“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part IV: evading the tentacles of the dreaded Millicent-irritating squid

Happy St. George’s Day, everybody! Traditionally, the streets of Barcelona are filled with rose sellers and bookstalls on this day: the custom has long been to give one’s love a rose and a book to mark the occasion.

Why the book? It’s Miguel de Cervantes’ birthday. DON QUIXOTE was one of the first large-scale bestsellers.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d like to share few bits of happy news before I launch into today’s peroration on all things repetitive. First, in recognition of William Shakespeare’s birthday (you still have an hour or so to run out and buy him a present, West Coasters, if you forgot to pick one up when you bought Cervantes’), magnificent historical novelist, lyrical actress, and all-around Bard maven Nicole Galland has written a lovely article on the Huffington Post about why his work remains well worth every English-reading person’s while. Nicely done, Nicki!

(And just between ourselves, Amazon is running an amazing deal right now on her soon-to-be-released novel, I, IAGO: today, they’re offering a whopping 32% off the cover price. Just in case you happened to be looking for a birthday present for anyone.)

As if that weren’t enough to set the Author! Author! masses rejoicing, brilliant fiction stylist and cook extraordinaire (isn’t it fascinating how often the two go hand-in-hand?) Bharti Kirchner’s fifth novel and eighth book, TULIP SEASON has just come out as an e-book, with trade paper to follow soon. This one’s a mystery, and thus a bit of a departure for this well-established literary novelist. Having read a couple of incarnations of this story — oh, you thought that once a writer became a professional, she dropped out of her critique group? — I have to say, I love her voice in the new genre. And that’s saying something, as I consider the ending of her novel Pastries one of my favorite of the last decade of literary fiction releases.

Why? Well, Bharti’s extraordinary eye for nuanced detail and subtle character analysis really shines here. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the publisher’s blurb:

A missing domestic-violence counselor. A wealthy and callous husband. A dangerous romance.

Kareena Sinha, an Indian-American domestic-violence counselor, disappears from her Seattle home. When the police dismiss suspicions that she herself was a victim of spousal abuse, her best friend, Mitra Basu, a young landscape designer, resolves to find her. Mitra’s search reveals glimpses of a secret life involving her friend and a Bollywood actor of ill repute. Following the trail, Mitra is lured back to India where she uncovers the actor’s ties to the Mumbai underworld and his financial difficulties –- leading her into a web of life-threatening intrigue where Mitra can’t be sure of Kareena’s safety or her own.

She had you at Bollywood actor of ill repute, didn’t she? It really is quite a ride.

Third, I decided this very morning that I am going to give in to the collective pleas of no fewer than seven apparently otherwise unrelated readers and run a series on the ins and outs of entering literary contests. Beginning later in this week (oh, you thought I had only one more post’s worth of things to say about structural and conceptual repetition?), I shall be talking at length and in my patented obsessive detail about how to select the contest most likely to recognize your particular writing gifts, how to read contest rules, how to follow them (not always the same thing), and most important of all to your entry’s success, what kinds of things judges seek and deplore in entries.

Having both won a major national writing competition and served often as a judge, I’m here to tell you: this stuff isn’t self-evident. Reading contest rules is an acquired skill.

Or so I surmise from the many, many questions I regularly receive on the subject; I have written about it at length before. As is so often the case, I had responded to the first two such requests this year with a cheerful suggestion that the question-askers check out my earlier posts on the subject, conveniently collected under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY category heading on the archive list at right. By the fifth such question, I started to wonder if it wasn’t time to run an entire series about it again, rather then answering questions piecemeal. Then this very morning, when the seventh request rolled in, it occurred to me to check just how long it had been since I had tackled that Herculean task.

Let me put it this way: the last time I set aside a couple of months to blog about it, the economy was humming along just fine. So was the publishing industry: people were still buying new books in droves. . (One of the seldom-discussed aspects of the book world’s contraction: used book sales never declined; according to all of the data I have seen, they actually went up.) They were just the teensiest bit concerned about the rumored e-publishing phenomenon, but like every other fad, they were pretty confident that it would pass quickly.

It’s time, in short.

To make the timing seem even more apt, I’m going to resurrect my 2008 strategy of picking a specific contest to discuss. Why? Well, it’s always helpful to have a concrete example when talking theory — and, let’s face it, it’s more fun if we’re all working on a project together. This time around, I shall be taking a hard, close look at the entry guidelines for the Words and Music, November 28 to December 2. Dare I hope that I will see some of you accepting top honors there?

Okay, back to our business already in progress: craft. Specifically, that most pervasive of submission bugbears, word and phrase repetition?

Surprised that I have so much to say on the subject? Unfortunately, that’s a reflection of submission reality: just as every spring brings a fresh crop of tulips, similar to last years yet not the same, poor Millicent the agency screener’s inbox is continually refilled with manuscript that repeat themselves. And repeat themselves. And did I mention that they repeat themselves?

Not always as obviously as I just did, naturally — although you would be surprised how often even page 1 of a submission contains the same word or phrase three or four times. Why might that be the case? Quite a few, many, and/or a proportion of the writing public, the pushers of the pen, the haunters of the keyboard seem predisposed, have a tendency to, or just plain enjoy saying the same thing, speaking a similar concept, and stepping into the same river twice. Or thrice, three times, a trilogy. Or just plain throwing caution to the winds, grabbing their destinies with both hands, and jumping in that stream with both feet.

Are you thanking the Muses that most human characters possess only two feet, so the narration could not keep revisiting them until there seemed to be seventeen? I assure you, Millicent would be. She sees enough conceptual redundancy in one day of screening to compile her own dictionary of euphemisms.

And enough repetitive information to drive her to distraction. So does her aunt, our old friend Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. “Why are you telling me this again?” they wail in unison, rending their respective garments. “Are you afraid that I didn’t catch this particular plot point when it first appeared three pages ago? Or do you think I did read it, but I’m just a…”

Because my readership possesses such tender sensibilities, I shall spare you the word those of us who read for a living almost universally apply in these instances. Suffice it to say that it rhymes with squidiot.

As in, “What does this writer think I am, a squidiot?”

Alas for many an otherwise admirably-written manuscript or contest entry, the presumption of squidiocy is a common bugbear for new writers. It’s the squid that whispers in their ears, “Tell, don’t show,” and not just because squids are notorious shortcut-takers. Yes, it’s usually quite a bit quicker and easier to summarize action, dialogue, or emotional response with flat statements — Ambrose was sad. The pair discussed their marital difficulties. Melissa ran up fifteen flights of stairs, turned right, and sent the haunted portrait hurtling to the marble floor below. — rather than showing them through a series of specifics. But convenience is not the squid’s best lure for a rookie writer.

What is? Taunting her with the horrifying possibility that the reader might not draw the correct conclusion.

Has the squid just released a small battalion of you from its capacious arms, or are many of you shouting because you’ve had an insight? “But Anne!” the liberated masses shout. “That’s not what the classic writing advice show, don’t tell means, is it? I’ve always assumed that it referred to the proportion of action to contemplation in the text. Rather than having my protagonist sit around and analyze what’s going on, I’m supposed to stuff my scenes with conflict, right?”

That’s certainly good writing advice, former squid victims, but that’s about avoiding an equally common Millicent-irritant, the passive protagonist. By all means, consider excising scenes in which your protagonist ponders over coffee/tea/a beer/a meal/his cat/the steering wheel of his car what the reader has just seen happen. Ditto with the dialogue in which he explains it all to his best friend/partner on the police force/mother/George, the fellow that lives in his head, because, let’s face it, that’s recapping.

And, frankly, too much recapping can slow a novel’s pace to a crawl. Not to mention endangering Millicent and Mehitabel’s garments. “We just saw this happen!” they moan, shredding their hems. “What kind of a squidiot would I have to be to require a reminder that Hortense fell off a cliff in the previous chapter? In what kind of novel would that not be memorable?”

That’s a different problem than telling the reader what to think about it all, however. Show, don’t tell is what the pros bark at text that consists mostly of summary statements about relationships, activities, emotional states, etc. Instead of setting out a series of actions, revealing gestures, subtly suggestive dialogue, and so forth to demonstrate what is going on, trusting the reader to be intelligent and sensitive enough to draw the correct conclusions from that array of clues, the narrative simply states those conclusions. Or, as is astonishingly common in submissions, both shows the clues and tells the conclusions.

Not quite sure what each option would look like in practice? Okay, here’s a told interaction.

Blue to the bone, Miss M. walked across the room and sat on a tuffet. She was starving. “Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly.

She was startled by the spider that dropped down beside her. He was polite, but he frightened her away.

Not devoid of interest, stylistically speaking, but hardly a subtle demonstration of human-arachnid relations. Here’s that same series events, shown rather than told.

Miss M. dragged her feet, listless, toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach. Halfway across the dusty floor, her legs crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” a spider as big as a Volkswagen said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

Palpating, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye. She wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room.

Makes for more engaging reading, does it not? That’s because the storyline is presented through specifics, not generalities. Yet the intended meaning comes across just the same; the reader is simply presumed to be free enough of pernicious squidiotic influences to be able to follow what’s going on without being told outright.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s allow the dreaded assumption of squidiocy to pervade the narrative. Here’s what might happen if the squid persuaded our example-writer that Millicent could not be relied upon to conclude that two plus two might render something in the neighborhood of four.

Miss M. dragged her feet because she was listless. She was headed toward the kitchen, nearly deafened by the rumbling of her stomach; she was hungry. That trip took her halfway across the dusty floor, where her legs gave out beneath her, as she was tired. Thank goodness, a tuffet was handy, so she sat on it.

“Where are my curds and whey?” she called crossly into the kitchen, where her fellow fable inhabitant was cooking. That’s what kitchens are for, in case you didn’t know. “Dag nab it, Goldilocks, you were supposed to have dinner ready an hour ago. I am hungry, so I would like to have it sooner.”

A cold and slimy leg tapped her on the shoulder. It belonged to a spider as big as a Volkswagen hanging over her, attached by a thin strand of web from the chandelier. “Excuse me,” it said, “but I believe that’s my seat.”

She reacted with horror. Palpating, her heart beating fast, she watched the venom form on its fang, threatening to drop into her eye, where it might poison and even kill her. Fearing for her life, she wrenched herself off the tuffet and fled the room to the kitchen, where her friend was. Goldy might save her; she had bear-fighting experience.

A trifle over-explained, isn’t it? Cue the garment-rending: “What does the writer of CHARACTERS FROM THE NURSERY IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR think I am? A — wait for it — squidiot?

No, Millicent and Mehitabel, the writer of that last example or any of the hundreds of thousands like it you have seen does not think you are a squidiot (although s/he may harbor that suspicion about the end reader). In all probability, s/he merely thought s/he was being thorough.

Or that the phrasing was so nice that it bore inclusion. Or because another part of the scene/chapter/book was running long, and the writer thought that s/he should bulk this part up for balance. Or — and this motivates writers more often than any of us care to admit — s/he just liked the way it sounded and/or looked on the page.

Unfortunately, writers often like the look of certain phrases a little too much — and not necessarily, as most professional readers presume, because they simply love the sight of their own words on the page so much that they cannot bear to cut a single one of them, or because they are so arrogant about their talent that they believe no one will care if they reuse text or concepts, as many contest judges reluctantly come to believe.

I think there is something else going on here, benign in intent but inadvertently harmful to the texts in question. I illustrate the phenomenon with a parable.

Around this time last year — the tulips had just begun blooming, as I recall, in slightly inaccurate salute to St. George — I was puzzled into wakefulness by my significant other’s waving a soy latté and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery had opened in our neighborhood, and he’s terrified that it will go out of business without our daily support. A reliable source for Black Forest cake and hot dogs baked into the middle of pretzel dough is not to be taken for granted, after all.

Now, I’m as fond of a good pretzel as the next person, but at 8 a.m., I must confess, my tastes run much more to sleep. If I must be awake, a cup of tea is more my cup of tea. Even if it were not, obtaining mustard-laden foodstuffs would not be my first order of business before, say, five p.m. Nor is rock salt my favorite pillow covering, given my druthers.

Rick, however, subscribes to the surprisingly pervasive school of thought that holds what a person has said she liked once, ever, will come as a pleasant surprise to receive at any randomly-selected moment for the rest of her life. He’s the type of person that will give an 87-year-old a teddy bear for her birthday, because she collected them when she was 50, still liked them at 69, and smiled wanly when he presented her with one while she was blowing out 86 candles. Never mind that every surface in her apartment is covered with the darned things: she liked getting one once, therefore she must enjoy the replication of the experience in perpetuity.

He’s presuming, in short, that she’s the kind of squidiot who enjoys books that explain basic concepts over and over to her. “Show me that generic dialogue one more time,” he must imagine her begging. “The part where everyone is so polite that the characters are indistinguishable from any other people on the planet.”

That being his view of humanity, I suppose I should not have been surprised that his response to my expressing surprise at the advent of a warm pretzel in my mouth was that I had apparently enjoyed a remarkably similar pretzel only two afternoons before. Which, of course, would render it even less likely that I would want another one now, but just try explaining that to a kindly soul in the clutches of a manipulative squid.

The pretzel was turning out to be pretty tasty, though, so rather than take the time to explain at length that piling on more of a good thing does not necessarily improve, well, anything, I decided it would be the better part of valor to thank him graciously and bear my unusual breakfast into a more appropriate environment for consuming something warm and squishy. As I fled, I marveled at how, once again, the muses had tumbled all over themselves to provide me with a delightfully apt metaphor for a craft issue you and I were already discussing.

Oh, wasn’t the parallel instantly self-evident? Allow me to recast it as a self-editing aphorism for the ages, then: what might read beautifully as a stand-alone sentence may not work as well within the context of a page of text. Varying word choice and sentence structure will usually provide the reader with a more pleasurable reading experience than a narrative’s insisting that if something looked good on the page once, it will necessarily look great if it’s repeated.

Resist all sea creatures that tell you otherwise. Millicent and Mehitabel will thank you for it.

Again, I’m sensing that for some reason best known to yourselves, a hefty proportion of my audience would like to see a concrete example of the phenomenon — nay, perhaps several — so you may recognize it in its natural habitat. It comes in a variety of stripes. There’s the version in which favorite phrasing and/or sentence structure is repeated close together, often for rhythmic effect:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Or, as Millicent and Mehitabel would see it:

What did she want? Mostly, she knew what she didn’t want. Snow White had had it with dwarves. She had had it with princes. Heck, she had even had it with being a princess.

All she wanted, all she ever had wanted, was to be wanted. What was wrong with wanting that?

Just a touch term-repetitious, is it not? Ditto with the sentence structure. Either can induce garment-rippage, I’m sorry to report.

“I get that the writer wanted to establish a rhythm here,” Millicent mutters, “but what kind of a squidiot would have a vocabulary this small? I certainly don’t, and I doubt the readers of a book like this will, either.”

Don’t believe that an isolated and obviously purposeful repetitive pattern would rise to the level of clothing endangerment? Okay, what if the manuscript in question also exhibited another ubiquitous stripe of repetition, tactic reuse? 37 pages after our last example, this gem accosted our Millie’s weary peepers.

Rapine was so tired of indecision, tired of equivocation, tired of not being able to make up her mind. She didn’t really know what she wanted out of life, but she had reached some conclusions about what she didn’t want. She wanted to be free of the tower. She wanted to be free of her Guardian Witch. But mostly, she wanted to be free of the crushing weight of all that hair.

All she wanted, all she had wanted since she was sixteen, was a sharp pair of scissors. What was wrong with a girl’s wanting a new hairstyle? It’s not as though her future depended upon sporting two-story locks.

Starting to get to you a little, or is the squid still murmuring in your ear that this is just an example of a unique voice demonstrating its uniqueness at two different points in the text? Sorry, Squidbo, but repeating the same words and structures over either the course of a paragraph or the course of a book is the opposite of original: it’s a style choice Millicent and Mehitabel see every day. Imagine, then, the state of their clothing after encountering this gem 153 pages later.

“How dare you accost me?” the first little pig said quavering under the remains of his straw house. “What you want of me that could not have been equally well accomplished by knocking politely?”

The rather large and certainly evil wolf scratched his furry head. “Oh, what do any of us want? To be wanted, I suppose.” He flopped down on the scattered straw. “Man, I’m depressed.”

Piggie rooted his way through the debris to sit by the wolf’s side. “I hear you, Wolfie, but had it ever occurred to you that we might all feel that way? That it might be the fairy tale condition? That it might even be perfectly normal not to know what you want?”

“Ah,” the wolf said, thoughtfully buttering the top of the pig’s head, “but we all know what we don’t want. We don’t want hate. We don’t want war. And as God as my witness, I don’t ever want to be hungry again.”

Is that pretzel starting to taste a little stale? Or would you like another one? No? How about now?

What’s that huffing and puffing I hear out there? Is someone trying to get into my house, or do a few of you want to make a collective observation? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who have not reread your manuscripts recently object, gnawing your fingernails, “this last one isn’t very similar to the first two. Certainly not garment-rendingly similar. I’ll give you that the level of word, phrase, and sentence structure repetition is a bit extreme in the first two examples, but presumably, they didn’t bug M & M too much to read on. Aren’t you picking nits here?”

It’s my job to pick nits, rereading-avoiders. The same might be said of Millicent and Mehitabel. Which is why I can assert with confidence: in a submission, that last passage might as well have been stamped in bright red ink: DITTO. Not only is the trope about knowing and not knowing one’s own desires conceptually redundant (and, let’s face it, not all that original in the first place), but the galloping three-part sentence structure gets a trifle dull to read. At minimum, it encourages the eye to skim.

Admittedly, though, that might not strike writers less eagle-eyed than your good selves. Let’s take a peek at another common species of structural repetition, to see what too-similar sentence structure too close together on a page can do to even a conscientious eye. (Yes, yes, I know: body parts seldom have their own independent motivations. The squid made me do it.)

This time, try our trick of backing up from the computer, then walking slowly toward the screen. As soon as the words come into focus, try reading the following as fast as you can.

“Oh, go away,” Beauty moaned, pulling a silken pillow over her head, “and take your pruning shears with you. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

“But I fought my way through the briars for you, and I climbed over a fence,” the prince protested. “A stone wall blocked my path, and a pit of snakes slowed me down. Brickbats the size of baseballs beat upon my head, and a dragon singed my toes. Can’t you even make the effort to roll over and look at me?”

Angrily, she complied. “Look, buddy, I don’t know what manners are like where you come from, but in these parts, it’s considered rude to barge into someone’s chamber and start slobbering all over them. Can’t you make any allowance for local mores?”

“But I swam the moat and scaled the castle wall! I toted that barge and lifted that bale. I got a little drunk and I landed in jail.” He clutched at his head. “No, that’s not right. Can’t you see I’m exhausted here?”

Beauty tossed a pillow at him. “Try taking a nap. That’s what I’m going to do.

Notice any visual patterns? All of those rhetorical questions beginning with can’t you, for instance — did your eye try to skip directly from one capital C to the next, without reading what came between? And what about the fact that almost every sentence the prince uttered (as opposed to his stab at rhetorical question-asking) was structured identically: I did X and I did Y? Didn’t all of those ands distract you?

Okay, maybe they didn’t; the squid may have been living with you a bit too long. (You know what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests, right? They both begin to stink after three days. And if you think that was a long way to go to make an analogy, well, you have a point, but you wouldn’t believe how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter this kind of failed humor attempt. The squid is almost as fond of telling writers they are funny as it is of urging writers to explain the obvious.) You must admit, though, that so much structural repetition quickly became pretty boring to read.

And that goes double for concept repetition, even over the course of a fairly lengthy run of text. Or are you saying that you don’t wish I would stop harping on the squid?

The same holds true, believe it or not, with repetitive characterization, recycling the same descriptors or actions every time a particular character sets foot in a scene. Our squiddy friend often tries to convince aspiring writer’s that’s a good idea. Many’s the manuscript in which the hero’s sidekick utters something like, “Well, beats me!” every time the pair meets a challenge, or in which the heroine’s sister sneezes every time a window opens. That makes the character in question memorable, right?

Perhaps, but not necessarily in the way you might hope. As a tactic, this stripe of conceptual repetition seldom works on the page. Trust me, by this late date in literary history, any reasonably experienced Millie or Mehitabel will already have seen thousands of characters announce themselves through personal stock phrases and/or activity tics that this characterization will strike her as neither effective nor amusing.

So how will it strike them? As redundant. And, if the dialogue keeps throwing around a stock phrase, repetitive as well.

At the risk of seeming to beat a dead horse, cross the same river twice, and not learn anything from experience, may I add that the same principle applies to retreads of descriptions, reused metaphors and too-similar similes? I’m not just talking about rhapsodizing about every flower in a garden-centered romance as fragrant as a breath of spring or consistently referring to the protagonist’s nefarious boss’ face as frog-like. Although that is indeed annoying for the reader: if you’d like Millicent and Mehitabel to remain fully clothed, varying your descriptions is a good place to start.

No, I’m warning you against waxing poetic about the wolfish fierceness of Brent’s eye on page 147 if you have already treated the reader to observations on the almost lupine ferocity in his eyes on page 83 and its angry canine expressiveness on page 52. Especially when the reader was assured on page 10 that his eyes held an ferocious, almost feral expression reminiscent of a wolf, and the book opened with a lengthy description of an eye in close-up. A distinctly wolfy eye.

