Pet peeves on parade, part V: oh, look, Tweetie, a plot twist just fell into my mouth

bizarre crow

Had you noticed, campers, what a high percentage of the examples I’ve used throughout this series of prose that tends to irritate professional readers — such as agents, editors, contest judges, and our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener — has consisted of dialogue? That’s not entirely coincidental: as we have seen in recent posts, an astoundingly high percentage of dialogue in submissions just seems to lie there on the page, not so much moving the plot along, intensifying the central conflict, or helping enrich the reader’s understanding of the characters as taking up space.

Why? Because in real life, most dialogue exists for its own sake — and many writers are enamored in, as ’twere, holding the mirror up to nature.

That doesn’t mean, though, that just transcribing what actual human beings might actually say if they were transported into a fictional situation would make good reading. Frankly, quite a bit of what happens in real life would not make good reading. Virginia Woolf may well have been right when she wrote, “Fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction,” but has anybody ever met a reader who longs for nothing more than a transcript of reality?

Let’s face it, reality is not a particularly good storyteller. It has neither taste, discretion, nor even a sense of the plausible.

Take, for instance, the photograph above. When I first spotted this wacky crow outside my studio window, I feared he had a broken neck. Ten minutes later, however, he startled me horribly by switching to this dignified pose:

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

He seemed to find this last position the most comfortable: he remained like that for the better part of an hour, squawking irritably at passing birds, presumably because they did not spontaneously drop food into his waiting gullet.

Now, nobody can tell me that this behavior would be plausible if it were presented as fiction, or even memoir. Oh, there’s no doubt that this series of events actually happened: I saw it with my own weary eyes (as, apparently, did my camera). Several readers wrote in the last time I ran these photos –hey, knowing a good metaphor when I see one is part of my job — to tell me that the gymnastics above are quite normal bird behavior; no birds were harmed in the production of these photographs.

But just because something happens in real life doesn’t mean it will come across as realistic on the page. Come on, admit it: no matter how well I told this story, you wouldn’t have believed the rubber-necking crow had I not produced photographic evidence. Nor would piling on specific details necessarily have helped the description: had Tweetie been a small bird, of a size and shape one might expect from a fledgling recently tumbled from a nearby nest, this behavior might have made more sense, but our hero was behemoth, a giant among crows.

Tweetie should, in short, have known better than to act in this extraordinary manner, if he wanted me to write about him plausibly. And so should protagonists who go around asking other characters questions.

I can already feel some of you smiling. Yes, long-time members of the Author! Author! community, I am about to take you on a wild ride through my least favorite type of dialogue and thus favorite kind of expendable text: the unconvincing interview scene.

Frankly, these drive me nuts — and I’m not the only professional reader who feels this way about them.

Don’t get me wrong — interview scenes in and of themselves are not inherently annoying. Fortunate, given that one character trying to elicit information from another is one of the most common type of dialogue scene. The problem arises when the protagonist is a really, really poor interviewer.

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be surprised at how often Millicent the agency screener grinds her teeth over this kind of dialogue. A protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Already, a forest of hands has shot up out there in the ether. “But Anne,” many a well-intentioned constructor of dialogue protests, and who can blame them? “Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? My main character is Everyman/woman/bird: part of his/her/its complicated appeal is that he/she/it has no specialized knowledge or skills at all. That way, every reader can identify with George/Fiona/Tweetie.”

The short, snide answer to that, should you care to know it, is that most Everyman characters have a very specific point of view and skill set: their authors’. That means the knowledge base and skill set is not only culturally-specific, but rooted in the worldview of a particular social class, gender, and even region of the country. While there’s nothing wrong with that — specificity is almost always more interesting for the reader than generality — an astonishingly high percentage of these protagonists share an apparent reluctance to ask questions germane to the plots they inhabit. Or even ones that any reasonably intelligent person in that situation might think to ask.

No, they prefer to sit there, beaks ajar and aloft, waiting for the necessary tidbits to tumble into their gullets. While yours truly, Millicent, and other souls lucky enough to read manuscripts for a living drum our fingers, tap our feet, stare out the window, and indulge in other clichés geared toward indicating boredom.

Move on with it already, Tweetie. The twisted-neck thing was cute the first time it happened, but you can hardly expect it to entertain readers for an entire book.

Unfortunately for passive protagonists everywhere, interview scenes are indigenous to almost all fiction and quite a bit of memoir and creative nonfiction as well. Many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance. Why everyone in Anytown, USA avoids that creepy-looking house at the end of Terror Lane. Or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon.

Just trying to keep those bird-lovers interested.

I hear those of you who do not write mystery, horror, or suspense heaving a vast collective sigh of relief, but don’t get too complacent: anyone who writes dialogue is prone to running afoul (get it?) of this notorious professional readers’ pet peeve. How so? Well, think about it: most plots feature at least one interview scene, regardless of book category.

Few human beings currently inhabiting the earth’s crust are omniscient, after all; an extremely high percentage of plots involve the protagonist(s) trying to find something out. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

The big questions can be unspoken, too, of course. Why does everyone in town refuse to talk about the day the old mill burned down? Why does Uncle Mortimer limp? Why is the boss suddenly acting so standoffish? What’s in that casserole, anyway? Why don’t you love me like you used to do, when my hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue?

In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters. And those other characters may not want to cough it up. Indeed, it’s not all that uncommon for a minor character’s entire reason for being revolves around not just blurting out That Big Secret the first time somebody asks.

Which renders it something of a surprise to Millicent and myself when such characters’ first reaction to a protagonist’s walking into that crowded bar/deserved archive/long-defunct mine is to start singing like a canary. Often before the protagonist has asked a single probing question. Villains are particularly prone to such bird songs: “Before I pull this switch and send 150,000 volts through you, Patsy, perhaps you would like to know my evil plan, presumably so you will have something to chat about when you are waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. It all began seventeen years ago, when my also-evil mother…”

We all know the song, right?

Yes, this phenomenon is partially a function of insufficient character development for antagonists — you wouldn’t believe how often the bad guy’s sole motivation is that he is (wait for it) bad — as well as a writerly tendency that we have already discussed in this series, the urge to fall into clichés. (Oh, you didn’t mentally add Mr. Bond to that last villainous speech?) On a narrative level, though, protagonists often have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

The result? Tweetie standing there with his beak open, waiting for some passerby to drop something yummy into it.

Nor is this tendency peculiar to fiction. Memoir protagonists often avoid asking even the most relevant and obvious questions for pages, nay, chapters on end.

Of course, this, too, might well be an instance of art whipping out that mirror to nature again; we writers are not known for being big confrontation-seekers, as a group. Real life does often afford the memoirist an opportunity to change the subject.

Why, the last time I wrote about this particular manuscript megaproblem, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. See if you can catch the interviewing problem.

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

Did you catch it? If you pointed out the extremely common narrative gaffe of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If, on the other hand, it occurred to you that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another.

Memoirs and fictionalized reality frequently suffer from both of these defects; the sheer frequency with which they turn up in submissions virtually guarantees that they would have over time joined the ranks of Millicent’s pet peeves. And why? Haul out your hymnals and sing along with me, campers: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting, amusing, or even worth recording on the page.

But these were not the only weaknesses you spotted in this narrative, I’m guessing If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being as clairaudient as Joan of Arc, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now that we have diagnosed these problems, what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer.

Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. Had I written the dialogue with an eye to increasing conflict, I might even have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t the scene necessarily be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I rewrite the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few standard narrative devices tend to annoy a Millicent who has been at it for a while than a protagonist — or narrator — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why might that be the case, other than the fact that lousy interviewers are as common in submissions as crows on metropolitan power lines? (Birds of a feather actually do flock together, evidently.) Let’s take a gander at the poor interviewer in his natural habitat, shall we?

“I swear,” Tyrone claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Antoinette drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Power. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Tyrone detached their clasped hands so quickly that Antoinette’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Antoinette fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” Mrs. Power bellowed after her. “I love paprika.”

Why might an exchange like this prove a touch irritating to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my anecdote about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because a poor interview scene represents a lost opportunity for intriguing conflict — rich potential for drama presented, then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth. Or attempting to hide said Awful Truth from the reader until your amateur sleuth’s in Chapter 38, the one that begins, “Here’s what happened…”

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 127 pages to 253. Regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a tad impatient.

Why? Well, in a first-person or tight third-person narrative, the protagonist is the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After a while, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader simply by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there. “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is indeed one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point, in fact, that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

Before I do, however, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers. And not only professional ones like Millicent, who tends to harbor a well-founded objection to narratives that toy with her too much. Especially if that plot twist is a fairly common one, like the guy who had the bad childhood’s turning out to be the serial killer. (Who saw that coming?) Or that the model for the portrait that someone keeps breaking into the county museum to snatch is now that grand old lady who controls city politics from behind the scenes. (Ditto.) Or that the murder victim whose body we didn’t see isn’t actually dead. (Zzzz…oh, did I miss my cue?)

Even if the plot twists in question are not ones that we have seen over and over again (the couple who keep bickering eventually falls in love? Alert the media!), Millicent tends to become impatient if an obvious question is not answered during those 200 pages. She and I even have a label for this particular pet peeve: false suspense.

“Okay,” plot twist-delayers the world over concede, “I can see where a professional reader might develop a distaste for being strung along. It’s Millicent’s job to whip through those submissions quickly, after all. But artistically, I still think it’s justified — wouldn’t most lay readers regard even a couple of hundred pages of being made to guess as legitimate suspense?

Well, readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, But trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps mentally screaming, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! It’s standing right there, munching on hay with a crow perched on it’s back. Wait — where are you going? Don’t just walk away from the elephant/crow cabal!”

A professional reader is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by deliberately withholding information from the reader. We’re especially likely to start grinding our molars together if that information happens to be something that the protagonist already knows.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Such scenes often beg to be flagged for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well. That’s true, by the way, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Evelyn!”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or just plain necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, Hubert, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might presenting any of these plot points present pacing problems? (Try saying that seven times fast!) When the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically before the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

To be blunt about it, too-easy detective work makes the mystery — any mystery — seem less important. It’s hard to care much about a secret if the narrative makes it evident that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Sparky McArsonist why she kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene, that’s why.

Astonishingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

Or as Tweetie might put it: where’s my breakfast?

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers. Yet when was the last time you heard an advocate of realism on the page object to the formerly mild-mannered librarian suddenly bursting into florid epic storytelling mode the instant a protagonist asks for a particular book?

What makes secrets interesting, generally speaking, is the fact that not everyone knows them. Good mysteries are hard to solve; intriguing truths are hard to dig up. In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to reveal the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s that for an intriguing narrative possibility? Interview scenes do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get really adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple revision trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods. This both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Right away, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a hidden truth in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview technique consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be compelling in a book? Probably not.

Again, perish the thought that this basic principle applies only to mysteries. Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, it’s not all that surprising that someone might side-step this particular conflict. I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. As a protagonist in a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made. And pulling away from the story rather than following it into some of the many, many horrifying possibilities (the child’s next bravura performance could take place in school, for instance. Or in church. Or immediately after singing the National Anthem before her Little League game.)

Even if I chose not to take the narrative down any of those roads, admit it: you would have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song, wouldn’t you? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you what it was?

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Tweetie. And keep up the good work!

Building a query list-palooza, part XI: what to do when your list starts to thin out

kite competition

Why, no, the photograph above doesn’t have a whole lot to do with our topic du jour, now that you mention it. But come on, admit it: it cheered you up just a little bit, didn’t it?

Good; we’ve got a heavy topic for today. I’m taking a small breather from polishing off the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest to return to the topic we were discussing with such vim before Thanksgiving: nifty ways to figure out which agents would be most productive for you to add to your first-choice query list, which you might want to place farther down on the list, and which might, to put it indelicately, a waste of an investment in stamps to query with your particular book.

As I argued the last time we broached the subject, it behooves a savvy querier to recognize that agents specialize; it honestly is in your — and your book’s — best interest to employ more specific criteria than, “Oh, I’d settle for anyone who represents authors for a living.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Seriously, being an agent and having a delightful propensity for saying yes constitutes the beginning and end of most aspiring writers’ representation wish lists. Allow me to suggest a few other criteria: being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs, as demonstrated by a successful track record selling books similar to yours. Oh, and it really, really helps if this sterling soul not only thinks your book is marketable, but truly well written as well.

So it’s an excellent idea for a querier to find out, if at all possible, what the candidates for this enviable position like to read — or at any rate, what they like to read professionally. As I may have mentioned several dozen times earlier in this series, the single best indicator of an agent’s taste in representation at the moment is to find out what she’s been selling lately.

Some weary brainpans beginning to gyrate out there, aren’t they? “But Anne,” some of you who have been treading the querying road for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides, searching the web, and tracking down the fine folks who represent my favorite authors. But frankly, I’m starting to run out of faves who write anything remotely like my work, and I don’t have unlimited reading time. Help!”

I feel your pain, weary query veterans, and it’s an excellent question: how does one go about generating future querying prospects after one has already gone through one’s ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents?

Here’s a radical notion: how about taking a gander at agents who habitually represent books aimed at you as a reader? Who is representing the books that are being marketed to people like you these days?

Stop chortling; successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership. Who knows the norms, conventions and expectations of the category better, after all? It’s also far from uncommon for authors and readers in a particular adult subcategory to share certain demographic characteristics: gender, for instance, or general age group.

Oh, you weren’t aware that literary fiction is written primarily by college-educated writers for college-educated readers?

Don’t be afraid to get specific here. While the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it wouldn’t necessarily have gone to high school together, they often do share substantial life experiences — or, in the case of YA, have in the past. A funky Gen Xer with relationship woes, a Baby Boomer who took care of ailing parents, a survivor of life-threatening illness or someone who just lost a loved one to same: all of these have subcategories of fiction aimed at them.

So I ask you again: who is writing for readers like you these days — and who is selling those books?

As those of you who happened to have been female, under the age of 45, and trying to market an adult novel with a female protagonist to a US or UK agent or publisher during the brief-but-pervasive reign of chick lit have probably experienced this phenomenon in reverse, right? A few years back, a female writer born during or after the Johnson administration pitching even high literary fiction about a mute woman who lived alone for 25 years in a damp cave in Antarctica could practically count upon being cross-examined about how she expected to market such a book to the readers of BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, as if it were actually impossible for the pre-menopausal set to pen fiction for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided to a very great extent, thank goodness, since the passage of chick lit’s heyday, but actually, it still could be turned in your favor: if you fall into that demographic, you might be able to interest a chick lit-heavy (I know; that seems like a contradiction in terms) agency in your non-chick lit novel. After all, they’re already set up to deal well with authors and readers in your demographic, right?

How might you go about finding agents who represent people like you? Here’s an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

Don’t tell me magazines are a dying art form; they still exist now, and you should be checking the mastheads and editorial pages of your favorites. (Preferably after purchasing them, if you are able. They rely on their readerships, too.) If any of their staff writers or columnists has written a book, take a serious look at her agent, on the grounds of similar worldview and target audience.

For example, if you are a Gen X or Gen Y woman who writes books aimed at college-educated women — which is pretty much synonymous with the aforementioned literary fiction market, lest we forget — you might want to take a good, hard look at the last year’s worth of issues of BUST, which is aimed squarely at your demographic.

Naturally, it’s not the only publication intended for those eyes, but BUST has something very definite to offer a young female writer: in every issue, their book review pages tout work by writers affiliated with the magazine. By definition, those books are being marketed to the same demographic as the magazine.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I would imagine that every single one of the authors of those reviewed books is represented by a literary agent. And that can add up to a hefty handful of queries beginning Since you so ably represented Book X…

The same technique could easily be applied to any book-reviewing periodical — which are, alas, getting rarer all the time — designed to appeal to any group of target readers, right? If you’re not certain which publications to choose (or which review books), trot on over to your local library and strike up a conversation with the lovely person in charge of the periodicals section. Chances are, s/he will be able to tell you precisely who reads which magazine.

A word to the wise, from someone’s who’s spent a lot of hours blandishing assistance from a lot of librarians: you’ll get a better response to this question if

(a) you are polite,

(b) you have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and

(c) you don’t approach the librarian either five minutes before closing or when the joint is jumping. And don’t forget to jot down this helpful person’s name for later thanks in acknowledgments.

Obviously, you could work similar wizardry with magazines that publish your kind of writing — it’s often worth searching to see if article-writers are agented. An author does not necessarily need to have a book out to prove a good lead for you, either: a lot of magazine writers are aspiring book writers, and many of them already have agents.

(Before you literary fiction writers out there get too excited, I should probably add: THE NEW YORKER very seldom publishes fiction by any writer who isn’t already pretty well-established, so these authors tend not to be represented by agents over-eager for new blood, if you catch my drift. Starting with a less prestigious short story-publishing magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals with book review section is that — brace yourselves — that they will give you insight into what is coming out now in your book category. Since so many books come out in any given year (yes, even in this economy), it can be very helpful to have somebody else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — essentially do your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

Think about it: the average magazine receives review copies of hundreds of books every month; they obviously cannot review all of them, right? Someone is making a choice about what does and does not get reviewed in any given issue. Ostensibly, a magazine will pick a book for review for one of only three reasons: either the book is being marketed to the same target reader as the magazine (who will, we hope, be your reader, too, in time), the book was written by someone who writes for the magazine (who by definition is writing for your target market), or because the author is a crony of someone on staff.

Oh, you thought those college-educated editors did not have roommates who aspired to write books?

So essentially, in the process of selection, a review editor at a well-respected magazine geared toward your book’s target market is telling you what current books are being marketed best in your book’s area. Why turn up your nose at such well-informed advice — even if it does mean you occasionally end up querying the agent who represents the editor’s college roommate?

I hear faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention. “Excuse me, Anne?” I heard you saying. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are, you clever person — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game: with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

That’s one reason, in case you’d been curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those aforementioned requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists, which necessarily reflect what an agent was able to sell to an editor quite some time ago. And that’s potentially problematic for writers trying to find agents to query, because professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed.

Those of you who attend writers’ conferences regularly know what happens when trends begin or end overnight, right? The about-faces can be pretty darned abrupt. Some of the same agents who were roundly declaring historical fiction dead as the proverbial doornail before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time were actively soliciting it from the conference podium after. On the flip side, some of the same agents who once clamored for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, generic queries don’t work, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold in the U.S., and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of the market. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways all autumn, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what now requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Weekly (which runs book reviews, people) or Publishers Marketplace.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. (Like, say, Publishers Lunch.)
Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although the book review method only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, it is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. Reading book reviews will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are not reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, some print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, other reviewers have dropped this policy — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit this autumn, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, literally every agented writer I know learned not to query agents who are not demonstrably interested in their kind of writing — or their kind of writer — at that very moment.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to taking a chance on another first book. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit redundant to keep on informing the world yet again that Toni Morrison can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for representation pastures new, If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t that the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of The New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

Don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough — how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be, after all? — the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at discovering those.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire your prose flair.

Or –- and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial –- if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Sometimes, the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, admittedly, rendering them less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre.

For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond mortal comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Next time, I’ll be wrapping up this series — then, I devoutly hope, the Great First Pages contest. As the year fades, I like to tie up loose ends.

We wouldn’t want those kites to go flying off into the ether, would we? Keep up the good work!

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 second-place winners in adult fiction, David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR

Dave McChesney author photoEllen Bradford author photo

My apologies for the must-have-been-agonizing delay between the prize posts for the first-place winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest and the second-place winners. Believe me, the lapse was not intended to be editorial: I’m excited about both of today’s winners, but I had a bit of a car-crash recovery setback earlier in the week. I didn’t want to risk sounding grumpy about two writers whose narrative voices I like quite a bit.

So a drum roll, please, for the joint winners of second prize in Category II: Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR.

While all of that portentous rumbling is still hanging in the air, let me take a moment to air one of my pet peeves: gratuitous quotation marks. The other day, a staffer at my physical therapist’s office handed me a special-ordered piece of medical equipment in this bag:

misused quotes

What, one wonders, was the writer’s intent in placing quotation marks around my name? Was he in some doubt about whether it was my real name — as in, This belongs to the so-called Anne Mini? Did he mistakenly believe that he was shipping this not particularly personal piece of equipment not to my PT, but to a monogrammer, and he wanted to make sure the right spelling stitched into it? Or had someone immediately behind him just shouted my name, and he was quoting her?

Was this merely a case of forgotten attribution? Is this an obscure quote from a book I do not know — a minor work of Charles Dickens, perhaps? Or, still more disturbingly, is this kind soul trying to let me know, albeit in code, that somebody out there is talking about me?

None of the above, probably: my guess would be that the guy with the marking pen thought, along with a surprisingly high percentage of the marking-things population, that quotation marks mean the same thing as underlining. He is mistaken.

Don’t ever follow his example. To a professional reader, the common practice of placing things in quotation marks to indicate either emphasis in speech (“Marvin K. Mooney, will you ‘please go’ now?”), a stock phrase (everybody laughed, because “all the world loves a lover”), or just to call attention to individual words on a sign (Fresh “on the vine” tomatoes, 3 for $2) simply looks illiterate. Sorry to be the one to break the harsh news, but it’s true.

So how should one use quotation marks? How about reserving them for framing things that characters actually say?

I know; radical. The next thing you know, I’ll be calling for aspiring writers to use semicolons correctly.

I do not bring any of this up lightly — or, indeed, purely to rid the world of a few more sets of perplexingly-applied quotation marks. Both of today’s entries grabbed the judges with their strong, distinct authorial voices, but each left us murmuring amongst themselves, speculating about what the writer’s motivations might have been.

Although these two first pages don’t actually have a great deal else in common — other than both beginning the text 1/4 of the way down the page, rather than 1/3; the addition of a single additional double-spaced line would have made a positive cosmetic difference in both — the judges agreed that they shared a certain kinship: the unanswered question might well lead even an agency screener who admired the writing to hesitate about reading on.

Why? Well, Millicent isn’t all that fond of unanswered questions on page 1, and with good reason: in order to be able to recommend a novel manuscript to her boss, she is going to have to be able to tell him (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

If Millicent can’t answer any of these questions. she’s going to have a hard time convincing the agent even to read the submission. (Actually, she prefers to be able to answer all of them by the bottom of p. 1, but she’s prepared to change her mind between then and p. 50.) And no, “But the writing is so good!” is no substitute for being able to come up with answers: books are pitched to editors within well-established categories.

So when a fresh, new narrative voice that does not appear to fit comfortably within an existing book category, our Millie is left in something of a quandary. How, she wonders, is she going to make the case for this book?

That’s a good exercise to apply to any manuscript, incidentally: reading a first page or book description and trying to figure out the book’s category is excellent practice for narrowing down your own. In that spirit, take a gander at Dave McChesney’s first page and book description; tell me, what do you think the category is?

Dave McChesney's p 1

If you found yourself murmuring, “Hmm, this reads like Naval Adventure,” you agree with most of the judges. Even more so if you additionally told yourself, “I’d bet a doubloon that there’s adventure awaiting those characters within the next page or two.” Although some of the judges felt that it might have been more of a Millicent-grabber to toss the characters straight into that imminent action, none denied that page 1 set up the expectation for excitement.

Cast your eyes over the book’s description, though, and see if you think the proverbial shoe still fits the assumed book category:

McChesney synopsis

Still sounds like a rollicking Naval Adventure, doesn’t it? Or do I sense some puzzled head-scratching out there?

