignantly, “how can doing too much work possibly be construed as lazy? I can understand how it might be irritating to an agent or editor to have to edit out extraneous details, but isn’t it far better to over-describe than to leave the reader guessing what the physical environment is like?”

I understand your ire, oh sputterers, but the question misses the point, from a professional reader’s point of view: ideally, you shouldn’t be picking between two extremes, but finding an ideal balance between too much information and too little. And since it’s the writer’s job, not the editor’s, to discover where that happy medium lies for any particular story, I don’t think you can really blame the pros for regarding writers who shirk this duty as lazy.

Think about it: if all that were necessary in order to convey the feel of a room or truth of a situation was to describe it down to the last dust mote and/or stray frown on a bystander, film would trump good writing, every time. The old cliché that a picture’s worth a thousand words is often true, in the sense that if there’s a lot going on in a photo, it would take a great many words to describe it.

But there’s also a pretty good reason that novels don’t typically contain photographs: part of the point of the art form is to describe things, people, and situations not by depicting them in exhaustive detail, but rather by the author’s selecting what is most important to the truth of the scene and concentrating on it.

To put it a bit more bluntly: a large part of a writer’s value to the reader lies in her ability to winnow out the unimportant. Just because something is real — or realistic — doesn’t mean it’s going to capture a reader’s interest. And every writer on earth should be pretty happy about that, because if every aspect of quotidian life were hugely entertaining, novelists and memoirists would be rendered obsolete, replaced by film cameras and court reporters.

But what we fiction and creative nonfiction writers do to reality is far, far more complex than simply holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, right?

That’s something that writers of the ordinary are prone to forget, alas: the novelist’s job is not merely to tell a good story and to provide trenchant insight into the world he’s depicting, but to entertain. No matter how true-to-life your protagonist may be or how realistic the situation, if the way you write about it isn’t entertaining on some level, people will have a hard time reading it.

I see some of you turning up your nose at that, murmuring about how pandering to the lowest common denominator is death to literature. That may be comforting to believe, but actually, the imperative to entertain applies equally well to the least accessible literary fiction as to the most mainstream. The audience expected to enjoy the book in question is merely different.

Instead of regarding the need to interest and entertain the reader — and Millicent, as the gatekeeper of the agency that is, we hope, going to bring your book to the publishing house who will get your book into the hands of that reader — as a burden, why not think of it as a useful reminder that one of the biggest distinction between a professional writer and a hobbyist is not whether she gets paid, but whether she is willing to write with a target reader’s literary desires in mind, as well as her own? Wouldn’t you rather that your ideal reader found your work scintillating, rather than a chore to read?

Chew on that for a while, lovers of abundant and unimportant detail: wading through a sea of irrelevancies is no fun. And frankly, your reader would prefer for you to make the decision about what is and isn’t important for him to know. How you draw the line is part of your authorial voice.

Far more frequently, though, slice-of-life fiction suffers from the opposite problem: many writers assume — again, wrongly — that if they’re writing about everyday life, they don’t need to fill in the details of the environment, social relations, characterization for minor players, etc. Everybody knows what an office is like, right, and a gas station? Everyone has known an incompetent middle manager, an annoying co-worker, a bored check-out girl?

This, too, tends to get labeled as lazy writing, for obvious reasons: it’s the writer’s job to create a full and interesting world for her readers to inhabit, not the reader’s job to fill in the details from his own experience or imagination. And as any Millicent would be only too glad to tell you, it’s not the agent or editor’s, either.

Before any literal-minded reader demanding to know whether I’m saying that it’s always imperative to provide a physical description of every character as soon as she appears on the page, I hasten to reiterate: how much detail serves the story best is ultimately the writer’s decision, and an important one. Although each book category does have its own storytelling conventions, the choices involved are creative, not absolute.

So matter how much any given aspiring writer out there would like for there to be a hard-and-fast rule governing, say, the timing (or inclusion) of physical descriptions, or a foolproof formula for a dialogue-to-narration balance, there aren’t. What will work best for any given story is different.