“Yes, yes,” Mehitabel sighs, glancing sorrowfully at her shredded blouse. What make those claw marks, some sort of werewolf? “We all get that you’re making a point here: the eye in question is darned wolf-like. I got that the first time you mentioned it. How much of a squidiot would I have to be still not to get it by the fifth time that parallel appears on the page?”

Good question, Hitty. Perhaps squidiocy knows no bounds.

Something else that knows no bounds: professional readers’ astonishment at how many submitters and contest entrants apparently don’t read their own writing closely enough to notice that the same points, phrasing, and metaphors crop up again and again. People who read for a living tend to have quite retentive memories, especially for text. It’s flatly flabbergasting to us that a good writer would not remember having come up with a spectacular phrase, description, or parallel.

But many good writers suffer from phrase amnesia, apparently. Or so the squid would lead us to believe.

If we can convince the big guy to squiggle out of the room for a moment, I’d like to talk to you seriously about the usual result of listening to his blandishments: rejection. Just as using the same (or very similar) phrasing in three paragraphs on page 1 will generally discourage Millicent from turning to page 2, repeating phrases, dialogue, sentence structures, or even imagery too often over a long stretch of text can also lead a manuscript to the same grisly fate.

And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, it sometimes does not take a great deal or very flagrant redundancy to send a submission skittering into the rejection pile. Remember, screeners have to cover a lot of manuscripts in a workday. Once a text has established a repetitive pattern, can you really blame Millie for deciding pretty quickly that the rest of the book will continue it?

Or, to drag one of our running analogies back into the narrative: if Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she is likely to take it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She will seldom feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm it.

Why? Because she’s not a squidiot. She can learn from experience — and remember what she has already read.

More on structural repetition follows on the morrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXIII, and Structural Repetition, part X: a parting glance before we move to pastures new

Are you still palpitating over that false suspense I managed to build up by the end of yesterday’s post, campers? Or is that heavy panting I hear all of you who are planning to give verbal pitches this summer tumbling onto my virtual doorstep, breathlessly eager to begin our long-anticipated Pitchingpalooza bright and early tomorrow?

Well, it probably won’t be bright and early, unless you are prone to measure such things by moonrise, rather than sunrise; tomorrow is going to be a rather full day. But I shall be launching our latest ‘Palooza, never fear.

“Um, Anne?” the more pacing-minded among you murmur, tapping your watches meaningfully. “Is it my imagination, or did you just extend the false suspense about today’s promised professional readers’ pet peeve by another two whole paragraphs by the simple expedient of digressing into another topic?”

Quite right, pace-minders — and you lengthened it by another paragraph through pointing it out. Now, I’m stretching it to four. Whee! We could keep this up for hours.

But we won’t, because we’ve all gotten the message by now, right? When our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, picks up a page 1, she expects the story (or argument, in the case of nonfiction) to get going right away. When the opening lines dither, evade, and generally avoid leaping right into the meat of the story, she has been known to become just a trifle impatient.

“What is this story about?” she fumes over her latte. “And why isn’t this writer getting on with it?”

Certainly an understandable reaction — and if it isn’t, I can only advise you to go back and read the first four paragraphs of this post again. Perhaps it’s the circles in which I move, but personally, I’ve never met a Millicent — or agent, editor, or contest judge, for that matter — who didn’t share this preference for a book’s opening to get on with it, already. Rarely, if ever, does one hear a professional reader say, “I liked that book, but do you know what would have made it better? A slower page 1. Heck, it would have benefitted from not beginning the central story at all until, oh, page 12 or so.”

I bring this up not only because a page 1 that drags is very frequently enough to trigger rejection — yes, even if the writing that lulls the reader along is beautifully constructed — and this will be my last post in our long-lingering Pet Peeves on Parade series. No, I’ve treated you to this last-minute admonition as a segue into one of the most important rules for a revising writer to remember: just as each authorial voice is individual — good authorial voice, anyway — so is each writer’s pattern of problems. Some very talented writers just can’t manage to get their stories started until page 34; others use and in every other sentence, and still others are purely incapable of remembering the difference between there, they’re, and their. Some rechristen their characters every thirty pages, then forget to go back and change earlier names; some meant to do background research on their protagonist’s mother’s job as a beekeeper, but never seemed to get around to it.

Yes, falling prey to any or all of these tendencies could result in Millicent’s shouting, “Next!” over your submission. You could waste endless energy worrying about that outcome. But rather than fearing her ire or resenting the professional reader’s notoriously sharp eye, may I make a suggestion for a better use of your time? Why not devote yourself to learning what your personal writing patterns are, and figuring out which ones you like enough to keep?

After all, there is no secret formula for writing success: what works for one story will be appallingly inappropriate in another, and vice versa. A thoughtful writer often experiments with a number of different voices, literary devices, and writing styles before settling on the best fit for her book. That’s healthy and a necessary part of a good writer’s learning process — hey, nobody is born knowing every craft trick in the book — but it’s vital to get into the habit of re-reading one’s own manuscripts (ideally, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course) with an eye to figuring out which of those experiments are worth incorporating into the book’s overall voice.

Why? Chant it with me now, those of you who have been intrepid enough to follow this series all the way through to the bitter end: because the hallmark of a really good authorial voice is consistency.

That’s not going to happen all by itself, you know — but you’d be surprised at how many submitters seem to act as though it would. As Millicent would be only too happy to tell you if you take her out for a latte (you think it’s easy to stay awake through all of those slow openings?), submissions and contest entries that begin in one voice and switch to another 2, 10, or 100 pages in are almost as common as manuscripts that have no distinctive voice at all.

It may seem self-evident, but in order to clarify your authorial voice or make it consistent across a manuscript, you’re going to need to recognize what it is. How are you going to know what’s good about your writing if you don’t read it? And reread it with each subsequent draft? Not only to catch your personal pattern of mistakes, but to learn what you sound like at your best.

“That’s a lovely sentiment, Anne,” the clock-watchers we met above chime in, “and I’m sure it’s practical advice, well worth heeding. But haven’t you also just distracted us from the fact that you STILL haven’t filled us in on the identity of the Millicent-baiter you teased us about on Monday? Jeez, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have revealed the culprit by now.”

Quite right, pacing-minders. The notorious species of structural repetition that causes professional readers to gnash their teeth and mutter under their breath is — wait, Millie, put down that ice pick! Help! Hel…

Just kidding. You watch-tappers didn’t think you were going to walk away unscathed after the Hitchcock crack, did you?

Actually, one eagle-eyed reader delved into her own manuscript and diagnosed this dreaded form of repetition for herself. Kudos to intrepid Anne A. for bringing it up in the comments a couple of months back:

I’d been looking back at my writing and trying to get rid of my characters’ excessive nodding, shrugging, and looking…especially looking. I’m having a lot of trouble with the looking.

I’ve found that I tend to use looking as a cue in the dialogue for whom a particular phrase is targeted; that is, there are four or five characters standing around and if one character says something directed specifically to another (e.g., “Can you fight?”), I have the speaker look at the target first. I’m finding these terribly difficult to get rid of, because without them the conversation makes little sense.

Any advice on how to handle this? It appears I cycle through, in decreasing frequency: “looked to”, “turned to”, “said to”, and direct address by name. I have a terrible feeling that all of these sound far too repetitive.

We have a winner: looked is one of the most frequently repeated words in manuscript submissions. If I had a nickel for every time I had spotted look, watch, saw, etc. on the manuscript page, well, I’d have a heck of a lot of nickels.

I’m not talking about enough to buy my own publishing house, mind you. Don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking about enough nickels to build a publishing house from sub-basement to rafters entirely out of the things.

Why is look so pervasive? Well, aspiring writers rely upon it, and upon vision-related verb phrases in general, quite heavily, and not always because most human beings glean most of their information about the world around them through their eyes. Often, characters — particularly protagonists — will look things as a means of introducing those things into the narrative. Essentially, the character’s eyes act like a laser pointer, directing the reader’s attention someplace specific. Lookee:

“Oh, I give up,” Albert said crossly. “I’m tired of trying to find that last Easter egg. It can rot, for all I care.”

Sharon cast her eyes around the room, taking in the disordered bookcase, the emptied-out desk drawers, and the overturned couch. She saw no trace of an eggshell of any sort.

Effectively, Sharon is acting as the reader’s eyes in this passage: she moves her eyes, and we are shown objects. Although she is acting, she is passive; she’s not commenting upon those objects — say, drawing the conclusion that Albert is not a particularly well-organized searcher or that the hotel’s maid is likely to find his pastime annoying — nor is she changing the situation through doing anything like knocking over a bookcase herself. She’s not so much advancing the scene as allowing herself to be used as a narrative device.

That’s good news for the self-editor, believe it or not. Instead of showing us the room via a seeing-eye Sharon, the reviser can radically reduce the number of looking references by simply showing what is in the room. That would free up Sharon to engage in activities of her own.

Albert sat in the midst of chaos of his own making. He had disordered the bookcase, emptied out several well-packed desk drawers, and upended the couch. “Oh, I give up. I’m tired of trying to find that last Easter egg. It can rot, for all I care.”

“And I’m tired of cleaning up after you.” Slowly, Sharon withdrew a brace of pistols from her fashionable purse. “We duel at dawn. The maid has offered to be my second.”

Another popular use for looking verbs is to remind the reader from whose perspective she’s approaching the story. This is particularly common in first-person or tight third-person narratives. As in:

I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the hopeful buds on the green trees; they made me sad.

That’s one way to alert the reader to the existence of the buds on the trees and the beauty of the sky — which is, we are told explicitly, blue, as opposed to all of those other colors beautiful skies are always sporting — but it’s not the only narrative possibility, and usually not the most imaginative one. It also slightly blurs the author’s intention: is the reader supposed to concentrate upon the fact that the trees are budding hopefully, or the fact that our narrator saw the buds and projected hope onto them?

Even if the image hitting the narrator’s cornea actually were the most important aspect of this particular sentence — in this example, it isn’t — often, the point of the protagonist’s looking at things is not the action itself, but to alert the reader that the objects being seen exist. Unless this device is used very sparingly, though, most readers will tire pretty quickly of being told over and over again that the protagonist is — stop the presses — seeing or noticing everything around her.

Hard to blame the reader for that, you must admit. From his point of view, it’s self-evident: the object is present in the environment, so naturally, the protagonist sees it. So?

Millicent’s reaction, predictably, is quite a bit less forgiving. “Stop telling me over and over that the protagonist is seeing things!” she will mutter, reaching for her third latte of the afternoon. “You don’t need to keep reminding me of the narrative perspective!”

So what’s a reviser to do with this type of Millicent-annoying look? Cut ‘em without mercy. With a little careful planning, it’s almost always possible simply to have stimuli external to the protagonist just show up, without reminding the reader that the players in the scene have seen them or having the protagonist acknowledge their existence.

Fringe benefit: because this approach encourages the things in question to be more active, the result is often a more vibrant narrative. Take a peek:

The sun shone in a cloudless sky, sending a caressing warmth to encourage the hopeful buds on the green trees. Their very exuberance made me sad.

Anne A’s concern sounds like combination of these two types of looking patterns, a mélange that used to be quite widespread in YA and many categories of genre fiction. In this combo, not only do the characters’ eyeballs serve as the narrator’s means of calling the reader’s attention to something in the physical environment as a sort of, “Hey, you — notice at that!” substitute — those busy, busy peepers also provide the transition between description (often presented as the result of observation) and the next set of actions.

What might that look like on the page, you ask? Let us turn to our next example. While I’m at it, I’ll toss in a little name repetition, since Anne A. mentioned that it was one of her personal bugbears.

Helene looked around the room. Not much there; the occupants must have moved out in a hurry. Suddenly, she saw a glint of silver on the mantelpiece.

She turned to Karen. “Look, Karen! Could that be Aunt Monica’s long-lost broach, the one we have been seeking for hours? If it is, maybe we will be able to figure out how to open its secret compartment and find the combination to the wall safe our beloved aunt told us three times a week throughout our collective girlhood was stored there.” She looked to her cousin for confirmation. “Well? Is it her broach?”

Karen picked up the round pin, examining it. “Possibly, Helene. Strange…”

Helene looked at her cousin expectantly. “What’s strange?”

Karen glanced nervously back toward the door. Did she hear movement out there? “Oh, that the search party, the militia, and the bloodhounds would have missed its being in such an obvious location.”

As you may see — looking verbs are addictive, aren’t they? — it’s not difficult for this type of looking to turn into Hollywood narration, dialogue in which the speaker tells the hearer things both parties already know, purely to convey the information to the reader. Like most dialogue plagued by this phenomenon, this passage benefits from trimming it. All of that visual activity could easily go, too, making room for some more revealing details or more action. (Why didn’t Helene pick up the darned broach herself, if she was so interested in it?) Also, if we really put our editorial minds to it, we could probably stop our heroines from squawking their names at each other constantly like hyacinth macaws.

The room’s dark wood paneling emphasized how quickly the former occupants had decamped. Dust outlines showed where a sinuously curved sofa, an ornate-footed chair, an old-fashioned two-sided partner desk had rested for decades. Only the mantelpiece seemed to have been cleaned within the last year. Silver glinted against the mahogany.

“Aunt Monica’s broach!” She dashed across the room, but Karen beat her to it.

Her cousin ran her fingertips across the polished surface. “How could it be this shiny, if it’s been lying here for a year?”

Helene completed the thought: “And why would everyone else who’s traipsed through here miss it? This was planted!”

Another tendency to keep an eye out for (oh, you think it’s easy to keep coming up with these?) is looking used as a stand-in for other, more interesting activity. It’s indigenous to recently revised manuscripts, as a means of identifying speakers without cluttering up the dialogue with all of those tag lines that graced the first draft. Unfortunately, not every alternative to he said makes for particularly scintillating reading.

Art looked askance at his adopted brother. “You’re not afraid, are you, Kay?”

Kay glanced at the dragon breathing fire nearby. Surely, any sane human being would be afraid. “Not if you will hand me that sword over there on your right. No, farther, next to the tumbledown shack in which that strange old man lives. That’s it, right next to the bronze chicken our grandmother smelted in her dotage. Oh, now you’ve gone too far. Don’t you see it there, beside that gently rippling stream?”

Art recoiled at the sight of it. “You mean the sword stuck in the stone?”

Here, the narrative falls into another Millicent-annoying trap: presentation of the physical environment not via explicit description, but by talking about it as though the narrator (or in this case, the character Kay) and the reader were watching a film of the scene together. Rather than giving us enough detail to be able to picture it as the writer imagines it, we’re left to guess what type of landscape could possibly contain all of those disparate elements.

And why might that narrative choice irritate Millicent? Sing it out loud and clear, campers: it’s the writer’s job to convey a sense of place, not the reader’s job to fill in descriptive details.

Another extremely common use of looked is as a substitute for showing emotional reactions. As any Millicent who has been at it for a while knows to her cost, aspiring writers just love having characters look at one another instead of evincing a more revealing response to something that has just happened.

All of a sudden, the wind chime over Violet’s left shoulder began ringing violently; Llewellyn’s chair seemed to be slipping sideways beneath him. They looked at each other.

“What’s happening?” Violet cried.

Doesn’t add all that much to the scene, does it? That’s because from the reader’s perspective, the mere fact that Violet and Llewellyn chose that moment to train their eyeballs on each other isn’t all that illuminating. Described this flatly, it’s such a generic act that mentioning it doesn’t either advance the plot or reveal character. It begs the question: how did they look at each other? Why did they look at each other?

Okay, so that was two questions. Here’s a third: is there something else that one or both of them could do or say here that would do a better job of advancing the plot and/or revealing what these people are thinking or feeling in this particular moment?

And, of course, there’s the ever-popular self-sufficient glare:

Not looking where he was going, Armand tripped over Patrice’s extended feet. She shot him a look.

Again, what kind of look? What did she intend it to convey, and was it in fact an accurate external representation of her internal mental processes? And while we readers are asking so many questions, why on earth didn’t the writer save us all this trouble by coughing up a substantive description of a meaningful response in the first place?

Be on the lookout, so to speak, for versions of she looked away, a sentence widely used as shorthand for a character’s conscious attempt to avoid conveying emotion to another character. While flesh-and-blood people do actually look away from one another from time to time, and for that very reason, this phrasing, too, can start to feel pretty redundant if characters do it very often.

At the risk of giving away a trade secret, looking away is also not usually the most interesting reaction a character can have to a stressful situation. Frequently, this action is a drama-killer, a means of allowing a character to avoid a direct confrontation. That may be desirable in real life, but since Millicent likes to see conflict on every single page of a novel or memoir — you knew that, right? — do you really want to squander a golden opportunity for injecting more of it into your story?

In short, you’re going to want to take a close look at all of those looks, evaluating on a case-by-case basis. Each time it appears, ask yourself: is this an effective way to convey the meaning I want to the reader, or is this just shorthand? Is it a stand-in for something else, a more revealing action, perhaps, or more interesting possibility? Would the plot or characterization would benefit from a different kind of sentence?

What you should most emphatically not do, however, is simply do a search for the word and cut every use indiscriminately. You’re going to want to exercise your judgment — always bearing in mind, of course, that the reader cannot read your mind, and thus may not interpret shorthand in quite the way you intended. You can’t blame her for that: since all she knows about the story you are telling is what the narrative shows and tells her, if you don’t fill in the details, she has to rely upon her imagination.

Don’t make me start the chanting again. You know the tune by now, right?

Remember, too, that what might work perfectly well in an individual sentence may well become a distracting pattern over the course of a paragraph, page, or even scene. Look is a sneaky one; it is used in so many context to mean so many things. To sharpen your eye to its many means of imbedding itself in text, let’s take a gander at few frolicking in their natural habitat.

He looked at me passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

Quickly, I looked down at the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, Didier.

“Go?” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

I looked up. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Taken individually, each of these uses of look is perfectly legitimate. But the problem here isn’t just the word repetition — it’s that looking is acting as a stand-in for a whole lot of potentially interesting human interaction. Over and over and over again.

Don’t look away — we already know what do in this situation, right? When confronted with characters merely looking in response to stimuli, we ask: could they have more character-revealing (or situation-revealing) responses?

The possibilities are endless, of course — which is precisely why I’m a big fan of this particular revision strategy; it can open a simple scene up in some fascinating ways. For instance:

He kissed my hand passionately. “But I want you to marry me, Mary!”

I abruptly became absorbed in studying the fringe decorating my skirt. “I think you should go, Didier.”

“Go?” His tone implied that I’d just asked him to leap off a fifty-foot cliff. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

So much for sparing his feelings. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

Is everyone comfortable with the prospect of tackling all of those looks in context, retaining some, and coming up with interesting and creative substitutes for others? Good. Now that you’ve started thinking about revising with your reader’s reaction in mind, let’s go back and apply the principles we’ve been discussing to the problem of proper noun repetition in a manuscript.

Oh, did you think that you were through with practical examples, because we were so close to the end of this series? Not a chance — over the past few weeks, we have established a method for dealing with word repetition. Now that we have added the last tool, placing ourselves behind the reader’s spectacles in order to figure out whether the over-used word in question is serving the narrative well, to our writer’s tool belt, aren’t you just dying to trot out the whole set of wrenches?

I’m going to take that look you’re all giving me as a yes. Perhaps if I’m really lucky, you’ll exchange glances. Maybe even meaningful ones.

Suppose for a moment that in mid-revision, you have suddenly become overwhelmed with doubt: have you been over-using proper names? Rather than panic in the face of such a dreadful possibility, you know precisely what to do: first, ascertain just how many of the darned things there are in your manuscript, so you may see just how serious the problem is — and where to begin to attack it.

So you, wise soul, print up a hard copy of your manuscript, pull out your trusty highlighter pens, and mark every time a character’s name appears, dedicating one color to each character. After highlighting up a storm for a chapter or two, you go back and flip through the pages. If a single color appears more than a couple of times on a page, you know that you might want to see where you could trim.

This test, which can be used to diagnose any suspected repetitive pattern in a manuscript, will reveal the most about Millicent’s probable reaction if you begin marking on page 1, of course, rather than at some random point in Chapter 12. If you can only find time to do a few pages, though, you might not want to start marking on page 1. A good, quick check on your name-usage habits is to highlight a two-person dialogue between major characters from the middle of the manuscript.

Why a two-character scene, you ask? See if this pattern seems at all familiar:

”I’ve never seen that giant centipede before,” Tyrone lied. “It just crawled into the house, Mom.”

Angela placed her fists upon her ample hips. “I suppose it opened the back door by itself?”

“It certainly has enough legs to do it,” Tyrone said, examining it. “Or it could have crawled through the keyhole.”

“Next you’ll be telling me that the cat is the one who has been opening the kitchen cabinets,” Angela retorted.

“I’ve seen her do it!” Tyrone insisted.

Angela placed her hand upon his head. “Tyrone, I hate to break it to you, but cats don’t have opposable thumbs. Neither do centipedes. So unless you’re harboring a chimpanzee I don’t know about, I’m going to assume that human hands did all these things.”