“Wait just a doggone minute, Anne,” head-scratchers across the English-speaking world protest. “He hopes to quickly set out for his world, England, and Evangeline, but finds obstacles continually placed in his path? In the known world? Does this take place in a different world, or this one? And if it’s the former, shouldn’t that be made clear to Millicent on page 1?”

Well caught, head-scratchers — and in answer to that last question, a resounding yes. Let’s take a gander at how Dave himself categorizes his book:

SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, the second Stone Island Sea Story, combines Naval Adventure and Fantasy. An additional yet similar world gives these voyagers of the early nineteenth century more seas to sail and challenges to meet. Uniquely, they are aware of and able to control their journeys between the two worlds.

An interesting notion, right? But you can already hear Millicent slapping her forehead and muttering, “How on earth am I going to define this book for my boss?”

Universally, the judges felt that in fairness to Millicent, some fantasy elements should appear on page 1. Otherwise, they argued, it was simply too likely that when she came upon fantastic happenings later in the manuscript, she might conclude — wrongly in this case — that Dave did not know that he was genre-jumping, or that the authorial choice to present a fantasy premise in a completely dedicated naval fantasy voice was in fact a choice, not a misunderstanding of how book categories work.

That’s why Dave’s taking the quite large risk of telling Millicent in his brief book description (and presumably in his query) that this is a category-crosser is quite smart. True, there is not a great deal of demonstrable overlap between the readership of these two categories. (Which is why I am bound to mention marketing advice agreed-upon by a full half of the judges: since this is such a strong Naval Adventure voice, why not write a straight Naval Adventure first, land an agent that way, and then segue into fantasy with the NEXT book?) Also, if an agency is not open to the possibility of combining these two disparate categories in a single book — or, in this case, a series — its Millicent may well reject the query on that basis alone.

So why is it smart to give her the opportunity up front? Because for a truly genre-expanding novel to make it into print, it’s going to need an agent willing — nay, eager — to take on the challenge. Trust me, it’s far, far easier on a writer emotionally to find out a particular agent is not up for it at the querying stage, rather than several years into an unhappy writer-agent relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that Dave’s query has already passed muster with the Millicent guarding an agency very much up for this challenge. How might Millie respond to this first page?

Dave's edit

As you may see (and we have continually seen throughout this series), how a professional reader responds to a page of text can be extraordinarily different from how an ordinary reader might. I would be surprised, for instance, if many of you had caught the verb repetition in lines 1 and 2, or the lack of a necessary paragraph break on line 8. (It’s a bit confusing to have one person speak and another — or in this case, several others — act within the same paragraph.) Or, really, to be actively annoyed by the almost universal Baby Boomer tendency to compress the phrase all right into alright.

I blame album cover lyrics for the ubiquity of that last one. (If you don’t know what album covers are, children, ask your grandparents.)

Nor would the average reader be likely to gnash her teeth over the preponderance of tag lines, those pesky he said, he mentioned, he groaned speaker-identifiers, but Millicent’s choppers are unlikely to remain ungnashed. Why? Well, one of the standard measures of the reading level of the target audience is the frequency with which tag lines appear: in books for early readers, for instance, who may well be reading aloud or having the book read to them, tag lines are virtually universal.

“See Spot run, Dick,” Jane said.

“I see Spot run,” Dick replied. “Run, Spot, run.”

In most adult fiction, on the other hand, tag lines are deliberately minimized. Although the frequency with which they are expected to appear does vary from book category to book category (chant it with me, campers: there is no substitute for reading widely in your chosen book category, to learn its norms), most of the time, it’s simply assumed that the reader will be able to figure out that the words within quotation marks are in fact being spoken aloud by a character without the narrative’s having to stop short to tell us so.

After all, quotation marks around words can only mean that either those words were spoken out loud or the narrative is trying to cast doubt upon the authenticity of something (as in “I see you’re wearing your ‘designer’ dress’ again, Alice.”), right?

Typically, tag line minimization is achieved by incorporating other action or thought into a dialogue paragraph — or simply to alternate between already-established speakers. Like so:

“Oh, there’s Spot at last.” Jane blew on her freshly-filed nails to free them from dust before she applied screaming red polish. “And there he goes. See Spot run, Dick.”

Dick backed against the wood-paneled wall, eyes wide. “I see Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”

Jane lowered one heavily-lashed lid, the better to aim her gun. “How would you feel about following Spot’s example, Dick?”

“Pretty darned good.”

“Then run, Dick, run, before I change my mind and turn you into Swiss cheese.”

These are all easily-fixed matters of style, however. There was one obviously deliberate authorial choice, however, that left the judges scratching their heads as if they had wandered into a dandruff convention. Millicent almost certainly would have the same reaction. Any guesses as to what on this page might engender that response?

If you flung your hand into the air, shouting, “Oh, I’ve been scratching my head raw over this one, too! Why are Original Vespican, Original, Baltican all in italics? They aren’t foreign words, are they, or the names of ships, which could legitimately be italicized?”

Apparently not — from how they are used here, they may be the names of nationalities or tribes. If that’s the case, however, it’s hard to guess what the authorial point of italicizing them could possibly be: one does not, after all, routinely employ italics when talking about Swedish fjords or Navaho rugs.

Presumably, there is a perfectly sound rationale behind this authorial choice — Dave’s been an active member of the Author! Author! community for years, and never have I known him to set at naught the rules of standard format for frivolous reasons. I said as much to the other judges, in fact. But they felt — and I must say I concur — that however valid it might be to include those italics in the published version of the book, at the submission stage, the manuscript should omit them.

Why? Well, as we all know (at least I hope we do), manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. Double-spacing, for instance, and doubling dashes. While it might conceivably be possible for a writer to justify an occasional deviation from standard format, remember, the submitter is literally never there when Millicent screens his manuscript; it is going to need to stand on its own merits. And Millicent is not all that keen on formatting originality: she knows all too well that any fancy formatting in the published book would be the editor’s call, not the author’s.

In Dave’s case, then, it could certainly be argued that no one but his future editor is genuinely qualified to determine whether those italics should remain or not. However, that perfectly legitimate point is not likely to help him much at submission time, if Millicent gets tired of scratching her head over it.

So I offer up this question for your pondering pleasure: since Millicent’s delicate eyebrows are so very likely to be lifted beyond the point of comfort by those page 1 italics, wouldn’t it be more prudent for Dave to hold off on those italics-by-choice until he can discuss it with his future editor? That way, the risk of the italics triggering rejection drops to zero, and he can still make a case for including those italics in the eventual book.

Isn’t it amazing how much issues ostensibly unrelated to either the quality of the writing, the strength and consistency of the narrative voice, or even the inherent excitement of the story can affect its submission chances?

With that capacious question ringing in our ears, let’s turn to Ellen Bradford’s extremely likable page 1:

Ellen Bradford p1

Engaging, isn’t it? I must say, this one won me over in spite of myself: as a professional reader, I tend to be a trifle suspicious of self-deprecating narrators; it’s hard to keep it up for the entire length of a book. It’s even harder to do if the narrative is genuinely funny, as this page is — self-deprecating humor often lends itself to one-note storytelling, and even when it doesn’t, those who do not get the jokes are wont to write off the narrator as whiny.

Hey, I don’t control readers’ reactions. I just tell you about ‘em.

This is a voice that a lot of readers would quite happily follow for chapters on end — but is it compelling enough to carry Millicent on to page 2?

That’s not at all a frivolous question, or even a reflection upon the writing here: let’s face it, Millicent doesn’t make it to page 2 in most submissions. And contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the quality of the writing is not always the determinant of whether she flips the page.

Remember, our Millie likes to be able to answer the basic questions about a submission in at least a cursory way by the bottom of page 1. To recap: (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

Take another gander at Ellen’s page 1. How many of those questions would you be comfortable answering?

Oh, it establishes the protagonist and the tone of the book beautifully; one could even make a pretty good guess that the target market is women insecure about their appearance — which is to say pretty much all of us. But what is this book about? Where would it sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble?

Because the judges were all about book category-appropriateness, the contest’s rules asked entrants to provide a brief paragraph dealing with questions (b) – (e). Here’s Ellen’s response:

Pith and Vinegar will turn the world of adult fiction on its ear. Or its kidney. Take your pick. But what remains non-negotiable and absolutely, undeniably 100 percent pure fact is that adult fiction will be resting on an unfamiliar body part.

As will the story’s heroine.

Again: funny, even charming. But did it answer those professional questions, beyond alerting us that it is fiction aimed at adults?

Is it Mainstream Fiction? Women’s Fiction? Chick lit? The judges were inclined toward the latter, but let’s take a peek at the longer book description, to see if we can find out more.

Pith and Vinegar synopsis

Okay, so the book sounds like a hoot; I give you that. And now we know that it is Women’s Fiction — which is fabulous, as this is a voice that would appeal to many, many readers in that target market. There is surprisingly little funny fiction out there right now featuring larger female protagonists, so you go, Ellen!

But this description would be at a very serious competitive disadvantage at most US-based agencies. Care to guess why?

If you already had your hand in the air, crying out, “But Anne, those paragraphs are not indented, and she skipped a line between paragraphs!” give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You are quite right: in dealing with the publishing industry, every paragraph should be indented. Block-formatting just looks illiterate to Millicent.

You wouldn’t want her to think you were the kind of person who would shove quotation marks around perfectly innocent words and phrases for no apparent reason, would you?

No, but seriously, folks, this is a trap into which well-meaning aspiring writers inadvertently stumble all the time. An agency’s submission guidelines ask for an unusual addition to the query packet, or the form-letter positive response to a query requests a much shorter synopsis than the writer has on hand. So he tosses something off — only to realize with horror a few days after he sent it that those additional requested materials were not in standard manuscript format.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, think of it this way: which would you prefer, Millicent’s starting to read your synopsis with an open mind, or her harrumphing at the first sight of it, “Oh, no — I wonder if the manuscript is improperly formatted, too,” and beginning to peruse your word with a pre-jaundiced mind?

There’s another common generator of Millicent’s knee jerks back on page 1. Let’s take a gander:

Ellen's edit

A couple of those points caught you by surprise, didn’t they? Almost universally, Millicents are a mite touchy about having jokes explained to them, at least on the page. After the tenth time it happens in a single day of screening, it can start to feel like a minor insult to one’s intelligence.

And there’s some justification to that: the writerly impulse to over-explain has does typically have its roots in a fear that the average reader won’t get it. Much of the time, those fears are unfounded; inveterate readers are a pretty savvy bunch, and professional readers even more so.

Here, those fears are definitely unjustified — it would be perfectly easy to follow the metaphor without, say, the narrative’s informing us three times that it is indeed a metaphor, or repeating the word potato every few lines. With an image that strong, it’s a safe bet that the reader is going to remember it.

Yet our amusing narrator seems far more afraid that the reader’s mind will stray off the relevant spud than to let us know where the story is set, how the narrator fits into the world she is depicting (perhaps she works at the Bloodworthy News?), or even the time frame — because, let’s face it, a lot of women have felt potato-shaped across a broad array of contexts for at least the last century. (They might well have felt that way before, but bathroom scales were not widely available until the 1920s, so they didn’t have numbers to back up the general impression.)

Are you seeing a running theme here, though? Both of these winning entries left Millicent guessing about a few significant matters at the bottom of page 1 — and in both cases, one of those significant somethings was the book category.

But that’s actually not the primary reason that a well-trained Millicent might not turn the page. Any guesses?

Hint: the problem I have in mind is noted twice on the marked-up example above.

Yes, that’s right: the single-sentence paragraphs. Aspiring writers just love these, and as we’ve discussed, they can work well in moderation — to introduce a bit of genuinely startling information or a plot twist that might get lost to the skimming eye if the sentence were attached to the paragraph above or below.

The vast majority of the time, that’s not how such one-line paragraphs turn up in manuscript submissions, however. A surprisingly high percentage of writers who aspire to be funny seem to believe that a single-line paragraph is the only way to designate a punch line, a tactic about as subtle as following Millicent around with a drum kit and executing a rim shot each and every time she reads a joke.

Think about it: if the reader can see from across the room that a joke is coming, because every joke that preceded it in the text was also in a single-sentence paragraph, hasn’t the narration lost the element of surprise so crucial to maintaining a humorous tone all the way through the book?

That doesn’t appear to have been Ellen’s motivation in creating the single-sentence paragraphs here, though; my guess is that they are intended to reflect the greater-than-full-stop pause these statements might carry in verbal speech. Regardless, breaking the it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph rule doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the narrative — certainly not a large enough bang to outweigh the risk of a very well-read Millicent’s knee jerking over it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here are the opening three sentences as submitted:

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato.

Well, metaphorically speaking, I was a potato. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Got those firmly in mind? Now cast your eyes over them with the single-sentence paragraph problem removed in the most obvious manner imaginable — although while I’m at it, I’ll do a spot of trimming.

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato. Well, metaphorically speaking. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Was any meaning lost in that transition? Any nuance, even? Is there anything to prevent someone reading it out loud from emphasizing that first sentence?

Of course not. The same holds true for the other single-sentence paragraph. Let’s review it in context:

A few stray hairs perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right.

I may in some tiny and insignificant way, have resembled a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes, like a potato.

And here it is again, cleaned up a trifle:

A few stray hairs, perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right, I may, in some tiny and insignificant way, resemble a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes.

Okay, so that was more than a trifle, but you know how I (and Millicent) feel about word repetition and comma use. My point is — and you probably saw this coming, right? — that stand-alone paragraph wasn’t actually adding anything significant to the text. The next paragraph was able to absorb it into its first sentence with no loss of meaning at all.

What lesson are we to derive from all of this? Several, actually. First, I clearly was eager to jump back into the swim of commenting on these entries — this is a long post, even by my standards. Second, while it may require a bit of plot massage, the more you can show Millicent of the book’s tone, what it’s about, who the protagonist is, and so forth by the bottom of page 1, the happier she will be.

Finally, as we’ve been seeing throughout this series, even a very well-honed narrative can often benefit from a bit of judicious revision. Just to stick that bug in the ear of all of you who are going to receive requests for pages in the months to come: fight the urge to send off those pages instantly; it’s well worth your time to re-read those pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before popping ‘em in the mail or hitting SEND.

Do I need to remind you about Millicent’s jumpy knee? Don’t make me pull out another quotation mark example to get her going.

A few more contest entries to come, then it’s on to Synopsispalooza, beginning on Saturday. Well done, Ellen and Dave, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winner in YA, Natalie Hatch’s Breeder

N.Hatch

I’ve got a relatively short one for you tonight, campers: YA Natalie Hatch’s BREEDER, first-prize winner in Category II: YA. I’m fond of this entry, perhaps because Natalie had me by the end of the first page of her brief description: the tale of a runaway girl who takes up with a crew of space pirates.

What’s not to like, really?

Should the length of this post be seen as in itself a commentary upon Natalie’s first page? Well, yes and no. No, because I’m hurrying through our ongoing praise/critique fiesta on the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — the reason I am posting twice today, to make sure that we get through them all before Synopsispalooza begins on Saturday. And yes, because today’s winning page does not offer all that many gaffes to point out.

That’s a good thing, of course, and perhaps not an altogether surprising one. Since entries closed for this contest, Natalie tells me, BREEDER won the YA category in an Australian children’s and YA writers’ competition. So were I to devote this post entirely to praise and skimp on the critique, I doubt anyone would blame me.

But that’s not really my style, is it? I’m here to milk these marvelous first pages for all of the discussion value I can.

A little praise to start out, however: Natalie’s book definitely has a great premise, an interesting protagonist in an interesting situation, facing a genuinely difficult conflict. In YA, that last is not a foregone conclusion: as our old pal, Millicent the agency screener would be only too glad to tell you, many, if not most, YA submissions feature relatively low-stakes conflicts.

Oh, what’s going on may feel like the end of the world to the protagonists of these novels, but the actual consequences of their actions, even in a worst-case scenario, are often as low as oh, no, my parents might find out. Not that there haven’t been interesting YA plots with this as the most horrifying imaginable outcome, but still, you can understand why a Millicent who screens YA queries and submissions all day, every day might conceivably long for something a bit more dramatic.

The book description for BREEDER will definitely make her sit bolt-upright in her chair. The stakes could hardly be higher for the protagonist:

The Farm needs Breeders, young girls drafted into two years of human egg production for the benefit of rich, but infertile, inner worlds. Lenni Nichols would rather die than receive the riches that await her at the completion of compulsory service. Unfortunately, faking her own death, disguising herself as a male and getting off world is harder than it looks. When Lenni signs on as an engineer to a scavenger vessel, she hopes most of her worries are over. Besides, all she has to do is hide from The Farm’s bounty hunters until the two years are complete and she will be free. Instead, she is plunged head-first into the treacherous life of space pirates. Faced with betrayal, love and loss, Lenni must overcome her own weaknesses in order to survive. She allows vengeance to taint her life and is almost consumed by it, straddling the fine line separating vigilante and villain.

Admit it — you’re already imagining the treacherous life of space pirates, aren’t you?

So am I, and yet, as a longtime reader of adult SF and fantasy, this plot does remind me a little of Octavia Butler’s superlative trilogy, XENOGENESIS, where human women are forced to become breeders for an alien-human hybrid race. Some resisters do in fact planet-hop, flee for their lives against incredible odds, etc., but biology turns out to be destiny in some very unexpected ways.

Given the subject matter here — delightfully original for a YA novel, as the judges kept pointing out to one another — the comparison may be unavoidable. However, I, for one, am not any the less eager to read Natalie’s work for reminding me of Octavia Butler’s.

Again, what’s not to like?

As the pros say, though, it all depends upon the writing. As it happens, that writing is quite good:

Natalie Hatch p1

I ask you, however: had you not already read the book description, would you have thought of that grabber of a first page as YA? Or would you have focused instead on the subject matter and categorized it as science fiction?

Give that matter a bit of thought, please. Before I give my opinion on the subject — and the judges’ — I want to slip a word in edgewise about my favorite editorial obsession, manuscript format.

Oh, didn’t you catch the formatting problems in the page shot above? Why don’t you go back and take a closer, Millicent-style look? I’ll wait. (If you’re having trouble seeing specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + in order to enlarge the image.)

Need a hint? Okay: there are five formatting problems here, one major and four minor. Need a better hint? We saw a very similar major problem in one of the first prize-winning entries in the Adult Fiction category.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, shouting, “I know! I know! The left and right margins are too wide!” give yourself a gold star. (I’ve been saying that enough throughout this series that I feel as though I should start including downloadable gold stars in my posts.) They are indeed too wide, by U.S. submission standards: 1″ on all four sides is the norm.

Natalie’s page has 1.25″ margins on the left and right, 1″ margins above. While, as I mentioned yesterday, super-wide margins actually are very nice from an editorial perspective — so much more room for scrawling commentary! Be still, my beating heart! — they are not what Millicent has been trained to expect. Also, they throw off the word count estimate terribly.

Perhaps even more serious from a submission perspective (and definitely more serious if Natalie should decide to query an agency that permits the inclusion of the opening page in her query packet), widening the margins also decreases the amount of text she can include on page 1. And why might that be problematic, campers?

If you cried out, “Because the majority of submissions are rejected on page 1, Anne,” well, you probably already have a closet full of gold stars by now. But well reasoned, anyway.

To show those of you strapped for space just how much more room, here is Natalie’s first page, reformatted. To buy her even more room to wow Millicent, I switched the typeface from Courier New to Times New Roman.

Natalie reformatted

Did you catch the four minor problems, now that I’ve fixed them? All of them would have been easier to catch in hard copy than on a computer screen (if you were already murmuring, “Read every page I’m planning to submit to an agency IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD,” good), but the changes are apparent, if you look for them. In the order they appeared in the original:

1. The title of the book was italicized in the slug line.

2. Not enough space between the chapter heading and the first line of text.

3. The text is not consistent about whether it is going to use 2 spaces after a period or just 1.

4. Line -5 began with a space, not a letter.

Of these, #3 is far and away the most common in submissions. Before the rise of the Internet, and thus before public squabbles about whether it was time to jettison the second space after a period (it is never correct to use only a single space after a colon), it was quite rare to see inconsistent inter-sentence spacing: everybody just hit the space bar twice, and that was that. Now, however, since some agents call for one space and some for two, aspiring writers seem to have become confused, sometimes doing it one way, sometimes another.

This solution is unacceptable to neither party. Whether you decide to embrace the double-space convention (correct, but annoying to the small-but-vocal single-space minority) or the single space (pleasing to enthusiasts, but annoying to everyone else), you must apply it consistently throughout your manuscript.

Yes, even if you do the prudent thing and format your manuscript as single-spaced for agents who request it that way, and double-spaced for everyone else. As with all formatting, doing it sporadically will only make your manuscript look confused.

Now that we have those nit-picky-yet-vital formatting issues out of the way, we can return to the question of voice. Clearly, this voice works for this story, but it is YA? If so, what makes it YA, as opposed to the same story aimed at adult readers?

Frankly, I think it depends upon whether this page 1 lands in a YA-representing agency, one that does exclusively adult fiction, or both. Setting the issue of voice-appropriateness aside for the moment, look how Millicent responds to this opening:

Natalie edit

Personally, as an editor, I might have asked a few more follow-up questions than Millicent: how can silence be syrupy, for instance, a word usually associated with saccharine expressions of emotion? If it’s meant literally here (and, from the context, I suspect it is), how could enough of our heroine be left after an explosion to deserve the descriptor syrupy? What are the ages of these two characters? What is their relationship? Why does her suicide benefit her mother?

But as a reader, I would definitely been have been willing to turn the page in order to find the answers. Turn the page being the operative phrase here, right?

Most submissions are, after all, rejected on page 1. Which is precisely why the question of age-level appropriateness is so crucial in this case: if a YA-seeking Millicent sees this as adult-aimed — or, even more dangerous, adult-themed — writing, she may well reject it, regardless of how it is labeled.

I see some knitted brows out there. “But Anne,” some readers pipe up, “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about this. A single narrative voice might well appeal to both teens and adult readers. What’s the big deal?”

The big deal, if you were not sufficiently frightened by the prospect of Millicent rejecting this page on voice-appropriateness grounds, is that this is going to be a tough premise to sell to YA booksellers, school librarians, and other adults responsible for determining what books are available to young readers. Traditionally, reproductive issues have not been all that popular with these adults as subject matter for teens; selling girls’ reproductive capacity might then reasonably be regarded as even trickier to convince an angry parent should be in a high school library.

I’m bringing this up because the voice on this page could very easily be tweaked in order to gear this story to adults. Had the reader been given some reason to believe one or both of the characters in the first scene were teens, that might not be possible, but in the absence of any reference to age, as it stands, there’s nothing about the voice, vocabulary, or even the protagonist that just screams YA voice.

Frankly, the judges engaged in some debate about whether this would have worked better as adult fiction. I was not the only judge to bring up Octavia Butler; the main (only, really) female character in William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER was also mentioned, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch. Most of us felt that this plot and this first page could make it in the tough adult SF market, although when the book description was added to the mix (particularly the part in the contest entry that said the target market was age 15 and up), the consensus was that this first page could also work as YA.

But there was a problem with that formulation: while readers aged 15-21 are technically part of the YA market, in practice, even older YA tends to be aimed at 13-year-olds. And there’s a good reason for that, especially for SF or fantasy — readers above that age are often already fairly deeply into adult fiction.

So what precisely is the difference between writing for Natalie’s intended target audience and for adults?

The usual answer — and one I do not like very much, on general principle — is that if the protagonist is an older teenager (say, around the age of the target market for this book), and female, the book must be YA, because (the logic runs) only a teenage girl would care about a teenage girl protagonist. (Cough, cough.) If, on the other hand, the protagonist is an older teenager and male, whether the book is YA or not depends entirely upon the situation and the writing.