Hey, this is an art we’re talking about here, not a science. Constructing an enjoyable narrative is hard work.

I see a few hands raised out there. “Okay, Anne, I get that as the writer of a story, I’m ultimately responsible for how I tell it. But I genuinely want to give my readers an accurate feeling for real life as I perceive it — and that means having to take them to some pretty ordinary places. Offices. Traffic jams. Supermarket aisles. How can I make that kind of place interesting to the reader while still remaining true to life?”

Oh, that’s a snap to answer: by how you write about it.

I know, I know — that sounds like I’m being flippant, but actually, I’m not. Often, the author’s perception of the protagonist’s ordinariness is more problematic than the locale: in the vast majority of submissions that deal with so-called ordinary people, their lives and characters are depicted as dull, as composite or representative of an entire group of people rather than as we encounter people in real life, as individuals with personal quirks. Interesting personal quirks, ones that the reader might not expect.

Not having any surprising depths would be problematic for any protagonist, anywhere, anytime — and frankly, with most readers, not just the professional ones.

Why? Well, Millicent and her ilk simply see more dull normal characters than the average reader, for the simple reason that they read many more books, at least in part. From their point of view, reading about an ordinary character from a generic background — even a background that a great many potential readers share — is rather like listening to an actor doing a generalized foreign accent, rather than one tailored specifically to the background of the character she’s portraying.

If you doubt this, try listening to some of the faux Irish brogues that turn up on US stages — they tend to be better on Canadian ones — that wander from County Cork to Dublin and back again with a winsome disregard for geographic probability, or ersatz American accents on British stages, evident hangovers from WWII GIs, with adjectives evidently from Brooklyn, nouns from Houston, and verbs from the movie lots of LA.

Genuine accents are always individuated, to a certain extent — and thus potentially a source of surprise and interest on the page. A close listener to my speech might discover, for instance, that my vocabulary changes when I’m talking about politics (the result of years of graduate school), my hometown boasts a specific cadence unshared by people who live 15 miles away that pops up when I talk about my childhood, and when I’m embarrassed, some of my English grandmother’s vowels come tripping out of my mouth. (“Oh, I’m so very sorry!”) And don’t even get me stared on the kid I knew in college who was from New Jersey, but tried to speak like a Cambridge graduate in tribute to his deep and abiding love of Monty Python.

My point is, real accents are a seething mass of influences and choices, so when we hear an actor produce a voice seemingly representative, it can sound rather fake. So, too, with characterization. No one is absolutely the product of a monolithic background, any more than anyone remains in character 100% of the time.

It’s the deviations and moments of departure that render us interesting. So if your ordinary protagonist is in danger of becoming too predictable, why not have him act out of character every now and then, as people do all the time in real life? Why not have one of the minor characters flip out about something out of a clear blue sky? Or have his love interest be in a lousy mood not because of anything that’s going on in the plot, but because she’s just gotten a parking ticket?

Starting to get the picture?

Ordinary does not have to mean uneventful or unquirky. It’s far from impossible to portray an ordinary person in an ordinary situation in a manner that will be interesting to a reader.

It does, however, require thinking about the character and scene differently than most writers were taught in their composition classes. Most beginning writing classes fall into the write-what-you-know school, tending to encourage neophyte writers to concentrate upon building their craft through acutely observed everyday life — a good place to start, certainly, but not one that necessarily takes the reader’s point of view into account as much as Millicent might like to see.

We all know why by now, right? From the industry’s point of view, it’s the writer’s job to render the protagonist and the situation fascinating, not the reader’s job to say, “Oh, this is supposed to be an everyday character; I guess I don’t mind his being predictable.”

Predictability is the enemy of interesting fiction — which renders writing about the mundane especially challenging. Yet virtually any plot or character is capable of generating something that the reader will not have expected, and the essence of freshness as the industry defines it is placing a new narrative twist on the world we all share.

The ability to surprise isn’t exclusive to any particular time zone, after all.