The boy cast a nervous glance at his closet door; did Mom know about Archie? “If you say so.”

Did you catch the patterns here? If you immediately said, “By gum, a skimming reader’s eye might mix up Angela and Archie, since they both start with the letter A,” give yourself a gold star for being able to remember that far back in this series. Take another star out of petty cash if you also murmured, “This writer is identifying speakers far, far more often than necessary. I wonder if the same pattern persists throughout the manuscript?”

In this excerpt, the pattern is clear, right? In case those baleful looks you’re giving me mean no, let me ask a follow-up question: how do we know that this scene doesn’t really require this many tag lines?

After the first set of exchanges, there really isn’t any doubt about who is speaking when, is there? So why does the reader need to be reminded so frequently who is who, when the speeches are alternating in a predictable rhythm?

The over-use of tag lines is quite pervasive in submissions, and for good reason: like over-abundant proper names, aspiring writers often believe that they reduce confusion. But to professional eyes, the author of the example above has apparently invented unnecessary opportunities for repeating her characters’ names.

Be on the lookout, too, for frequent use of relational terms as substitutes for names: her mother, my brother, her boss. Often, writers who lean heavily upon name usage will pepper their manuscripts with these, too — and again, physically marking them in the text is generally the best way to figure out if there’s too much pepper in your manuscript.

Okay, so that was a bad joke, but it was intended to soften a hard reality: until repetitions of these phrases are actually highlighted on the manuscript page, it’s well-nigh impossible for most aspiring writers to understand fully why this particular type of repetition drives the pros mad. Relationship repetition may seem merely descriptive or innocuous to a casual reader, but it reduces professional readers to apoplexy; they read it as the writer’s insecurity about the reader’s caring enough – or not being smart enough — to remember how these people are related.

Speaking of over-reactions: “Criminy,” Millicent has been known to mutter. “Is there a REASON you feel the need to tell me three times per page that Roger is Yvette’s son?” Do you think I have no memory at all?”

Sound at all familiar?

In this instance, I think Millicent has some justification for feeling that the writer is talking down to the reader. Unless you are writing a story that will be published in serial form, as so many of Dickens’ works were, it’s not necessary, and can be downright annoying, to keep referring to a character by her relationship to the protagonist.

Especially when, as often happens, the reader is presented with the relationship from several different perspectives. As in:

Brenda looked up at her mother. “Are you sure he’s dead? Couldn’t it be another false alarm?”

Mona cradled her husband’s blue-tinted face in her wrinkled but bejeweled hands. “You’re thinking of my last husband, Martin, the swimmer. Bert’s not capable of holding his breath this long.”

“I didn’t say he was faking it.” Brenda lifted her stepfather’s lifeless arm, dropped it. “I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between comatose and dead.”

“Fine.” Mona kicked her purse at her daughter. “Root through there until you find my compact, and hold the mirror under his nose. If he’s alive, it’ll fog up.”

“For heaven’s sake!” Millicent will be crying by this point in the manuscript, startling fellow screeners in adjacent cubicles. “If Mona is the mother, OF COURSE Brenda is the daughter! What do you think, I’m an idiot?”

Generally speaking, the formal relationship between two characters, particularly if one of those characters is the protagonist, needs to be mentioned to the reader only once in a chapter, at most. If it’s a significant relationship, it may well need to be brought up only once in the book, unless there honestly are issues of mistaken identity involved.

Otherwise, try giving the reminders a bit of a rest.

While you have your marking pens out, it’s not a bad idea to check your submission pages for other instances of phrase repetition as well. I’m not talking about pet phrases here — come on, admit it: every writer has a few phrases and words he likes enough to reuse with some frequency — but overworked nouns and descriptive phrases. Those have a nasty habit of offending the professional eye, too.

You’d be astonished at how much the repetition of even a single verb in two consecutive sentences, for instance, can make a manuscript seem less interesting. Especially — and this is almost impossible to catch when editing on screen, but genuinely irksome to see on a printed page — if the same word or phrase begins or ends two or more sentences in a row.

If you are clever and professional-minded enough to scan your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD (gee, where have I heard that advice before?), it will immediately become apparent why: it reads as though the point of the paragraph is to get through the information within it as quickly as possible, rather than to write about it as beautifully as possible.

In a race run amongst the stylish, my friends, even a couple of lines that fall down on the job can cost you a head start. You’re in this to express yourself marvelously: try to be consistent about it, but use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.

That’s such a pretty thought that I am going to sign off here for the day — and the series. Next time, it’s on to the rigors and joys of pitching. Keep up the good work!

As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than authorial choices, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can be hard to tell apart on the page. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or most writers’ preferred method, after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: name your people so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another species of naming conducive to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said texts.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already established. In fact, leaving identification entirely to pronouns is a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious he (or, more often, she) of the opening paragraphs could possibly be.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused by what’s in front of her on the page is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, the pros typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one, period. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s an abdication of authorial responsibility: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the necessary details; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Certainly, many, many aspiring writers are prone to take them as such. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th truism Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice, but it’s not particularly helpful, is it? I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (you might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have, too.

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past ten paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

Okay, so he was talking about something else, but obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (And before anybody asks, the rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative from having to indulge in pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed because they have cooties. Behold the predictable result.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Susan,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Susan said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” she snapped.

“Why ever not?” she asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

She played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about him?”

“Of course it’s about him,” she huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Her eyes stung for a moment. She always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” she said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Fortunately, those two options aren’t the only tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? The goat and I think not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read.

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXIII: the monster always returns…returns…returns…

I’m having a good day, campers: today, I got to delve back into an editing project I’d had to put aside for a while. It’s something that requires my full energy; digging one’s arms up to the elbow in a complex manuscript takes more out of a conscientious editor than writers tend to believe.

You’d be surprised at how deeply those of us who read for a living can bond with the manuscripts we handle. It’s not as though an editor (or an agent, or an agency screener) can plop himself down and read a book like any other reader; it’s our job to be alive to every detail. I like to think of myself as the book’s advocate, trying to figure out all of the little ways to make it as beautiful and marketable as humanly possible.

And no, in response to what a good third of you just thought very loudly, beautiful writing is not always marketable, any more than marketable writing is always beautiful. Ideally, a manuscript should be both. It should also, if I can possibly manage to nudge it in this direction, be written in a voice and vocabulary appropriately challenging for its target readership.

Bringing out any of these laudable traits is not only a matter of critiquing what could be improved; quite a lot of what I do involves helping the author see what is already good and could be made better. Part of being a thoughtful freelance editor — as opposed to a careful copyeditor, the nit-picky soul who concentrates on making sure that the manuscript is clear and the sentences grammatically correct, the minimum standard for professional writing — involves not only checking for possible red lights that might lead to rejection, but also figuring out what a manuscript’s strengths are, as well as why it will appeal to its target audience.

Again, those are not necessarily the same thing, right?

Most aspiring writers do need to be reminded, I’ve noticed, what is good about their work. Or even told what the selling points for their books are.

There’s a pretty good reason for this, actually. Throughout the writing process, it’s awfully easy to start to think of the effort you’ve put into a book as its most important characteristic. But realistically, publishing houses do not acquire books simply because someone went to the trouble to write them. Nor, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, will readers — ones who do not already know the author personally, at any rate — pick up a book simply because somebody happened to write it.

Why does prompt publishers to acquire manuscripts and readers to buy books, you ask? Would I sound like a broken record if I suggested that both sell because of their strengths?

In fact, the length of time it took to write a book is precisely the wrong thing to mention in a query letter or pitch; it’s widely considered unprofessional. Millicent the agency screener is apt to regard queries that include statements like I have spent seven years writing NOVEL, GREAT AMERICAN as not only a waste of page space, but as a studied appeal for her sympathy.

“Why on earth would I care how long this manuscript took to write?” Millicent murmurs into her omnipresent latte. “And why would I be more favorably impressed by a seven-year effort than one that took only six? What matters is on the page, not what Herculean efforts it took to get there.”

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: at the submission stage, manuscripts are evaluated based upon what actually appears on their pages, not the writer’s intentions, effort, or even what the book might look like after a conscientious editor’s had a few rounds with it. Many, many aspiring writers seem to have a hard time accepting this, judging by how often justifications and explanations seem to find their way into queries and pitches. From a professional point of view, this information just isn’t relevant.

But that’s not the only reason that including it could hurt you. Because it’s quite standard for both agents and editors to request revisions after taking on a book project — see my earlier observation about how involved professional readers can get with manuscripts they like — it’s prudent to assume that the pros in your future will expect you to be able to incorporate feedback in a timely and reasonable manner. So if the agent of your dreams’ reaction to a detailed account of the five years you invested in producing the manuscript is less likely to be, “Gee, this book must be worthwhile,” but “Heavens — if a single draft took five years, how long will any revisions I want take?” is it truly in your interests to mention it?

Save the probably quite interesting story of how you churned out that 400-page novel in the scant ten-minute increments you managed to snatch between your day job and your night job for future interviews. Trust me, your reading public will eat it up.

In your queries and pitches, stick to the information that Millicent actually needs in order to decide whether to request pages. As submitting writers are all too prone to forget, publishing is a business, not an art form — agents and editors acquire books they believe are marketable, not just ones they believe are well-written. And, as I believe I have mentioned several hundred times before, they do not — contrary to the hope of most submitting writers — read the entire submission before making up their minds on either point.

Anyone care to tell the class at what point in the average submission Millicent stops reading? Think on it, and I shall give you the answer at the end of this post.

Hint: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of pages her agent boss asked you to send. Not at all.

How does this relate to the revision process, you ask? Well, swift judgments mean that if you have limited revision time at your disposal, it’s smart strategy to concentrate on the first 50 pages of your manuscript — the usual first request from an agent — or, in a pinch, the first 5. (If you are planning to head to a writers’ conference anytime soon, burnishing the first 5 until they shine is imperative: the first five pages of the manuscript are the standard writing sample, the most anyone is at all likely to ask to see within the context of a pitch meeting. But I digress.)

Do I sense an undercurrent of amusement out there? “Are you seriously taking the time to justify doing any revision at all, Anne?” those of you who have followed the Pet Peeves on Parade series closely ask, chuckling. “Isn’t it a bit late in the series for that? We all know what a stickler Millicent can — and indeed, should — be. Or are you once again leading us down the primrose path to some well-concealed eventual point?”

Well, the importance of revision bears repeating, chucklers, but you’re right: my little peroration was warming you up for a pet peeve that I suspect not all of you will agree is problematic on the page. Or so professional readers like yours truly surmise from how pervasive the problem I’m about to mention is in submissions — particularly in openings.

I’m speaking, of course, to invocatory rhythms that don’t quite work. And you thought this post wasn’t going to be a continuation of our discussion on voice!

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. One of the easiest ways to add this music to a text is through word and phrase repetition. Take a gander at a fairly representative sample:

Musette 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? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

See the problem? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at it through Millicent’s experience-sharpened peepers.

Musette 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? Didn’t she, in fact, deserve to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

The problem is clearer now, right? Not only does this innocent-looking paragraph harbor a heck of a lot of word and phrase repetition — enough that our Millie may murmur under her breath, “Wow — doesn’t this writer know any other words?” — but that eye-confusing reiteration is encased in identical sentence structures. The result is a little something we professional readers like to call structural repetition: a percussive repetition of similarly-structured sentences (or sentence fragments) intended to make a rhythmic point.

Why bring this up as a voice and revision problem, in addition to a notorious Millicents’ pet peeve? Because part of the issue here is editorial: merely broadening the vocabulary, the usual fix for word repetition, would not solve this problem. Lookee:

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Better already, is it not? To a professional reader, though, this passage would still read as structurally repetitious, despite the wording being more varied (and thus more interesting) this time around. And that reaction is apt to confuse self-editors, who would tend to see the nice, pulsing rhythm pushing the paragraph forward, rather than the probability that the too-similar sentence structures will cause the reader to zone out a bit as the paragraph goes on.

Not to mention the virtual certainty that Millicent will murmur, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative trick, but why must this writer foist it on us twice in a single paragraph?”

You’ve got an excellent point there, Millie. Like every other narrative device, structural repetition works best when it is used sparingly.

How sparingly, you ask with fear and trepidation? Two or three times, say, in the course of a manuscript, to draw the reader’s attention to particularly important passages. Even within the context of this short excerpt, see how much more effective the first use of structural repetition is if we remove the second.

Musette ran through the corridor, sped like the wind, fled as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? She longed with the urgency of a sneeze for a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat. Clearly, she had an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever.

Didn’t like it that way? Okay, let’s switch where the structural repetition falls — and while we’re at it, take out the cliché about the wind.

Musette sped through the corridor as though lions were behind her and the open arms of a knight in shining armor in front. Didn’t she deserve her liberty, after all this time? Didn’t she merit a life free of the incessant demands of boss, husband, co-worker, photocopy machine, cat? Didn’t she, in fact, have an inherent right to breathe the fresh air of autonomy, unfettered by any limitations whatsoever?

Was that a sudden gust of non-clichéd wind that just made my cat topple over, or did a significant minority of you just sigh gustily?
“I see that there are repeated words in the original version, Anne,” some of you point out, “but frankly, I liked it best. Surely the choice to incorporate structural repetition is a stylistic choice, rather than a matter best left up to an editor. Unless you have just inadvertently proven your point about not every reader’s liking every well-written narrative 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 — feature a plot?”

Actually, I’ve been known to read and enjoy both, oh ye quick to judge. What’s more, I’ve read plenty of literary fiction with strong plots and genre fiction that features beautiful language. So there.

But you are obliquely correct, oh sighers, that the original version above was more likely to have dropped from the fingertips of a writer with specifically literary aspirations than one who was aiming for a more mainstream readership. Since invocatory rhythms are quite common in poetry, this style turns up very frequently in novel and memoir submissions, particularly in those that are either literary fiction or are other types of manuscript written with a literary tone. It just sounds pretty, right?

“If the writing’s pretty on an individual sentence level,” sighers everywhere argue, “how could that be problematic in a submission?”

In several ways, actually. Rather than telling you why, let’s look at the single most famous example of invocatory prose in English literature, the opening to Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Yes, I use this particular example fairly frequently, but humor me here: Dickens, bless his now-still heart, has provided us with a lulu of an example of why structural repetition is problematic in print.

Just for kicks, pretend that you have never seen it before, and try to read like an agency screener. To facilitate that laudable endeavor — and to give you the opportunity to judge for yourself whether all of this textual repetition provides a compelling entrée into the story that follows, here is not just the well-known opening, but the next page as well. As always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the images.

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 pages of a submission, virtually any modern-day Millicent would have rejected it by line three. Any guesses why?

If your hand instantly shot into the air, alerting me to your trenchant observation 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 a gold star 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 it’s meant to be ironic; think like a screener here and look for reasons to shout, “Next!”), the second paragraph written entirely in the passive voice, and 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? It could hardly have been both. Commit to one or the other!”

Although any one of those perfectly valid objections might have prompted that cry of “Next!”, the structural repetition is what most pros would have noticed first. To see why, you stand up right now and take two steps backward from your computer monitor.

Notice the visual pattern? Millicent would have spotted it as soon as she pulled the first page of ol’ Charles’ manuscript out of the envelope.

Actually, if you’ve been revising for a while, you might have caught that the structural repetition problem without backing off. A solid tip-off: the verb to be appears 14 times within the first sentence.

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.

Yes, this is a level of verb variation that would make Millicent long for the comparatively challenging vocabulary choices of See Dick run, Jane. Run, Jane, run. Remember, though, it’s not just the repeated words and phrases that would raise professional readers’ weary eyebrows here: it’s the phenomenon of consecutive sentences being set up in the same way. No matter how great your high school English teacher told you this particular opening was, it’s dull for the reader to read the same It was X, it was Y sentence structure over and over again.

Or, indeed, any given sentence structure, if it is repeated often enough within too few lines of text.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers just adore structural repetition: it reads a bit like a prayer. It can provide a driving, almost galloping rhythm to a page. Many aspiring writers see that rhythm in the work of authors they admire and say, “By gum, I’m going to make my paragraphs read like that!”

And they do. Sometimes, they make their paragraphs read like that several times per page.

Don’t mind that loud rapping. It’s merely Millicent pounding her head against a wall, moaning, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

That’s what happens when perfectly legitimate voice choices run amok. Like any magic trick,, repetitive structure loses its ability to charm when the reader sees it too often. After a surprisingly short while, it can start to come across less as an interesting stylistic choice than as a sort of narrative tic.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: how many iterations of It was… did Dickens put you through before you first thought Oh, come on, Chuck; get on with it?

“But Anne,” lovers of percussive repetition beg piteously, “I just love my structurally repetitious opening page/paragraph/chapter. If I’m careful not to use this trick again anywhere in the manuscript, I can keep it, can’t I?”

I have a news flash from Millicentville: she sees a LOT of structurally repetitious openings; as with anything else she sees a dozen times a week, it’s probably going to be more difficult to impress her by this method. She’s also not particularly likely to believe that an opening redolent with repetition is a one-time narrative choice.

More often than not, when a manuscript opens with repetitive structure, it will continue with repetitive structure. That, alas, renders structural repetition dangerous to use in the first pages of a submission. Or book proposal. Agents and editors are just so used to this tendency 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, is not invocatory; it’s soporific. Next time, I shall talk about ways to tell which is which in your writing, to figure out when invocatory rhythms will help your work.

Remember, Millicent seldom makes it all the way to the bottom of page one. That’s not a whole lot of lines in which to establish the originality and power of your voice.

Too bad our pal Chuckles blew his chance by repeating himself so much, eh? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XIX: there was something about his eyes, something indescribable…



I could not allow another week to end, campers, without filling you in on yet another common professional readers’ pet peeve. Specifically, one that drives your humble servant up the wall, not only because it is ubiquitous in manuscript submissions, but because when it does appear, its context usually makes it pretty obvious that the writer who penned it considers it (a) original, (b) philosophical-sounding, or even profound, and (c) pretty darned good writing, rather than what it actually is: (a) a hackneyed phrase, (b) descriptively vague, and (c) see (a) and (b)

What is this pervasive descriptive shortcut, you cry, famous for causing gentle souls like me — and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — to rend our garments and wail when good writers foist it upon us? Let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat.

Here are five sterling examples of it, ripped from five different manuscripts. Let the garment-rending begin!

“If that’s really the way you feel, I have nothing more to say.”

Something in his eyes made Aileen pause, reconsider, turn back. “What is it you’re not saying, Jeremiah?”

He smiled, slowly, cruelly. “Ah, that would spoil the horrible surprise, wouldn’t it?”

Did anything in that exchange strike you as odd? If you are shaking your head at the computer screen, you’re not alone — most aspiring writers would see nothing wrong with it.

Millicent, to put it mildly, would. To gain a sense of why, let’s examine the phenomenon in another incarnation.

A feeling washed over Emily, strong and powerful. She couldn’t have put it into words, even to her closest friends, but it shook her to the core of her being.

“Yes!” she cried, startling everyone in the courtroom. “I shot the sheriff!” She turned to her incredulous husband. “But I swear to you, Archibald, I did not shoot the deputy.”

See any similarity between those last two examples? Millicent would. She’d also spot a definite familial resemblance between both of them and this:

Oliver walked her forward, keeping his hands over her eyes. Some ten feet of awkward stumbling later, he gently removed them. “Look.”

Perdita gasped. A vista of indescribable beauty spread out before her. “Oh, my! Why hadn’t I noticed this before?”

“Beats me.” Oliver returned to his game of solitaire. “I would have thought the Grand Canyon was kind of hard to miss.”

Starting to feel an inkling of Millicent’s well-justified irritation? One more time, maestro, please.

The audience swayed on its feet, blasted by the power of Mervin’s voice. It was not what he said, precisely, or even the words he chose to express it that moved them so strongly: it was an indefinable manner, a confidence that told them as surely as if he had shouted it that this man was telling the truth.

It’s begun to feel redundant, hasn’t it, even though I assured you at the outset that each of these examples came from a different source? Welcome to the world of the agency screener: if 35 out of the 127 first pages Millicent reads today contain the same descriptive shortcut — certainly within the bounds of possibility, with a trope this popular — Instance No. 34 is going to seem as repetitious as if it had appeared on the same page as Instances Nos. 28-33.

“Not this again!” she mutters, rending her aforementioned garments. “Show me something original, I beg you!”

We could feel smug, of course, that Millicent has just fallen into precisely the same phrasing trap to which she is objecting: the writer would be entirely justified in inquiring what precisely she had in mind. We could also point out that it isn’t particularly fair to the writer of Instance No. 30 that a professional reader might well have been more annoyed by the sight of this descriptive shortcut than she was by Instance No. 2. And who could fail to feel for the aspiring writer who decided that Instance No. 34 is just what his page 1 needed but did not call upon the descriptive device again for another 273 pages being treated as precisely as repetitious as the writer who elected to place Instances Nos. 5-9 all on the same page?

Oh, you don’t think that really happens? Au contraire, mes amis. I can beat that record in two sentences flat.

There it was again, that odd, vague sensation. It told Erminia without words that something, somewhere, somehow, was wrong.