Why? Hold onto your hats, ladies: because both male and female readers are more used to identifying with male protagonists.

Had I mentioned that I dislike this argument? It pops up all the time in literary fiction circles; the same story that with a male protagonist would be marketed as LF might well be steered toward the YA market if it’s about a girl. Rather than hash out that grand debate, though, let’s get back to Natalie’s first page.

Ultimately, the judges decided to take the writer’s word about the target audience — and happily, there is nothing on this page (barring the subject matter itself, which will be an insuperable barrier for some parents) that would rule it out as a YA voice. For a writer harboring sophisticated expectations of her readership, that was a savvy choice.

Given the subject matter, though — reproduction-for-sale has not historically been parents of teenagers’ rush-out-and-buy-it topic for their progeny — I would advise erring on the side of divulging too much about these characters on page 1, rather than too little. Even an oblique reference to age, perhaps accompanied by some expression of feeling toward the protagonist’s mother, might well land this opening firmly in the YA camp.

Although for YA, the nagging question will remain, unavoidably: did the mother sell our heroine into reproductive indentured servitude? Followed closely by: since subaltern is generally just a descriptive term for someone at a lower level in an organization, why is the word capitalized here?

For the answers to these and other burning questions, of course, we must turn to the rest of the book. Which, naturally, was impossible for the contest’s judges — and for the rest of us, until we may purchase it in a bookstore. By then, presumably, the book category issue will have been resolved by the person with the ultimate say: the acquiring editor at a publishing house.

Congratulations on a fine job, Natalie; congratulations on both contest wins. As always, keep up the good work!

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

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:

Moser/Perdition/1

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

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

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

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

Jens edit2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis edit

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

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

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

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

Curtis page 1 ands

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

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

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

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

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

Querypalooza, part XXVII: and as the sun descends upon this series, we bid a fond farewell to some query faux pas

ominous sunset

The long-anticipated day has finally come, campers: this is, no kidding, honest, and for real, the last Querypalooza post. As of the end of this post, you officially have my blessing to go forth and query your creative little hearts out.

While I would encourage you to continue to shout out any and all query-related comments and questions, this short-in-time-but-long-in-quantity marathon of focused posts will end here. I shall return to my usual rate of blogging only once per day (twice has been killer, thrice insane), and life will return to normal around Author! Author!

At least until Synopsispalooza begins on September 25th; mark your calendars. In the interim, we shall be devoting day after luxurious day to craft, via in-depth textual analysis on the first pages submitted by the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest..

But before any of that happens, a final post. And then many unbroken hours of glorious snoozing. (I can’t even begin to convey how excited I am at the prospect of sleeping in tomorrow morning, rather than sitting bolt upright in the early morn, crying, “Oh, no! I’ve promised my readers a post by 10 am!” Naturally, I’m excited about critiquing readers’ first pages, but I suspect I won’t actually be logging in to do it until tomorrow afternoon.)

Back to the matter at hand: examples of good and not-so-good queries. Tonight, I thought we would amuse ourselves with a couple of common faux pas before launching into the more serious difficulties of coming up with selling points for a book without an obvious preexisting target audience or credentials at least apparently relevant to the writing of a novel that is purely imaginative.

Yes, those are indeed knotty problems, now that you mention it. All the more reason to kick off with some fun.

As we discussed earlier in this series, both the credentials and target market paragraphs are optional in a query. That’s fortunate, because for most aspiring writers, they are the hardest parts to write. “But I’ve written a book,” hopeful queriers everywhere grumble. “Why should I have to come up with any more proof that I’m a writer than that?”

Good point, hopeful grumblers, but as I’ve noted early and often throughout Querypalooza, the only way Millicent the agency screener can possibly find out what a beautifully-written, grippingly plotted, and/or fascinatingly argued piece of prose you’ve produced is if your query (or pitch) has convinced her to ask to read it. Rather than wasting your energy, however justifiably, upon the tedious necessity of having to query at all, try to think of it as merely a means to an end.

It’s also a learned skill. Which you have now learned, right?

“Yeah, yeah, Anne,” those of you whose eyes lit up a few paragraphs ago at the prospect of some engagingly terrible examples of how to do it wrong. “When do we get to the promised fun?”

Stop drumming your fingers on the table, eager beavers. As in any narrative, a proper set-up is imperative for a joke to work; nothing is less amusing than a joke that has to be explained after it is told.

One of the classic ways that credential-light writers compensate for not having much of a publishing background is by name-dropping. Specifically, by telling Millicent that So-and-So says that the book is X, therefore it is worth her while to read.

Basically, this strategy works (when it does, which is rarely) by rubbing up against someone famous in the hope that the glamour will rub off. When done with restraint — and with a true claim; do be aware that it’s not unheard-of for Millicent to check — the result can be quite eye-catching. See for yourself:

famous name query

Another name-dropping method that tends to work even better — if, again, the claim in the letter is true — is to garner a referral from one of the agent’s current clients. See how easily Dorothy is able to personalize the basic letter she already had on hand with this information:

referral query

As with every other type of personalization, the primary danger inherent to mention a recommendation in a query is that it is invariably DISASTROUS if a writer inadvertently sends that recommendation to the wrong agency. Due to the ease and consequent popularity of copy-and-paste word processing technology, a tired Dorothy is very, very likely to send precisely the letter above to a different agent without noticing. Especially if, as now has come so common, she simply copied the contents of one e-mail into the body of another and pressed SEND.

missent referral query

Dorothy may not notice — and, indeed, may never learn of her error, due to the ubiquity of stock rejections devoid of any explanation of why Millicent chose to pass — but a good screener undoubtedly will. “Next!”

And even if Millicent’s overworked (and usually underpaid as well) eyes did by some divine act of Providence happen to glide past the reference to some other agency’s client, this second query would have gotten rejected in Ms. Volumes’ office, anyway. Any guesses why?

It was the enclosed pages. You’d have to have looked at the two agency’s guidelines to figure that one out: while Ms. Books’ agency’s specify that queriers may include chapters and a synopsis in their query packets, Ms. Volumes’ agency guide listing quite clearly reads query only, please.

“Next!”

Hmm, if only there were a way around this problem…oh, wait, there is: read every syllable of everything you send to every query IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD, every time. And if you can print a draft copy to read IN HARD COPY, so much the better.

Why, yes, that would add quite a bit of extra time to the querying process, now that you mention it. But isn’t that vastly preferable to the horrifying alternative?

Just this morning, inveterate commenter Dave chimed in with another good strategy for e-mailing queriers:

Might I suggest that folks querying by e-mail write and perfect the query letter in Word or their favorite word processing program. They can print it out, read it aloud, and make sure it’s perfect. Then when it is time to send the query, merely copy and paste into the e-mail. At this point, before hitting SEND, it might also be a good idea to correct any formatting anomalies that may have occurred during the pasting operation.

I find this excellent, Dave; this strategy also permits greater ease in spell- and grammar-checking. (You were already aware that most Millicents are instructed to become wary at the first typo and stop reading after the second, right?) While it may not completely obviate the possibility of mixing up which personalization should be heading to which agency, merely adding another layer of review renders it less likely.

But let’s get back to name-dropping, shall we?

As I mentioned in passing above, if you mention a famous person or someone the agent might conceivably know, it’s imperative that you not stretch the truth about what they might have said about you or your work, even a little. The more potentially impressive a kudo, the more likely Millicent is to wonder about its veracity — and the more likely her boss is to reach for the phone to double-check.

Speaking as someone whose name has been known to turn up in queries from writers of whom I have never heard (you know who you are, presumptuous readers: my agency doesn’t appreciate it, and neither do I), I have to say, those just-checking calls and e-mails are a trifle unnerving. Like many authors, I meet quite a few aspiring writers in any given year; even though I keep records of whom I refer and where, there’s always the nagging fear that I might have forgotten someone.

Unethical queriers prey on that fear, relying upon poverty of memory and laziness of fact-checking to make their sleight-of-hand pay off. And that’s a pity, because this type of name-dropper makes it harder for people like me to refer aspiring writers whose work I honestly do believe my agent might enjoy.

You’re making everyone look bad, Dorothy. Clean up your act, or at least get a few hours’ sleep between Query #37 and Query #38.

Do be careful, too, about taking comments out of context; if asked, the commenter may well become offended if those nice things he said about your writing were not about the book you’re querying. Not every bon mot that falls from the lips of the famous is fair game to co-opt for promotional purposes, after all.

When I was in graduate school, for instance, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. At the end of the term, I was delighted to see that he had scrawled on the bottom of my term paper, “Your writing is very likable.”

Now, that awfully nice to see, of course; I don’t know about you, but when a Nobel laureate says something positive about my writing, I sit up and take notice. However, would I have been justified in saying Saul Bellow found said my writing was very likeable in every query letter I sent out for the rest of my natural life?

Of course not. The man was talking about a 30-page seminar paper I had written on the novels of Italo Svevo, for heaven’s sake, not — and this would be the implication, if I had ever included his comment in a query letter — one of my novels. Even now that Professor Bellow has joined the choir celestial and could not possibly contest my taking his statement out of context, I would not dream of using it in a query letter or as a jacket blurb.

It just wouldn’t be ethical, would it? Stop fantasizing about being able to drop Saul Bellow’s name in the first line of your query and answer me: would it?

Ethical name-droppers can — and do — run into other kinds of trouble: all too often, they get carried away with the proper nouns, positively littering the page with them. They forget that the power of celebrity lies in its rarity: if a writer can legitimately cite one famous fan of his own work, that’s impressive, but if he lists several, even if they are all genuine fans, it’s going to come across as overkill at best and a complicated lie at worst.

Reluctant to believe that more isn’t better? Judge for yourself:

name dropping query

A bit over the top, is it not? One of those famous names might have grabbed Millicent, but so many in a row — including a couple of unverifiable-because-dead endorsers — falls flat. And if anyone at Millie’s agency happens to know anyone in that cavalcade of stars, you can bet that they will take great pleasure in dropping them an e-mail to ask, “So how do you know this Eugene Aristocratic? He didn’t mention why you thought he might be a good fit for our agency.”

And what do you think happens if the late William F. Buckley — or, indeed, anyone Eugene chose to cite in this all-star line-up — says something like, “Eugene who?”

That’s right: “NEXT!”

Oh, you laugh, but you would be surprised at how often unscrupulous queriers will fake recommendations like this. Actually, those who do it might also be surprised at how often they get caught in the attempt: although this is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, perjured name-droppers generally receive precisely the same form-letter rejection as everybody else.

So the wonder is not the fact that people like that never learn, but that after all this time, Millicents across New York have not banded together to come up with a checklist of the most egregious insults to their intelligence commonly found in letters. Imagine how helpful it would be to the clueless if a Millicent could simply grab a list from a photocopied stack, circle doubtful references, and tuck it into the SASE along with the form-letter rejection?

Another pet peeve that would well deserve circling: who?. This feedback would be a boon to name-droppers who reference people of whom Millicent has never heard.

who the heck query

“Who the heck is Fortunatus L. Offenbach?” Millicent mutters, reaching for a form letter. “And why should I care about his opinion on anything? While I’m speculating aloud, isn’t this book description rather similar to the one I read just a few minutes ago — and wait, isn’t the second name here the same as the writer on the other query? Who stole whose book idea, I wonder?”

Oh, yes, our Millie’s memory is that good. And you never can tell whose query she will read just before or just after yours, Eugene.

Connections to the glamorous (or, in Perry’s case, the not-so-glamorous) are not the only query statements that occasionally strike Millicent as far-fetched. As long-time reader Adam points out,

Isn’t there a danger of stretching too much about connections of importance (i.e. penchant for linguistics resulting in witty character names, thesis about Jane Austen gives specialization of domestic inertia and idle chatter, etc)? Might this kind of tack be harder with genre fiction (more difficult, not impossible), or only mean said query-candy-makers need to be more creative/selective?

I don’t see any special reason that coming up with credentials should be harder for genre fiction than any other variety, Adam; in general, fiction writers tend to experience more difficulty in figuring out how to query their work. (Since nonfiction writers have to write book proposals, they are less inclined than novelists to try to turn the entire query into a plot summary for the book.)

Then, too, the subject matter of fiction is frequently less conducive to the kind of easily-quantified statement that fits nicely into a target audience paragraph. However, while a statement like one out of eight book-buyers in the U.S. suffers from dyslexia is quite a bit easier to work into a query for a dyslexic’s memoir than a science fiction novel where one of the 18-member space crew happens to be dyslexic, it’s actually not a bad statistic to include with either.

Hey, readers like characters who reflect the realities of their own lives. It’s easier to identify with them.

Which leads me, not entirely coincidentally, to a tip for coming up with convincing selling-points for your novel: rather than just thinking in terms of what might make you, the writer, sound more professional or literary-minded to Millicent, try brainstorming about what aspects of the book might make it appealing to the reader.

For instance, having written one’s thesis on Jane Austen wouldn’t actually be much of a selling point unless you happened to have written an Austen-themed book, right? So that wouldn’t be the strongest thing to mention. (And even if you did want to mention your master’s degree, it would make more sense coming in the platform paragraph than lolling about amongst the book’s selling points.) But if a major character is a passionate bocce player, it might well help pitch your book to find out just how many bocce players there are in this country, and whether they ever have authors come to speak between matches.

Try to stick to selling points that might actually influence a book buyer’s decision-making process (hey, bocce players’ loved ones have to get them something for Christmas, right? Why not a bocce-themed novel?), rather than something that contributed to the writing process. To draw from Adam’s example, why would a reader care how the writer came up with the names before she read the book? That’s the kind of information that belongs in a post-publication interview, not a query.

Besides, it’s always dicey to review one’s own writing in a query; Millicent wants to be shown that you can write, not told. So referring to one’s own name choices as witty probably is not the best strategy for convincing her that you are indeed possessed of wit. Making the query itself shine with wit is a much better bet.

Remember, though, that both the target audience and platform paragraphs are optional. While being able to argue that your book has an easily-identified target audience and/or that you have the perfect background to have written your novel are very helpful to include, don’t force it. If a selling point or credential feels like a stretch to you, it probably will to Millicent as well.

So what’s an honest, ethical writer to do if she genuinely can’t come up with any selling points and has no relevant background to include in her platform paragraph? Omit ‘em.

There’s no law that says a query must be a full page long, you know. Just say as much as you need to say to convince Millicent you’ve written an interesting book in a category her boss represents — and hope for the best.

And that, my friends, is a perfectly lovely stopping-point for Querypalooza. Thank you for following me through this mad dash toward querying comfort; pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through it. Sleep the sleep of the just, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, or, maybe if I hold my bill open, a worm will just drop into my mouth…

bizarre crow

Sorry that I missed our daily confab yesterday, campers. I got a new pair of eyeglasses the other day, with spiffy cutting-edge lenses that optometrist and optician alike assure me will be the optical standard ten years hence, and my eyes have been rather baffled by them. Headaches, blurriness, the works. I’m told that these minor side effects (such as NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE WELL) will pass off in a few days, as my eyes become used to the space-age materials currently before them, but on the whole, I thought it would be better if I did not share my thoughts with you fine people while I could not confirm that what I thought I was typing was actually what was appearing on the screen.

Hey, no one is that good a touch-typist.

Speaking of one’s eyes playing tricks on one, no, yours are not: the photo above does indeed depict a crow bending over backwards, for reasons best known to itself. When I first spotted him outside my studio window, I feared he had a broken neck. Ten minutes later, however, he startled me horribly by switching to this dignified pose:

bizarre crow 4

Followed closely by this equally majestic stance:

bizarre crow 2

He seemed to find this last position quite comfortable: he remained like that for the better part of an hour, squawking irritably at passing birds, presumably because they did not spontaneously drop food into his waiting gullet. Had he been a small bird, of a size and shape one might expect from a fledgling recently tumbled from a nearby nest, this behavior might have made more sense, but our hero was immense, a titan among crows.

He should, in short, have known better. And so should protagonists who go around asking other characters questions.

That’s right, campers. It’s time once again for my annual foray into concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite species of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes; this is a serious manuscript megaproblem. A protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know. Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon.

Don’t heave a sigh of relief, writers of anything but mystery or suspense. Most fiction plots feature at least one interview scene, regardless of book category. Let’s face it, few human beings currently treading the earth’s crust are omniscient; as a result, an extremely high percentage of plots involve the protagonist(s) trying to find something out. Why does everyone in town refuse to talk about the day the old mill burned down? Why does Uncle Mortimer limp? Why is the boss suddenly acting so standoffish? What’s in that casserole, anyway? Why don’t you love me like you used to do, when my hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue?

Getting the picture?

In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters. What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

The result? A protagonist standing there with his beak open, waiting for some passerby to drop something yummy into it.

The last time I wrote about this particular manuscript megaproblem, as so often happens when I have planned to attack a particular issue, craft or promotional, in this venue, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. It would have been ungrateful of me not to use it as an example, right?

Heaven forfend that we should disregard the gift of the Fates. See if you can catch the interviewing problem in the following story. To render it a trifle more instructive, I shall present it in standard manuscript format — and as usual, if you should have difficulty making out the words, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.

Pansy story 1
Pansy story 2

Okay, what did you identify as the problem here? If you pointed out the extremely common one of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If, on the other hand, it occurred to you that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another.

Memoirs and fictionalized reality frequently suffer from both of these defects. And why? Haul out your hymnals and sing along with me, campers: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting, amusing, or even worth recording on the page.

But these were not the only weaknesses you spotted in this narrative, were they? If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being as clairaudient as Joan of Arc, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now — what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer.

Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer all those years ago?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. Had I written the dialogue with an eye to increasing conflict, I might even have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t it be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I write the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few standard narrative devices annoy professional readers (like agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener) who’ve been at it for a while than a narrator — or protagonist — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why? Well, for starters, lousy interviewers are so very common in submissions. On a manuscript’s page, a poor interview scene tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Romeo claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Juliet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Montague. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Romeo detached their clasped hands so quickly that Juliet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Juliet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Montague bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why might an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my anecdote about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because a poor interview scene represents a lost opportunity for intriguing conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a tad impatient.

Why? Well, think about it: in a first-person or tight third-person narrative, the protagonist is the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After a while, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader simply by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

Before I do, however, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers. And not only professional ones like Millicent, who tend to harbor a well-founded objection to narratives that toy with them too much.

Why might a lay reader object, you ask? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by deliberately withholding information from the reader.

Especially if that information happens to be something that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Again, don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. If you have ever constructed a narrative that involved dialogue, you’ve almost certainly written at least one interview scene.

What makes me so darned sure of that? It’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain a one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses.

In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are those of you who have survived previous craft series with me already warming up your highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes often beg to be flagged for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

Yes, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Evelyn.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or just plain necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, Herbert, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might presenting any of these plot points present pacing problems? (Try saying that seven times fast!) Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it not be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

To be blunt about it, too-easy detective work makes the mystery seem less important. It’s hard to care much about a secret if the narrative makes it evident that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene.

Astonishingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

Or, as our friend the crow might put it: where’s my breakfast?

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

Yet a novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers. Yet when was the last time you heard an advocate of realism on the page object to the formerly mild-mannered librarian suddenly bursting into florid epic storytelling mode the instant a protagonist asks for a particular book?

What makes secrets interesting, generally speaking, is the fact that not everyone knows them. Good mysteries are hard to solve; intriguing truths are hard to dig up. In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s that for an intriguing narrative possibility?

When you are trying to increase the overall level of tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often difficult to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple revision trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods.

This both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Automatically, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a hidden truth in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention — and this isn’t an insignificant consideration when trying to get a submission past Millicent to her boss, the agent of your dreams — being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview techniques consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be compelling in a book? Probably not.

Again, perish the thought that this basic principle applies only to mysteries. Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, it’s not all that surprising that someone might side-step the particular conflict in this anecdote. I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. (Or at any rate I didn’t know at the time; I’ve since mentioned the incident to Pansy’s mom, to minimize the possibility that the child’s next bravura performance of that musical number will take place in school, where she might get into some real trouble. Or in church.) As a protagonist in a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made.

Come on: you wouldn’t have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you what it was?

Starting to empathize more with Millicent’s impatience when she sees this sort of interview scene in fourteen consecutive submissions in any given week? And she’s not the only one who is notoriously touchy about it: ineffectual interviewing and false suspense are both legitimately annoying narrative practices.

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

Or, to put it another way: go forage for yourself, Mr. Crow.

How might a savvy reviser take this principle to heart? Consider eschewing the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills — and give your interview subjects stronger backbones.

Your manuscripts will be more interesting for it, I promise. Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXII: letting a few of those darlings live to see another day

love-in-a-mist

Throughout this series on Frankenstein manuscripts — which, should anyone be joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style; like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a consistent authorial voice — I’ve been asking you to examine your texts very closely. And with good reason: since every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text, it’s vitally important to examine your own manuscript to learn what yours are.

We’ve been talking a great deal, in short, about what to take out of a manuscript. Today, I would like to discuss what to leave in, or even what you might want to add.

And the masses rejoice! “Oh, that’s such a relief, Anne,” burnt-out revisers shout from every corner of the globe. “Here I’ve been working my fingers to the elbow, excising redundant text, spicing up my dialogue, and, of course, getting rid of all of those ands, all the while steeling myself for the inevitable moment when you would talk me into axing my favorite sentences and phrases. Because, after all, we’ve all been told time and time again to kill your darlings. But may I, kind lady, dare hope that you’re going to tell me to keep them instead?”

Oh, you poor dears — no wonder you’ve been quivering in your boots. How could you not be, when writing teachers all over North America have been shouting at their students to axe their favorite bits of prose since practically the moment the classic piece of advice fell out of Dorothy Parker’s well-rouged lips sometime during Prohibition?

Well, I’m not going to do it. While a willingness to consider cutting even one’s pet bits is indeed a useful trait in a self-editor, in my experience, most talented writers — published and as-yet-to-be-published alike — actually have a pretty good sense about the little things that shine in their manuscripts. They may not be right that all of the pretty bits are indispensable to the story they are telling, but they usually know which sentences sing.

You have at least a visceral sense of what I’m talking about, right? Those telling little details, original, fresh, surprising specifics that bring joy to the eyes of agents, editors, and contest judges when they appear nestled in a manuscript — particularly on the first page of the text, where they act like miniature neon signs reading, “Hello? This one can WRITE!” causing Millicent to sit up straight for perhaps the first time that screening day and cry, “By gum, maybe I should NOT toss this one into the rejection pile.”

As lovely as eliciting this reaction is, there is more to catching a professional reader’s attention than a charming and detailed first page, I’m afraid. Of course, it’s a necessary first step to that reader’s moving on eagerly to the second, and the third, and so forth. Yet an initial good impression is not enough, however much writing teachers emphasize the importance of including an opening hook: as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before in this series, in order to wow an agent into asking to see the entire manuscript, or into reading the entirety of the one you’ve already sent, the impressive writing needs to continue consistently throughout.

Ah, some of you formerly joyous revisers have wilted a bit, haven’t you, under the realization that keeping your favorite writing may require more work than cutting it wholesale? “But Anne,” you whimper, “how can a revising writer tell if the proportion of telling little details falls off throughout a manuscript enough to harm the narrative? More importantly for submission purposes, what density of telling details is enough to continue pleasing a professional reader’s eye?”