But that doesn’t mean that an agent, editor, or contest judge fond of good writing would seriously expect a writer portraying an average Joe or Janet to have them do something they would never do, either. The challenge in portraying any culture foreign to Millicent — and I think a good case could be made that quotidian life in the rest of the country is often rather foreign to NYC-based agents — is to present it to her in a manner that will both educate and intrigue her.

Oh, and entertain her as well.

Ditto with a so-called ordinary protagonist: instead of concentrating upon what makes her typical, why not figure out what makes her different from what a reader might expect? Or, to put it with the bluntness which is actually a bit out of character for me, what makes this character interesting enough for a reader to want to follow her for an entire book?

That, too, was a serious suggestion, not a flippant one: why write this character’s story, and not another ordinary person’s?

If you don’t know, chances are that the reader will not, either. Unpleasant to contemplate, but true. If a protagonist’s creator feels that a protagonist is a bit nondescript, readers will usually draw the same conclusion.

Unlike readers, however, the writer has the opportunity to do something about it. Again, instead of thinking of that as a drawback, try regarding it as an interesting challenge: if you’re feeling that your protagonist is ordinary, perhaps your fine writer’s sense is telling you that it may be time to make him more complex.

That’s easier than it may seem on first blush, you know. Most people are actually pretty interesting if you take the time to get to know them: not their daily habits, which may have been formed externally, but who they are inside, what memories they hold, how they reacted on the day that a giant redwood fell onto the local schoolhouse, etc. Try giving your protagonist a secret shame, a bizarre hobby, a long-ago childhood determination to become an astronaut — even if those elements never actually make it onto the stage, as it were, your knowing that they are in her background will probably make a difference in how ordinary you feel she is.

Not all black sheep carry their wool on the outside, if you catch my drift. Play with the past a little, or tinker with long-held desires to create an intriguing view of the future.

Not everything that’s going on in a story should be right on the surface, after all.

There you go, sitting up straight in your chairs again, but think about it. Giving your protagonist a more intricate past than a dismissive, “Oh, he’s an ordinary Midwesterner,” can inform his actions, even if you choose never to let the reader in on that past.

Besides, I can’t be the only writer out there who has met fascinating Midwesterners, can I? I’ve known many who were positively bristling with quirks. Not to mention secret plans for personal pleasure-seeking, business re-envisioning, and world domination that would make some of us more timid souls on the coasts gasp.

A good way to jump-start brainstorming about ways in which your protagonist as interesting is to invest some time in drafting a brief bio for him. Try going back a generation or two. I’m often surprised at how infrequently US writers discount the family backgrounds of characters whose kin have been in this country for more than a generation or two; go back far enough, and you’re bound to find a dandy Ellis Island or that’s-when-they-moved-us-off-the-reservation story that can be tied to the current generation’s worldview or habits in some surprising way.

Even a practically inert character with a swashbuckling great-grandmother is kind of intriguing.

Don’t laugh — I know an agent who claims descent from pirates. One of the thing I love about living on the West Coast is that practically everybody whose family migrated prior to World War II has a genuinely quirky relative or two lurking about the family tree; there’s a middle school named after a forebear of mine who…well, I might want to use that in a book someday. Let’s just say that I’d be rather surprised if the school board had been aware of the rich variations within his character when they decided to put his picture up in the principal’s office.

All they knew about him was that he was a pillar of the community. How ordinary, right?

I’m not saying that it’s going to be a walk in the park to render an everyday character scintillating — naturally, it’s going to be a bit more of a challenge than retailing the exploits of that agent’s pirate forebears. (Oh, like you weren’t already picturing them.) But if we writers are being absolutely honest about it, didn’t we take up this most complex of human art forms not because it was a snap to achieve the effects we imagined, but because we wanted the glory of creating entire new worlds and taking our readers for a field trip into them?

That’s as noble an aspiration if that new world is a small Midwestern town as if it’s Manhattan. Or the planet Targ. Keep making things interesting for your characters — and keep up the good work!