What sensation?” Millicent demands, ripping her cuffs to shreds. “What is Erminia feeling, precisely? What does she think is wrong, and for what possible narrative reason has the writer chosen to hide the content of her fears from the reader?”

You must admit, these are perfectly reasonable questions. After all, it’s the writer’s job to describe what’s going on in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to picture it, not the reader’s job to fill in the details when the writer prefers to remain vague.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from a hefty minority of the submissions that cross Millicent’s desk on a daily basis. Apparently, there are a whole lot of aspiring writers who believe — wrongly, according to the overwhelming majority of professional readers — that leaving crucial sensations, thoughts, intuitions, and even physical descriptions to the reader’s imagination is not only permissible, but stylish. It’s hard to blame them, really: unless one happened to have had the privilege of reading many manuscripts or contest entries back to back, one wouldn’t have any idea just how common this descriptive shortcut is.

Trust me, it decorates many, many first pages. And contest entries. And dialogue. You’d be astonished at how many novels (and memoirs, actually) open with this well-worn trope — it’s an extremely popular (and thus Millicent-annoying) means of establishing suspense from line 1.

A noise came from behind her, causing Jemima to jump. Silly to be so nervous, when she had been through these woods more times than she could count. Admittedly, she had never been carrying quite this heavy a load of goodies for her grandmother, bread and sausage and pears and three whole roasted chickens.

There it was again. Something was following her; she was sure of it now.

Already, Millicent’s collar is in tatters. “What noise?” she wails, beginning on her right sleeve. “What did it sound like? What does she think is following her, and upon what auditory clues is she basing that conclusion. Also, what do three ands in a row add to this description that would not be adequately conveyed by the grammatically correct bread, sausage, pears, and three whole roasted chickens?”

Does the general pallor that just spread over half my readership’s faces indicate that some of you were under the impression that featuring this kind of and repetition within a single sentence was (a) stylish, (b) technically correct, (c) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once every 50 pages or so, (d) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than every 50 lines or so, (e) a narrative choice unlikely to annoy Millicent if done more than once per paragraph, or (f) all of the above? I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, then.

It’s even worse news if you happen to subscribe to the rather pervasive school of thought that holds that regardless of whether the point of view is in the first, second, or third person — heck, even if it is from the omniscient perspective of Somebody Up There who can pry into every character’s mind — it is always an effective writing technique to make the narrative voice sound like someone speaking out loud in casual conversation in the year in which the manuscript was written. While this can work beautifully for novels and memoirs set in the recent past and written in the first person, chatty contemporary spoken word styles will not fit comfortably with every storyline.

It’s especially jarring in stories set in eras of the past when people spoke more formally — which is to say pretty much anytime prior to the last decade. Every era has its own slang, of course, but there’s no denying that the vagueness of modern conversation would have puzzled Jane Austen exceedingly, either in dialogue or narration.

Everybody knows that a single man who happens to be rich must be looking to get married. Or something.

Whatever you do or don’t know about his feelings or beliefs, no sooner does he set foot in a neighborhood than everyone decides he belongs to one of their daughters. Whatever!

“May one inquire,” Miss Austen demands, ripping her delicate handkerchief in long, clean lines, “to what this author is referring? Why has he elected to dispense with subject-object agreement, that well-belovèd and inflexible rule denoting that the subject of a sentence — in this case, everyone — should agree in number with its object. I would lay it down as a general principle, then, that everyone and his daughter would always be preferred by right-thinking readers to everyone and their daughters. And what, if I may be so bold as to ask, is the significance of whatever in this context?”

Search me, Aunt Jane. Millicent and I have been wondering about that, too.

Another popular species of vagueness in openings — also frequently born, I suspect, out of a desire to create suspense by omission, rather than via a detailed depiction of an inherently tense situation — is a little something we pros like to call the unnamed protagonist cliché. Tellingly, it is also known by another moniker: she ran through the forest…

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts begin rather like this:

She fled through the forest, her long, red hair whipping against the bundle she hid ineffectually under her cloak in an attempt to shield it from the driving sleet. All she knew was that something was pursuing her, something terrible, something violent. Something that had forced her to leave behind everything she had ever known. Something that had changed her life forever.

Suddenly, a noise came from behind her…

By this point in the afternoon’s reading, poor Millicent’s wardrobe is in tatters. “Who is this woman, and why should I care that her life has changed forever when the narrative hasn’t yet told me anything about her previous life? From what is she fleeing? Am I supposed to think that the bundle is a baby, or am I only thinking that because it was a baby in 15 out of the last 37 similar openings? And why oh why not just tell me what’s chasing her?”

Again, perfectly legitimate questions — but not, it’s probably safe to assume, reactions the author would prefer this opening to elicit from a screener. Or indeed, any reader. Presumably, the writer is hoping that lay reader would read the opening above and murmur, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?” — and be spurred by those questions to keep reading.

Millicent, however, is unlikely to scan even one more line; had I mentioned how frequently she is treated to this kind of false suspense? “Is there any particular reason that I’m being kept in the dark about this broad’s name?” she murmurs, the frayed edges of her garments wafting gently in the air conditioned breeze. “Is it a state secret? Is it really my job to read on until the narrative deigns to tell me something that basic? Or maybe this writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name.”

Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.

A few valiant specificity-haters have had their hands in the air for paragraphs on end. “But Anne,” they point out, “in that last example, the writer was obviously just trying to start the story with a bang. You must admit that there’s no shortage of action in that opening, nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story that follows is obviously going to concern this woman, her bundle, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety from the unnamed threat. Millicent can’t deny that it is exciting!”

Actually, she could — you would be astonished how efficacious sheer repetition can be in sapping the thrill from an exciting-but-common opening scene. And let’s face it, the long, red hair cliché and the everything she had ever known exaggeration would not exactly stun Millicent with their originality, either. Fleeing maidens habitually forget to tie back their long red or blonde hair while they are leaving everything behind, burning their bridges and changing their lives forever, whilst fleeing unnamed pursuers.

Those of us born brunette and/or bob our hair should be deeply grateful, evidently. An alien from the Planet Targ dropped into Millicent’s desk chair to form opinions of life on earth from manuscript submissions would undoubtedly conclude that we dark-haired females alone remain safe at home, rather than being chased by noises offstage into some conveniently nearby woods.

One more omnipresent variety of rend-inducing narrative vagueness, then I shall sign off for an evening of peaceful brunette serenity. See if anything in the following little gem strikes you as a potential Millicent-irritant.

As smoke curled up Blair’s nostrils, the irreality of the situation smote his consciousness head-on. It was like a movie: he simply observed his nearest and dearest go up in flames. As much as he longed to change the channel, he couldn’t.

Actually, there were two classic pet peeves cunningly concealed in that compact paragraph; did you catch them? First, the it was just like a movie trope has been so widely used in submissions since the 1920s that even the most recently hired Millicent is likely to regard it as a cliché at this late date. A more experienced Millicent might also regard it as the narrative shorthand it is: rather than showing readers precisely how and why Blair experienced the situation as divorced from his real life, the narrative not only chooses to tell us in just a few words what it was like — the writer is presuming that every reader will know precisely what she means by it was like a movie.

In essence, then, the writer is expecting the reader to guess in what specific ways Blair’s experience was filmic. And we all know how Millicent feels about that species of narrative expectation, right?

“Is it my job to provide the necessary description?” she fumes, taking a stapler to her hitherto undamaged skirt. “Isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to, well, write?”

Come on, admit it: she has a point. She would also be well within her rights to call out the narrative for its other professional reader-piquer, the mixed metaphor.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Although we are told that Blair’s current situation is like a movie, he longs to change the channel as if he were watching television.

Someone didn’t reread this submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, clearly.

What’s the cumulative moral here? Select your words with care — remember, all Millicent, or any reader, actually knows about the scene you are presenting is what you describe on the page. Yes, it’s undoubtedly quicker and more convenient to allow the reader to fill in the minutiae, but if you resort to vagueness or shorthand, how can you be sure that every reader will come up with the specifics you intend?

Or to put it another way: isn’t your creative vision worth conveying in detail?

And for heaven’s sake, tempestuous redheads and blondes-in-peril, grab a barrette or a baseball cap on your way out the door. Perhaps without all of that hair flying about in your eyes, you can finally get a good look at who or what is pursuing you.

Maybe then you could describe it to us. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what we have here is a failure to communicate — in a business that’s all about communication

What do you mean, most manuscrips get rejected on page 1? That’s ridiculus.

I can’t believe you’re telling us that presentation can count as much as writing style. Agents know to look past any minor problems to the actual writing.

I hate Millicent. She must hate literature, or else how could she possibly reject subission so quickly?

The publish industry has become completely shallow. They only care about what sells, so it’s impossible for a genuiney talented new voice to get heard. Why even bother?

You got me, commenters on my series on professional readers’ pet peeves: the publishing industry doesn’t care whether books sell or not; it’s a non-profit enterprise devoted to the promotion of literary art. Nor are agencies at all market-oriented: while they don’t actually object if one of their pet authors happens to have a book that sells well, they can all afford to take on every project that appeals to them, regardless of whether they think they can sell it or not. Agents have limitless time to proofread — or even copyedit — their clients’ work before submitting it to editors, so it doesn’t matter what shape a manuscript is in when they take it on, and since they never specialize in a particular kind of book, they take chances on writing they just like all the time. In fact, they have so much time on their hands in any given workday that Millicent the agency screener doesn’t actually exist: she’s a figment of my imagination, intended to fill you with fear. In practice, every agent in the United States sits down to read every single query submitted, as well as every syllable of every requested manuscript, before making up her mind whether to reject it or not. Since only bad writing gets rejected, this of course an easy task.

In short, there’s no need for a naturally talented writer to take the time to learn how to format a manuscript, much less proofread it. Or, heaven forfend, find out how the publishing industry actually works.

Do I even need to shout, “April Fool,” campers?

I sincerely hope not. I’m writing about real-world phenomena here, not my opinion about how promising new talent ought to be discovered. I’m only telling you about the norms; I didn’t invent them. But now that some of you have brought your concerns about how difficult it is to get published to my attention, I’ll just wave my magic wand, and…

Oh, wait a minute: not being the Literature Fairy, I can’t change the publishing world upon request. No matter how often aspiring writers plead with me to say I didn’t really mean it when I said that there are practical things they can do to maximize the probability of their work making it past Millicent, I’m simply not in a position to alter reality in this respect. Sorry.

Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I’ve chosen to take the hard path here at Author! Author!, concentrating on craft and marketing issues, rather than just being a cheerleader for writers in general. I don’t believe (as some writing gurus out there apparently do) that it helps aspiring writers much to view the submission process through a rosy, hazy glow: as both a lover of literature and a great believer in the intelligence of writers, I would rather show you the actual conditions under which your work is going to be evaluated, encourage you not to worry about the factors that are outside your control, and, yes, to urge you to consider altering your texts to improve your chances of impressing Millicent.

Rather than, say, investing your energies in resenting Millicent for existing at all. It’s not her fault that the competition to grab an agent’s attention is so very fierce.

Surprised to see me defending her? Don’t be: I’m rather fond of our Millie. Without her, it simply would not be possible for agents to give even a passing glance to the avalanche of queries that constantly arrive in their offices. Then, too, it’s hard not to feel protective toward someone writers routinely blame for a system she did not create.

Heck, blame is putting it nicely: because most aspiring writers understandably don’t tend to think of their own queries or submissions as just one amongst the thousands an agency receives, many just assume that if they are rejected, the problem must lie in the obtuseness of the reader, rather than in any problems in the manuscript.

From Millicent’s perspective, this doesn’t make sense: there is quite a bit of truth to the industry aphorism that most manuscripts reject themselves. Not merely via the kind of opinion-influencing pet peeves we’ve been talking about throughout this series, but through plain old weak writing. Or a story that’s just not very interesting, or one that’s not original. Or — and this often comes as a gigantic surprise to those new to the process — because it’s not the kind of book that her boss habitually sells.

And frankly, in most cases, it genuinely is possible for a sharp reader to spot these problems within the first page. Sometimes with in the first couple of lines. Most of the time, it’s not a particularly hard decision, or one that ties her up in agonies of indecisiveness. To put it bluntly, from where Millicent is sitting, the vast majority of submissions deserve to be rejected.

To most aspiring writers, this attitude would come as a surprise, and with good reason: all they believe is being judged in a submission is the writing style and the overall story. The former is either good or bad, their logic tends to run, with few possibilities in between: if the writer is genuinely talented, it will be instantly obvious to an agent or editor.

If the prose needs work, well, that can always be fixed down the line: it’s the voice that counts. Regardless of how hard the text may be to read due to typos, skipped words, light gray type because the printer cartridge was running on empty, etc., an agent who truly loves literature is going to read the entire submission, because, after all, why would she ask for 50 pages if she didn’t intend to read every word? Nor will she worry about niggling marketing issues like who the target audience is for the book: good writing sells itself. And even if it didn’t, that would be the publishing house’s problem, not the author’s.

Is here where I get to shout, “April Fool!” again?

Unfortunately, no: while not all aspiring writers draw out the logic to this extent, this is the basic mindset reflected in the comments at the top of this post. These sentiments — including, heaven help us, the spelling — are not exaggerations to make a point: they are honestly representative of the feedback I have gotten from aspiring writers over the years whenever I have gotten specific about red flags in manuscripts.

Oh, not all of the feedback takes this tone, of course; this is merely a vocal minority. The Author! Author! community is rife with urbane, sensible aspiring writers who honestly do want to find out why some manuscripts get rejected and others do not. Which is why most of the protests that inevitably arise whenever I start going through common reasons that submissions get rejected on page 1 — as the vast majority of them do, much to the chagrin of aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world — tend to take a much more dignified, thoughtful tone.

Not to mention being spelled better. Why, just today, incisive reader Nancy posted this well-argued comment on yesterday’s celebration of pet peevery:

Thanks for the post. I’ve been giving some thought to page one & chapter one revisions. But one thing bothers me about this post & how you present it. It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.

I love this kind of comment, because it both reflects a very natural resentment common amongst aspiring writers and an understanding rare amongst submitters that Millicent actually has an incredibly difficult job — much, much harder than it used to be before the advent of the home computer permitted the number of queries and submissions she has to get through in any given week to skyrocket. I’m not convinced that there are more people who want to get books published now than ever before, but technology has certainly made it significantly easier for the aspiring writer to get her work in front of Millicent’s aforementioned bleary eyes.

Oh, you had thought that she uses form-letter rejections — or, increasingly, no rejection letter at all — because she likes them? Au contraire, mon frère: it’s a matter of available time. Think about it: it’s her job to narrow the tens of thousands of queries and hundreds of requested materials packets down to the couple of dozen of manuscripts her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly read himself for consideration for the four or five (at most) new client slots he has this year.

Which is to say: our Millie doesn’t magically get more hours in the day if the current flock of submissions happens to be especially good. Talk to the Literature Fairy about that.

But that’s not how aspiring writers think about the submission process, is it? To the garden-variety hopeful querier or submitter, it’s practically unthinkable that the other writing projects the agency receives would have any effect on how an agent might view her book.

All that ever matters are the story and the writing style, right? Right?

From Millicent’s point of view, no. She is in charge of mediating the competition for those few client spots, not rewarding every prettily-worded submission that she sees. If her agency hasn’t been able to sell a story like the one in front of her for the last couple of years, she’s going to lean toward rejecting it. Furthermore, she reads too many manuscripts to believe that the way the text appears on the page is not reflective of how serious a writer is about his craft; she has observed too many book sales to regard whether an editor is likely to find the opening pages too slow as irrelevant to whether the manuscript would appeal to her boss.

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate, exacerbated by form-letter rejections that don’t let the writer know whether Millicent rejected a manuscript on page 1 or page 25. Or if abundant typos prompted her to stop reading, or if the story just didn’t interest her. Or — and this is positively mind-boggling, from a writerly perspective — whether she loved everything about the manuscript, but her boss just didn’t think it would sell in the current literary market.

Don’t think that’s a legitimate concern? Okay, let me ask you: why are you seeking an agent for your manuscript? Do you not hope and expect that agent to sell your book to a publisher?

Interesting to think of it in those terms, isn’t it?

Now that we are in a marketing mindset, let’s return to Nancy’s central question about yesterday’s post: if a writer bases a decision about what scene should open a manuscript upon what she thinks will appeal most to Millicent — or even gives some serious thought to how her book might appear to someone who read only the first page — is she pandering to the agency and, by implication, compromising her art? Or is she merely being market-savvy, and are the two mutually exclusive?

A perfectly legitimate set of questions from a writer’s point of view, right? To Millicent, they wouldn’t even make sense.

Why? Well, for the same reason that the question of selling out vs. artistic integrity has traditionally been much more of a concern for aspiring writers than ones who already do it for a living. From a professional point of view, there is not a necessary trade-off between good art and good marketing. If there were, getting published would be solely the province of those who don’t care about literary style, right?

“If an aspiring writer believes that,” Millicent says, scratching her head, “wouldn’t my being interested in his book be an insult? And how could a writer justify admiring an established author, who by definition writes for a specific market? This sounds like a Catch-22 to me — an unusually-structured novel that became a major bestseller, by the way — if playing to an audience necessarily means throwing one’s artistic values out the window, why would anyone who liked good writing ever read a successful author’s work?”

Allow me to translate, Millicent: aspiring writers sometimes assume that there’s only one right way to tell the story they have in mind — and that the author is only person who can determine what that running order is. From this point of view, it’s equally harmful to artistic freedom of expression for an editor to ask a writer to change the opening scene as for the writer to feel compelled to rearrange the text to begin with action, because someone giving advice on the Internet said — accurately, as it happens — that you tend to reject slow openings. In essence, both imperatives are based upon the assumption that it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the most effective way of telling a story in order to sell a book.

“Please tell me,” Millicent replies, “that you’re about to shout, ‘April Fool!’ Are you seriously suggesting that it’s artistically inappropriate for an agent to say, ‘Okay, new client, I like your book, but it would resemble other books in your chosen category — and thus be easier to sell to the editors who acquired those books — if you rearrange the running order?’ Most published novels get revised fairly heavily between when an agent picks them up and publication, and while new authors tend to kick up a fuss about it, most ultimately agree in the long run that the requested revisions actually improved their books. So I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone on my side of the submission packet who would say with a straight face that the author’s original version is the best or only way to structure a book.”

If you listen closely to both sides of this argument, you can hear how it comes back to that perennial difference of opinion about how and why books should get published. On the one hand, many aspiring writers would like to believe that it’s Millicent’s job — and the publishing industry’s duty — to base decisions upon what to accept and what to reject solely upon writing talent (defined by potential, rather than what’s actually on the page) and the inherent interest of the story (defined in artistic terms, and not by what readers might actually buy). On the other hand, many agents and editors — and their Millicents — proceed on the assumption that it’s the writer’s job to create interesting, marketable manuscripts written in a strong, unique authorial voice appropriate to the target audience’s already-established likes and dislikes.

A good writer, in their opinion, is one who can pull off this high-wire act without compromising the book’s artistic value.

Which is in fact possible, as the work of all of our favorite authors attest. But if a writer trying to break into the biz chooses to think of the demands of art and the market as necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s a significantly more difficult high-wire act to complete without tumbling to the ground.

And honestly, in my experience, speeding up an opening scene or making it read more like a story in its chosen book category seldom involves doing great violence the text. It’s often as simple as moving that great exchange on page 4 up to page 1, or drafting a conflict-ridden scene from later in the book to use as a prologue.

Or — brace yourselves, purists, because this one is going to sting a little — going into the composition process realizing that it would be desirable to open the book with conflict, rather than a scene where very little happens or one loaded with constant digressions for backstory. While you’re at it, including a strong, sensual opening image would be nice.

That’s not a matter of the market dictating content. That’s a matter of understanding how readers decide whether to get invested in a story or not.

I’m not just talking about Millicent, either. Plenty of readers habitually grab volumes off bookstore shelves and scan the first page or two before buying a book, after all. While readers’ pacing expectations vary widely by book category (and sometimes by country: even literary fiction published in the U.S. tends to start much faster than similar books published in the U.K.), you must admit that it’s rare to find a reader who says, “You know what I like? A story that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere until page 148.”

Is that blinding glare spreading across the horizon an indication that a whole lot of light bulbs just went off over a whole lot of writers’ heads? You performed the translation for yourself this time: the publishing industry — and its first reader, Millicent — believes it is doing right by its customers by habitually rejecting slow-opening books or those with plots that don’t seem to be going anywhere for the first 200 pages. It’s protecting them from — well, perhaps boredom is a harsh term, but certainly disappointment.

What makes publishing types think that they know what readers want? They have the sales statistics for what readers are already buying sitting in front of them.

Instead of debating whether past sales are necessarily indicative of the kind of book that will strike readers’ fancies a few years hence, let’s take a moment to consider from what Millicent is protecting the reading public. Generally speaking, it’s not vividly rendered, fascinatingly written exemplars of cutting-edge prose that send her groping for the form-letter rejection pile. A startlingly high percentage of what any screener or contest judge sees reads like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. It was cold in the castle. Myra shook her long, red hair down her back, shivering. She was tall, but not too tall, a medium height just perfect for melting into Byron’s arms. She walked from one side of the room to the other, pacing and thinking, thinking and pacing. The walls of the room were covered in tapestries needled by her mother who spent years bent over them. Myra barely glanced at them now.