Excellent questions both, revisers: we’re all aware that the answer to the first is not necessarily the answer to the second, right? The first is largely a matter of personal style, after all, as well as the narrative expectations of a particular book category. Some writers wrangle generalizations better than others. Generally speaking, though, the higher the proportion of exquisite detail to generalization, the more literary the writing; the more summary statements predominate, the lower the expected reading level of the audience.

And if the three repetitions of general in those last two paragraphs drove you crazy, I’m proud of you. You’ve been doing your editing homework.

In answer to the indignant collective gasp I heard echoing about the cosmos just a moment ago, literary is not simply a synonym for high-quality when we’re talking about writing. Let’s face it, there is plenty of good fiction writing that isn’t literary fiction — and plenty of excellent writing that isn’t literary. Just as the various striations of YA presume specific reading levels, literary fiction assumes a college-educated audience, or at any rate readers with a college-level vocabulary.

Thus, literary fiction is a book category, not a value judgment. It is possible, however, to bring a literary voice to other book categories — one sees literary-voiced memoir (like, for instance, Barbara Robinette Moss’ extraordinary CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER from time to time, and many breakout novels are literary-voiced genre works.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a highly literary voice would be appropriate to every book category — or indeed, to every story. Only you, as author, can decide the best voice for your story, but in order to figure out the detail/generalization level appropriate to your book category, you can pick up some external clues.

How? By keeping up with the market in your chosen field, of course. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: unless you are willing to read recent releases in your chosen book category — as opposed to what was coming out five or ten years ago — you’re going to have a much harder time querying, submitting, and yes, revising your own work.

Why, you ask? Because you won’t know what the current expectations and conventions are.

Case in point: detail vs. summary statements. Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I shall continue to cherish that to my grave.)

That’s one of the many, many reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see.

Some other popular reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.

I’m hearing a few of you sniffing disdainfully. Yes? “But Anne, none of this can possibly apply to me or my manuscript. My book is ART, you see: it is totally original. It cannot be forced into an artificial category.”

I can understand why you might feel that way, oh sniffers, but I have a news flash for you: there’s no such thing as a published book in the United States market that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. It’s simply how agents, publishers, and booksellers think of books. (If that is indeed news to you, and for some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right.)

Because that’s the case, the pros’ eyes tend to glaze over whenever an aspiring writer refuses — or even hesitates — to say to which category his manuscript belongs. To them, that just sounds like, you guessed it, a lack of familiarity with the current book market.

It’s not enough, though, to have a general (there’s that word again!) sense of what kind of writing is currently highly regarded in your chosen book category. You also need to get a feel for your own personal style. Before you can decide where you want to pitch your manuscript on the detail scale, you need to figure out where the telling details already tend congregate in your work — and where they do not, so you may work toward overall voice consistency.

Which brings us right back to close textual analysis, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out. Whip out your trusty marking pens, campers, and try this experiment:

1. Print out three chapters of your manuscript: the first, one from the middle, and one toward the end of the book.

Don’t use the final chapter; most writers polish that one automatically, doubtless the effect of our high school English teachers making us read the final pages of THE GREAT GATSBY so often. Second or third from the end will give you a better idea of your voice when you’re trying to wind things up.

Do print out Chapter 1, though, because if Millicent reads any of them at all, she will start there.

2. Make yourself comfy someplace where you will not be disturbed for a few hours, and start reading.

Easier said than done, of course, especially for those of you with young children gladdening your daily lives, but this isn’t relaxation: this is work. So don’t you dare feel guilty about taking the time to pore over your prose.

Yes, I know: your three-year-old will not be all that impressed that I said so. But you owe it to your writing to get to know your own voice.

3. While you are reading, highlight in nice, bright yellow every time the narrative gives information about a character in summary form.

Yes, this will be a phenomenal amount of work, but I’m deadly serious about this. Mark everything from Angelique felt envious to Maxine was a shop welder of immense proportions to “Zeb was a compassionate soul, drawn to injured children, limping dogs, and soup kitchens.”

4. Now use a different color of pen — red is nice — to underline any character-revealing information that the narrative conveys indirectly, through specific detail or speeches that demonstrate a characteristic or an environment that is reflective of a character’s internal mood.

Remember, you are not judging the quality of the sentences here — what you are looking for are passages that encourage the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what the character is like, rather than simply stating it as a fact. To revisit the trio from above, red-marked sentences might include:

Unable to contain herself, Angelique surreptitiously poked her rival with a pin, or

Maxine’s broad shoulders barely fit through the doors to her metal shop, or even

Zeb was late for work again, having been sidetracked by a child’s scraped knee, a search for the same little girl’s lost cocker spaniel, and the absolute necessity to track down and fund the homeless person he had been forced to overlook yesterday because he’d already given away the last dollar in his pocket.

Beginning to see some patterns here? Good. Now your manuscript is color-coded to tell you at a glance what your summary statement/telling detail ratio is, how consistent is your narrative being about preserving those proportions?

That’s a big concept to get your mind around, I know. While you’re pondering, let’s get back to that colorful text.

5. Now that you’ve identified these different species of sentences, double-check immediately before and after the indirect indicators in red for summary statements telling the reader precisely how these dandy little details should be interpreted. Circle those in a third color — let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate.

Such summaries tend to lurk in the environs of telling details — usually unnecessarily, as telling details by definition speak for themselves. You may find them elsewhere, naturally, but these will be the easiest to spot.

6. For each green-marked sentence, ask yourself, “Self, is this summary absolutely necessary here, or does the indirect statement cover what I wanted to say? Could it in fact be cut, and would the manuscript be both shorter and better for it?”

Applied consistently, this question can strip a lot of unnecessary verbiage from a manuscript relatively painlessly. It’s a good strategy to know, because it’s often difficult for a writer to notice redundancy on a page he has written himself — from a writerly perspective, saying something in two different ways often just looks like creative emphasis.

Or — and this is more common — the writer may not trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion from the more delicate indirect clues, and so rush to provide the logical extrapolation. But readers are pretty smart, especially those lovers of good writing (in every sense) who dote on telling little details.

Again, that’s not to say that specifics should trump generalities every time. Abstract statements that bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, and actions (Eileen was morose, Teddy was sexy, Elvira was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc.) can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that can come in very handy. In a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

The effect can be even greater when there is a lot going on. When an action scene suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl — which, inevitably, would convey the impression that O.H. is being beaten up in slow motion.

Fast-paced action deserves fast-paced narration, short, tense sentences that get the blood pumping. Short, to-the-point summary statements (Edmund ducked sideways. The anvil thudded into the wall behind him. may well serve the scene better than long, lyrical, detail-rich ones (As Edmund veered sideways, the rush of air by his ear, percussive and harsh, reminded him of that long-ago summer of fireflies and BB guns, unwashed berry juice climbing up to his elbows after braving the bees for an afternoon’s blackberrying. Funny, how something as dangerous as an anvil flung at his head could awaken such long-dormant memories.

Yes, the second set was prettier — but which would work best for this SPECIFIC action scene in this SPECIFIC story, told in this SPECIFIC voice?

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements — and again, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically polished — the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Does that distinction sound at all familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Yet constructing an effective narrative is not as simple as eschewing the latter and embracing the former. Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both abstract and concrete statements. Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear.

Context matters — and so does book category.

Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

But you knew that already, right?

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily. Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s famous My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. That being said, however, it is worth noting that on any given reading day, your garden-variety Millicent sees a whole lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking (ooh, there’s that pesky word again), if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off in most types of submission.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in the manuscript you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s go back to dig up those yellow, red, and green pages from above. But this time, grab a fourth color of pen –- how would you feel about embracing something in the purple family?

7. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so let me mark up a bit of text for you. The sentences destined for purple overcoats are in caps:

I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT, ZACHARY THOUGHT.

WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Nanette asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”

OH, WOULD ONLY THAT HIS ONGOING DISSATISFACTION WITH THEIR MARRIAGE STEMMED FROM A SOURCE AS SIMPLE AS NAUSEA. WAS HIS WIFE HONESTLY SO SOULLESS THAT SHE COULDN’T FEEL THEIR WELL-MANICURED LAWN CREEPING UP THE DOORSTEP TO SMOTHER THEM IN SEDUCTIVE NORMALCY? “No, I just had a long day at work.”

Everyone clear on the distinction we’re making here? Excellent. Now humor me a little and dig up a fifth color of pen — blue, anyone?

8. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from #4, but plow ahead nevertheless, please. Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what get out of your character’s head! means, at least not most of the time. Generally (ooh!), it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a significant detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you: show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more popular with professional readers like our old pal, Millicent — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses.

And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive.
To put it bluntly, a novel or memoir that conveys protagonist response in ways other than thought a significant proportion of the time will at very least enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so very common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.)

Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud. That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, Millicent would be happier about most submissions in practically every book category if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Nanette was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Zachary’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Zach!” Nanette’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner. The narrative’s gotten out of the characters’ heads — and stepped right into their bodies.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How blue is it? How heavy purple is that prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.)

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and blue-marked sentences – note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or purple between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or purple, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the five-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

At the end of it all, however, you will have a much, much clearer idea of what your narrative voice sounds like — not only at its best and worst, but when it is just trying to do its job. You’ll gain a sense of what it sounds like when you’re tired or excited, trying desperately to get a thought down before it vanishes or having the time to allow your words to revel in their own beauty.

Once you gain that working sense of your own voice, editing your own work will become easier. You’ll be able to spot the telltale signs that the narrative has slipped away from it; you may even come to feel the drift before the words hit the page. It sounds like magic, but it isn’t: it’s narrative consistency.

What does all of this have to do with saving your darlings? Plenty. Just think about it: how wonderful would it be if your best writing did not jump out at the reader because the entire manuscript was that good?

A lovely thought, isn’t it? Your darlings will be comfortable housed in a strong, sure narrative; they may — and this happens more than one might think — be your pets because they are already written in your personal narrative voice.

But you won’t know that for sure until you know your voice inside out, will you? Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XV: the creature rises afresh, or, this is what nit-picking gets you

son-of-frankenstein poster

Is everyone rested and refreshed after the long weekend our brief hiatus from discussing revision issues? I thought very seriously of posting on the 4th, for the benefit of those of you who had no intention of barbecuing anything or endangering your precious, manuscript-creating fingers with fireworks, but a page into critiquing the Declaration of Independence by modern editorial standards (will your audience consider those truths self-evident, Tom? It’s just lazy writing not to explain the underlying logic here), the whole enterprise began to feel a tad disrespectful.

So even though the darned thing is stuffed to the gills with ands, nouns capitalized for no apparent reason, and paragraphs made up of only a single, often run-on sentence, I left it alone. Perhaps I will get back to it fourscore and seven years hence.

Note to readers outside the United States: that running joke actually was kind of funny. Honest. You’d have to be here.

Before I leave the Founders to their own devices, however, I would like to give all of us a running start back into nit-picking mode by borrowing a couple of sentences from Jefferson’s immortal document to talk about a phenomenon that plagues many a modern-day manuscript: misused semicolons. Cast thy worthy eyes over these classic sentences, citizens, and see if you can spot the problem:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Did it leap out at you, as it probably would have at our old friend Millicent the agency screener (and almost certainly would have at her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge)? No? Here’s another specimen of semicolon abuse:

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He, by the way, was King George III; I wouldn’t want the resemblance to current political events to confuse anybody. That last sentence, incidentally, was a correct use of a semicolon: it joined two complete sentences together. Functioning as an effective contraction of comma + and, a semicolon allows two complete sentences to occupy the same sentence without technically creating a run-on.

See the problem now? Like so many aspiring (and, unfortunately, established as well) writers of our own day, our third president evidently did not understand that ; and is inherently redundant. That’s why, in case anyone out there had been wondering, it’s technically improper to place a semicolon before the and in a list: this thing is red; that thing is blue; and the other thing is chartreuse. is, it pains me to tell you, incorrect. It should be: this thing is red; that thing is blue, and the other thing is chartreuse.

Fortunately, this species of semicolon abuse is extremely easy to rectify, either by the means I just used above, changing the improper semicolon to a comma, or by removing the and allowing the semicolon to function as God intended.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

A reviser could also, should s/he be of revolutionary propensities, simply turn the gargantuan sentence into two, removing the necessity for the semicolon altogether. While I’m at it, I can’t resist cleaning up the commas a little:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Yes, yes, I know, semicolon-lovers: a semicolon indicates a pause longer than a comma, but not the full stop of a period. It is not beyond belief that in these specific sentences, Jefferson might have been making a point by cramming two sentences’ worth of information into single sentences.

I grant you that — but as an editor, I cannot in good conscience forbear pointing out that if that was his goal in these sentences, it would have worked better if he had not made it his goal quite so often. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: the more often a writer uses a literary device or sentence-level trick within a short run of text, the less effective each subsequent use will be.

The Declaration of Independence (or, more properly, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, a cumbersome mouthful) is almost five pages long in standard format. Tell me, do you believe that a modern-day Millicent would keep turning the pages after the second misused semicolon? What about Mehitabel?

Actually, depending upon the book category, they might take umbrage at the first semicolon, properly used or not. Although ubiquitous in nonfiction (due, no doubt, to their popularity in journalism), the semicolon is not particularly welcome in most fiction book categories. Other than literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mainstream and high-end women’s fiction — the fiction categories that also assume the largest vocabularies in their respective target audiences — semicolons tend to be rare in published novels, at least in the U.S.

Enough so that it’s usually in a reviser’s best interest to minimize their use, unless the manuscript he’s slaving over happens to fall in one of the categories mentioned above. It may not be necessary to omit them altogether — although, frankly, most freelance editors would tell you that it’s virtually always a good idea in a submission — but do your best not to use more of them per page than is common in first novels in your chosen book category.

Yes, scanning enough recent releases to see what kind of writing the popular kids are selling these days is going to be a lot of work, now that you mention it. Sorry about that, but using either what the bigwigs in the field can get published or what was considered the best writing in your category ten, fifteen, or fifty years ago won’t give you a very clear idea of what Millicent’s level of tolerance for semicolons — or, indeed, any other literary trick you might happen to favor — is now, will it?

Besides, we all know in the depths of our creative little hearts that most semicolons turn up in manuscripts not because they are essential to the paragraphs they grace, or even for rhythmic effect, but because so many writers really like them. Some really, really like them. They like them so much, in fact, that they often find ways to work ‘em in four times a paragraph.

Is Millicent’s objection to them starting to make a bit more sense? She sees so many dots over commas that her desk sometimes seems overrun with aphids. To see yet another reason why that might be annoying, let’s seek out more evidence of Jefferson’s apparently troubled relationship with punctuation:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

Funny how pertinent some of his issues still seem, isn’t it? Not just politically, but grammatically: what on earth was he thinking, using more than one semicolon within a single sentence? Happily, this, too, is easy to fix.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States. For that purpose, he has obstructed the laws of naturalization for foreigners, refused to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raised the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

Doesn’t really lose anything by being freed of semicolons, does it? Neither does the average sentence in your garden-variety semicolon-laden manuscript.

I’m bringing this up, not to sadden those of you who worship the semicolon, but to remind you just how closely professional readers scrutinize manuscript submissions and contest entries. Remember, they do not read like folks who read for pleasure; for the opening chapters of a manuscript, at least, they tend to be on the look-out for reasons to reject it.

So while it may seem tedious — heck, may be tedious — to search a 400-page haystack for needles, going over each page with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to make sure that every sentence is your best writing, Millicent and her boss would not consider such behavior above and beyond the call of duty for a serious writer.

Do you know what they would consider it? A good writer’s job.

That’s why, in case you’ve been scratching your collective head over it, I’ve been hammering so hard throughout this series on the importance of re-reading your work not only for story and characterization, but also for sentence-level stumbling blocks like word repetition. Or seemingly unimportant formatting issues.

Everything adds up to create an impression. Believe me, Millicent would be much, much happier about recommending a manuscript that just bellows, “Look! My writer is capable of taking infinite pains in order to present her story and voice in their best possible light!” than one that sighs, as so many do, “Well, my writer may be talented — if you look past the technical mistakes, you’ll find evidence of it.”

Remember, too, that even a Millicent or Mehitabel willing to invest the effort to ferret out the occasional beautiful sentence in a poorly-presented manuscript may be put off by formatting problems. They have been trained to zero in on them, after all — just as no entry is so easy to knock out of finalist consideration as one that has broken one of the contest’s rules, no submission is as easy to reject as one whose very margins declare that the writer hasn’t done his homework about what professional manuscripts are supposed to look like.

In fairness to Millicent and Mehitabel, once your eyes are accustomed to spot the small stuff, it’s pretty hard to overlook. That’s a pity, because the small stuff is often the most difficult for the reviser to catch.

If that last paragraph didn’t automatically make you murmur, “And that’s why it’s a good idea to read your submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off,” well, I must not have repeated it enough in this series. Which I find rather hard to believe.

To illustrate just how difficult it can be to see the little problems that would jump up and down on the page as a screener or contest judge scanned it, clamoring distractingly for attention, I have called upon a brave reader to allow me to use his opening page as an example. Reader Nick has kindly provided us with the following:

krygier example

Did the little problems flag you down, distracting you from the narrative? Believe it or not, as few and small as the gaffes here, they would have made it difficult for Mehitabel or Millicent to be drawn into the unfolding story.

I see raised hands out there, trying to flag me down. Yes, hand-wavers? “But Anne,” many of you protest breathlessly, “I don’t see anything wrong with Nick’s page, technically. I suppose Millicent might quibble about the semicolon in the opening sentence, depending upon the book category, but it is properly used. What’s she reading with, those X-ray specs that used to be advertised in the back of comic books?”

No, merely the eyes of experience. Let’s take a look at this page as she would have preferred to see it presented.

krygier example2

See the difference? Admittedly, I tinkered with a few of the style choices here — while anyways may have been intended to show that the narrator is not well-educated, using it twice on the same page invites Millicent to recognize that it isn’t proper. Since the narrator here clearly means anyway, it was an easy change. Ditto with the redundant use of right now: excising it does not alter the meaning of the second sentence, so why antagonize Millicent with the word repetition? (Speaking of things that might annoy her: who is the friend mentioned in paragraph 2, the reader wonders? Is this a sarcastic reference to the doctor? The text does not offer an explanation.)

While either Millicent or Mehitabel would have caught all of these problems on a first read-through, drawing conclusions accordingly, those are probably not the gaffes that would have caught their attention first. The fact that the text began too high on the page would have struck any professional reader, as would the fact that each paragraph is indented five spaces, not .5 inch.

This is a mistake that I have suddenly begun seeing with great frequency within the last six months or so; it was relatively rare before, perhaps because it’s a gaffe that someone who had taken a typing class would be unlikely to make. Word sets an automatic tab at .5 inch, so all one has to do to indent the right amount is to hit the TAB key.

It’s less trouble, honest. Speaking of going to unnecessary trouble, did you spot the most serious formatting problem on the first page?

Instead of the lines of text falling evenly on the page, there is extra space between paragraphs. This would look quite wrong to a professional reader — and since it’s usually not the default in Word, it’s probably the result of some writerly tinkering in the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/INDENTS AND SPACING box. Not only is this sort of fancy manuscript formatting annoying to set up — it’s improper. Just allow the lines to fall naturally, equidistant on the page.

And all that’s visible before Millicent or Mehitabel read so much as a single sentence of the submission. See why it might be a good idea to take a gander at your work IN HARD COPY, even if you are planning on submitting it electronically?

Of course, either dear lady would have caught some problems within the text itself. The dashes are not consistently doubled, with a space at either end, and there’s a comma missing from the quote — neither perhaps rejection reasons individually, but together, they would indicate to a pro that this page had not been proofread for consistency.

As we discussed earlier in this series, consistency in formatting, grammar, and voice is much, much more important to professional readers than most self-editors even begin to suspect. Inconsistencies are jarring — more so, sometimes, than consistent mistakes. To prove that, we need look no farther than the dashes in the first example: obviously, given the correct second usage, the writer here knows that dashes should be doubled; he evidently just forgot to do it the first time around.

And what would have been the best way to catch a nit-picky problem like that, campers, an oversight that a spell- and grammar-checker would not pick up? That’s right: reading this page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Which, you must admit, is quite possible that the writer already did before letting me post this (thanks again for that, Nick); most of these are, after all, quite small cosmetic problems. The vast majority of aspiring writers would not even have looked for at least half of these.

But we aspire to high standards than that, don’t we?

Scarcely had this set of admittedly small revisions fallen off my weary fingertips when I sensed a certain amount of disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “Oh, God,” a fairly hefty percentage of you murmured, “revising my Frankenstein manuscript is going to be an infinitely more complex matter than I had previously anticipated. Or so I nervously surmise from the fact that Anne is now talking about problems I could not solve, or at any rate locate, with a simple search-and-replace. Horrors!”

Actually, my finely-tuned silent, far-flung reader detector picked up three distinct flavors of chagrin floating around out there, each a fairly common response to being greeted with advice to perform any sort of microsurgery on a manuscript. (If there’s a fourth type of stressed-out writer who does not become at least momentarily distraught at the notion of spending days, weeks, or even moths months nit-picking his way through the submission he thought would be snapped up by an agent a year ago, let’s just say I haven’t bumped into him recently on the writers’ conference circuit.)

The first kind is someone I suspect all of you who have spent any time around aspiring writers have met in spades: the oh-it’s-too-much-bother. “But Anne,” representatives of this easily-discouraged type exclaim. “Going through my manuscript to check for something as minor as dash consistency is going to take WEEKS. I know that you like to set high standards for all of us here in the Author! Author! community, but aren’t you over-reaching a bit here? Surely, no reasonable agent or editor is going to back off from a good submission for something that minor. I’m just going to hold off and wait until my future agent/editor/reviewers of my bestseller tells me point-blank that I need to correct this type of problem. In fact, I think I’m going to put off dealing with any revision problem that requires a tool more sophisticated than a simple search-and-replace or spell-check.”

Whoa, revision-eschewers — for such you almost certainly are, or will end up being — who is over-reaching now? As we have discussed throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, the firm belief that books by new writers get picked up before they are polished is, while rather charmingly old-fashioned, one that tends to make those of us who read manuscripts for a living smile sadly and murmur to ourselves, “Oh, this one’s going to have a hard time landing an agent.”

Why? Because a writer who does not habitually proofread implicitly expects that other people will do it for her. While many agents will provide a limited amount of editorial feedback to their clients, especially to new ones, few would be eager to send out manuscripts filled with eye-distracting errors. And in these sad days when even very large publishing houses are laying off editorial staff, is it really a good idea to assume that even the editor who falls in love with your book enough to push it through an editorial committee will have either the time or the inclination to go over the text with that fine-toothed comb I mentioned earlier?

Especially when, if you’ll pardon my bringing it up again, that’s your job?

Just in case any of you are still harboring illusions on the subject, at this point in literary history — and this was true even before the recent economic downturn sent the publishing industry into its current let’s-lay-off-a-third-of-our-editors spree, by the way — aspiring writers are held 100% responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of their manuscripts’ ills. It could hardly be otherwise: Millicent sees so many technically perfect, beautifully-written submissions that she seldom has qualms about rejecting ones that are merely in pretty good shape.

Translation: if your manuscript has a slight cough, it’s up to you to provide the cough drops before she sees it.

With a Frankenstein manuscript, it can be very hard to tell when enough revision is enough, though. Increasing warmth of rejection letters as a writer revised and submitted, then revised and submitted again until an agent snapped up the book, used to provide a pretty good barometer of how a manuscript was improving over time. (That’s why, in case you’d been fretting in the dead of night about it, you might have heard an agent or editor say at a conference that getting only form-letter rejections is always a sign that a manuscript needs intensive revision: in the good old days, that would have been true.)