Come on, admit it — you wouldn’t really blame Millicent if she rejected this, would you? The writing’s not interesting, the sentence structure is far too repetitive, and nothing’s really happening. About all it has going for it, from a professional perspective, is that all the words are spelled right.

Oh, you may laugh, but part of Millie’s job consists of saving the literary world from the rampant misspellings that characterize the average submission — and an astonishingly high proportion of otherwise rather well-written ones. Let’s don her super heroine’s cloak for a moment, to see just how difficult the decision to reject such a manuscript would be.

If you opened the day’s submissions and saw this novel’s opening, how likely would you be to recommend that your boss read it? Or even to turn to page 2 yourself?

This is not a particularly egregious example of the type of manuscript problem Millicent sees on a daily basis. If the formatting, spelling, grammar, and capitalization issues bugged you, you were reading like a professional: when a pro looks at a page like this, what she sees is how it could be improved. In this case, so much improvement is needed that she would automatically reject this submission. Better luck next time.

But if you were reading this page as most aspiring writers read their own work, you probably saw something different: the charm of the story, the rhythm of the writing, the great use of specifics. You would have reacted, in short, rather like Millicent would have had the page above been presented like this.

Now that the distractions are cleared away, it’s rather nice writing, isn’t it? It ought to be: it’s the opening of Nobel laureate in literature John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As those of you prone to thinking cynically about how hard it is to get published nowadays may be pleased to note, it would be nearly impossible for an aspiring writer to get this first page past Millicent today, even in the second format. Actually, even a very well established author might have difficulty getting this published now: that many ands in a row would put many a professional reader off. Essentially, this is a long list, rather than a fully fleshed-out description.

It’s also, by current standards, a rather slow opening. “Who is the protagonist?” Millicent cries. “And what is this book about?”

Based upon this page alone, it appears to be primarily about the writing — and that renders the peculiar sentence structure and choice to open with this material even more pertinent. John Steinbeck, no doubt, considered those run-ons artistically necessary; presumably, he also had a reason for electing to begin his story with this series of lists. When you have a Nobel Prize in literature, your readers may well be tolerant of this kind of thing. Even as a reader quite fond of the book that follows, though, I can’t concur in his choices: this page 1 does not even remotely do justice to the fabulously quirky characters and hilarious plot twists to come.

“This book is funny?” Millicent asks incredulously. “Could have fooled me.”

Actually, the opening page fooled you, Millie, and it’s hard to hold anyone but the author responsible for that. In Uncle John’s defense, though, his target readership would have grown up on Victorian novels, books where the early pages were often devoted to establishing time and setting through generalities. (And in the passive voice: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) It just goes to show you, the standards of what constitutes good writing are constantly evolving.

“Aha!” Millicent shouts triumphantly. “So much for the notion that good writing is always good writing. Take that, writers who want to blame me for readers’ ever-changing tastes! If I advised my boss to snap up every manuscript that would have sold readily 10, 20, or 150 years ago, I would not only be ignoring current literary tastes, but doing a disservice to those old-fashioned writers. It breaks everyone’s heart when we can’t place a book we love.”

That doesn’t require translation, I hope. Part of my goal in presenting Millicent’s pet peeves is not only to help aspiring writers realize that there is a human being, not a literature-evaluating machine, reading their submissions, but that since professional readers honestly do tend to like good writing, it genuinely annoys them to see a nicely-written opening marred by technical problems. Or a story with a lot of potential squandering the reader’s attention with too much backstory up front. Or — you were anticipating this one, weren’t you? — a beautifully worded first page making itself hard to market by eschewing conflict.

Is that the same thing as requiring a writer to compromise his artistic integrity or harm the story he is trying to tell? She doesn’t think so, nor, I suspect, would anyone else who reads manuscripts for a living. They have faith, even if aspiring writers don’t, that a genuinely talented storyteller will possesses the skills and creativity to structure her tale to grab the reader from the top of page 1.

Which most emphatically does not mean, as today’s commenter suggested, that every opening needs to read like the first scene of a thriller: “I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”

Yes, she is — and so was the argument in yesterday’s post. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, I specifically urged everyone not to begin page 1 with explosions or other genre-inappropriate activity:

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

Many, many aspiring writers misunderstand this point, so I am glad that Nancy brought it up. Allow me to restate it in clearer terms: no one is seriously suggesting that it would be desirable, or even appropriate, for a good writer to shoehorn conflict onto page 1 that doesn’t arise from legitimate plot elements and/or character development. Nor is anyone telling you that action-movie pyrotechnics are necessary to attract Millicent’s positive attention. To conclude that the publishing industry insists upon this kind of action at the opening of every book it decides to publish is to ignore what has actually appeared on page 1 of the vast majority of novels published in the United States this year — or, indeed, any year.

To professional readers, then, it’s downright puzzling to hear aspiring writers complain that the publishing industry has turned its back on non-sensational writing. Once again, we run into a translation problem.

This one arises, I suspect, from responding too literally to the words action and conflict. Although countless aspiring writers misinterpret marketing admonitions like open with action, throw the reader right into the book’s central conflict, and make sure there is action on page 1 to mean we’re not interested in any stories that could not be made into action films, that’s simply not what the advice means. (That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I was careful to phrase the rejection reason yesterday as not enough happens on page 1 and the story takes to long to get started, not as the more commonly-heard open the book with action.)

In literary circles, action and conflict can refer to relatively quiet activities. Yes, nearby objects blowing up are one kind of action, but so is the protagonist taking steps to try to challenge a situation she finds onerous, even in a very small way. Conflict can involve a Bruce Lee-style kung fu brawl, but it can also be a character silently disagreeing with the speech his boss is making, his subtle body movements demonstrating his ire. Neither term could be fruitfully applied, however, to the protagonist’s sitting around and thinking, multiple characters complacently agreeing with one another, or paragraph upon paragraph of backstory distracting from the current scene.

Even as feedback on a specific text, the advice open with action seldom means supply all of the ladies in the opening quilting scene with switchblades, and make sure that quilt is bloody by the bottom of page 1! Typically, when a professional reader suggests rearranging the running order or revising the scene to add action, it’s as an antidote to a scene that drags. Adding interpersonal conflict, placing a barrier in the protagonist’s path, or just plain having something exciting happen (“Look, there’s an albatross flying by, Grandma!”) are all standard ways to speed up a slow scene.

Again, none of these tactics would necessarily involve compromising the artistic integrity of the manuscript, interfering with the basic storyline, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the middle of a sedate tea party. Implementing them successfully may, however, require some good, old-fashioned creative thinking to come up with a means of introducing believable conflict onto page 1 — and, indeed, onto every page of the text.

Why? Because conflict is interesting; readers like it. Do you need a better reason than that? Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part IX: how can I possibly get from here to the door without a guide?

Last time, I brought up in passing the dreaded Walking Across the Room (WATR) problem, a scene or paragraph in which a character does something, but the narrative gets so bogged down in detail that the important action gets watered down — and the reader gets bored. Instead of narrowing down the steps to complete a project to only what’s necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on, a WATR text mentions everything that happens.

If you were one of the many, many readers who responded to that last statement by muttering, “Well, not everything that happens — surely, few writers go down to the molecular level when describing relatively straightforward actions,” allow me to introduce you to Millicent, the intrepid soul charged with screening each and every query and submission all the writers in the English-speaking world are aiming at the agent of your dreams. She would be only too happy to tell you that she regularly sees descriptions that range from the itty-bitty:

The boss had only just begun lecturing the staff, but almost without noticing, Zelda found herself itching all over. Not just on the top layer of her epidermis, the stuff that separated her from the rest of the microbe-infested world, but right down to the dermis holding her together. Indeed, even her hypodermis felt like it was crawling with minuscule bugs. She pictured the very nuclei of her cells needing to be scratched.

to the grandiose:

After the magma cooled to form the valley, life slowly began to emerge from the primordial ooze. First small, cold-blooded creatures barely able to wrest themselves from the slimy waters that gave them birth, then warm-blooded animals that hid in terror from the giant lizards stomping outside their burrows. Gradually, ponderous dinosaur immensity gave way to grazing placidity and hunting ferocity. Late in the game, man came, in packs and tribes, and eventually, in covered wagons.

Close to where the first settlers had carved out sustenance from the unforgiving ground, Arnie made a latte for his seventeenth customer for the day. Ten minutes into his shift, and the café was already packed.

Mostly, though, our poor Millicent is overwhelmed by the obvious, descriptions so loaded down with the self-evident and the unnecessary that she begins to wonder how aspiring writers believe readers make their way through the world. Surely, if readers actually needed directions this specific, we’d all be in trouble.

Liza did a double-take. Was that her long-lost Uncle Max on the other side of the fairway, about to hand over his ticket, push open the small gate, and walk up the angled walkway to the Tilt-a-Whirl? She would have see for herself, but he was so far away, and the crowd so large! Summoning her resolve, she set off in the direction of the carnival ride, walking firmly, but stepping aside to let others pass as necessary.

When she bumped into people in her haste, she stopped and apologized to them. She veered around children waving cotton candy, lest she get it on her favorite tank top. That would be all she needed, meeting her mother’s favorite brother with a great big stain on her shirt!

Suddenly self-conscious, she paused in front of the funhouse to take a peek at her hair and make-up in the mirrors. They distorted her form and face so much that she could not tell if her stockings were straight. Sighing, she resumed her quest, but not before rummaging around in her capacious purse for a comb with which to set her hair to rights and lipstick to redo her lips.

I’m going to stop Liza’s trek to ask you something: do you still care whether she catches up to her uncle? Indeed, has the narrative’s constant digression into unimportant matters convinced you that Liza doesn’t particularly care if she catches up with him?

And while I’m asking questions, what would one do with lipstick other than apply it to one’s lips? Doesn’t the writer believe that the reader is smart enough to spot the word lipstick and draw the correct conclusion?

“Specifically,” Millicent asks with some asperity, “does this writer think I’m not smart enough to make that simple a connection?”

Oh, she might not hiss this question through gritted teeth upon encountering such over-explanation in her first few manuscripts on a typical Tuesday morning. If she hadn’t been too overwhelmed with the post-weekend avalanche of queries the day before, she might well be feeling benevolent as she sips her first latte. When she encounters the same phenomenon in her 37th manuscript of the day, however, she will probably be feeling less charitable — and by the end of a long day’s screening, she might be so sick of submissions that seem to be talking down to her that her ire is raised by sentences that indulge in relatively minor over-explanation, such as When the light changed, he walked across the street.

Even that slight provocation could make all of those lattes boil within her system. “How else would a pedestrian cross the street?” she growls the page. “And don’t tell me when a character does something as expected as crossing with the light — tell me when he doesn’t! Better yet, yank him out of that tedious street and have him do something exciting that reveals character and/or moves the plot along!”

If you take nothing else away from this series, please let it be a firm resolve not to resent Millicent for this response. Yes, it’s a trifle unfair that the last manuscript (or contest entry) to make a common error on that day would be judged more harshly than, say, the third one that did it, but it’s certainly not hard to understand why. There’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps.

One after another. All the livelong day.

That’s necessarily going to affect how they read your manuscript — or any other writer’s, for that matter. Think about it: if you had already spotted the same easily-fixable error 50 times today (or, heaven help you, within the last hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #51 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?

Welcome to Millicent’s world. Help yourself to a latte.

And do try to develop some empathy for her, if only to make yourself a better self-editor. If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it. In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.

Why, you cry out in horror — or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, cry out in relief? Feel free to chant along with me now, long-term readers — from a professional reader’s point of view, ubiquitous writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.

Did the mere thought of your submission’s boring Millicent for so much as a second make you cringe? Good — you’re in the right frame of mind to consider trimming your pages of some extraneous explanation and detail.

It will require concentration, because these manuscript problems are frequently invisible to the writer who produced them. Yet they are glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye just gets sensitized to it.

Let’s begin with that most eminently cut-able category of sentences, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.

Caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph is an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.

Here I go, testing it again. See how many self-evident statements you can catch in the following novel opening. As always, if you’re having trouble reading the individual words in the example, try holding down the Command key while hitting + to enlarge the image.

obvious example 1

How did you do? Is not night usually dark? Where else would the moon rise except on the horizon? What else could one possibly shrug other than shoulders — or, indeed, nod with, other than a head? Is there a funny bone located somewhere in the body other than the arm. Have I spent my life blind to all of those toes that aren’t on feet?

Seeing a pattern? Or are you merely beginning to hear Millicent’s irritated mutterings in your mind?

If you immediately added mentally, “That would be the mind in your head,” then yes, I would say that you are beginning to think like our Millie. That’s going to make you a much, much better self-editor.

Why? Well, once you are attuned to the possibility of this reader reaction, this sort of statement should send your fingers flying for the DELETE key. In fact, let’s go ahead and state this as a revision axiom:

Any statement in a submission that might prompt Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh!” is a likely rejection-trigger. Therefore, all such statements are prime candidates for cutting.

I heard a few jaws hitting the floor during the first sentence of that guideline, so allow me to elaborate: and yes, even a single “Well, duh!” moment might result in rejection, even if the rest of the submission is clean, perfectly formatted, and relatively well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.

I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it, often in the paragraphs just below. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog. I still have a lot to say on the subject — which is, presumably, why there are more words on the page. I’ve put them there in the hope that you will read them.

Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how your garden-variety Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.

“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”

I feel you losing empathy for her, but remember: when someone is reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do when faced with mountains of submissions — one is inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.

Those would be the eyes in the head, in case anyone was wondering. Located just south of the eyebrows, possibly somewhere in the vicinity of the ears. I’ve heard rumors that eyes have been spotted on the face.

To a professional reader in such a state hyper-vigilance, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull: the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Even — and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.

As luck would have it, we have already discussed some of the more common species of self-evidence, have we not? To refresh your memory, here is a small sampling of some of the things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the seemingly innocuous line, He shrugged his shoulders: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, He shrugged still standing in the text.)

In response to the ostensibly innocent statement, She blinked her eyes: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to the bland sentence, The queen waved her hand at the crowd: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of larger-scale obviousness. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance, or the cessation of that hail of bullets/lava/space locusts that has been following them around for the last reel, or the pile of bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film and asks fearfully, “Is there a storm coming?”

Or — if we’re thinking like Millicent — the protagonist whose first response to the sight of flames (vividly rendered in the narrative, of course) is to shout, “Fire!” What’s he going to do next, suggest to the firefighters that they might perhaps want to apply something flame-retardant to the immediate environment?

Trust me: the firefighters already know to do that. And Millicent is quite capable of contemplating a paragraph’s worth of smoke, embers, and licking flames and concluding there’s a fire without the protagonist wasting page space to tell her so.

Taken one at a time, naturally, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding triggers – but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.

Oh, you want to see what that level of Millicent-goading might look like on the submission page, do you? I aim to please. Let’s take a gander at a WATR problem in its natural habitat — and to render it easier to spot in the wild, this one literally concerns walking across a room.

obvious example2

See why a writer might have trouble identifying the WATR problem in her own manuscript? Here, the account is a completely accurate and believable description of the process. As narrative in a novel, however, it would be quite dull for the reader, because getting that blasted door answered apparently requires the reader to slog through so many not-very-interesting events. Yet that requirement is purely in the writer’s mind: any reasonably intelligent reader could be trusted to understand that in order to answer the door, she would need to put down the book, rise from the chair, and so forth.

Or, to put it another way, is there any particular reason that the entire process could not be summed up as She got up and answered the door, so all of the reclaimed page space could be devoted to more interesting activity?

If we really wanted to get daring with those editing shears, all the revising writer would have to do is allow the narrative simply to jump from one state of being to the next, trusting the reader to be able to interpolate the connective logic. The result might look a little something like this:

When the ringing became continuous, Jessamyn gave up on peaceful reading. She pushed aside Mom’s to-do list tacked to the front door and peered through the peephole. Funny, there didn’t seem to be anyone there, yet still, the doorbell shrilled. She had only pushed it halfway open when she heard herself scream.

Quite a saving of page space, is it not? Yet do you think Millicent’s going to be scratching her head, wondering how Jessamyn got from the study to the hallway? Or that she will be flummoxed by how our heroine managed to open the door without the text lingering on the turning of the knob?

Of course not. Stick to the interesting stuff.

WATR problems are not, alas, exclusively the province of scenes involving locomotion — many a process has been over-described by dint of including too much procedural information in the narrative. Take another gander at the first version of Jessamyn’s story: every detail is presented as equally important. So how is the reader to supposed to know what is and isn’t important to the scene?

Seem like an odd question? It should: it’s not the reader’s job to guess what’s crucial to a scene and what merely decorative. Nor is it Millicent’s.

So whose job is it? Here’s a good way to find out: place your hands on the armrests of your chair, raise yourself to a standing position, walk across your studio, find the nearest mirror — if necessary, turning on a nearby light source — and gaze into it.

Why, look, it’s you. Who could have seen that coming?

There’s another, more literary reason to fight the urge to WATR. What WATR anxiety — the fear of leaving out a necessary step in a complex process — offers the reader is less a narrative description of a process than a list of every step involved in it. As we saw last time, a list is generally the least interesting way of depicting anything.

So why would you want Millicent to see anything but your best writing?

Where should a reviser start looking for WATR problems? In my experience, they are particularly likely to occur when writers are describing processes with which they are very familiar, but readers may not be. In this case, the preparation of a peach pie:

Obvious example 3

As a purely factual account, that’s admirable, right? Should every single pastry cookbook on the face of the earth suddenly be carried off in a whirlwind, you would want this description on hand in order to reconstruct the recipes of yore. Humanity is saved!

As narrative text in a novel, however, it’s not the most effective storytelling tactic. All of those details swamp the story — and since they appear on page 1, the story doesn’t really have a chance to begin. Basically, this narrative voice says to the reader, “Look, I’m not sure what’s important here, so I’m going to give you every detail. You get to decide for yourself what’s worth remembering and what’s not.”

Besides, didn’t your attention begin to wander after just a few sentences? It just goes to show you: even if you get all of the details right, this level of description is not very likely to retain a reader’s interest for long.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it: “Next!”

Do I hear some murmuring from those of you who actually read all the way through the example? “But Anne,” you protest, desperately rubbing your eyes (in your head) to drive the sleepiness away, “the level of detail was not what bugged me most about that pie-making extravaganza. What about all of the ands? What about all of the run-on sentences and word repetition? Wouldn’t those things bother Millicent more?”

I’m glad that you were sharp-eyed enough to notice those problems, eye-rubbers, but honestly, asking whether the repetition is more likely to annoy a professional reader than the sheer stultifying detail is sort of like asking whether Joan of Arc disliked the burning or the suffocating part of her execution more.

Either is going to kill you, right? Mightn’t it then be prudent to avoid both?

In a revised manuscript, at least. In first drafts, the impulse to blurt out all of these details can be caused by a fear of not getting the entire story down on paper fast enough, a common qualm of the chronically-rushed: in her haste to get the whole thing on the page right away, the author just tosses everything she can think of into the pile on the assumption that she can come back later and sort it out. It can also arise from a trust issue, or rather a distrust issue: spurred by the author’s lack of faith in either her own judgment as a determiner of importance, her profound suspicion that the reader is going to be critical of her if she leaves anything out, or both.

Regardless of the root cause, WATR is bad news for the narrative voice. Even if the reader happens to like lists and adore detail, that level of quivering anxiety about making substantive choices resonates in every line, providing distraction from the story. Taken to an extreme, it can even knock the reader out of the story.

Although WATR problems are quite popular in manuscript submissions, they are not the only page-level red flag resulting from a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to fill in the necessary logic. Millicent is frequently treated to descriptions of shifting technique during car-based scenes (“Oh, how I wish this protagonist drove an automatic!” she moans. “Next!”), blow-by-blow accounts of industrial processes (“Wow, half a page on the smelting of iron for steel. Don’t see that every day — wait, I saw a page and a half on the intricacies of salmon canning last week. Next!”), and even detailed narration of computer use (“Gee, this character hit both the space bar and the return key? Stop — my doctor told me to avoid extreme excitement. Next!”)

And that’s not even counting all of the times narratives have meticulously explained to her that gravity made something fall, the sun’s rays produced warmth or burning, or that someone standing in line had to wait until the people standing in front of him were served. Why, the next thing you’ll be telling her is that one has to push a chair back from a table before one can rise from it, descending a staircase requires putting one’s foot on a series of steps in sequence, or getting at the clothes in a closet requires first opening its door.

Trust me, Millicent is already aware of all of these phenomena. You’re better off cutting all such statements in your manuscript– and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.

That’s a prudent move, incidentally, even if you feel morally positive that your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2 and Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Excellent; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.

“What do you mean?” writers of the obvious protest indignantly. “I’m merely providing straightforward explanation. Who could possibly object to being told that a character lifted his beer glass before drinking from it? How else is he going to drink from it?”

How else, indeed? Maybe we ought to add that he lifted the glass with his hand, just in case there’s a reader out there who might be confused.

In fairness to the beer-describer, the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin, especially when describing a common experience or everyday object. I’ve been using only very bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear in a text:

The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his cobbler with a fork, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood, in fact. But see how much of it could be trimmed simply by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

The reduction of an 91-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every word counts. The shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that, generally speaking, people consume cobbler with the assistance of cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

Who knew?

Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:

The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry cobbler with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.

That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?

Self-evidence is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, it’s in your interest to do so. In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of asking your first readers to look for it specifically.

How might one go about that? Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

It’s late now, so I am now going to post this blog on my website on my laptop computer, which is sitting on a lap desk on top of — you’ll never see this coming — my lap. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. If the room is too dark, I might switch the switch on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might elect to reverse the process to turn it off.

Heavens, I lead an exciting life. Keep up the good work!

Formatpalooza, part XXIII: taking the guesswork out of the equation — or are we?

Once again, I had to laugh, campers: just as we were winding up this series on standard format for manuscripts — that’s book manuscripts and book proposals, mind you; if you are writing short stories, magazine articles, or for an academic journal, please seek out their specific requirements elsewhere — news sources all over North America suddenly began shouting that astronomers had determined that the astrological zodiac was off by about thirty degrees. That meant that instead of twelve signs, there were now thirteen, and most people were forcibly dragged into the sign before the one they had been used to reading in the newspaper.

I assume you heard all of the noise about it. The only problem: it wasn’t true.

Now, this outcome probably was not all that surprising to those whose first response to the breaking story was, “Gee, isn’t astronomers declaring that the basic principles of astrology have changed rather like orthodontists deciding that everything we have previously known about lipstick application is misguided?” but unfortunately, in the rumor-based news market, under-researched reporting is not particularly rare. Even more unfortunately, the time-honored and honorable newspaper practice of printing retractions is not especially common in television media — and virtually unheard-of in Internet declarations.

As those of you who have ever tried to look up information about submission format online are undoubtedly already aware, the result is a lingering mish-mash of the true, the partially true, and the blatantly false, mostly declared in identical tones of certainty, and all equally prone to generating a, “But I heard…” response. The underlying assumption is, and not entirely unreasonably, that each individual is now responsible for doing the necessary background research that reporters used routinely to provide.

Hands up, everybody whose last ten Google searches involved any research whatsoever beyond typing in a keyword or two, hitting RETURN, and scrolling through the top ten or twenty hits. Realistically, although most surfers know that not everything posted online is true, busy lives dictate that they act as though it were.

Case in point: the dizzying array of formatting, submission, and even grammatical advice floating around out there. I have nothing but sympathy for any poor aspiring writer whose first — or only — attempt to understand how new writing gets published in this fine country is gleaned from typing how to get published, literary agents, or even manuscript format into a search engine. Although I am fully aware that’s how some of you might have stumbled upon Author! Author!, the fact that I’m barraged on a daily basis by pleas from confused writers, begging me to reconcile what they read somewhere with what I’m suggesting, leads me to believe that while the Internet has in some ways made obtaining credible guidance for professional submission easier, in many respects, it’s harder than it was ten years ago.

And that is indeed unfortunate, because, let’s face it, it’s also significantly harder for a new writer to land an agent than ten years ago. Not only is the competition greater, but the economic downturn and resulting contraction of the publishing industry has meant that at most agencies, more aspiring writers are competing for far fewer client slots.

In a banner year, an agent might take on three or four new clients. In a lean year — or in what is expected to be a lean year — it might be even fewer.

Let’s pause a moment, to allow the implications of that last statement to sink in fully. Although the overwhelming majority of submitters to agencies simply assume that the average agent will simply pick up any good writing that arrives on her doorstep, that’s always been a logistical impossibility; there are far, far too many good writers out there. Even the more sophisticated submitters, the ones who have done their homework sufficiently to understand that there is no such thing as a generalist agent, often operate on the assumption that the only factors playing into whether the agent of their dreams decides to offer to represent them or not are the quality of the writing in the manuscripts and their respective fit into their authors’ chosen book categories.

In practice, that’s always been far from true. Ostensibly, it’s the agent’s job to be able to tell the difference between good writing in general, good writing in a selected book category, and good writing in a selected book category that could potentially interest an editor in the current book market. Any well-respected agent will receive literally thousands of queries and submission per year that fall into the first two groups — and hundreds that fall into the last.

And if that doesn’t strike you as potentially problematic for even the best new writers in your chosen book category, I can only suggest that you go back and re-read the last three paragraphs. You might have missed something.

As we discussed throughout the autumn of ‘Paloozas — don’t worry; we’ll be moving away from submission matters and back to craft next week — an agent has to consider many, many factors in deciding which dish out of the rich buffet of offerings to embrace as his next project. Quite a few of those factors are entirely outside the writer’s control: publishing trends, social movements, what’s being whispered around editorial water coolers these days, what any particular agent has just heard pitched recently at a literary conference. If your book category doesn’t happen to be hot right now, it is necessarily going to be harder to interest an agent in selling your book than if your category is rumored to be the next big thing.

Some factors, however, lie completely within the writer’s hands. Whether the manuscript is presented in standard format, for instance, and whether the formatting is consistent. The typeface and size the writer chooses. The percentage of backstory included on page 1. Whether the story opens with conflict or with ordinary interaction. Whether all the phrasing on page 1 is original, or whether it is peppered with catchphrases.

And so forth. Despite the consistent writers’ conference complaint, we writers honestly do make most of the decisions about our own manuscripts. That comes at a cost: agents, editors, and contest judges therefore have a right to assess our work not only on the writing, but also upon how well we adhere to the rules of standard format, grammar, punctuation, and the like.

Was that giant sucking sound that just rocked the universe the sharp collective intake of breath by aspiring writers everywhere who hadn’t realized before that any or all of those matters could be rejection triggers all by themselves? Or was it merely the audible dismay of those of you who did not proofread your last e-mailed submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off?

I mention e-mailed queries and submissions advisedly, because their steep rise in popularity has presented its own problem. Whereas in years passed, agents, editors, and contest judges were only able to judge submission only upon what appeared on the printed page, now, they can see not only the presentation polish of a submission, but also how the writer got it to look that way.

It is only reasonable, then, to expect Millicent the agency screener — who, after all, is employed specifically to reject the overwhelming majority of both queries and submissions before they get anywhere near the agent’s desk or computer screen — to take these matters seriously. While it has always been true that publishing types have associated incorrect grammar, punctuation, and even deviations from standard format with poor writing (an unfair correlation, perhaps, but a practically universal one), now that spell- and grammar-checkers are built into word processing programs and people like me yammer endlessly about proper manuscript format online, the tolerance for these gaffes has gone down, not up.

Anyone see the problem with that happening while we’re all constantly being exposed to the effects of the Internet’s unique combination of widespread disregard of the rules of grammar and punctuation, most e-mail and blogging programs’ outright hostility to proper indentation (oh, you thought I LIKED writing this in business format?), and the tendency of online advice-givers to contradict one another? Anyone?

Where these forces collide most harmfully for the aspiring writer is in the e-mailed or online submission. While a decade ago, an aspiring author who didn’t know to put the slug line in the header, but typed it at the top of each page of text, might have gotten past Millicent, in today’s online submission environment, his manuscript would be rejected by the top of page 2. Similarly, a writer could have gotten away with indenting each paragraph by hitting the space bar a certain number of times, as one would on a typewriter, whereas now, it’s immediately apparent to anyone looking at a soft copy submission that such a writer simply doesn’t know how to set tabs in Word.

Already, I’m sensing hands shooting into the air out there, but hold your proverbial horses, please: not everyone may have gotten why precisely Millicent might conclude that a writer who made these mistakes might be a harder client for her boss to represent, and thus one to reject right off the bat. Consider, please, these two submission openings — and, as always, if you are having trouble seeing the particulars, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image:

Quick, tell me: what are the three major formatting differences between these two page 1s?

Oh, you didn’t spot them? That’s not too terribly surprising — in a paper submission, Millicent probably would not have caught them, either. They look more or less identical, right?

Had either you or Millicent been able to open the relevant Word file, however — as our Millie would have had to do in order to consider an e-mailed submission — you would instantly have noticed several serious problems. First, the slug line (Mini/The Good Example/1) is not located in the header, but typed laboriously at the top of each page. That would mean, in practice, that after virtually any revision, the slug lines would shift either lower on the page or backward onto the previous page, rendering the pagination useless.

Second, and as a direct result, the chapter designation is on the third line of page 1, not line 1, where it should be. Third, both the chapter designation and the chapter title were hand-centered by the simple expedient of hitting the space bar repeatedly until the text was in the right place, as one would on a typewriter. Third, all of the indentation was done not by setting a tab, but by hitting the space bar 9 times at the beginning of each paragraph.

“But Anne,” many of you cry out in protest, “why would it matter? Isn’t all that counts for standard format how the page looks?”

Yes and no, dismayed protesters. Yes, for a hard-copy manuscript, looking right is sufficient. No, for a soft-copy manuscript, the words being in the right positions on the page is not enough to look professional.

Why not? Well, ease of subsequent revision, mostly. Just as the page numbers would have to be changed by hand in the second version, using the typewriter-style centering would mean that if the title changed, the writer would have to refigure how many spaces to insert, rather than using the Center function (found on the FORMATTING PALETTE under the VIEW menu in Word) to recenter it automatically. And even on a typewriter, not setting a tab (easily done using the RULER function under the VIEW menu) for something that needs to be done at the beginning of each and every paragraph in the manuscript is, well, a trifle strange.

If you found that last paragraph mystifying, may I make a simple suggestion that will make your life as a submitting writer far, far easier in the long run? Invest a few hours in taking a basic class on the functions of Word, because any agent or editor currently working in the United States will expect a new writer to be familiar with how it works.

Unfortunately, this is not information you’re likely to be able to find in a 2-minute Google search. You’re going to want to take an actual class, so you can ask as many questions as you need in order to get comfortable with all the bells and whistles.

Call your local computer store and ask; if you use a Mac, most Apple stores offer these tutorials for free. If you can’t find a class near you, try calling the local community college, asking to be directed to the Computer Science or English departments, and inquiring whether there is an advanced student who might like to make a few bucks by spending an hour or two showing you how to set up a document according to the rules of standard format.

I would repeat the same advice, with different emphasis, to any aspiring writer unsure of the rules of punctuation and/or grammar. In the long run, one of the best things an aspiring writer can do to improve his chances of getting professional recognition is to invest the time in a good, basic grammar course. Heck, I’m a big fan of every writer taking a refresher course every five or ten years.

I realize that this flies in the face of the web-based expectation of instant answers, and yes, I am always delighted to answer such questions here, especially as they relate to page formatting (the Formatpalooza post on punctuation in dialogue was in response to a reader’s question, for instance). But at least for as long as my agent keeps insisting that now is not the right time to bring out Author! Author! in book form (a now that has extended for a good five years, only six months less than I’ve been blogging), I can’t be standing next to you while you are composing, can I?

Trust me, both the writing and submission processes are significantly easier for an aspiring writer with a firm grasp of the rules of the language. If for no other reason than that those who are already conversant with how to use a semicolon correctly don’t have to waste hours upon hours wading through the widely divergent advice on the subject currently to be found online.

This is, after all, a business in which both spelling and grammar count. Very much. I would even go so far as to say that being good at both are a job requirement for a professional writer.

Like the strictures of standard format, however, grammar is not something that anyone is born knowing. The rules need to be learned, and applying them is a learned skill. Just as no aspiring baseball player would expect to hit a home run the first time she steps up to bat, neither should an aspiring writer cling to a misguided belief that if her writing is good enough, Millicent will overlook spelling, grammar, or punctuation problems.

She won’t. Period. Less so now than ever, because these days, it’s widely believed in publishing circles that there is more than adequate training in such matters readily available on the web.

Tell me, those of you who have gone looking for it, is that true? And if it is, how easy is it to tell a credible source from one that’s just winging it?

The same perception dominates the publishing world about standard format for manuscripts, by the way. The last time I announced I was going to run through the rules of standard format again, an agent of my acquaintance, a tireless advocate for my giving up this blog in order to rechannel the considerable time and energy I devote to it into my other writing, even bet me a nickel that no one would even comment, much less ask questions, throughout my next foray into the subject. Despite my readers’ consistent devotion to improving both their writing skills and ability to present them professionally, he wagered that you would be so tired of formatting after my revisiting repeatedly it for five years that the posts that time around would pass relatively uncommented-upon.

Actually, he didn’t suggest betting on it until after I stopped laughing at his contention. “What’s so funny?” he demanded. “It’s not as though your past posts on the subject aren’t well-marked, or as if there aren’t a million other sites on the web devoted to the subject. Why can’t readers just go there to find out what to do?”

Because I like the guy and I’m not in the habit of lecturing agents, I restrained myself from suggesting that he just didn’t understand how a blog works. “Some will, but many of my readers don’t have the time to comb the archives.” (See? I honestly am aware of that.) “And the writers brand-new to the game may not yet know that there is a standard format at all. By going over it two or three times a year, I’m doing my part to make sure that everyone’s writing can look its best for you. You should be grateful.”

He was, in a word, not. “Did you spend your last three lifetimes blithely violating the rules of grammar and structure, condemning yourself to the Sisyphean task of explaining them over and over again this time around? You’re dreaming, my friend — your readership doesn’t need this. I’ll bet you twenty bucks that you get fewer comments this time than last.”

Well, great as my faith in my readers undoubtedly is, I seldom bet more than a nickel (although I did win a quarter off my mother during the last campaign season for accurately predicting the outcome of the Nevada senate race), so he had to settle for that. “You’ll see,” I told him. “Not only will readers comment more than usual, but they’ll come up with questions neither you nor I would have thought of addressing.”

He handed over the nickel after Part III. One of you lovely people asked a perfectly reasonable about indentation he’d never heard before. Better yet, one that had never occurred to him before.

Now he is yet another convert to what I have long held is the truth about aspiring writers: contrary to practically universal opinion amongst professional readers, deviations from standard format are not usually the result of writers’ being too lazy to find out how to present a manuscript. Most of the aspiring writers I encounter are downright starved for accurate information on the subject; the underlying problem is that there isn’t enough authoritative information out there to combat all of the inaccurate rumors.

I’ve always been a big proponent of agency websites simply posting a page with the formatting rules, if only so I could devote our shared time here to craft. Some do, but most don’t; virtually all that do simply assume that any aspiring writer serious about getting published will already be familiar with standard format.

And that, in case those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for years have been wondering, is why I revisit the strictures of standard format at least twice per year. Call it my charitable contribution to the writing community.

If you feel it has been helpful and you are reading this before 10 p.m. on Sunday, January 16, 2011, may I suggest that a delightful means of expressing that would be to take a couple of minutes to nominate Author! Author! for a Bloggie Award? The more nominations, the more likely the blog is to make it to the finalist round, and thus be read by judges.

Again, I just mention. No pressure, of course. But I’d really like to see the stars line up right this year.

Next time, we shall plunge head-first back into the rigors of craft. Keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision…

speechgraphic

“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

What a week, campers! Again, I’ll spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say that I shall probably soon be writing comic scenes about medical practitioners who can’t remember which leg is the injured one (hint: could it be the one encased from ankle to hipbone in a brace?), physical therapists incapable of describing any of the activities of the human body without resorting to impenetrable medical jargon, and the intricacies of sweeping out of a treatment room with dignity while on crutches. Adding to the hilarity: the physical therapy facility did not have ADA-compliant doors, so leaving (or coming in, for that matter) required yanking open two thirty-pound glass doors.

How fortunate that the facility never had any visitors with leg or arm problems, eh?

Speaking of characters who evidently have trouble expressing themselves, I’m going to spend the next few days re-running dialogue-related posts from my extremely popular 2009 series on agency screeners’ pet peeves, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk. Actually, I’m going to run two today, albeit in a tricky manner: to save all of you brave and intrepid souls who worked through our recent Frankenstein manuscript series a bit of repetition, I’m smashing the relevant (and non-repetitive) bits together into great, big, Friday-worthy post.

That’s appropriate for Frankenstein manuscript-hardened readers, isn’t it? Enjoy!

I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons on the Idol first-page rejection list related to dialogue. (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.)

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1, plucked from the Idol list:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking a few days ago about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling of rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. (Can you tell that I would really, really like it if any of you who happened to miss that earlier discussion chose to go back and read it?)

However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this is legitimate to discuss as a dialogue problem. While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing.

And that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s just not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, perhaps there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story to follow.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: that’s quite a few questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing while she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context.

But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: {book released 5+ years ago} began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation. In the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall I pause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself, when that tends to annoy Millicent on page 1, too?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none.

Not one iota. It is devoid of any scintilla of character development. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 to find out whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines? Or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count. There is no such thing as a throw-away line on page 1 of a submission.

So let your dialogue reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

Opening dialogue that lives up to that hope is rarer than you might think. Don’t believe me? May I remind you that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol first-page rejection reasons were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect?

Be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, some agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly standard objection to dialogue scenes. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a relatively average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed, irritated and annoyed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most professional readers this kind of tag line use just seems repetitive — or, to phrase it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit more by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo.

Those two telling details made you reconsider your view of Joanna’s tardiness, didn’t they? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation. Make every line of dialogue count, campers, and keep up the good work!

The envelope, please…

WHISPER_cover

Update as of September 13, 2010: I am sorry to report that Phoebe Kitanidis decided not to follow through on the award portion of this contest, so the feedback winners in Category II: YA will be receiving will be from me alone. While I regret the necessity, this was a mutual decision: she did participate in the judging, but her feedback on the winning entries was not up to Author! Author! standards, and her next book deadlines was, she said, too tight for her to participate in the video feedback we had planned instead.

My profound apologies to those of you who entered Category II: YA, as her feedback was slated to be its primary prize, as well as to all of the winners in both categories, whose prize entries’ posts were substantially delayed by these negotiations.

Other than removing the parts below that were obviously rendered untrue by subsequent events, I have left this post as I ran it originally back in August, 2010.

That’s right, gang: the long-anticipated day has arrived. Today, I’m going to announce the winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. Winners will receive an extensive critique of their first pages in this very forum, courtesy of yours truly and FAAB Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper.

Hmm, why does that title sound so very familiar? You must have seen the cover someplace.

Why did it take such a long time to judge this contest, you ask? Well, several reasons, up to and including the fact that I’m typing this one-handed, due to my recent injuries. In addition, I experienced great difficulty organizing the prizes; see above. Also, the response to this contest was quite a bit more enthusiastic than either the judges or I had anticipated; as a contest without an entry fee, it wasn’t as though we could simply hire staff to deal with the additional entries.

Beginning to understand why the vast majority of literary contests charge fairly hefty entry fees? Contest administration is time-consuming.

Not that I’m complaining, of course — there were many great entries, and a tidy array that rose to the rank of fabulous. So many, in fact, that it was exceptionally difficult for the judges to agree on the final awards.

But of that, more below. First, I want to talk about a couple of the widespread entry problems.

To be blunt, it was not exceptionally difficult was to disqualify the full one-third of entries that disregarded the rules — and that’s not even counting the 90% of entries that did not adhere to standard format for manuscripts. Come on, people — there were only four rules!

What can we learn from disturbing statistic? Something that any veteran contest judge or agency screener could have told you: a significant proportion of aspiring writers evidently do not take the time to read contest rules and submission requirements.

That’s sad, because — again, as anyone mentioned above could tell you — if an entry or submission does not follow the rules, it will almost always be rejected, regardless of the quality of the writing.

Period. End of story. No appeal. Or, to put it another way: not taking the time to read the rules hurts only you.

Ditto with not following the rules of standard format for manuscripts — although so many entrants broke one or more rules that the judges had to downgrade the importance of formatting in the judging. This meant, in practice, that we ended up considering (and even giving a prize or two) to first pages that Millicent the agency screener probably would not have bothered to read at all.

Hey, we were being nice. But expecting Millicent to exercise that level of leniency would be foolish.

In case I am being too subtle here to catch the average rule-skimmer’s eye: READ THE RULES. LEARN THE RULES. FOLLOW THE RULES. REPEAT AS NEEDED UNTIL YOUR BOOK GETS PUBLISHED.

Seriously, submitting an improperly-formatted manuscript is precisely like sending a contest entry that ignores the stated rules: the writer is depending, foolishly, upon the kindness of the reader to overlook a lack of professionalism. Submitting an improperly or — even more common — inconsistently formatted manuscript is, to put it bluntly, usually a waste of the writer’s time.

Why? Chant it along with me, long-time readers of this blog: because agencies and contests typically receive so many perfectly-formatted, impeccably rule-following manuscripts that they don’t need to bother with those that are not professionally presented. Therefore, not taking the time to learn how to format a book manuscript properly because you are trying to get it out the door faster is self-defeating.

Again, it really is that simple. Fortunately, all any aspiring writer has to do to learn how to format a manuscript properly is take a swift peek at the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Given how much blog space I routinely devote to proper formatting, I was genuinely surprised at how few entrants had evidently checked their formatting against the literally hundreds of practical examples I have posted on this very blog in recent years. Short of coming to your respective houses and formatting your work for you, I don’t see how I could possibly have made it easier for entrants to this contest — or submitters to agencies, for that matter — to get the formatting right.

I just mention. While I’m typing one-handed. Don’t make me pull out any more guilt-inducement than that.