Now, the MS with emitting the occasional ladylike “Ahem!” usually received precisely the same prefab rejection letter as the MS infected with an advanced case of whooping cough. Or, still worse, with no reply at all. As hard as rejected writers might try to read specific meaning into general statements like I just didn’t fall in love with this story or while the writing is strong, I just don’t think I can sell this in the current market, personalized rejection letters have mostly gone the way of the dodo.

We’ve all heard that such creatures once roved the earth, but few of us have ever seen one in person.

The second variety of revision suggestion-induced panic runs to the opposite extreme, plunging aspiring writers into orgies of incessant worry about whether they’ve cleaned up their manuscripts enough prior to submission. Faced with the kind of alarm I’ve been raising throughout this post, the victim immediately snatches up her editing pens and shouts, “Thanks for telling me, Anne! I’ll clear my schedule for the next three weeks to attend to the matter!”

She is, in a word that I suspect I’m making up on the spot, over-conscientious.

Most of us have probably encountered advanced cases of panic #2, right? Every time the sufferer runs into a new writerly axiom, he rushes to apply it to his work. Adherents of this philosophy would rather spend their time cleaning minute specks of dust off their writing with a toothbrush like an archeologist exhuming the ruins of Troy than run the risk of anything whatsoever being wrong with their work by the time some kind mailman pops it under Millicent’s nose.

In moderation, such devotion to detail is laudable. Over-indulgers, however, can fret themselves into an absolute standstill. Since there’s never any shortage of ostensibly never-fail writing advice out there, a writer who becomes addicted to dipping his cup into the stream of wisdom too frequently can feel as though he’s trying to drain Lake Titicaca with a teaspoon.

The third type, of course, is the one who exclaims, “Oh, my God — the publishing industry is so unreasonable! No wonder nothing of value ever gets published! I might as well give up now.” Which is no skin off Millicent’s freckled nose, of course: see my earlier comment about the number of technically perfect manuscripts she sees in any given year, far more than her boss agent could ever hope to sign to representation contracts.

Welcome to the joys of living in a great, big country filled with talented, creative people. Isn’t competition grand?

By now, I suspect that I’ve given all three types a common cause upon which they agree absolutely. “Heavens, Anne,” they cry in unison, “if your goal was to depress us into a stupor, you’ve certainly succeeded. Knock off for the day, will ya?”

Actually, that wasn’t my goal — although, admittedly, it’s an achievement into which I stumble with some frequency whenever I talk about being realistic about the grim odds that face even an excellent agent-seeking manuscript. (Although while you’re already antsy: if you don’t mind my asking, when’s the last time you made a back-up of your writing files? Or, to put it less gently, if — heaven forfend! — anything happened to your computer tomorrow, would you have to go back and re-make all of those changes you’ve already made on your manuscript? See my point?)

The intention behind bringing up the common stripes of over-reaction to revision suggestions is to encourage all of you to stop yourself from heading toward any of these extremes.

When faced with the prospect of ferreting out and fixing either a manuscript megaproblem or a whole string of little gaffes, what serves a writer best is to come up with a practical plan of attack. Nothing is better at staving off that feeling of being overwhelmed by complete strangers’ extremely high and sometimes rather arbitrary standards.

Trust me on this one. You’ll have a substantially happier life as a writer if you train yourself not to give in to any of the very natural emotional first reactions.

Like, say, to a post like this. Ponder manuscript matters small and great, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part X: wait — could this tree in front of me possibly be part of a forest?

trees in Oregon3

My apologies about the uncharacteristic multi-day silence, campers — once one of the houseguests discovered just how comfy my desk chair was, I couldn’t get near it again. An alien laptop invaded my desk for days on end. Which just goes to show you that as delightful as it can be to nab the most engaging room in the house for one’s writing space, it has its drawbacks.

Back to business, therefore, toute suite. After my last post on the desirability of minimizing and repetition, clever and insightful reader Adam made an observation that caused me to pause, take three steps back from our ongoing series, and reassess my methodology. Quoth Adam:

This really is helpful. Not even so much about this particular conjunction, but the habit of viewing one’s manuscript on a multitude of levels. Learning to read one’s own work with poor Millie’s eyes is one, though what caught my attention this time around perhaps relates to your posts on MS format: how the appearance of a page or the prevalency of particular words on a page can stand out just as much or more than the meaning we want to convey.

The bit about the habit of viewing one’s manuscript on a multitude of levels leapt out at me, I must confess. Egads, thought I, in discussing how to diagnose the many and varied ills that frequently plague the Frankenstein manuscript — that frightening entity written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so inconsistent are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout — had I encouraged my readers to place their noses so close to the page that the larger picture has started to blur? In applying tender loving care to the scars holding together the Frankenstein manuscript, had we lost sight of the entire creature?

Nah, I thought a moment later. But I may not have made it perfectly clear yet that different types of revision, or even revision based upon different varieties of feedback, can yield quite different results.

Why worry about such niceties, when your garden-variety Frankenstein manuscript could, quite frankly, use quite a bit of scar-buffing to get it ready for prom night? (Bear with me while I’m breaking my metaphor-generator back in, please — my desk is evidently out of practice.) Contrary to popular belief, even amongst writers who should know better, there is no such thing as a single best way to revise a narrative, any more than there is a single best way to tell a story.

Part of the charm of individual authorial voice is that it is, in fact, individual — but you’d never glean that from how writers (and writing teachers) tend to talk about revision. All too often, we speak amongst ourselves as though the revision process involved no more than either (a) identifying and removing all of the objectively-observable mistakes in a manuscript, or (b) changing our minds about some specific plot point or matter of characterization, then implementing it throughout the manuscript.

These are two perfectly reasonable self-editing goals, of course, but they are not the only conceivable ones. When dealing with a Frankenstein manuscript — as pretty much every writer does, at least in a first book — a conscientious self-editor might well perform a read-through for voice consistency, another for grammatical problems, a third for logic leaps, a fourth because the protagonist’s husband is no longer a plumber but the member of Congress representing Washington’s 7th District…

And so forth. Revision can come in many, many flavors, variable by specificity, level of focus, the type of feedback to which the writer is responding, and even the point in publication history at which the manuscript is being revised.

Does that all sound dandy in theory, but perplexing in practice? Don’t worry; I haven’t been away from my desk so long that I have forgotten that I am queen of the concrete example. To help you gain a solid sense of how diverse different of levels of revision can be, I’m going to treat you to a page from one of my favorite fluffy novels of yore, Noël Coward’s Pomp and Circumstance, a lighthearted romp set in a tropical British colony on the eve of a royal visit.

I chose this piece not merely because it retains a surprisingly high level of Frankenstein manuscript characteristics for a work by a well-established writer (possibly because it was Coward’s only published novel), or even because it deserves another generation of readers. (As it does; his comic timing is unparalleled.) I think it’s an interesting study in how literary conventions change: even at the time of its release in 1960, some critics considered it a bit outdated. Coward’s heyday had been several decades before, they argued, so the type of sex comedy that used to shock in the 1920s was a bit passé, and wasn’t it a bit late in the literary day to steer so firmly away from sociopolitical commentary?

Now, sociopolitical commentary has largely fallen out of style, at least in first novels, and sex, as Coward himself was fond of observing, seems to be here to stay. Here is a page from the end of the book, where our narrator, a harried British matron living on a South Sea island, finds herself entertaining Droopy, the husband of her best friend Bunny’s would-be mistress.

P&C sample

Amusing, certainly, but a bit Frankensteinish, is it not? At first glance, how would you revise it? Would your revision goals be different if this were page 5, rather than page 272?

Before you give your final answers, here’s that page again, after it has been subjected to just the kind of repetition-spotting mark-up I’ve been asking you to perform of late. (Sorry about the dark image; I honestly didn’t take the photograph in a particularly gloomy room. If you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try either pressing command + to make the window larger or saving the image to your hard disk.)

P&C edit 1

Quite a lot of repetition, isn’t it? By today’s book publication standards, as Millicent the agency screener would no doubt be overjoyed to tell you, it would deserve instant rejection on that basis alone. But would you agree? After all, the narrative voice in the excerpt, replete with all of that structural redundancy, actually is not all too far from the kind of writing we all see every day online, or even in the chattier varieties of journalism.

We can all see why some writers would favor this kind of voice, right? Read out loud, this kind of first-person narration can sound very natural, akin to actual speech. So why, do you suppose, would Millicent cringe at the very sight of it?

Those of you who have been following this series on Frankenstein manuscripts faithfully, feel free to sing along: because the level of repetition that works in everyday speech is often hard to take on the printed page.

Now that you see all of those ands and other word repetition marked on the page, you must admit that they are mighty distracting to the eye; by repeating the same sentence structures over and over, our buddy Noël is practically begging Millicent to skip lines while skimming. Nor is all of the redundancy here literal; there’s a certain amount of conceptual repetition as well. Take note of all of those visually-based verbs: not only do people look a great deal, but our heroine envisages AND tries to imagine how she might appear in his eyes.

That should all sound fairly familiar from our recent discussions, right? You might well have spotted all of those problems in your first glance at the non-marked version of the text. But does that mean there’s not any more revision to be done here?

Not by a long shot. Did you catch the over-use of subordinate clauses, all of those whiches in yellow? Back in the day, literature was rife with these; now, most Millicents are trained to consider them, well, a bit awkward. While a tolerant Millie might be inclined to glide past one every ten or fifteen pages, even a screener noted for her restraint would begin to get restless with as many as appear on a single page above.

That almost certainly would not have been a major objection raised by Millicent’s forebears in 1960, however. The literary gatekeepers would have concentrated on quite different parts of this page — the grammatically-necessary missing commas, for instance, and the back-to-back prepositions.

Longing to see how Millicent’s grandmother would have commented on this page? Well, you’re in luck; I just happen to have her feedback handy.

P&Eedit2

Let’s linger a moment in order to consider Grandma M’s primary quibbles. First, as she points out so politely in red at the top of the page, it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph. In dialogue, a single-line paragraph is acceptable, but in standard prose, it is technically incorrect.

Was that gigantic clunk I just heard the sound of jaws belonging to anyone who has picked up a newspaper or magazine within the last decade hitting the floor?

In theory, Grandma M is quite right on this point — and more of her present-day descendants would side with her than you might suppose. Millie’s grandmother did not bring her up to regard setting grammar at naught lightly, after all.

But does that necessarily mean it would be a good idea for you to sit down today and excise every single-sentence narrative paragraph in your manuscript? Perhaps not: the convention of occasionally inserting a single-line paragraph for emphasis has become quite accepted in nonfiction. The practice has crept deeply enough into most stripes of genre fiction that it probably would not raise Millicent’s eyebrows much.

How can you tell if the convention is safe to use in your submission? As always, the best way of assessing the acceptability of a non-standard sentence structure in a particular book category is to become conversant with what’s been published in that category within the last few years. Not just what the leading lights of the field have been writing lately, mind you, since (feel free to shout along with me now, long-time readers) what an established author can get away with doing to a sentence is not always acceptable in a submission by someone trying to break into the field. Pay attention to what kinds of sentences first-time authors of your kind of book are writing these days, and you needn’t fear going too far afield.

As a general rule of thumb, though, even first-time novelists can usually get the occasional use of the single-sentence paragraph device past Millicent — provided that the content of the sentence in question is sufficiently startling to justify standing alone. As in:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? The paragraph break emphasizes the jaggedness of the narrative leap — and, perhaps equally important from a submission perspective, renders the plot twist easier for a skimming eye to catch.

The fact remains, though, that Grandma M would growl at this construction (“My, Granny, what big teeth you have!”), and rightly so. Why? Well, it violates the two-sentences-or-more rule, for starters. In the second place, it really isn’t ever necessary, strictly speaking. In a slower world, one where readers lived sufficiently leisurely lives that they might be safely relied upon to glance at every sentence on a page, all of this information could have fit perfectly happily into a single paragraph. Like so:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind. That is, until I tripped over the werewolf lying prone across my doorstep.

I bring this up not only to appease Grandma M’s restless ghost, currently haunting an agency or publishing house somewhere in Manhattan, but so that those of you addicted to single-line paragraphs will know what to do with hanging sentences: tuck ‘em back into the paragraph from whence they came.

At least a few of them. Please?

Really, it’s in your submission’s best interest to use the single-line paragraph trick infrequently, reserving it for those times when it will have the most effect. Why, you ask? Because amongst aspiring writers who like the impact of this structure, moderation is practically unheard-of.

Just ask Millicent; she sees the evidence every day in submissions. Many, if not most, novelists and memoirists who favor this device do not use the convention sparingly, nor do they reserve its use for divulging information that might legitimately come as a surprise to a reasonably intelligent reader.

As a result, Millie tends to tense up a bit at the very sight of a single-sentence paragraph — yes, even ones that are dramatically justifiable. Hard to blame her, really, considering how mundane some of the revelations she sees in submissions turn out to be. A fairly typical example:

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

Beside the sidewalk, a daffodil bloomed.

Not exactly a stop-the-presses moment, is it?

Often, too, aspiring writers will use a single-line paragraph to highlight a punch line. This can work rather well, if it doesn’t occur very often in the text — pull out your hymnals and sing along, readers: any literary trick will lose its efficacy if it’s over-used — AND if the joke is genuinely funny.

Much of the time in manuscripts, alas, it isn’t — at least not hilarious enough to risk enraging Grandma M’s spirit by stopping the narrative short to highlight the quip.

The sky was perfectly clear as I walked home from school that day, the kind of vivid blue first-graders choose from the crayon box as a background for a smiling yellow sun. The philosopher Hegel would have loved it: the external world mirroring the clean, happy order of my well-regulated mind.

My Algebra II teacher would have fallen over dead with astonishment.

Gentle irony does not often a guffaw make, after all. And think about it: if the reader must be notified by a grammatically-questionable paragraph break that a particular line is meant to be funny, doesn’t that very choice indicate a certain doubt that the reader will catch the joke?

Grandma M’s other big objection to Noël’s page 272 — and this pet peeve, too, she is likely to have passed down the generations — would be to the many, many run-on sentences. Like so many aspiring novelists, our Noël favors an anecdotal-style narrative voice, one that echoes the consecutiveness of everyday speech. That can work beautifully in dialogue, where part of the point is for the words captured within the quotation marks to sound like something an actual human being might really say, but in narration, this type of sentence structure gets old fast.

Why might that be, dear readers? Chant it along with me now: structural repetition reads as redundant. Varying the narrative’s sentence structure will render it easier, not to mention more pleasant, to read.

Are some of you former jaw-droppers waving your arms frantically, trying to get my attention? “Okay, Anne,” these sore-jawed folk point out, “I get it: Millicents have disliked textual repetition for decades now. No need to exhume Grandma M’s grandmother to hammer home that point. But I’d had the distinct impression that Millie is a greater stickler for bigger-picture problems than her forebears. Don’t I have more important things to worry about than grammatical perfection when I’m getting ready to slide my manuscript under her nose?”

Well, grammatical perfection is always an asset in a manuscript, ex-jaw-droppers, so I wouldn’t discount it too much in your pre-submission text scan. You are right, however, that present-day Millicents do tend to be weighing a great many more factors than their grandmothers did when deciding whether the manuscript in front of them has publication potential. But not all of those factors involve large-scale questions of marketability and audience-appropriateness; Millicent is also charged with going over the writing with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.

What kinds of manuscript problems might catch on her comb that Grandma M’s would have missed, you ask with fear and trembling? See for yourself — here’s her response on the page we’ve been examining:

P&E edit 3

I sincerely hope that your first thought upon seeing her much, much higher expectations was not to wish that you’d had the foresight to try to land an agent back in 1960, rather than now. (Although I would not blame you at all if you kicked yourself for not launching your work back in the 1980s, when the home computer was available but not yet ubiquitous, astronomically increasing the number of both queries and submissions Millicent would see in a given week.) True, the competition to land an agent is substantially fiercer now, but it’s also true that a much, much broader range of voices are getting published than in Grandma M’s time.

Back then, if you weren’t a straight, white man from a solid upper-middle class home, Granny expected you at least to have the courtesy to write like one. If you did happen to be a SWMFaSUMCH, you were, of course, perfectly welcome to try to imagine what it was like not to be one, although on the whole, your work would probably be more happily received if you stuck to writing what you knew. And if there was a typo in your manuscript, well, next time, don’t have your wife type it for you.

(You think I’m making that last bit up, don’t you? That’s a quote, something an agent told a rather well-known writer of my acquaintance the 1960s. The latter kept quiet about the fact that he was (a) unmarried at the time and (b) he composed his books on a typewriter.)

Let’s return from that rather interesting flashback, though, and concentrate upon the now. For the purposes of this series on Frankenstein manuscripts, it’s not enough to recognize that literary standards — and thus professional expectations for self-editing — have changed radically over time. It’s not even sufficient to recognize, although I hope it’s occurred to you, that what constituted good writing in your favorite book from 1937 might not be able to make it past Millicent today. (Although if you’re going to use authors from the past as your role models — a practice both Grandma M and I would encourage — you owe it to your career as a writer also to familiarize yourself with the current writing in your book category.)

Just for today, what I would like you to take away from these insights is that each of the editorial viewpoints in these examples would prompt quite different revisions — and in some specific instances, mutually contradictory ones. This is one reason the pros tend not to consider the revision process definitively ended until a book is published and sitting on a shelf: since reading can take place on many levels, so can revision.

Don’t believe me? Okay, clap on your reading glasses and peruse the three widely disparate results conscientious reviser Noël might have produced in response to each of the marked-up pages above. For the first, the one that merely noted the structural, word, and concept repetition, the changes might be as simple as this:

P&C basic edit

Notice anything different about the text? “Hey, Anne!” I hear some of you burble excitedly. “Despite the fact that Noël has added a couple of paragraph breaks, presumably to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between speech and thought, the text ends up being shorter. He snuck another line of text at the bottom of the page!”

Well-caught, sharp-eyed burblers. A thoughtfully-executed revision to minimize structural redundancy can often both clarify meaning and lop off extraneous text.

I hope you also noticed, though, that while that very specifically-focused revision was quite helpful to the manuscript, it didn’t take care of some of the grammatical gaffes — or, indeed, most of the other problems that would have troubled Grandma M. Let’s take a peek at what our Noël might have done to page 272 after she’s taken her red pen to it. (Hint: you might want to take a magnifying glass to the punctuation.)

P&C revision 2

Quite different from the first revision, is it not? This time around, the punctuation’s impeccable, but the narration retains some of the redundancy that a modern-day Millicent might deplore.

Millie might also roll her eyes at her grandmother’s winking at instances of the passive voice and the retention of unnecessary tag lines. Indeed, for Noël to revise this page to her specifications, he’s going to have to invest quite a bit more time. Shall we see how he fared?

P&C final edit

Not every close-up examination of a single tree, in short, will result in a pruning plan that will yield the same forest. A savvy self-editor will bear that in mind, rather than expecting that any single pass at revision, however sensible, will result in a manuscript that will please every reader.

Wow, that bit about the trees was a tortured analogy; Grandma M would have a tizzy fit. I guess my desk is still insufficiently warmed up. I’ll keep working on it until next time, when it’s back to the ands.

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 VI: I’ve got rhythm…rhythm…rhythm…

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I got so carried away last time — urging all of you (a) to regard the revision process as an opportunity to discover the strengths in your manuscript, rather than the far more common method of concentrating exclusively upon the weaknesses, (b) being delighted to discover that you’re really, really talented at some very specific type of writing (who knew that you were the go-to writer for descriptions of buggy wheels in motion, for instance?), and (c) conceivably acting upon that discovery by reworking the manuscript to emphasize your strengths — that I fear one of my more important subsidiary points might have gotten a bit lost in the public rejoicing. Therefore, let me begin today by un-burying that lead.

Even if you chose to blow off 99.2% of my advice in general, please, I implore you, follow it in this one respect: make absolutely, positively certain that your first five pages do not read like a Frankenstein manuscript — or definitely will not before you even consider slipping them into an envelope with a SASE and mailing them off to an agent, editor, or contest.

Don’t just make a vague, affirmative-sounding noise in response to that. I’m waiting to hear an actual promise.

Why, you ask, when I’m writing this on a blog stuffed to the proverbial gills with literally thousands of pages of advice for writers, am I being so adamant about this little gem — and why only the first five? I’m requesting it for your long-term happiness, especially if you happen not to be the lucky beneficiary of limitless time on your hands to devote to revision.

I’m just being practical here, you see. Naturally, you will want your entire narrative to be in a consistent, well-crafted voice; indeed, that should be the long-term goal for any book-length piece. Were it entirely up to me, every writer would have the time to polish his work until it was positively reflective before submitting it.

But that’s not a luxury an aspiring writer has in this rough-and-tumble world, is it?

The fact is, if you’re in a rush to get your submission out the door — and who isn’t, right after pitching at a conference or receiving that long-awaited query response — you may not have either the time or the patience for a complete revision. And while I would NEVER suggest that ANY writer should send even a single page of requested materials WITHOUT having read that submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, and every conference season, I type my fingers to the elbow pointing out to any writer who will listen that it’s actually a really, really poor idea to send out those materials immediately after receiving the request, precisely because doing so by definition doesn’t leave time for a last-minute read-through, I do recognize that deadlines, self-imposed and otherwise, do exist.

I do not concede, however, that anyone who has the time to write a manuscript does not have time to quadruple-check that her first five pages are written in a consistent, flowing, entertaining narrative voice. Nor can I easily envision a real-world submission situation where even the agent of that writer’s wildest dreams would not be willing to wait a week or two — nay, prefer to wait a week or two — to receive requested materials if they would be better-written after the lull.

Hey, it’s not as though that requesting agent is just going to drop everything, waiting for your submission to show up, or is even likely to blink if it takes them a month or two to arrive. Agents are busy people, after all, and they ask to see quite a few manuscripts.

Besides, isn’t submitting incompletely-revised writing a trifle self-defeating? It’s up to you how to invest your time and energy, of course; it’s not as though the Submission Police are going to break down your door to prevent you from hitting the SEND button with the first 50 pages of a Frankenstein manuscript attached. But given the rate at which Frankensteinery tends to get rejected, isn’t it worth taking the time to improve your odds of acceptance a little?

Which brings me to the question of why the first five pages are so important. As we’ve been discussing throughout this series, Millicent is not merely on the look-out for a well-written manuscript, or one that is simply free of technical errors: she is searching for a narrative voice that she believes her boss will (a) like and (b) be able to sell.

If the first five pages of a submission do not establish that voice, few professional readers will continue reading beyond them. While an agent will occasionally pick up an uneven manuscript if she enjoys the overall voice, the Millicent who screens her submissions will, in all likelihood, have made up her mind about the marketability of that voice by the bottom page 5, at the latest.

And that’s assuming that page 1 was close enough to flawless, technically speaking, to tempt her to keep going. Not to mention well-written, presenting an interesting story, and sounding like the kind of book Millicent’s boss habitually represents.

So again: please promise me that you’ll tinker with at least those first five pages until they’re lovely. It’s in your book’s best interest.

After you’ve roll up your metaphorical sleeves to launch into that worthy endeavor, you might want to start by keep an eye out for a very, very common type of textual repetition, especially in book openings end endings: invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work.

Invocatory rhythms are one of the most popular tools aspiring writers use to beautify their narratives, a kind of sing-song rhythm that alerts the reader that Something Literary is Going on Here. Often couched in generalities about the human condition, a well-written invocatory opening can provide a philosophical starting-point, preparing the reader’s mind, as it were, for the specific story to come — or that has just concluded.

More importantly, though, an invocatory rhythm is a species of seduction: conveys a sort of music that draws the reader irresistibly. I’ve read openings that one could practically sing. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

I have always been drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days of a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.

Feel that gently galloping rhythm? Compelling, no? we could quibble about some of dear Truman’s editorial choices — I, for one, probably would have taken him to task for those two ands in the final sentence, and many a modern-day Millicent might reject this opening on sight as leaning too heavily on the passive voice — but you can’t deny that it sets a mood.

Partially, the narrative achieves that through invocatory rhythm — and to many a writer, and to many a professional reader, too, that “Ready or not, Muses, here I come!” rhythm is what differentiates the opening of a good book from the writing in the rest of the text. That, and because those golden words happen to fall on page 1, so they’re the first taste the reader gets of the author’s voice.

I’m sensing that some of you out there are shaking your heads, perplexed. “Rhythm?” you call out between well-timed shakes 34 and…35. “I’m not really getting what you mean. I can see that it’s well-written, crammed with the telling details you’re always…” (36) “…going on about, but rhythm is something heard with the ears, right, not seen with the eyes?” (37)

Well, no — although it’s a moot point if you’re reading the page IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD. An experienced reader can feel rhythm on the page; it’s part of what keeps Millicent turning pages. To a professional reader, it’s a manuscript’s heartbeat.

Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, I’m bringing it up in this series on Frankenstein manuscripts. All too often, a manuscript will open with a nice, musical rhythm, only to drop it somewhere around page 5. (Hey, I didn’t pick that barrier arbitrarily — that’s around the end of most manuscript’s first scenes.) Or to begin another halfway down page 2. Sometimes, the switch is jarring enough that the text just before and just after the switch read like two different authorial voices.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s one of the defining characteristics of the Frankenstein manuscript. Need I say more?

I should, actually — or so the head-shakers from a few paragraphs ago tell me. Try reading the opening of Jerzy Kosinski’s marvelous political satire, Being There, first silently, then, if you haven’t taken a vow of silence (or are not perusing this blog at work), read it again out loud.

It was Sunday. Chance was in the garden. He moved slowly, dragging the green hose from one path to the next, carefully watching the flow of water. Very gently he let the stream touch every plan, every flower, every branch in the garden. Plants were like people; they needed care to live, to survive their diseases, and to die peacefully.

Did you catch it that time? This is a particularly nice example: the rhythm begins slowly, then gradually builds up speed, as if the garden were awakening in the first light of morning; by the third sentence, the narrative moving forward at a strong beat. That’s far from accidental: the third sentence repeats the same word thrice, a rhythm continued by the list of three essential needs of people in the final sentence. Well done, Jerzy!

Still not hearing it? Okay, you’ve left me no choice; I’m going to get completely ruthless. Take a gander at what is arguably the most famous example of invocatory rhythm in American literature, the ending of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Yes, he of “Oh, I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?” fame.)

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther…and one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

If you can’t sense the rhythm in that passage, I can only suggest that drum lessons might be a waste of your time.

Perhaps because so many of us in this great nation spent our formative years being fed THE GREAT GATSBY, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, ROMEO AND JULIET, and other rhythm-heavy broken-off bits of literary nourishment intravenously through our English classes, capital-L Literature tends to be heavily associated with these types of very rhythmic narrative. The Great American Novel construction kit might as well come with a drum machine, if the submissions Millicent sees are any indication.

Which is to say: literary fiction manuscripts tend to be stuffed to the margins with invocatory rhythms, as do, for some reason, high-end science fiction and sophisticated women’s fiction. Forget about grabbing the reader with a good, old-fashioned hook: these openings are evidently intended to stun Millicent into cries of delight over the magnificence of this new literary voice.

Which is grand — when the device works. The problem is, it often doesn’t.

But that doesn’t stop a driving rhythm from being a hugely popular way to open Chapter 1, is it? As so many writers have been delighted to discover, one of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition:

Geraldine ran through the corridor, ran like the wind, ran as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her freedom, after all this time? Didn’t she deserve a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Of best friend, illicit lover, that grim-faced police sergeant on the night shift? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy?

That’s a relatively moderate use of the kind of invocatory rhythm that tends to turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Here’s a galloping case of it:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head — that much was clear to him, even while trying to find his way of the wilds of bewilderment without so much as a map and his trusty Boy Scout compass. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

Yes, the rhythm here is indeed driving, but what a heck of a lot of word repetition! That’s what a professional reader is likely to take away from this paragraph, by the way, not the emotional intensity. In fact, here’s how it’s likely to burn itself into Millicent’s overworked retinas:

Bewildered, Paul hung his head in shame. Not in shame, precisely: he hung his head partially in pride, a fierce pride that he had done the right thing, made the brave choice, under extremely trying circumstances. No, it was not in shame that he hung his head that much was clear to him, even while trying to find his way out of the wilds of bewilderment without so much as a map and his trusty Boy Scout compass. He was proud, pleased-proud, surprised-proud, PROUD. He wouldn’t have canceled out his supposed shame even if he could have turned back time with a wave of his hand.

To put it less graphically, it’s the repetition that Millicent is likely to notice, rather than the poetic rhythm. Notice, too, that it’s not only the verbatim word and phrase repetition that would make her grind her teeth: words that scan similarly, like wild and bewildered are likely to stick in her craw as well. As will different forms of the same verb appearing within too few lines of text.

Just in case any of you were thinking of featuring have, having, and had within the course of a single paragraph anytime soon.

I’ve been sensing more head-shaking throughout my discussion of these examples. “I see that there are repeated words here, Anne, but surely that is a stylistic choice on the author’s part, a matter of bending the ordinary rules of writing in order to produce a particular type of voice — in this case, one that sounds like chanting the same words over and over again. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your oft-made point about not every reader’s liking every voice, and you are demonstrating yourself to be the kind of knuckle-dragging troglodyte who eschews the joys of literary fiction in favor of novels that — ugh — have a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge — and what’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. I cut my editing teeth on high-end fantasy with a literary voice. So there.

But you are right that the example above is far more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream market. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in prose by writers who also write poetry. Unfortunately for Millicent’s aching eyes, it’s also a frequent guest device in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with an overtly literary voice.

It just sounds pretty, somehow. Blame our high school English teachers.

Oh, some of you head-shakers are at it again. Aren’t your necks getting tired? “Wait — if the writing’s pretty, how could THAT be problematic in a submission?”

In many ways, believe it or not. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous piece of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. (Yes, yes, I know: I’m fond of this particular example, but honestly, it’s one of the best how-tos for writing redundant prose ever produced. Bear with me here.) Just for kicks, pretend that your tenth-grade teacher didn’t force you to write a critical essay about it. Instead, try to read like an agency screener:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Or, if you want to don Millicent’s eyeglasses even more thoroughly, take a gander at it in standard manuscript format:

2-cities-good

Now, this voice is certainly distinctive, isn’t it? Hard to conceive of a more memorable opening, rhythmically speaking. But it’s also true that if these were the first two paragraphs of a submission, pretty much any professional reader today would have rejected it by line three.

Close your eyes, channel Millicent, and tell me why.

If you said that it was because the first paragraph is one interminable run-on sentence — 119 words, connected incorrectly by commas, rather than semicolons, sacre bleu! — give yourself lollipop, a pat on the head, and an A for the day.

Ditto if you zeroed in upon the apparently random capitalization of nouns, the criminal punctuation choices, the ubiquitous logical contradictions. (Yes, I know Dickens meant it to be ironic; stop parroting your high school English teacher, or I’ll be forced to pull out my tattered copy of OF MICE AND MEN.) Or the fact that two paragraphs into the piece, the reader still has absolutely no idea who the protagonist is or what’s going on.

And can’t you just picture an editor furiously scribbling in the margins: “Which was it — the best of times or the worst of times? Commit to one or the other! Remember, the reader only knows what you tell him!”

However, there is a simpler, less obvious reason this first page just cries out for rejection — which will be abundantly apparent if you stand up right now, take two steps backward from your computer monitor, and take another look at Dickens’ opening.

See the visual pattern of word and phrase repetition? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page out of the envelope.

I’ve seen wallpaper with more pattern variation. If you’ve been revising for a while (or if you paid close attention to the title of this post), you might have caught that the problem was repetition without backing away from your computer: the first ten verbs in the piece are identical, after all.

Yet it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the structural repetition, the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. Or, in the disease’s more advanced form, when every second or third sentence boasts practically the same structure. Narratives where most sentences contain two verb phrases joined by the word and, for instance, or the ever-popular As X was happening, I did Y.

Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

To be fair, though, any given sentence structure can become tiresome to a reader, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text. Even had Dickens wielded all of those semicolons correctly (which he didn’t, by current grammatical standards), Millicent would have known at a glance that an opening this repetitious was unlikely to be an easy sell, either to readers or to her boss, the agent.

And for precisely the same reason in both cases: it’s conceptually boring and hard on the eyes to read that many similarly-structured sentences in a row.

As we saw in all of today’s examples, a certain amount of structural repetition can provide a genuine forward momentum to a narrative. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “Wow, that’s cool. By jingo, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

That’s a perfectly legitimate voice choice — provided that it is used sparingly. Like any magic trick, however, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often; after a while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

How often is too often? Well, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first murmured, Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

For Millicent, that number is likely to be as low as two, even if the repetition isn’t in consecutive sentences. Why so few? Well, editors are trained to zero in on redundancy and excise it, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anybody that the contest judges, agents, and Millicents who cull the herd of submissions should develop a sensitivity to something likely to offend an editor’s sensibilities. If a particular stylistic choice is unlikely to sell to a publishing house, those whose job it is to find the bestsellers of tomorrow have to pay attention that editorial preference.

So yes, in answer to what practically all of you were thinking at the beginning of the last paragraph, a professional reader who has been at it a while — honestly may notice structural repetition the first time it occurs, not the seventh. But that’s a matter of speculation, as she is very, very unlikely to still be reading long enough to stumble upon #7.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for a professional reader to sit bolt upright in the middle of page 172, exclaiming indignantly, “Hey, this writer is reusing sentences!” if the first iteration occurred on page 3. Millicents tend to have good memories for text. So do agents, editors, contest judges, writing coaches, and pretty much everyone else who reads work-in-progress for a living.

Which is why, in case you’ve spent years speculating on the subject, recipients of professional feedback are so often stunned by assertions that their manuscripts use particular words or phrases constantly. To someone with a memory trained for editing, four times in a 300-page submission may feel pretty constant.

Don’t repeat yourself more than is absolutely necessary.

“Okay, okay,” I hear some of you rules lawyers out there murmuring, “I understand that Millicent is hyper-sensitive to reused sentences and repeated sentence structures. But as you pointed out yourself, Anne, many writers like to open and close their books with poetic rhythms; that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire book will be written that way. A TALE OF TWO CITIES doesn’t continue repetitively, after all. So why doesn’t Millicent just assume that the device will end in a page or two and read on?”

Long-time readers, feel free to sing along: because Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the end of page one. She’s not in the habit of reading on until she gets to a patch of text she likes. (Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh?)

I could sidestep the crux of the question by leaving it at that, but the real issue is why a professional reader would assume that the way a manuscript opens is necessarily indicative of what is to come. It’s an excellent question, because this assumption does underlie any rejection on page one. The fact is, though, that this presumption is not always inaccurate, at least with regard to redundancy. More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure.

Hey, the writer thinks it sounds pretty. He’s been re-reading THE GREAT GATSBY lately.

Obviously, this renders invocatory repetition dangerous for a writer to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to seeing structural repetition dotting submissions end to end that they’re all too likely — fairly or not — to conclude that to read on would be to be treated to the same type of sentence over and over, ad infinitum.

And that, my friends, would be less poetic than soporific.

Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when and how invocatory rhythms will help your work. Keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: lights, camera — revisions?

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A quick reminder before we begin today: entries for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest must be in by midnight in your time zone on May 24th — or, as we like to call around here, the point at which next Monday becomes next Tuesday. The exceptionally easy-to-follow rules may be found here.

I’m hoping that many of you will enter the first pages of your manuscripts, but I’d especially like to encourage those of you who write YA to seize this opportunity: the lucky winners of the YA category will win a first-page critique by no less a storytelling-for-youth authority than YA author Phoebe Kitanidis. I’m excited about judging in the adult category myself, of course, but I’m also really looking forward to hearing her insights on your work!

Okay, that’s enough contest promotion the nonce. Let’s get back to work.

All this week, I’ve been taking a fine-tooth comb, a magnifying glass, and a huge grain of salt to a real, live reader’s real, live first page, pointing out the nit-picks, large and small, that might cause our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to become distracted from the inherent beauty of the writing, originality of the story, or any other selling point a writer might wish her to notice instead. As those of you who have been following this series may have noted with alarm, I’ve been talking for three days straight about potential sources of distraction in what is, frankly, a page 1 that would not have raised most readers’ eyebrows in the slightest.

Just in case you haven’t been keeping score, Millie’s cumulative remarks would have looked like this, had she been noting them on the manuscript page:

marked-up page 1

That’s not an unusually high level of feedback for professional critique, by the way: the pros read closely. While some writers might find facing that level of scrutiny a trifle intimidating, jumping on every last little manuscript error is considered perfectly normal amongst agents and editors. Why, they reason, would a good writer want not to know how to improve her manuscript?

In fact, extremely nit-picky feedback is considered indicative of respect in publishing circles: trust me, they don’t bother to jump all over manuscripts that they do not believe to be worthy of publication.

The moral, lest the combination of the image and that last insight not have driven it home with sufficient force: despite the fact that it’s Millicent’s job to screen submissions in order to find exciting stories and fresh literary talent, it’s also her job to read manuscripts critically. Many submissions (and contest entries, come to think of it) get knocked out of consideration not because of a single mistake, but due to an array of small, avoidable missteps.

What practical lesson might we derive from that? Perhaps that it behooves a writer (or literary contest entrant) to scan his manuscript as closely as Millicent would before submitting it, rather than assuming — as most aspiring writers do — that an agent seriously interested in literature would readily forgive technical mistakes, reading ten, twenty, a hundred pages before deciding whether this is a book she wants to represent.

But Millie is not paid to read with a charitable eye, nor should she; she’s well aware that if anything, her boss is more likely to reject a manuscript on technicalities than she is. (Yes, really — it’s significantly less time-consuming to represent a client whose self-editing skills are demonstrably immaculate.) Because the agent doesn’t have time to read every submission in its entirety, she employs Millicent to narrow the field down to a few manuscripts already of publishable quality AND likely to sell in the current market AND packages professionally.

Or, to put it another way: the little stuff matters. Quite a lot, as a matter of fact.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professional readers — screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges, to name but a few — do not read like other people. Instead of reading an entire scene or page before making judgments about the story and the writing, they judge each line as they encounter it. Typically, when Millicent encounters a line of which she does not approve, she does not read on in the hopes of finding one she will enjoy more — she generally will simply stop reading.

What does this mean for most submissions, in practical terms? Well, take our example from yesterday, the manuscript that opened with an unattributed piece of dialogue. The vast majority of submitters would assume that Millicent would see the page like this:

page 1 example wrong

Whereas what Millicent is likely to see for evaluation purposes is this:

first line page

What makes me think she might choose to stop reading at that point — and not, say, immediately after spotting the unusual slug line or odd pagination? As I mentioned earlier in this series, small formatting errors are seldom instant rejection triggers; presentation gaffes may affect how seriously Millicent reads the text (see my earlier comment about how much more time-consuming it is for an agent to represent a client who doesn’t know the self-editing ropes), but it’s rare that she would dismiss it entirely on cosmetic grounds alone.

She may reasonably be expected to read what follows with an a slightly jaundiced eye, though, if not an outright expectation that the writing will not be polished up to professional standards. Which is precisely what happens in our example: manuscripts that open with unidentified speakers are a notorious Millicent pet peeve.

Actually, cutting the narrative off here gives us a sterling insight into why. Take a gander at the first sentence (and first paragraph) of this manuscript, forgetting that you know anything about the story to follow:

“It’s your ex, hon.”

What does it tell us, stripped of context? We already established last time what this opening doesn’t tell us: who the speaker is. Or who the listener is, for that matter, beyond the fact that s/he has evidently participated in a relationship prior to the beginning of the story. It also doesn’t tell us whether the speaker or the hearer whether is male or female, anything about his/her tone, what the environment is like, the speaker’s motivation in bringing this information to the listener’s attention…

We don’t even know how crucial this statement is to the actors, whether it’s the key to the story to come or merely one line of dialogue amongst many. Standing alone, this speech could serve equally well in the mouth of a bored operator transferring the thirtieth perfectly mundane call from a civil ex and coming from the lips of a horrified onlooker who has just spotted an axe murderer standing behind her best friend.

Even more serious from Millicent’s perspective, it also doesn’t really give us any hit about who the protagonist is or what conflict s/he faces — which are, lest we forget, questions that she fully expects a well-written page 1 to answer, at least provisionally. While naturally, it would be a tad unreasonable to expect the first paragraph of a manuscript to answer both of those questions (which form, presumably, the basis for a 350-page book), is she so wrong to expect that first paragraph to whet her appetite about the story to come?

Bearing all that in mind, let me ask you: in Millicent’s shoes, would you keep reading?

A forest of hands just shot into the air. Yes — you in front? “I wouldn’t keep reading,” an inveterate conference-goer points out, but not because I was confused about who was saying the speech, or because I was not sufficiently intrigued by it as conflict introduction. No, if I were Millie, I would have stopped reading as soon as my gaze hit that first set of quotation marks: I’ve heard agents say at conferences/in interviews/on their blogs that they just don’t like to see manuscripts open with dialogue on the first line.”

I’ve heard this one from time to time, too. Usually, one agent sitting on a panel will begin a critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like to see dialogue in the first line.” Almost invariably, the agent sitting next to him will turn to him and say, “Really”

It’s not a universal pet peeve, in short. As simple observation of the literary world will tell us: a lot of very good books open with dialogue. That being said, I would certainly advise a writer who hears an agent express such an opinion immediately to make a mental note never to send that agent a manuscript that opens with dialogue. That’s just basic prudence.

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it.

Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

Unfortunately, the writer of our ongoing example is quite unlikely ever to find out whether the Millicent who passed on her submission harbored a lingering resentment against opening dialogue, or didn’t like the unattributed dialogue, or indeed, any other actual cause of complaint against the manuscript itself. These days, it’s quite rare for a rejection to contain any concrete reason at all. Most of the time, queries and submissions alike are rejected with the same form letters filled with stock phrases: we’re sorry, but it did not meet our needs at this time; I just didn’t fall in love with this protagonist; I don’t feel I can sell this book in the current market.

Which makes it rather hard to learn much from the rejection experience, admittedly. All an aspiring writer can do is keep pushing ahead, polishing her craft in private, until she finds the right agent. Keeping an eye on what’s been published lately in her chosen book category can’t hurt, either.

Yes, persistent hand-raiser off in the corner? “Okay, Anne, I understand both that it’s a good idea to avoid opening a manuscript with an unattributed piece of dialogue, and that since there are a few agents out there who will reject submissions with dialogue in their first lines, attributed or not, I cannot please all of the people all of the time if I want to keep my initial dialogue. But let’s say that I just love my opening quote, and I’m willing to trust my luck that it will land on the desk of someone who doesn’t hate initial dialogue. How would you suggest I present it without running afoul of your second critique from last time, over-using tag lines? Or, to take advantage of our ongoing example, how would you suggest changing it to be more appealing to Millicent?”

Ooh, that’s a tough question, persistent hand-raiser. As you point out, the easiest way to correct the first problem would be simply to add a tag line, identifying the speaker:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

It’s not a very creative solution, though; it neither adds much interest to the paragraph nor gives the reader much insight into who Emma is, what her primary conflict might be, etc. Also, this approach might be problematic if Casey turns out to be the protagonist — as, indeed, Millicent would have assumed from the original submission.

And why would she have leapt that conclusion, you ask wearily? The same answer as before: selective reading. Here’s the point in the text where she would have made up her mind on the subject:

second line

Generally speaking, Millicent will assume the first named character on page 1 of a novel to be the protagonist until proven otherwise — especially if that character is the most active one in the opening scene. Since she doesn’t always appreciate being informed later in the text (or even on the page) that she was wrong about that, you might want to construct your opening scene accordingly.

Let’s assume for the sake of example, though, that Emma, and not Casey, is the protagonist, since it’s entirely possible that this was the author’s intended implication by having her speak first. (At least I assume that it is Emma who speaks first in this scene, rather than someone in the background.) What our exemplar’s quickest revision options for steering a middle course between no speaker identification in the first paragraph and applying tag lines indiscriminately?

Why quickest, you ask? Oh, you’ve never caught a manuscript problem ten minutes before you were about to stuff it into an envelope — or two minutes before hitting the SEND button? Lucky you.

No, but seriously, folks, it’s been my experience that once an opening scene hits a page, many, if not most, aspiring writers are rather reluctant to change its structure or even its wording much. Writers can get extremely attached to their opening sentences and paragraphs; even those tinker endlessly with mid-book phraseology are often downright defensive about their initial scenes.

We all imagine future browsers lovingly pulling our books off shelves years hence, you see, sitting down to devour our first pages at a glance. Who wants some third party, even one as advantageously placed to help you get your book published as Millicent, to dictate the first impression we will make on our as-yet-unborn fans?

Back to the problem at hand. Identifying the speaker in a separate sentence within the first paragraph is the method most editors would suggest, as it provides ample opportunity for providing context for an opening comment, giving characterization hints, introducing the protagonist as active, and so forth.

It’s also, if you play with the running order a little, a dandy way to side-step the perils of running afoul of opening-dialogue-hating agents. You simply have the narrative sentences come first.

What might this look like in practice? Instead of simply using a tag line to identify the speaker, like so:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

The reviser could add some action to the opening — ideally, action that sets the tone for the scene to follow. Since the line of dialogue follows immediately thereafter, the direct implication is that the primary actor in the first paragraph is also the speaker.

Emma dodged the knife-wielding maniac, escaped, panting, down the hallway, and collapsed at her best friend’s usual lunch table. “It’s your ex, hon.”

No doubt about who is speaking there, eh? Or that the protagonist is an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Beefing up a dialogue-bearing opening paragraph can also provide a great opportunity to introduce physical characteristics of both protagonist and place. Be careful in what you choose to put here, though — mundane descriptors tend to imply rather ordinary protagonists. Telling details, however, can be worked in beautifully. Borrowing from lower on our example page:

Emma’s collection of silver rings danced under restaurant track lights. “It’s your ex, hon.”

I see a few more raised hands waving frantically at me. “But Anne, the reason I’m starting my manuscript with a piece of dialogue is that I feel that the spoken words themselves are important — so much so that I genuinely like seeing them all alone at the top of the page, as in the example. What you’re suggesting seems to water down their impact a little. Couldn’t I just, you know, add a tag line with an adverb attached, providing enough information that Millicent won’t jump down my throat, but still preserving the opening sound that I like?”

Well, you could, oh frantic ones, if you minimized the tag lines throughout the rest of the scene AND you happen not to be writing in a book category where tag lines are positively to be avoided (literary fiction, for instance, eschews them to a remarkable extent). If the initial statement is crucial to the scene — as it should be, if you’re opening with it; as in a screenplay, the first thing the protagonist says in the book sets up the reader’s idea of what kind of a person she is — it might well make sense to highlight a particularly startling statement that reveals character or conflict in a surprising or original manner.

In other words, don’t try it with an everyday statement; it’s probably not worth the risk.