Oh, and something else almost everybody who entered did: titled the entry document along the lines of Anne Mini contest, Author! Author! contest, first page contest…in short, in a manner that, while convenient for finding it again on THEIR hard drives, required my renaming virtually every entry before I could save it to mine. Because, honestly, when confronted with 43 (seriously) entries called ANNE MINI CONTEST, how else was I supposed to tell them apart?

Aspiring writers do this all the time in electronic submissions and contest entries. Strategically, it’s a bad idea to inconvenience Millicent, even a little.

How should a request for an attachment be titled, you ask? Either with the writer’s last name (Smithentry.doc would have worked beautifully on my end; SmithCatIIentry.doc would have been even better) or — and this was the most popular choice in the contest — with the title of the piece. (TheWayWeWere.doc would be hard to mix up with VenusVampires.doc, after all.)

So much for the multi-part lecture. On to the announcement of the winners. First, the grand prizes.

The 2010 Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence and Grand Prizes in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest go to:

Adult Fiction: Jennifer Sinclair Johnson, DIVIDED STATES

Young Adult Fiction: Juniper Ekman, TROUBLE COMES

Actually could fit in either adult fiction or YA, but the judges agreed they would have awarded it a grand prize in either: Cole Casperson, INDOMITVS

Memoir (not an official category, but we received a lot of great entries): Jennifer Lyng, NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW

But wait — there’s more! Judging the finalist round was quite tough. Because we received such a lot of exciting, well-written entries, the judges and I talked it over, and we decided that it might be a lovely idea for me to post and discuss the first, second, and third-prize entries as well. (Not that I’ll be doing it immediately, mind you; prize fulfillment will take place when my hands are once again up to full blogging strength.)

So, bearing that prize upgrade in mind, let’s also hear it for the entries that placed:

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category I: Young Adult

First Prize, YA: Natalie Hatch, BREEDER

Second Prize, YA: Suzi McGowen, A TROLL WIFE’S TALE, and Sherry Soule, DARK ANGEL

Third Prize, YA: Janine A. Southard, WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION, and Gayton P. Gomez, BOOK WORMS

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category II: Adult Fiction

First Prize, Adult Fiction: Curtis Moser, PERDITION, and Jens Porup, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR

Second Prize, Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney, SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, and Ellen Bradford, PITH AND VINEGAR

Third Prize, Adult Fiction: David Jón Fuller, BARK AT THE MOON; Linda C. McCabe, THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT, and Carolin Walz, GOTHIC WARS.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about a plethora of great entries! Congratulations to all of the winners — watch this space to hear more from them.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

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

chatty cathy doll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Babette said. “You’re home.”

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

“Have a nice day?”

“Um-hm.”

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

“Yeah. We sure got wet that day.“

“Ham sound good for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Steve replied.

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

“Um-hm.”

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

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

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

“Could be.”

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

“I never said that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Darter: And how’s your mother?

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

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

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

Mrs. Price: Well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially on page 1. Had I mentioned that?

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

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part 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!

Improving those opening pages, part III: lights, camera — revisions?

spotlights2

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 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!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XVI: wait, but I heard…

imshocked

Sorry about the several-day silence, campers. Apparently, there are two strains of flu going around this winter; both were kind enough to stop by my house. I’m going to keep it short today, so I can get right back to such intellectually stimulating endeavors as forcing liquids and lying helplessly under a cat.

I didn’t want to leave you hanging so close to the end of this long series on how books do — and don’t — currently get published in the US market. It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? We debunked a few common myths about getting published (most notably, the one about good writing always finding an agent or publisher relatively quickly), approaching major publishing houses (if the houses you have in mind are located within the United States, you need an agent to do it for you), how agents handle queries and submissions from aspiring writers, and finally, what happens to a manuscript after an agent picks it up.

Did you find all that empowering, or just depressing? The former, I hope: once a writer can recognize that the formal hurdles she’s expected to jump to land an agent and/or find a publisher for her manuscript are just that, formal hurdles designed to discourage writers who haven’t done their homework, rather than a series of referenda on how talented she is, she can plan accordingly.

How so? Well, if a query, submission, or book proposal does not follow the rules, it tends not to matter how good the writing in the manuscript is. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professionalism is almost as important as talent, at least in the initial approach.

Or, to put it less delicately, not taking the time to learn the ropes only seems as if it would speed up the trip from completed manuscript to publication. In reality, just leaping into querying or submission unprepared usually lengthens that trip.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who have been querying or submitting for a nice, long while are shocked, shocked, to hear that the learning curve for those new to the trying-to-get-published game can be pretty steep. But remember, this honestly was news to every currently-published writer at some point.

Hey, it’s complicated stuff.

Thus this series. I habitually devote a great deal of blog space to showing aspiring writers a few short cuts, but once a year, I like to place that advice within a larger context. And frankly, every year, I take a lot of flak from the pros for doing it. Seriously.

Why, you ask? Well, every pro has a slightly different reason, but the one I (and others devoted to helping aspiring writers over the technical hurdles) hear the most tends to run a little something like this: blogs like yours have made it harder to tell the good manuscripts from the rest. Back before it was so easy for writers to find out what to do, far more queries were instantly rejectable; before you started yammering about standard format, most submissions could be dismissed at a glance.

I take this as a compliment — because why, really, should a writer brand-new to the game know how these things are done? Given how complex, counter-intuitive, and let’s face it, contrary to the prevailing societal notions of how books get published the realities are, it’s just a bit puzzling that folks in the publishing industry just expect serious aspiring writers to pick up the basics on their own. It’s not as though rejections typically include admonitions to learn how to write a professional query letter, for instance, or come right out and say, “Look, we read only the first paragraph of your submission because it was not double-spaced, contained three typos and a cliché in the opening sentence, and was printed on off-white paper instead of bright white. That’s no reflection on your writing style — but if you want to have a better shot next time, learn a little something about what we expect to see.”

What do rejected writers see instead? We’re sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. Or I just didn’t fall in love with this story.

“But what does that mean?” aspiring writers constantly ask me in despair. “I know that this agent is telling me something about how I can improve my query/submission, but I can’t figure out what!”

Actually, the agent probably isn’t: most rejections are form-letter boilerplate, and thus not personalized at all. The whole point of a form rejection is to minimize the time Millicent the agency screener has to devote to a query or submission her agency isn’t going to pick up, right? So unless a rejecter gives a specific reason, it’s just a waste of an aspiring writer’s energy to try to read anything into prepackaged phrases that are equally likely to be applied to a poorly-written query that Millie never even considered and a professional-sounding one that just didn’t read as though her boss agent would be interested in the story.

Except to consider the possibility that Millicent is implicitly saying, look, I can’t take your work seriously until you learn the ropes.

Notice how often the word serious has cropped up in the last few paragraphs? There’s a reason for that: in the publishing world, a serious writer is by definition someone who not only has talent and good ideas for books, but has taken the time to learn how to present her work professionally.

That made some of you roll your eyes, didn’t it?

I’m not too surprised. Throughout this series, I’ve been sensing a strange combination of discomfort, disbelief, and outright outrage floating around in that part of the cosmic ether where I choose to imagine my far-flung readership resides. Oh, the discontented have been too nice to kick up much of a protest over my account of these rather grim realities, but since the commenter-to-non-commenting-reader ratio on any blog is quite top-heavy, I’ve gotten good at sensing unspoken confusion. If I had to guess the single sentiment that has been muttered most often by readers of this series, it would be this:

“Hey — that’s not what I heard!”

Hands up, everyone who has thought some permutation of this sentiment, either earlier in this series or when getting the skinny from some ostensibly authoritative source like me. In a way, I applaud this reaction — since there’s such a lot of advice out there for writers, you should be thinking critically about all of the marketing and writing advice you hear. If I haven’t mentioned recently, it’s not a good idea to take any self-described publishing expert as gospel, even if that expert happens to be yours truly.

That can be an awfully tall order; as most of you are probably already aware, there are a LOT of conflicting prescriptions for writing success floating around. Including, incidentally, the information writers pick up at literary conferences. On the conference dais and even during pitch sessions, aspiring writers sometimes hear radically mixed messages.

Don’t believe me? Okay, see if any of these scenarios sound at all familiar:

* A writer preparing to attend a conference diligently wades through both the standard agents’ guides and the websites of the agents scheduled to attend the conference. Once she hears those agents speak at the conference, she finds head spinning at how different her dream agent’s speech about what she wanted to represent right now was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.

* After waxing poetic behind a podium about how much he loves literature in general and his favorite genre in particular, an agent or editor brushes off those aspiring writers brave enough to take him at his word and approach him to pitch, giving cold responses ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that, whether or not he specified during his speech) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)

* The agents at a particular conference say that they are eager to find new clients, yet none of them actually end up signing anyone who pitches to them there. (A more common occurrence than most of us who teach at conferences tend to admit.)

* An agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to a writer’s conference pitch is very much at odds with her rather tepid and slow communications during the submission process. “But she loved my idea at the conference!” the writer will protest, tears in her eyes, wondering what she has done wrong. (The probable answer: nothing. The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.)

Why am I bringing up these mixed messages here, toward the end of this series on the basic trajectory of publication, other than to validate some writers’ well-justified confusion?

Well, remember how I mentioned that the long, long road to publication tends to be quite a bit easier for a writer who has realistic expectations than one who does not? Expecting to hear at least partially conflicting advice from the pros will at least relieve a writer of the substantial stress of suspecting that there’s a secret handshake required to break into print, a trick that may be learned by following every single piece of advice one hears to the letter.

Trust me, that way lies madness. Do your homework, figure out what you’re going to do, and do it. Listen to new input, certainly, but use your acquired knowledge of how the industry does and doesn’t work to weigh how likely any fresh piece of advice is to help you.

I’m also bringing it up to encourage all of you to use caution in evaluating whether to pay to attend writers’ shindigs in the upcoming spring and summer conference seasons. Many conferences promote their conferences by implying, if not outright stating, that they’re flying in agents and editors who will sign attendees on the spot.

However, that’s seldom the case: many agents pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. And that’s in a year when the economy isn’t bottomed out and the publishing industry isn’t trying to figure out the whole e-book phenomenon.

I tremble to mention this, but there is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. They attend simply to educate, as if their names on a conference brochure didn’t at least imply otherwise. Then there are the ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, and couldn’t be less interested in the writers’ conference whose dais they will be gracing.

Those last few are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.

The good news is that doing your homework about any conference you are considering attending can help you avoid wasting your time pitching to people who aren’t interested in helping you get your work published. For some tips on figuring out how to maximize your chances of ending up at a conference where you will be able to pitch to — or at least hear useful, up-to-the-minute advice from — agents who are genuinely looking to represent books like yours, please see the posts under the CONFERENCE SELECTION category on the list at right.

Nor are mixed messages limited to conferences — there’s plenty of confusing information out there, posing as authoritative behind-the-scenes skinny. See if this one rings a bell:

An agency states categorically in one of the standard agency guides and/or on its website that it is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, a list that apparently doesn’t change from year to year? Yet when a writer queries with a book in one of the listed categories, he is crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work.

I have personal experience with this one, I’m sorry to report. I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the end of our rather tumultuous association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

I know; I was pretty flabbergasted, too.

Why would an agent advertise that he is looking for book categories she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope.

No fooling: an agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike.

A broad advertiser is always a gambler, at some level.

And yes, now that you mention it, that vagueness is very, very annoying for the writers who believed his blurb in a conference guide or website. (For some tips on how to decipher these, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

The fact is, not everything in this process is what it appears to be at first glance. Had I mentioned yet that those who do their homework tend to have an easier time?

The problem is, the very difficulty of the endeavor discourages many aspiring writers from approaching publishing as a business with ropes to learn. Fearful, they become downright superstitious: because the process can seem mean or even arbitrary to those who are new to it, it can be very tempting to cling to every new piece of information one hears.

I’m not going to lie to you: giving advice to would-be authors is big business these days. Just because a writer pays anywhere from fifty to several hundred dollars to attend a conference or intensive seminar doesn’t necessarily mean that what he will hear there is a single coherent explanation of what to do in order to get his book published.

Don’t expect it. Good seminars and conferences can be extremely informative — as long as you keep your critical faculties active at all times, because you are most assuredly going to be receiving some conflicting information.

Or at least information that might sound contradictory to a writer unfamiliar with the process. Allow me to explain.

The fine folks on the business side of publishing and those of us on the creative side of the business often speak rather different languages. If you’ve learned anything throughout this series, I hope that it was that necessarily, a writer thinks about her writing quite differently than an agent or editor does, and for the best possible reasons: for the writer, it’s self-expression; for the agent or editor, it’s a commodity to be sold.

The result: rampant communication problems between the two sides.

I wish I could refer you to a reliable, comprehensive translation guide between writer-speak and industry-speak, but frankly, I don’t know of one. Like other norms of publishing, a professional writer just sort of picks ‘em up by osmosis.

However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences, in agents’ guides, and on their websites. Although aspiring writers often decide in retrospect that these statements were, at best, inaccurate and/or misleading, these are not lies so much as polite exit lines from conversations, statements of belief, and as often as not, sincere attempts to make struggling aspiring writers feel better about facing the genuinely daunting task of finding representation.

Yet from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

So here’s my top ten list of confusing statements agents and editors tend to make at conferences — and, increasingly, in form-letter rejections. Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each in writer-speak, as well as a prescription for reacting to it.

Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score — and your sanity.

10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may well have something to do with what is selling at the moment, but may also relate to my not having the connections to sell this particular kind of book at this juncture.

Prescription: don’t waste both your time and his by approaching him with books in categories he hasn’t sold recently; move on.

9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: I have a very strong preference for representing previously published authors. Since it is now possible for any aspiring writer to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)

Prescription: approach someone who says this only after you have a few solid writing credentials gracing your query letter.

8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something that more closely resembles the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else right now. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.

OR:

You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?

OR:

The literary market is changing rapidly right now, and so are my connections. So while I may have a respectable track record in selling books just like yours, I’m not certain that I can do it now.

Prescription: assume this one isn’t taking on new clients right now and move on.

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”
Translation: like most submissions, we probably invested less than a minute in reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really, really busy.

OR:

If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.

OR:

Your manuscript made it past the screening eyes of three Millicents, and I stuck within it for the first 20 pages before I got distracted. But I just don’t think that I can sell this right now.

Prescription: no means no, no matter how it is phrased. Unless the rejection includes some feedback overtly applicable to your book, assume that this is a form letter and move on.

6. “The length of the manuscript doesn’t matter, if the writing quality is high.”
Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 400 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. (Anne here, breaking in mid-translation: for the benefit of those of you who just turned pale, you’ll find an explanation under the BOOK LENGTH category at right. Also, these page counts assume standard manuscript format — and if you don’t know what that is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category.)

OR:

Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.

OR:

I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.

Prescription: walk into a well-stocked bookstore and flip though ten or twelve recently-published books similar to yours. (Avoid those that have been out more than three years, or it won’t be a helpful sample.) How many pages are these books, on average?

Then consider your manuscript: is it longer, bearing in mind that page count shrinks by about 2/3rds between manuscript and printed page? Much longer? If so, is there anything you could do to bring it more in line with the standards of your book category?

If not, should you really be mentioning the word count in your query letter, when a too-high count may lead to instant rejection? Contrary to popular belief, the word count is not a required element in a query letter. (See? It really does pay to do your homework.)

5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.

OR:

We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is. I may also pass your query along to the right agent within my agency.

OR:

We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.

Prescription: do a little checking, to find out what book categories this agency actually does represent. If they don’t have a track record of selling books like yours, you’ll probably have better luck approaching those that do.

4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”
Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.

(I wish I had an alternate translation to offer for that one, but frankly, I’ve never heard this statement used any other way at a conference. Sorry about that. Agents looking for literarily strong plots are usually more specific about what they’re seeking.)

Prescription: if your book is filmic, go for it!

3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)

OR:

We honestly are looking for new writers, but that does not mean that we’re going to be willing to represent work that we don’t think we can sell in the current market. Please send us only genuinely marketable work.

Prescription: again, time spent in your local bookstore can only help you. Find out what kind of stories are selling in your book category these days. If your manuscript does not overtly resemble them, is there a way you could regear your query letter to make your book’s appeal to the readers currently buying books in your category more obvious?

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: This is a definitional issue. If the book concept is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.

Yes, really. For an intensive examination of the prevailing logic, please see the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.

OR:

We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.

Prescription: here, too, you’re going to need to do some homework to find out who the speaker represents/publishes. If he actually does habitually seek out exciting new voices, that will soon be apparent.

Remember, though: contrary to popular opinion, merely being a previously unpublished writer does not necessarily equal being a fresh new voice.

1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”
Translation: But not necessarily with my agency.

OR:

Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.

Prescription: this pro is telling you to do your homework. Do it; in the long run, you’ll be happier.

Confused by all of this double-speak? I don’t blame you, but don’t lose heart. There are two sentiments that always mean precisely the same thing in industry- and writer-speak:

“I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and

“I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.”

These, you can take at face value.

Again, I’m bringing all of this up not to depress you, but to prepare those of you new to the agent-seeking process for the earth-shattering notion that you honestly don’t want to work with an agent who isn’t excited about your type of book. And they often try to tell aspiring writers just that: if it’s a waste of your time to query someone who doesn’t have the connections to sell your book, it’s a waste of both of your time to approach someone who doesn’t even consider your book category.

In the hurly-burly of a conference or in the frustration of trying to come up with a list of agents to query next, it can be very, very easy to forget that. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, agents are not identical; they specialize.

Please remember that there are plenty of good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help talented writers sell their work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.

Next time, I shall wrap up this series, then it’s on to the mysteries of manuscript formatting. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part VII: unwritten rules, turn-around times, and other things that make writers want to run crying to their mothers

giant kites in Oregon

Before I launch into today’s wit and wisdom, a bit of shameless promotion on behalf of a long-time FAAB (Friend of Author! Author!): the ever-fascinating Mary Hutchings Reed, author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is the featured interview on Women’s Radio’s Your Book is Your Hook. In this radio interview, Mary talks about an issue dear to all of our hearts, successfully marketing one’s own novel. She and other authors also write on the subject at the YBIYH blog.

Okay, back to the business at hand. We begin today’s foray into the realities of publishing with a parable.

I was in a jam-packed coffee shop mid-morning, chatting with a photographer friend of mine. It’s a local mommies’ haunt, so the air was shrill with childish exclamations of joy, outrage, and pay-attention-to-me-now. My much-belated Christmas present to the photographer, a fragile bobble, was wrapped, bubble-wrapped, and in my purse; since the shiny red bow was peeking out, I prudently tucked the purse under the hem of my long skirt whenever children were playing with the contents of the nearby toy box.

You can feel the crisis coming, can’t you? That’s what we in the biz call suspense.

Several three- to five-year-olds were marauding the box when I felt my skirt move beneath me. Before I could shield my purse, a wee pickpocket had nabbed the present and was running away with it, screaming, “Mommy! Christmas!”

Being longer of arm than he was of leg, I was able to snatch the box back before it went smashing to the floor. “No,” I told the miniscule would-be pirate in gentle-but-firm tones, “please don’t take that.”

Naturally, he darted off to tell his mother all about it — probably not flatteringly, as she began glaring at me from the coffee line, twenty feet away. Continuing my interrupted conversation, I gradually noticed a small, terrified figure frozen in my peripheral vision. Another toy box marauder covered his mouth guiltily, as if he expected me to scold him.

Taking in the situation at a glance, as the omniscient narrator of many a late 19th-century novel would say, I hastened to comfort him. “It’s okay — I wasn’t talking to you. You didn’t do anything wrong. Go ahead and play.”

After several soothing iterations, he seemed to calm down. Either that, or the Transformer teetering on the top of the toy pile was more attractive and interesting than I was. Rejection happens to the best of us.

A full two minutes of apparently absorbed play later, Moppet #2′s mother showed up with coffee, stroller, and baby sister. Promptly, the little boy burst into tears, clambered into her lap, and began wailing that he was too scared to play. Amidst the rising hysteria, I could discern only two repeated words: “mean lady!”

Now I had two mothers glaring at me. As the child sobbed, the mother murmured, “I won’t let her hurt you,” and the photographer laughed, I tried to explain what had happened. Without a word to me, Mommy scooped up the increasingly incoherent child and stomped off to a table on the other side of the coffee shop, presumably to distance herself and her brood from my negative aura. The first mother made a point of walking over and introducing herself. For the next hour, nasty glances and reiterations of “I won’t let her hurt you, honey.” passed from their table — yes, the moms joined forces — to ours.

Why am I bringing this up, other than as an explanation of why I don’t tote my laptop to nearby coffee shops as often as I otherwise might? Because even as this story played out, I said to myself, “Wow, this is how a good third of the aspiring writers I know initially reacted to learning how the publishing industry works.”

Yes, seriously. Bear with me here.

Kid #1 is the writer who leaps into approaching agents — or, sacre bleu, editors at publishing houses — without doing his homework: he sees something he wants, so he grabs for it. He doesn’t know better: he calls the agency to pitch directly; he e-mails 45 identical boilerplate queries; he sends an unsolicited manuscript.