If you’re going to incorporate a tag line in the first sentence of your book, make sure it pays off. There’s just no getting around the fact that adding a tag line might not pass muster with a Millicent who believes that tag lines are always avoidable (as they almost invariably are, with some rhetorical gymnastics), but if you feel that it’s the best means of kicking off a conflict, go a head and give it a try. It helps if you choose an interesting speaking verb, instead of the prosaic and ubiquitous said:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma spat, slamming her tray down on the tiny, slick table.

Casey Winter blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

You want to read on, don’t you? That’s because these initial lines jump straight into a conflict. (One that I have no reason to believe exists in the manuscript as it is currently written, but work with me here.)

Still, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to maintain a similar energy while trimming the tag line. Implication is the writer’s friend, after all.

Emma swerved her way through the crowd of tray-wielding lunchers, slamming her tray down loudly on Casey Winter’s table. Gossip boiled in her system, and she could hold its hot fire inside no longer. “It’s your ex, hon,”

Casey blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

Up go those hands again. “But Anne, what if Casey, and not Emma, is the protagonist? How would you suggest revising the opening then?”

That’s a good question, talking hands — frankly, in that case, I would be reluctant to allow Emma to speak first. I would be easy enough to move the content of the initial piece of dialogue into her mouth, after all. I would, however, trim her reactions so that they all take place inside of her (as opposed to blanching, something Emma might see from the outside), to ramp up the intensity of the opening:

“My ex?” Casey Winter’s stomach twisted into snake-knots. She had a psychosomatic ache in her face and temple and a not-quite-so-matic one in her right knee. She wanted to tap on something, a glass, the tabletop, maybe Emma Parker’s skull, and bleed some of her tension out. “What does he want?”

Emma leaned forward…

My overarching point, should you care to know it: good revision — on the stylistic front, at least — is less about applying hard-and-fast rules than making choices. Nowhere is that more true than on page 1 of your manuscript, for once a reader gains an impression of your protagonist (even if it’s an incorrect one), that’s going to inform how he responds to the rest of the book.

Page 1, in essence, is your story’s introduction to the world. How do you want it to appear?

And, of course, Millicent’s decision whether to keep reading or reject is based entirely on page 1, necessarily. She will be deciding line by line, sentence by sentence, whether to push on or reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

At the submission stage, then, there’s no such thing as a throwaway line on page 1 — or page 2, or page 15, or in the first 50 pages. Grabbing and keeping the attention of as nit-picky a reader as Millicent requires not only telling a good story well, but also paying attention to the details.

Practically nothing escapes her notice, you know. But isn’t that ultimately a very gratifying reader to have for your work, one who notices and appreciates all of your fine work, all of your intelligent choices?

Sort of strange to think of ol’ Millie in that light, isn’t it? Give it a ponder — and, of course, keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: and then there are Millicent’s page 1 pet peeves

woman tied to a train tracklion and tamertommygun1

How have you been enjoying this week’s series on editing page 1 of your manuscript, campers…or is enjoying too strong a word? I’ve been getting such a varied response (ranging, understandably, from thrilled to horrified) from such a wide spectrum of writers (straight nonfiction, memoir, every stripe of fiction) that I’m already toying with making this a regular feature — the first page of the month, perhaps — to give us time and a great excuse to dig deep into the peculiarities and joys of various book categories.

All too often, those of us who teach writing to writers speak as though good writing were good writing, independent of genre, but that’s not always the case. Every book category has its own conventions, after all; what is expected in one may seem downright poky in another. A passive female protagonist might well be a drawback in a mainstream fiction manuscript, for instance, but for a rather wide segment of the WIP (Women in Peril) romance market, a certain amount of passivity is a positive boon.

Doubt that? Okay, to a peril-seeking reader, which would be the more exciting rescue object: the lady tied to a train track while menaced by a lion wielding a Tommy gun, or the bulletproof lady too quick to be lashed down who always carries large steaks in her capacious pockets in case of lion attack?

I’ll leave you to ponder that cosmic mystery on your own. Let’s get back to analyzing our sample first page.

So far, we’ve talked about how Millicent the agency screener might respond to the way this page appears on the page (formatting issues, punctuation, grammar), what clues about the rest of the manuscript she might derive from certain authorial choices (italics usage, word choice, repetition), and book category appropriateness. Today, I want to concentrate on matters of style — which, on the first page of a submission, requires some consideration of the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Already, I see some hands raised in the air, clamoring for my attention. “But Anne,” rules lawyers everywhere cry with one voice, “since Millicent is a composite character, the fanciful Author! Author! personification of professional readers’ attitudes toward submissions, how meaningful could it possibly be to talk about her pet peeves? Are they not by definition personal, and thus variable from reader to reader?”

Yes and no, rules lawyers. Yes, pretty much everyone who reads manuscripts for a living harbors at least a couple of individual dislikes — it drives me nuts, for instance, to see She graduated college on the page, as opposed to the more grammatically correct She graduated from college. Have you noticed how common it’s become to ignore the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs? Not to mention the vicious, civilization-dissolving practice of transmuting perfectly innocent nouns into verbs, presumably to save a couple of characters per sentence — why, just the other day, my weary eyes were insulted by The institute tributed director X in a fairly respectable local newspaper. Would it have killed the article’s writer or his editor to adhere to the longstanding norms of the English language by coughing up the extra character for the less nonsensical The institute paid tribute to director X? And whose bright idea was substituting tonite for tonight, anyway? What great contribution to Western literature do abbreviators believe they are going to be able to achieve with those two saved characters?

Those of us who read for a living tend to cherish our personal pet peeves, as you may see, but there’s not very much an aspiring writer can do to protect herself from running afoul of any given Millicent’s. Or, indeed, from annoying her with your subject matter.

“Oh, God,” Millie mutters, “another romance set in Paris? That’s the third one I’ve seen this week!”

You’re scowling, aren’t you? I’m not at all surprised. Of all of the many aspects of the submission process over which the writer has no control whatsoever, the role of who happens to be screening on the day a particular manuscript arrives in an agency is one of the least understood and most resented by writers. Perhaps with good reason: we’d all like to believe that our manuscripts will receive a fair, impartial reading, regardless of the pet peeves or mood of the screener.

However, there’s just no denying that if you have written a semicolon-heavy literary fiction piece about the many loves of an airline pilot, and the agent of your dreams has just hired a Millicent who simply loathes semicolons, is a dedicated monogamist, and was jilted yesterday by a pilot, the best writing in the world probably is not going to prevent her from rejecting your submission.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you — but an aspiring writer who is aware of the role that personal preference and chance inevitably play in whether a manuscript gets rejected or accepted is, in the long run, going to be significantly happier than one who believes that all Millicents read identically. Ditto with contest entrants; every contest judge brings a few personal preferences to the table. Assuming, as virtually every aspiring writer does when first submitting, querying, and/or entering, that any individual professional reader’s reaction to his work is representative of what EVERY professional reader’s opinion would be is just, well, wrong.

It’s also a strategy notoriously likely to depress aspiring writers into not querying, submitting, or entering widely enough to get their work into publication. If every professional reader’s opinion is identical, fledgling writers are all too apt to reason, why shouldn’t a single rejection — or two, three, or forty-seven — be taken as if it were the entire publishing industry’s reaction to the book in question?

There’s a very good reason, as it happens: screeners are individuals, with personal opinions. So are agents, editors, and contest judges. Keep sending out your work until you find the one predisposed to love it.

But that didn’t answer the rule-mongers’ question, did it? “That’s all very pretty and inspiring,” they concede. “Does that mean I don’t need to worry at all about Millicent’s pet peeves?”

Well, no — certain pet peeves are shared by most professional readers, simply because they turn up so often in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Spotting even one non-doubled dash on a manuscript page leaves many a Millicent gasping with indignation, for instance; a submission without indented paragraphs renders many positively apoplectic. And if you really want to ruin a pro’s day, try submitting something with unnumbered pages.

Hey, standard format is standard for a reason.

Most of the ire-inducing gaffes above are relatively well-known (but if any of them came as a surprise, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right, if only for the sake of Millicent’s blood pressure). I was delighted to see, however, that our sample page 1 included several of the lesser-known ones. Discussion gold!

Okay, so perhaps delighted isn’t a particularly normal response. Had I mentioned that reading manuscripts for a living radically alters how one reads?

Here is our example again; don your Millicent mask and try to ferret out three common screeners’ pet peeves we have not yet discussed. If you want a hint: two of them are dialogue-related.

page 1 example wrong

How did you do? The third in particular might be a tad hard to spot if you didn’t happen to have spent the last six hours reading first pages; certainly, it would be significantly harder to get excited about it. To give you a sense of how exorcized Millicent might have gotten about all three, allow me to stick a Sharpie in her hand and let her have at it:

page 1 edit 4

Thanks, Millie; why don’t you go score yourself a latte and try to calm down a little? I can take it from here.

Now that we’re alone again, be honest: in your quick scan of the page, had you noticed all of the issues that so annoyed Millicent? Any of them?

If it’s the latter, don’t be embarrassed — very few readers would have, at least consciously, and self-editors. If you’re caught up in the characters’ lifeworld (as Millicent hopes you will convince her to be by the bottom of page 1), none of these questions is likely to occur to you. Let’s take her concerns one at a time, so we may understand why each bugged her.

1. Opening with an unidentified speaker.
I’m really glad that our generous example-provider chose to open the manuscript this way, because it’s a very, very popular choice: depending upon the fiction categories Millicent’s boss represents, she might see anywhere from a handful to dozens of submissions with dialogue as their first lines on any given day. A good third of those will probably not identify the speaker right off the bat.

Why would the vast majority of Millicents frown upon that choice, other than the sheer fact that they see it so very often? A very practical reason: before they can possibly make the case to their respective boss agents that this manuscript is about an interesting protagonist faced with an interesting conflict, they will have to (a) identify the protagonist, (b) identify the primary conflict s/he faces, and (c) determine whether (a) and (b) are interesting enough to captivate a reader for three or four hundred pages. So when they pick up page 1, they’re looking for some pretty specific information.

Given that mission, it’s bound to miff them if they can’t tell if the first line of the book is spoken by the protagonist — or, indeed, anyone else. In this case, the reader isn’t let in on the secret of the speaker’s identity for another 6 lines. That’s an eternity, in screeners’ terms — especially when, as here, the first character named turns out not to be the speaker. And even on line 7, the reader is left to assume that Emma was the initial speaker, even though logically, any one of the everyone mentioned in line 7 could have said it.

So let me ask the question that Millicent would almost certainly be asking herself by the middle of the third question: since presumably both of the characters introduced here knew who spoke that first line, what precisely did the narrative gain by NOT identifying the speaker for the reader’s benefit on line 1?

99% of the time, the honest answer will be, “Not much.” So why force Millicent to play a guessing game, if it’s not necessary to the scene?

Trust me on this one: a Millicent in a hurry tends to dislike guessing games, especially on page 1. Go ahead and tell her who is speaking, what’s going on, who the players are, and what that unnamed thing that jumps out of the closet and terrifies the protagonist looks like. If you want to create suspense, withholding information from the reader is not Millicent’s favorite means of generating it.

That’s not to say, however, that your garden-variety Millicent has a fetish for identifying every speaker every time. In fact, she regards the old-fashioned practice of including some version of he said with every speech as, well, old-fashioned. Not to mention unnecessary. Which leads me to…

2. Including unnecessary tag lines.
Unless there is some genuine doubt about who is saying what when (as in the first line of text here), most tag lines — he said, she asked, they averred — aren’t actually necessary for clarity. Let’s face it, quotation marks around sentences are pretty effective at alerting readers to the fact that those sentences were spoken aloud. And frankly, unless tag lines carry an adverb or indicates tone, they usually don’t add much to a scene other than clarity about who is saying what when.

So why include them, in instances where any reasonably intelligent reader would already be able to figure out who the speaker is?

That’s a serious question, you know. Most editors will axe them on sight — although again, the pervasiveness of tag lines in published books does vary from category to category. Since most adult fiction minimizes their use, novelists who have worked with an editor on a past book project will usually omit them in subsequent manuscripts.

So common is this self-editing trick amongst the previously published that to a well-trained Millicent or experienced contest judge, limiting tag line use is usually taken as a sign of professionalism. Which means, in practice, that the opposite is true as well: a manuscript peppered with unnecessary tag lines tends to strike the pros as under-edited.

Paragraph 2 of our example illustrates why beautifully. Take another gander at it then ask yourself: at the end of a five-line paragraph largely concerned with how Casey is feeling, wouldn’t it have been pretty astonishing if the speaker in the last line had been anybody but Casey?

The same principle applies to paragraph 4. Since the paragraph opens with Casey swallowing, it’s obvious that she is both the speaker and the thinker later in the paragraph — and the next one. (Although since a rather hefty percentage of Millicents frown upon the too-frequent use of single-line non-dialogue paragraphs — as I mentioned earlier in this series, it takes at least two sentences to form a legitimate narrative paragraph in English, technically — I would advise reserving them for instances when the single sentence is startling enough to warrant breaking the rule for dramatic impact. In this instance, I don’t think the thought line is astonishing enough to rise to that standard.)

Starting to see how Millicent considers a broad array of little things in coming up with her very quick assessment of page 1 and the submission? Although she may not spend very much time on a submission before she rejects it, what she does read, she reads very closely.

Sort of changes your mental picture of how and why the average submission gets rejected on page 1, doesn’t it? Professional reading doesn’t miss much. Remember, agents, editors, and their screeners tend not to read like other people: instead of reading a page or even a paragraph before making up their minds, they consider each sentence individually; if they like it, they move on to the next.

All of this is imperative to keep in mind when revising your opening pages. Page 1 not only needs to hook Millicent’s interest and be free of technical errors; every line, every sentence needs to encourage her to keep reading.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of page 1′s primary purpose (at the submission stage, anyway) as convincing a professional reader to turn the first page and read on. In pursuit of that laudable goal, let’s consider Millicent’s scrawl at the bottom of the page.

3. Having enough happen on page 1 that a reader can tell what the book is about.
This is a really, really common problem for first pages — and first chapters of both novels and memoirs, if I’m being honest about it. A lot of writers like to take some time to warm up…so much so that it’s not all that rare to discover a perfectly marvelous first line for the book in the middle of page 4.

Then, too, opening pages often get bogged down in backstory or character development, rather than jumping right into some relevant conflict. US-based agents and editors tend to get a trifle impatient with stories that are slow to start. (UK and Canadian agents and editors seem quite a bit friendlier to the gradual lead-in.) Their preference for a page 1 that hooks the reader into conflict right off the bat has clashed, as one might have predicted, with the rise of the Jungian Heroic Journey as a narrative structure.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Since the release of the first Star Wars movie, it’s been one of the standard screenplay structures: the story starts in the everyday world; the protagonist is issued a challenge that calls him into an unusual conflict that tests his character and forces him to confront his deepest fears; he meets allies and enemies along the way; he must grow and change in order to attain his goal — and in doing so, he changes the world. At least the small part of it to which he returns at the end of the story.

It’s a lovely structure for a storyline, actually, flexible enough to fit an incredibly broad swathe of tales. But can anyone spot a SLIGHT drawback for applying this structure to a novel or memoir?

Hint: you might want to take another peek at today’s example before answering that question.

Very frequently, this structure encourages writers to present the ordinary world at the beginning of the story as, well, ordinary. The extraordinary circumstances to come, they figure, will seem more extraordinary by contrast. Over the course of an entire novel, that’s pretty sound reasoning (although one of the great tests of a writer is to write about the mundane in a fascinating way, I think), but it can inadvertently create an opening scene that is less of a grabber than it could be.

Or, as I suspect is happening in this case, a page 1 that might not be sufficiently reflective of the pacing or excitement level of the rest of the book. And that’s a real shame, since I happen to know that something happens on page 2 that would make Millicent’s eyebrows shoot skyward so hard that they would knock her bangs out of place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? We’re not going to get into the next scene until next time.

So let’s stick to our moral for the day: since submissions and contest entries are evaluated one line at a time, holding back on page 1 might not make the best strategic sense. Remember, Millicent is looking for an interesting protagonist facing an interesting conflict — appearing as soon as possible in the manuscript. You might want to invest some revision time in making sure your first page gives all that to her.

Just a suggestion. Or three. Keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part II: preparing your manuscript for its first target reader

public market sign

Last time, I posted an honest-to-goodness reader’s honest-to-goodness page one and began to examine it as any professional reader — an agent, say, or editor, or contest judge — might. As those of you who joined me in that endeavor no doubt recall with a shudder, what a pro would consider a fairly cursory examination of presentation issues would strike most aspiring writers as a no-holds-barred critique.

Why would I do such a thing to a perfectly nice manuscript, other than to drum up enthusiasm for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest (entry deadline next Monday, in case anybody’s forgotten)? For starters, to encourage all of you self-editors out there to start to look at your work not like a writer, or even like your ideal reader, but like an agency screener.

You know, the person who culls the hundreds of queries and dozens of submissions the average agent receives in any given week down to the happy few that the agent actually has time to read. Here at Author! Author!, that dreaded first line of defense and most critical first reader is known as Millicent.

Learning to read through Millicent’s eyes is an exceedingly useful skill for an aspiring writer to develop; in fact, for a writer intent upon landing an agent in North America, it’s a necessary skill. No matter how delightfully apt a manuscript may be for its intended ultimate readership — you know, the fine folks who are going to buy your book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, take it home, and cherish it for the rest of their reading lives — if a submission can’t please the Millicent screening for the agent of your dreams, you’re bound to be out of luck.

With that dire warning ringing in our collective ears, let’s take another gander at yesterday’s example, shall we?

page 1 example wrong

Last time, I mentioned in passing that the italicized part would raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript. While indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider this correct:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking I should have known. I should have known.

Of course this would happen today.

depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking: I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

or:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

The trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

Bearing in mind, of course, that there are quite a few professional readers out there — yes, including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Reginald!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

There’s another reason an aspiring writer might want to be sparing in his use of italics, especially on page one. It’s very, very popular to use italics on an opening page to highlight a brief opening scene or image.

Everybody knows what I’m talking about, right? In theory, the italics are intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the ACTUAL opening scene that follows immediately thereafter. On the manuscript page, it usually looks a little something like this:

Ima's italics

One often sees this done in published books, right? Unfortunately — feel free to chant along with me now, long-time Author! Author! readers — manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Still more unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit.

The usual result? Well, we saw a bit of it yesterday, didn’t we? Instead of treating the deviation from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters hope. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

In other words, she tends to regard block italicization in much the same way as she would any other deviation from standard format — if she doesn’t happen to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening. As many, many agents do, I’m afraid.

How would that affect how Millicent would read such an opening? 99% of the time, like so:

italicized opening

In response to that vast collective gasp: yes. The vast majority of Millicents will simply skip over italicized opening text, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript.

My, the group’s gasping a lot today. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? Published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

page 1 example wrong

Any luck? Actually, to Millicent’s eye, the problem is pervasive throughout the entire page. Here it is again, with the words that would jump out at her highlighted.

Ima's first with reps

Easier to see the word and phrase repetition now, isn’t it? (Although the slug line seems to have vanished mysteriously in the transition, I notice.) Trust me, Millicent would swoop down on each and every one of ‘em like a bird of prey.

Why is she so much more likely than the average reader to notice word and phrase repetition and be bugged by it? Like most professional readers, Millicent’s eye for redundancy has been sharpened not only by years and years of reading manuscripts, but also by training: textual repetition is one of the first things fledgling editors are taught to spot.

Why might a savvy submitter want to avoid tripping her delicate redundancy sensors on page one? Because of an underlying assumption necessary to justify quick rejections: almost universally, professional readers will assume that the writing on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing throughout the entire book.

Which it usually isn’t, in practice. Most first-time writers improve as they work their way from Chapter One to The End, so it’s not all that unusual for the sentence style and word choice to be quite different in Chapter 2 than in Chapter 18. It’s also quite common for writers to revise sporadically, resulting in a highly polished Chapter 6 followed by a virtually first-draft Chapter 7. And don’t even get me started on the number of submissions in which the first ten pages are impeccable (possibly because their writers had heard someone like me point out that unless the opening pages are buffed to a high shine, Millicent is unlikely to read past them), while the rest of the text remains largely unrevised.

Be that as it may, Millicent has a LOT of submissions to get through in any given day — and it’s her job to narrow the field of applicants for the post of agency client, isn’t it? So while she may decide to keep reading past the bottom of page 1 to see if the writing becomes less repetitious, or more exciting, or more genre-appropriate, or more anything else she knows that her boss is looking for in a new client’s work, structurally, there isn’t a great deal of incentive for her to invest the extra minute or two.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your best interest to revise the opening pages so that they reflect your most polished writing style. If page 1 doesn’t wow Millicent, page 2 may not get a chance to impress her.

Fortunately, redundancy can usually be removed at little or no cost to the meaning of a paragraph, and without even much effort. Take a peek at our example after roughly 43 seconds of revision:

example no reps

Do I spot a few eagerly-raised hands out there in the ether? “But Anne,” a few sharp-eyed souls point out, “that’s not the same text as before — it’s a few lines longer.”

Well spotted, sharp-eyed ones. More space on page 1 to show off your good writing is a dandy fringe benefit that often results from minimizing repetition. Don’t say I never gave you a present.

I have quite a bit more to say about this first page as a submission, believe it or not, but let’s save it for next time. Then, if we’re very brave indeed, we may take the plunge into page 2!

Clearly, we like to live dangerously here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Hey! Do I spy some faint signs of life?

Ste Cecile at Albi

No, that’s not a photo of me convalescing after my recent back injury — I seldom can be spotted sporting a turban. It’s a statue of Ste. Cecile, snapped from the middle of a mob of waist-high French schoolchildren at Albi. As a working writer, I harbor great fondness for Ste. Cecile: even after Roman jailors third attempt to chop her head off (thus the slashes on the statue’s neck), she kept right on talking. She has my vote for patron saint of queriers and submitters, therefore.

Speaking of submissions, I had a bright idea whilst I’ve been lolling about moaning in recent weeks. We had been just wrapping up a nice, meaty series on multiple-protagonist novels with discussion of how to write a synopsis for the tricky things. Just before my back decided to start playing tricks on me, I had promised you an in-depth look at how to write a standard-length synopsis for a super-complicated novel.

A most worthy endeavor, obviously, but equally obviously, one that is going to require some pretty hefty examples. Now, in my ordinary day-to-day life, tossing off a mock synopsis is quick work for me — as I mentioned earlier in the series, it’s a professional skill that becomes honed only with long practice. Trying to repeat the trick whilst on painkillers, however, is another matter altogether.

So rather than hold off on posting further until I have the oomph to pull off that high dive again, I’ve decided to put it on the proverbial back burner for the nonce and dedicate myself to a new series. Something a trifle more conducive to the kind of shorter posts one can write comfortably in bed, as well as one that’s been pressing on my mind lately.

I’m going to be spending the next few days, in short, presenting you with an actual reader’s actual first pages of text, helping you (and the reader kind enough to provide them) see how Millicent the agency screener is likely to respond to various aspects of them. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but never has it seemed like a more valuable endeavor: while I’ve been bedridden, I’ve been re-reading John Steinbeck’s entire literary output, and I wish someone had sat him down for a stern talk about his opening pages. Your garden-variety Millicent of today would not make it past the first page of most of his books.

And it’s not because of the writing. Honestly, TEN PAGES on soil conditions in Salinas before the story starts in EAST OF EDEN, John?

Why use a real, live, feeling aspiring writer’s opening pages for this exercise, you ask, when I generally make up examples from scratch? Well, several reasons, not the least of which I touched upon above: coming up with examples in time-consuming, and in my current condition, much harder than usual. Also — and this is significant for an exercise like this — I’ve been a professional writer and editor for an awfully long time now, and my parents before me; the errors I might make, even for illustrative purposes, might not be the same as those new to the game’s.

Third, I’m hoping by having abruptly selected a reader from amongst those of you who have commented over the last few months, startling that sterling soul by requesting pages out of the blue, and lavishing this level of attention and blog space upon one writer’s efforts, not only to encourage more of you to comment from time to time, but also to enter the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

The deadline of which, incidentally, is a scant week away, in case anyone is wondering. I just mention, because the prize here is a very practical one, quite worth winning: Fab YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I will critique the first pages of the lucky winners’ manuscripts in this very forum in June.

I know what you’re thinking, but this is not one of those annoyingly time-consuming literary contests that require entrants to twist their manuscripts into all sorts of gymnastic poses for submission. All the rules ask you to do here is something most of you have already been doing: present the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages.

Think of it as a pre-Millicent test drive.

Professional feedback comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from pointing out ultra-basic presentation problems (“Um, is there a reason that you’re using 8-point Copperplate Gothic Bold when folks in publishing expect to see 12-point Times New Roman?”) to clarity issues (“Pardon my saying so, but is it really essential to the story not to describe the fellow standing behind your unsuspecting protagonist with an axe?”) to marketing considerations such as hooking the reader’s interest early (“TEN PAGES on soil conditions in Salinas before the story actually starts, John?”) Today, I am going to ease us into manuscript critique in its most simple form: the purely cosmetic.

That’s right, campers: it’s time for another round of Millicent’s Knee-Jerk Reaction Theatre. Ready, set — let’s look for superficial turn-offs!

Before anybody out there dismisses this level of critique as beneath the notice of a serious writer, allow me to point out that the since vast majority of submitted manuscripts get rejected on page 1, it’s poor strategy to ignore the superficialities, as all too many submitters do. Writers may prefer to think that their manuscripts should — and will — be judged purely on the quality of the writing, but since all professional manuscripts look the same way, it’s simply a hard fact of submission that an improperly-presented manuscript is generally dismissed faster than a properly-presented one, even if the writing is identical.

To put it less harshly, a savvy submitter recognizes that an agent or editor can only fall in love with the writing if s/he reads it — and reads it with an open mind. A misformatted manuscript, however, walks into the game with a strike against it.

That’s an important realization, because even aspiring writers familiar with the basics of standard format (and if you do not count yourself among them, I would strenuously urge you to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right without delay) frequently submit manuscripts that would strike Millicent as, well, a tad unprofessional. The most common problems are subtle ones.

So subtle, in fact, that someone who did not read manuscripts for a living might not catch them at all. That’s the case even though we’re days away from even considering the kinds of red flags a writer would usually catch only by reading her submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

How subtle are the formatting issues that might leap out at Millicent from page 1, shouting, “Strike one; no runners on base!” you ask? Well, see for yourself — in the example below, there are no fewer than ten of them, although some Millicents would spot only nine. Take a gander — and if you have trouble reading it at this size, try double-clicking on the image and opening it into its own window or saving it to your hard disk:

page 1 example wrong

How many of them did you catch? To sharpen your eye a little, here is the same page with all of the purely formatting problems corrected. (For your comparing-and-contrasting pleasure, I’ve touched nothing else.)

first page better

Seeing more of them now? If some of these differences jumped out at you, considering that Millicent stares at manuscript pages all day, every day, how many of them do you think she would spot within the first couple of seconds?

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page with her, so to speak, let’s go over the purely cosmetic problems here. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The slug line is in different typeface than the text. (The slug line is in Arial, the body in Times New Roman.)

2. Incorrectly formatted slug line includes author’s first name, instead of just the last.

3. Incorrectly formatted slug line does not include the page number.

4. Incorrectly formatted slug line has a space between the forward slash and the title. The spacing in a slug line should be continuous: Name/Title/#

5. The page number is in wrong place on the page; it belongs in the slug line.

6. Pagination includes the word page. Although many aspiring writers think this looks nifty, a professionally-formatted manuscript would never include the word.

7. There’s an extra space before first word of paragraph 2. (Yes, most Millicents would catch that in either a hard or soft copy submission.)

8. There’s only a single space between each period and beginning of the next sentence. Admittedly, some agents would not consider this improper formatting; check each agency’s submission guidelines. If they do not mention preferring the single space, use two.

9. The narrative uses both the verb thinking and italics to indicate thought, a notorious screeners’ pet peeve.

10. In final line of the page, there are two spaces between considered and traffic. To a professional reader, this is a dead giveaway that the submitter did not proofread in hard copy.

Quite a lot of eyebrow-raisers for such an innocent-looking page of text, isn’t it? That’s how closely agency screeners read — and we haven’t even begun to talk about the writing itself, you will notice. Take heart, though: unless Millicent is having a spectacularly bad day, none of these problems by itself, or even all of them together, is likely to result in an on-the-spot cry of “Next!”

Why not? Well, believe it or not, the first version might be one of the more professional-looking first pages Millicent sees today. Most of the elements of standard format are in fact done correctly here, and it’s relatively free of misspellings and grammatical problems. (Although while we’re being nit-picky, there should be a comma after documents in the last line, and technically, it takes at least two sentences to make a proper narrative paragraph.)

So an optimistic aspiring writer often can — and does — get away with submitting a first page like the former. Most professional readers, including agents, contest judges, and Millicents, are willing to overlook a small cosmetic error or two, just as they tend to discount the occasional typo, provided that it is not repeated in the manuscript. (The first misspelling of a word might legitimately be a slip of a finger; the second indicates that the writer just doesn’t know how to spell the word in question, right?)

It doesn’t take too many tiny problems, however, to render a pro much less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been to a larger problem like an awkward sentence or the appearance of a cliché. And that’s on a good day — do you really want to take the chance that Millicent won’t just have burned her lip on a too-hot latte just before turning to your first page?

I see a forest of hands waving in my general direction. “But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly, “I’m finding this rather depressing. Taken individually, the deviations from standard format we’re talking about are all quite small; I just don’t want to believe that good writing could ever fall prey to what, frankly, looks at first glance like a pretty respectable formatting job. I’m not discounting Millicent’s ability to reject the submission that happens to be in front of her when she scalds herself, but surely nobody concerned really wants aspiring writers to believe that their work could be rejected based on anything but the writing.”

It depends upon whom you ask, actually: I’ve met plenty of screeners — as well as agents, editors, and contest judges, come to think of it — who regard writers that, as they tend to put it, “haven’t taken the time to learn the business,” just aren’t as ready to be published as those who have. Part of working with an agent involves learning how to follow certain rules. It’s not as though any agent worth his salt would submit the first version above to an editor at a publishing house, after all; that would just be self-defeating.

Besides, these days, most good agents see so many cosmetically perfect submissions that they don’t lose too much sleep over rejecting those that are not. Or over Millicent’s having been more critical in the hour after she scalded her lip than on a normal day. They just figure that if a writer has real talent, s/he’ll go away, get better at presentation, and get picked up somewhere else.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, there’s no appeal for Millicent’s decisions: it’s not as though most agencies will run submissions past a second screener if the first did not like it, after all. Good writers are expected to be tenacious — and to take the time to learn how the publishing industry expects manuscripts to be presented.

So instead of regarding presentation as a secondary issue, try to think of paying attention to the cosmetic details as being polite to the person conducting the interview for a job you really, really want. Even if you have good reason to believe that some of the other interviewees are getting away with taking a few liberties, it honestly is in your best interest to be polite enough to show her your writing in the manner that Millicent is accustomed to seeing the best work in your chosen book category presented.

All that being said, did you spot the non-superficial reason this page might engender a knee-jerk rejection, even after just a superficial first glance? (Hint: it’s a marketing issue.)

Any guesses? No? Then let me ask you this deceptively simple question: based on this first page alone, in what book category does this manuscript belong?

It’s not readily apparent, is it? Depending upon the intended category, that could or could not be a problem. If this manuscript were, say, women’s fiction, this first page might not raise Millicent’s overactive eyebrows — but were it a mystery, the lack of species markings might well make her wonder when the mystery’s going to start. Ditto if this were Action/Adventure, Western, any stripe of romance…

Well, you get the picture. Millicent likes to be able to tell if a submission falls into a category that her boss represents — and she likes to be able to tell by the bottom of page 1.

Seem strange that she would want to make up her mind on the subject so quickly? Her reason is very practical, I assure you: since every book category has its own particular style — language choices, conventions, stock characters, etc. — and no agent represents every book category, it can save Millie’s boss a heck of a lot of time in the long run if she weeds out manuscripts that don’t fit comfortably into the category. While many writers legitimately find this professional desire to place their work in a box a trifle maddening, it must be admitted that it’s usually far, far easier for an agent to sell a book if he knows which shelf it might occupy at Barnes & Noble. If any.

Why not wait until, say, page 50 before making that determination? Do you have any idea how many submissions Millicent has to get through this week? It’s her job to narrow the field as quickly as possible. With that in mind, which Millicent do you think is most likely to reject the example above: one whose boss represents mainstream fiction, or one who represents primarily science fiction?

Or, to put it another way, would you or would you not be surprised to learn that the page above is the opening to a fantasy novel?

A word to the wise: if a reader who knows nothing about your book cannot tell by the bottom of page 1 what type of manuscript it is, it’s very much in your interest to revise with an eye toward making the category more obvious.

Don’t those of you who write exciting stories that begin in the everyday, mundane world, then leap into fast-paced action, wish you had heard that salient little piece of advice before you submitted for the first time? Yet I’m not sure how you would have known it — while it’s something that any agented writer could probably have told you, it’s one of those things that it’s just assumed every serious writer already knows.

Case in point: I flatter myself that I write about submission pretty exhaustively here at Author! Author! yet for the life of me, I can’t recall my ever having brought it up before. Strange, but true.

So please join me in a deep and heartfelt shout of gratitude to the reader who was kind enough to let me use this first page. Because frankly, had I not seen the title page, and thus known that this manuscript was intended to be fantasy before I read the first page, I doubt it would have occurred to me mention this extremely common rejection reason.

Already, my tricky strategy for the week is bearing fruit. Tune in next time to see if the trend continues. 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 IV: setting the world in motion

sunshine moving in trees2

No, the photo above isn’t a representation of what a stand of trees might look like through allergy-blurred eyes — although the lilac tree in my back yard has apparently decided that this is the year to make its shot at shattering all previous records for pollen production. It’s a shot of blinding sunlight coming through trees, taken while I was ineffectually exclaiming, “Wait! Slow down! That would be a beautiful shot!”

Sometimes, all you get is a momentary glimpse of what’s going on around you. Blink, and it’s gone.

That’s a darned hard experience to replicate on the page, isn’t it? Particularly in an action scene shown simultaneously from several different perspectives: as tempting as it may be to include blow-by-blow accounts from every relevant point of view, once the reader knows a punch was thrown, an instant replay from another perspective may strike him as redundant — or even confusing.

How often did Sluggo swing? Was the fist that just went by Protagonist #2’s cheekbone the same one that Protagonist #3 just mentioned sending in his general direction, or did it belong to Protagonist #4? And pardon my asking, but did it just take 3/4 of a page of text to show three punches?

Revisers sit in front of action scenes like this, grinding their teeth in frustration. “How on earth,” they cry as soon as they can force their molars apart, “can I clarify what’s going on here without slowing the scene down to a crawl? Perhaps neither Anne nor Millicent the agency screener would notice if I switched the scene to a bystander’s perspective, so I don’t need to deal with the fighters’ points of view until the battle has died down.”

Nice try, teeth-grinders, but trust me, Millicent knows all about that evasive maneuver. And I know you’re far too serious about craft to take the tawdry easy way out of a narrative conundrum.

And to those of you jumping up and down, screaming, “Wait — tell me about the easy way! I long to embrace the tawdry short cut!”, I’m not listening.

I can sympathize, however, with a certain amount of shock at being flung with barely a preamble straight into the heart of our knotty problem du jour. For the sake of those ground-down molars, I’ll back up and ease into it a trifle more gently.

Last time, we discussed means of allowing tight third-person narrative to reflect individual quirks in depicting a particular scene. Rather than the protagonist’s presence or participation alone casting her primary shadow across the scene, I suggested infusing the text with her worldview, unique powers of observation, and other characteristics. This works marvelously as a method of differentiating between multiple protagonists’ sections of a novel, whether it is written in the third or first person.

Actually, it’s kind of a nifty trick in a single-protagonist novel, too, and definitely in a biography or memoir. Whenever the world is being shown from a specific point of view, I think it’s interesting when the narrative reflects the unique observational style of the teller.

Differentiation can get tricky, though, in a book with scads of protagonists. With two or three, the variations in observation can be fairly subtle, but if you try it with twelve, the reader is likely to lose track of whether Penelope’s frequent sneezes are the result of a canary-in-a-coal-mine sensitivity to mold due to that summer she spent on an archeological dig in a swamp, or if that was Tim’s excuse, and Penelope was the one who abhorred grass ever since that terrible day on the football field.

Or maybe it’s just hay fever season. There’s a limit to how many subtleties the reader can reasonably be expected to remember — and we writers tend to forget that.

“What do you mean, Tina’s fatal wool allergy came out of left field in Chapter 26?” we exclaim indignantly when our manuscripts are critiqued. “She cleared her throat twice next to Eliot’s sweater in Chapter 3!”

I hate to admit it, but personal quirks and background dissimilarities can be overdone; a protagonist with 137 pet peeves is probably going to annoy a reader more than one with 13. But now that I’ve gotten you into the habit of looking at your various protagonists’ sections of the text with an eye to varying them, let’s talk about means of increasing individuality in a protagonist’s section of narrative without taxing the reader’s memory banks.

What if, for instance, the vocabulary were quite different in Protagonist A’s sections of the text and Protagonist B’s?

This is a characterization trick lifted from dialogue, of course: no one expects a character with a Ph.D. to speak in the same manner as a character who did not graduate from high school, right? If there are polysyllabic words to be uttered, they’re going to be spilling out of the professor’s mouth.

Indeed — as my fellow Ph.D.s complain amongst themselves early and often — professor characters are often depicted as emitting lecture-quality logic every waking second. Frankly, we real-life professors find this expectation exhausting to contemplate. Even Socrates took some time off from asking annoying questions from time to time.

And look where that got him.

Did you catch the narrative trick I just pulled? I underscored my narrative credibility as a professor by dropping in a philosophy joke. Not a bad investment of just a couple of lines of text, and certainly more interesting for most readers than if I had inserted a five-page essay on the Socratic method.

Or if I had simply started spouting a whole lot of technical terms specific to my former academic field, for that matter. While every profession has its jargon, it doesn’t necessarily render a narrator or speaker more credible to overuse it on the page. What over-reliance upon any field’s jargon is far more likely to produce is in readers is boredom.

Oh, you like it when a mushroom specialist corners you at a party and starts talking spores non-stop? Unless you share her passion for fungi, you’re probably going to be looking to change the subject pretty darned soon.

Because I have lecturing experience, I recognize that the forest of hands waving in the air means that at least some of you have questions about that last observation. (I’m a professional, though; the layperson shouldn’t attempt leaping to that sort of lofty conclusion at home.) Yes, hand-raisers?

“I would be reluctant to include a joke like the one you used above,” they point out, rubbing circulation back into their arms, “even if it conveys something significant about that narrator’s background. The build-up and joke assume that the reader is aware that Socrates went around asking his fellow 5th century BC Athenians probing philosophical questions, eventually irritating them enough that they condemned him to death. Not every reader would know that. But as you may see from the length of this very paragraph, devoting text to explaining the joke would not only slow down the scene already in progress — or even bring it to a screeching halt. So I ask you: is this really effective character development?”

In a word: yes. Moving on…

Just kidding. Actually, the answer depends upon the intended readership for the book: just as it’s safer to assume that 15-year-old readers will recognize current teenage jargon than 50-year-olds (and that the 15-year-olds will find it embarrassing when the 50-year-olds try to sound hip by using it), it’s more reasonable to expect literary fiction readers to catch more historical and literary references than, say, the target audience for terse Westerns. By the same token, a Western writer could get away with presuming that her target readership knew a heck of a lot more about horses than the average reader of literary fiction.

The same holds true for vocabulary choices, of course: since every book category has a pretty well-established reading level, sticking to the one an agent or editor would expect to see in your kind of book just makes good marketing sense. (If you’re not familiar with the expected reading level for your chosen book category, run, don’t walk to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and spend a couple of hours leafing through books like yours, to see what kind of vocabulary they use.) Within those parameters, though, a writer has quite a bit of wiggle room for showing well-read narrators sounding well-read on the page.

In other words: go ahead and let your various protagonists’ speech patterns color the narrative in sections written from their respective perspectives. Just don’t get so carried away with professional jargon that a reader from another field can’t understand what he’s saying — or gives up trying.

This logic is surprisingly infrequently extended to third-person narrative from multiple perspectives. (One sees it applied to first-person narratives more frequently, but then, many first-person narratives are crafted to resemble speech.) But think about it: why wouldn’t a well-read fifth grader’s fine vocabulary extend into her thoughts?

A couple of words of warning about applying this technique to multiple-perspective novel: first, try not to overdo it. If the differences are too extreme, you run the risk of the characters with the smaller vocabularies coming across as a tad dim-witted. Bear in mind that smart people aren’t necessarily well-educated or widely read, after all, and — dare I say it? — not all well-educated people are necessarily smart.

Trust me on this one. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in faculty meetings.

Second, it is very easy to overuse professional jargon. (Wait, where have I heard that before?) Sprinkle it about, by all means, but do be aware that doctors who use the Latin names for common body parts three times a paragraph, emergency room nurses who add, “STAT!” to half their sentences, and lawyers who pepper their conversations and thoughts with whereases and heretofores are a notorious agency screener’s pet peeve.

I just mention. Just because something happens in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in print — or in a submission. Treat the use of jargon associated with particular jobs like any other stereotype: there’s always more to an individual than the obvious.

My next suggestion for individualizing your protagonists’ perspectives is even more fundamental: what if the narrative changed rhythm when the perspective altered?

I’m not talking about anything radical, such as Protagonist A’s sections utilizing exclusively short, declaratory sentences while Protagonist B’s abound in run-ons. (Which I’ve seen in quite a few manuscripts, by the way.) But could the habitual coffee-drinker’s musings pass by the reader like a highly caffeinated freight train, while the obsessively orderly person’s flights of fancy always get cut off short of running amok?

Has some intriguing possibilities, doesn’t it?

The conceivable variations are practically endless — and again, are as useful for constructing dialogue as for narrative. An 80-year-old man with a lung condition would probably speak in shorter bursts than a 25-year-old jogger; differences in lung capacity alone would dictate that, right? Where the speech goes, the thought can surely follow: when the body’s having trouble breathing, wouldn’t you expect that to disrupt, say, lengthy stretches of otherwise uninterrupted thought?

Actually, I would urge you to give some thought into working bodily rhythms into your writing in general; in tight third-person narrative, it’s not done much. There are few novels out there that take situational variations in breathing and heart rate into account at all, even in dialogue during heavy action scenes.

People tend not to have a whole lot of extra breath to talk in the middle of hand-to-hand combat, something screenwriters would do well to remember. Similarly, we might expect a protagonist’s thoughts would tend to run shorter in a moment of imminent crisis than in a moment of calm.

Switching to short, choppy sentences convey a subtle impression of panting breath and elevated heart rate, incidentally, especially if such sentences appear in tandem only in such scenes. Trick o’ the trade.

Just as the best means of catching rhythmic patterns is to read text out loud, the best means of determining what is a realistic bodily response is to act a scene out. Within reason, of course: obviously, if you’re writing about a killer, I’m certainly not advising that you test-drive the mayhem. However, if your protagonist has been carrying a 50-pound suitcase without wheels for 20 pages, your sense of the probable effects upon his body will definitely be heightened if you carry around a heavy suitcase for 10 or 15 minutes.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to test the plausibility of everyday events in your books in general; unverified timing is frequently implausible on the page. You’d be amazed at how many books contain speeches that could not be said within a single breath, for instance, and what a high percentage of exchanges ostensibly between floors in elevators would require three consecutive trips to the top of the Empire State Building to complete.

Admittedly, a writer does occasionally risk astonishing bystanders by this kind of vigorous fact-checking. I once spent a humid Chicago afternoon frightening small children in a park trying to figure out the various body parts that might get bruised if one got jumped from behind while sitting on a park bench. It’s astonishing what one’s friends will do for free pizza, and the scene was better for it.

It’s possible to predict certain reactions without engaging in amateur dramatics, of course. If your protagonist has just chased a mugger for two and half city blocks, or dashed up a flight of stairs because she’s afraid of being late for her first day of work, or flung herself down a manhole to escape the marauding living dead who want to eat her brain, it’s reasonable to expect that her heart will be pounding and her breath drawing short.

No need to recruit the local zombies to ascertain that.

Oh, dear, there are all of those raised hands again. You want to raise a practical difficulty? “I’m open to incorporating any or all of these techniques, Anne, but while we’re talking about action scenes, I want to raise a different sort of practical difficulty. How does one depict an action scene between two people of the same sex without repeating each of their names constantly?”

Wow, that is practical. To make sure everyone knows what the hand-raisers are talking about, let’s take a gander at the combatants in this action-packed paragraph:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. Trevor ducked, avoiding the blow. Herb, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. Trevor leaped onto his back the instant Herb hit the ground, pounding Herb’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” Trevor howled, grinding Herb’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” Herb shouted, flinging Trevor off him.

That’s a whole lot of proper noun repetition, isn’t it? Yet the names could not plausibly be replaced with pronouns without causing abundant confusion:

He pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at him. He ducked, avoiding the blow. Having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, he lost his balance. He leaped onto his back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

“Never!” he shouted, flinging him off him.

Faced with this difficulty, many revisers will leap to compensate. Descriptors could be used to take the place of some of the hims, naturally, but the result is still a bit cumbersome:

Herb pulled the truncheon from his belt and swung it at Trevor. The smaller man ducked, avoiding the blow. The mustachioed aggressor, having thrown his entire substantial body weight behind the swing, lost his balance. The diminutive and swarthy one leaped onto his perplexed left-handed assailant’s back the instant he hit the ground, pounding his brother’s head into the pavement.

“Admit that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp!” he howled, grinding his lifelong best friend and canasta partner’s nose unpleasantly along the sidewalk.

Feels a touch over-explained, doesn’t it? Complex perspective can be very helpful reducing this sort of verbosity.

And you’d thought that I wasn’t going to tie it back to the earlier part of the blog, hadn’t you? Au contraire.

The more deeply the reader is embroiled Herb’s perspective, the more sense it makes to show action and reaction not as external to him, but as part of his rich and varied experience of life.

Okay, so maybe that was overstating it just a tad. But just look at how easily this method clears things up:

His truncheon seemed an extension of his frustration: carrying his entire substantial body weight behind it, it flashed toward Trevor’s face. The wily bastard ducked, avoiding the blow, just as he had dodged every responsibility in their collective lives.

Flailing for balance, Herb felt fists on his back before he hit the ground. What kind of brother pounds your head into wet pavement?

When you’re dealing in enriched perspective, an action scene is never just about the action in it. It becomes another opportunity for character development, for revealed observation, and — dare I say it? — clarifying perspective.

That’s my perspective on it, anyway. 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!