And when any of those 45 agents or editors says no, he concludes not that there might be rules he doesn’t know about, but that she’s just mean and withholding.

Kid #2, by contrast, is the writer so terrified by everything he’s heard — on the Internet, at writers’ conferences, from fellow writers — about the perils of rejection that he simply worries himself to a standstill. He wants to play with the toys (which are, after all, there in the box for his enjoyment), but he’s scared of someone yelling at him if he makes the effort. He might do something wrong, and thus blow his chance. Just look at what happened to that other kid!

So he waits for someone in authority to tell him that what he wants to do is okay. And then, like so many aspiring writers who have worked up the courage to query or pitch and have received requests for pages, he loses his nerve.

Far, far less risky to complain vociferously about how genuinely scary the situation is than to stick out his neck solo. Some Millicent might scold him if he tried.

I can’t work the two moms into the metaphor; sorry.

My point is, for both kids, the mere fact that someone they didn’t know was enforcing a rule was intimidating, even if the adult laying down the law was someone as soft-spoken as yours truly. I’m not precisely the type whose approach makes dogs and small children whimper, if you catch my drift, but limits are startling, especially when you’re new to the game.

If you didn’t know that a fence was there until you ran right into it, the shock is substantial. It hurts almost as much as the bump the fence post gave your head.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the fence was out to get you, any more than the lady who doesn’t want you to steal from her purse is mean. Every type of human interaction has its own set of rules, and the sooner a person learns them, the sooner he can learn not to react to impersonal barriers as though they were personal attacks.

On a not entirely unrelated note, last time, I broached the burning question at the front of the mind of every writer who has ever submitted a manuscript to an agency: how soon will the agent make a decision about whether to represent my book?

The answer, pretty much invariably, runs a little something like this: not as quickly as the writer would like.

And that reality, like the excellent life axiom Do Not Lift Things From Other People’s Purses, is applicable to everyone, not just oneself. Try not to take slow turn-around times personally — or as any reflection whatsoever upon the quality or marketability of your writing.

It’s just the way the system works. And no, that present in my bag is not for you, kid.

Don’t believe me? Or, more likely: believe me rationally, but can’t accept it emotionally? Let’s analyze the situation.

Tell me again why the submission process seems to take so long?
As we discussed in the previous post, agents don’t draw out the submission process just to torture writers — the delays in turn-around are often due to logistical considerations, such as the number of screening levels though which a manuscript must pass prior to the agent, how backlogged the agent’s reading schedule is (remember, she doesn’t just need to peruse new clients’ books; her existing client list keeps producing manuscripts, too), and the sheer volume of submissions an agency receives.

Oh, and people who work in agencies have lives too; no one, however dedicated to literature, reads 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year plus one in leap year.

As much as impatient writers might like them to do so. Or to believe that any delay in hearing back, however minute, could only be explained by the agent’s reaction to the manuscript.

But that’s almost never true. Despite the fact that aspiring writers tend to be very, very gifted at manufacturing creative reasons that they haven’t yet received a response after submitting requested materials, the usual reason is quite prosaic: if you haven’t heard back about a submission, chances are that the people at the agency who need to read the manuscript just haven’t had time to get to it yet.

Or at least, as is often the case, haven’t read beyond the first few pages. But believe it or not, when an agent skims the opening of a manuscript and sets is aside to read more closely later, that’s actually good news, from the writer’s perspective. Even if the submission subsequently gathers dust and coffee stains on the corner of his desk, its author has reason to rejoice.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief, agents and editors will seldom read an entire manuscript before deciding to reject it. Once they come to a page (or paragraph, or even sentence) that raises a red flag, they generally stop reading altogether.

In fact — and you might want to sit down for this, if you’re new to this blog — it’s very, very common for submissions to get rejected before the bottom of page 1. One frequent flag-raiser: wildly unprofessional presentation; in case you’re not aware of it, there is a standard format for book manuscripts (explained in great detail in the posts under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right).

I can sense some resistance to the concept of quick rejection floating out there in the ether. “But Anne,” dewy-eyed idealists everywhere exclaim, “that can’t possibly be right. No one seriously interested in writing would dismiss a book without reading it. They’ve got to give it a fair chance. If an agent asks to see my manuscript, of course he’s going to take the time to read it!”

Oh, my dears. The explanation is going to be even harder for you to accept than what has already raised your hackles, I’m afraid.

The front-loaded submission screening process
Rejected manuscripts rarely read in their entirety, for the exceedingly simple reason that if a manuscript has problems throughout — anything from clichèd dialogue to grammatical errors to lack of excitement on the page — it tends to show up within the first few pages. Or at least within the first fifty.

Which is why, in case anyone was wondering, agents so often ask for fifty pages. Or the first chapter. Millicent the agency screener assumes — and so does her boss, and so will an editor — that if the writing has problems or the story is weak early on, it will remain so for the rest of the book.

Are you thinking that aspiring writers who take a while to warm up are out of luck? Good; you’re beginning to understand how the system works. And that, my friends, is a significant advantage.

How? Being aware of how front-loaded the submission process is enables a writer intending to submit to edit those opening pages so that at least some of the book’s best writing appears first, as well as prompting a special care to avoid rejection triggers there.

Again, not entirely coincidentally, here at Author! Author!, we tend to spend quite a bit of our energy on how to identify and excise these manuscript red flags. For an intensive analysis of dozens of the most common rejection reasons and tips on avoiding them in your submissions, please see the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the list at right.

Back to that good news I mentioned above: if an agent reads the first few pages of a submission and sets it aside to peruse later, that means he hasn’t rejected it; unlike the overwhelming majority of submissions, its opening passed muster. Hooray!

Insofar as a submission’s sitting on an agent’s bedside table for three months can be a hooray-inducing situation.

I’m sensing more disturbance in the ether. “Okay,” the idealists concede reluctantly, “I can see how rejection might be a speedier process than acceptance. But if the agent (and his Millicent who screens things for him) makes up his mind that quickly about most rejections, does his setting my manuscript aside to read later mean that he’s already basically decided to accept it?”

Oh, would that it were that simple. Once a manuscript has cleared the instant rejection hurdle, many other criteria come into play.

What makes an agent decide to take on one manuscript, rather than another, when both have been sitting on the edge of his desk for the past three months?
One reason, and one reason only: she believes that she can sell the first book in the current literary marketplace. Period.

In other words, in her professional opinion, not only is the book is well-written and might interest people who buy and read books, but she also has the connections to editors at major or mid-sized publishing houses who will be interested in bringing this particular manuscript to publication. Furthermore, she believes that the book concept and presentation are polished enough that she can begin sending it out to editors without having first to invest tremendous amounts of her time in re-editing the work. Also, based upon how the writer has presented the manuscript and handled the querying/pitching and submission process, she believes that the writer is sufficiently professional and well enough versed in how publishing works that she will not need to hold his hand throughout every step of the process.

Makes you want to run crying to your mother, doesn’t it?

Idealists’ hands just shot up all over the English-speaking world. “But Anne, this extremely complicated set of conclusions is, you must admit, hardly likely to be something an agent is likely to reach on a purely spontaneous basis three lines into the manuscript! So how can Millicent possibly reject any manuscript on page 1?”

Rather easily, as it happens — you wouldn’t believe how many submissions contain major grammatical or logic errors on page 1. But you do have a point, idealists: even for the minority (and it is a minority, alas) with impeccable opening pages, Millicent needs to see more than just a technically correct, clearly-written, genre-appropriate manuscript: she is looking for something that will grab her boss.

In other words, most agents require far, far more reasons to accept a manuscript than to reject it. Just good, or even good and marketable, is seldom good enough to land an agent.

Quash the impulse to throw a toy at the mean lady who is telling you the rules, please. She didn’t make them.

In order to come up with that array of pluses, the agent will need to spend some time getting to know the book. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she will be reading it with a charitable eye. Remember, reputable agents only make money if they can sell their clients’ books: she can only afford to take on what she’s confident she can sell.

So since even an extremely successful agent can take on only a few new clients per year — especially in this economy — in practice, agents considering a new client typically read with an eye peeled for reasons not to take on the book.

Yes, even for that tiny percentage of submissions that make it past Millicent. As an agent of my acquaintance likes to say, he scours the first 185 pages of a submission from a would-be client eager to find reasons to reject it. After he’s invested the time to read up through page 185, then he starts looking for reasons to accept it.

Those reasons will not necessarily be purely literary, or even aesthetic, mind you. Agenting is, after all, not a non-profit enterprise devoted to the cause of art for art’s sake, but a business.

The choice to sign a client, then, is very seldom purely the result of the agent’s just falling in love with the book at first sight — although rejection often does come that quickly. She may well fall in love with it eventually, but it’s a more mature, reasoned sort of love, the result of a considered decision, not a gut impulse.

I’m bringing this up because often, the underlying assumption behind the “But what’s taking so long?” cri de coeur is not just the mistaken belief that an agent who requested materials will drop everything in order to read them the moment they arrive, but also the misguided theory that if a book is compelling, the reader won’t be able to put it down until she finishes reading it.

Trust me, people who read manuscripts for a living manage it. All the time. If they couldn’t, they’d never be able to leave work at the end of the day or go to sleep at night.

And you know how Millicent needs her beauty sleep.

Another frequent submitter’s assumption is that good writing is inherently so arresting that any professional reader worth her salt should be able to identify an exciting new voice instantly, practically from the top of page 1. While it is often the case that good writing will make professional readers think, “Wow, I’m looking forward to reading on!” that does not mean the initial tingle of hope should be confused with the ultimate decision to represent the book.

The former merely means that the latter outcome is possible, not that it is guaranteed. That possibility is what keeps Millicent — and her boss, if a submitter is lucky — turning pages.

Thus, the secret writerly fantasy about a literary agent’s taking one look at a query letter or hearing a pitch and crying, “STOP! I don’t need to know anything else! I must sign this writer immediately!” just doesn’t happen in real life. (Well, okay, so it does happen to the occasional celebrity, but I’m guessing that if any of you were already famous and/or internationally disreputable, my blog wouldn’t be the first place you would look to find out how to seek representation.) A reputable agent is going to want to read the manuscript in its entirety before making up her mind — or, for nonfiction, the entire book proposal.

Yes, no matter how stellar the book’s premise may be or how good the writer’s credentials may be for writing it. Many a marvelous idea has been scuttled by poor presentation. As they like to say in the industry, it all depends on the writing.

Yet that truism is a trifle misleading, because — and this would be a good time to reach for your inhaler, if you’re prone to stress-induced asthma — writing quality alone is not necessarily enough going to be enough to charm an agent into agreeing to represent a book.

Yes, the agent generally has to like the writing, find the premise appealing, regard the characters as well-rounded and believable, and so forth, but since she will have to make a substantive argument to an editor about how this manuscript is different and better than both similar books already on the market and the other manuscripts the editor is likely to see anytime soon, she does need to pay close attention to the book’s selling points over and above the beauty of the writing.

Including, incidentally, whether the manuscript is the kind of book that’s selling right now. Not what is currently featured in bookstores at the moment, but what editors are buying now.

Trends: sometimes the writer’s enemy, sometimes friend
As we discussed earlier in this series, there’s generally at least a year between when a publisher acquires a book and when it’s released, so what consumers may buy today is actually a reflection of what editors were buying 12 or 15 months ago, possibly more.

This fact is crucial for aspiring writers to understand, as it has a huge effect on the marketability of their manuscripts, from an agent’s perspective. Since the book market is notoriously susceptible to trends — ask anyone who happened to be trying to sell a vampire romance immediately after the TWILIGHT series hit the bestseller lists, or anyone attempting to market a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — agents’ self-protective attention to what is selling now, as opposed to 5, 15, or 100 years ago, often means that a manuscript that would have experienced little difficulty finding representation in another year might seem like too big a risk to for an agent to take on now, and vice versa.

Yes, you are understanding me correctly: from an agent’s point of view, a good book is not necessarily a marketable book — and a book that is marketable today is not necessarily what will be considered especially marketable six months or two years from now.

Which is why, in case those of you who have attended writers’ conferences recently have been wondering, some agents are prone to telling rooms full of gaping aspiring writers, “Oh, no one is buying that kind of book anymore.” They don’t mean that the specified type is never going to sell again — they mean that there isn’t a particularly strong demand for it amongst editors at the major houses right now.

But as an honest agent will be the first to tell you, no one can possibly say for sure what will be selling well next year. Especially given current market conditions.

So when aspiring writers complain about how books like theirs are not finding agents these days, it’s unlikely to strike anyone affiliated with the publishing industry as a searing indictment of their collective aesthetic judgment, but rather as a simple statement of fact about the current literary market. That some types of writing will fall out of fashion from time to time is inevitable; that ones that were not hot in the past will become so is equally inevitable.

And if that fact makes you want to tattle on agencies, rather than sending out another flotilla of queries next month, or renders you immobile with horror at the prospect of mailing the book you’ve spent the last three years writing to an agent who routinely dismisses excellent manuscripts because he cannot expect to sell them, well, you’re like most aspiring writers.

Specifically, like the ones who become convinced that a handful of rejections can only mean that their manuscripts are no good. Or the ones that never work up the nerve to query or submit at all.

If, on the other hand, your first response was, “Wow, it sounds like Anne’s spouting that old truism about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a minute,” then congratulations: you’re catching on to how publishing works.

See why it’s so vital to a writer’s continued happiness not to take the vagaries of the literary market personally? Don’t let the rules of the coffeehouse frighten you away from that toy box; it’s there for creative people like you.

Keep up the good work!

Exercising breath control, or, why Millicent wouldn’t spend more than a minute or two on that Ivanhoe manuscript

Ivanhoe scenes

Have you noticed a running pattern in the last week or two of posts on self-editing, campers? Have you dimly sensed that no matter where my suggestion du jour may begin, my narratives always end up taking a scenic detour through the joys of keeping the pacing tight in your manuscript? Has your significant other been shaking you awake, demanding that you cease muttering, “But does it have conflict on every page? EVERY page?” over and over again in the night? Have you found yourself clapping your hands loudly in boring work meetings, exclaiming, “Where’s the tension? Let’s get things moving here, people!” At family gatherings? At church?

Glad to hear it. My subtle indoctrination technique is working!

In case I haven’t yet dumped enough cold water on those of you intending to submit your writing to professional scrutiny any time in the foreseeable future: manuscripts or book proposal that drag their feet even a little tend to get rejected. Especially, as we discussed yesterday, those that meander within the first few pages. And while we’ve all read dozens of published books that have rocked us gently to sleep by page 4, and it truly isn’t fair that your manuscript is being held to a higher standard than THOSE evidently were, sitting around resenting the differential isn’t going to help you get your work published so effectively as making sure that YOUR manuscript is as tight as a drum.

I’m aware that the very notion makes half of you want to curl up into a protective ball around your manuscript, whimpering, “NO! You can’t cut ANY of it!” I know perfectly well that many, if not most, aspiring writers beard the heavens with bootless cries against the strange reality dictating that a manuscript should be publication-ready before it has an agent, who will probably ask the writer to change it significantly before sending it out to editors, anyway. I am even fully cognizant of the fact that from a writerly perspective, we love your writing — give us less of it doesn’t make much sense at all.

Yet a sober recognition of the extreme competitiveness of the literary market and the ability to self-edit in order to render one’s work more marketable within its ever-changing landscape are species characteristics of the professional working writer; while it’s not completely unheard-of for a first draft to be what ends up on the published page, by and large, producing a book-length manuscript purely from inspiration, without revision or even close subsequent reads by the author prior to an editor’s involvement, is roughly as rare amongst the successful author population as qualifying for the Olympics is amongst the world population.

I know you have it in you to approach this like a pro. Let’s talk conflict.

As I may have mentioned once or twice throughout this series, it’s an industry truism that a novel should have conflict — or still better, tension — on every page. While anybody who has had a half-hour conversation with me about the current state of the industry knows that I feel this standard should not be applied arbitrarily to every book in every genre, you should be aware of this axiom — because, I assure you, every agency screener is. In my conversations on the subject, the word arbitrary tends to come up, as do the phrases knee-jerk reaction, radical oversimplification of a complex array of literary factors, and power run mad. I’ve been known to question whether, for instance, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, CATCH-22, or OF HUMAN BONDAGE could find a publisher today as new books, much less an agent.

Or, indeed, virtually any of the bestsellers of the 18th or 19th centuries. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is the opening page of the absolutely last word in exciting dramatic novels in 1819, IVANHOE:

Ivanhoe first page

“What is this?” a modern-day Millicent mutters under her breath, reading for the SASE that, naturally, Sir Walter Scott had included with his submission. “A book about furniture? A manual on room decor? Where is the conflict? And what’s the deal with the punctuation? Next!”

But that’s rich array of rejection reasons would not be what Sir Walter would hear, right? No, his only clue about why his submission was rejected would be this:

Dear Scott:

I read your submission with great interest, but I’m afraid your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with the story.

Another agent may well feel differently, and I wish you every success finding a home for this book.

Sincerely,

Millicent’s boss
Great Big Agency

I’m making light of it, but honestly, I have sat up many a midnight, worrying about all of the talented aspiring writers out there currently relying upon, say, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen as pacing role models, only to have their hearts broken by rejection by agents, editors, and contest judges who, rationally enough, base their assessments about whether a book is marketable upon what has been selling within the last five years, rather than upon the kind of abstract notion of Good Literature that most of us encountered in our English classes. To say nothing of writers who chose as their lodestar books released a decade ago, or even, in some especially fast-changing genres, just a few years back.

If you doubt that, I invite you to round up all of the agents who were trawling writers’ conferences for chick lit in, say, 2002, at the height of the post-BRIDGET JONES enthusiasm, and ask them whether they still rabidly seeking chick lit today. Those genuinely enamored of the genre have stuck with it, of course, but don’t be surprised to hear that a good two-thirds of them have spent the last couple of years pursing the next big YA vampire classic.

My point is, publishing is driven as much by fads as by an appreciation for the beauty of a well-crafted sentence; in the mid-1980s, for instance, a novel’s being over 100,000 words was considered completely acceptable. Yet interestingly, the truism about conflict on every page has endured for a couple of decades now. There are plenty of agents and editors out there, and good ones, who do apply this standard to submissions, so you’re better off if you think about the pacing issue before you send your baby out the door, rather than later puzzling over a form-letter rejection, wondering if the pacing could possibly have been the problem.

Much of the time, it is. So much so that I feel a checklist coming on:

(1) If you’re editing for length, seeking out comparatively slow bits to shorten — or, dare I say it, cut altogether — should be at the top of your to-do list.

Actually, a search-and-minimize technique isn’t a bad idea even if length isn’t your particular bugbear, either, but it’s absolutely essential when editing for length.

What should go in the place of the trimmed bits? Conflict, of course.

(2) If you want to keep a slow scene, ramp up the conflict within it.

“But Anne,” those of you who write introspective books cry, “what can I do if my plot is, in fact, rather sedate? I can hardly make the church down the block blow up in order to add spice to my domestic drama, can I? It would look so odd.”

This is a good question, and prompts me to ask another: what does tension on every page mean? Should every character be fighting with every other constantly? Do you have to show things exploding at least once every 33 lines? Should the librarian in Chapter 2 pull a switchblade on your protagonist when he tries to check out a book on gardening?

No, on all counts. But how about these tension-increasers?

Some character could want something and not get it on every page, right, without gunpowder being involved.

Characters could say one thing and do another.

Every conversation could contain some seed of disagreement.

That’s all realistic, isn’t it? After all, no two human beings are ever in absolute agreement on every point, right? At least no two I have ever known.

(3) Consider having allies disagree, harbor different motivations — or having the protagonist be less sure of her own.

Trust me, your protagonist’s relationship with her best buddy will come across to the reader as stronger, not weaker — not to mention more true-to-life — if they have the occasional tiff. A person has to care more about a friend to maintain a relationship through a conflict than through periods of sunny agreement; make your characters fight a little for their friendships from time to time. They’ll seem more valuable.

Where overt disagreement is not feasible, then how about a differential between what your protagonist is saying and what she is thinking? The protagonist could habitually bite her tongue, while her angry thoughts run rampant. Internal conflict is definitely interesting.

(4) Seek out dialogue-only scenes and inspect them for lack of tension.

Yes, I’m talking about ALL scenes where the dialogue is uninterrupted by narrative text for more than, say, half a page. Reach for your manuscript, scan it for dialogue-only scenes, and check to see whether those scenes are sufficiently conflictual to maintain Millicent’s interest. Most of the time, they don’t.

Did I just hear the battle cry of all of those writers out there who were taught since their infancies that dialogue should speak for itself, and that it is inherently bad writing EVER to include a character’s thoughts in the midst of dialogue? Am I about to be on the receiving end of a body blow from those stalwart souls who have doomed readers to two or three pages on end of pure dialogue, devoid of other activity, or even markers of who is speaking when?

Oh, dear. How shall I put this gently? If you are so gifted a dialogue-writer that you can convey every nuance of a relationship between two characters at a particular moment in time purely through dialogue, do so with my blessings. But honestly, if you have that particular talent, you might want to go into writing stage or screenplays. Novels, I believe, are places to show complex characters with interesting motivations, people who think and act as well as speak.

Personally, if I want to read transcripted conversations, a novel or memoir is not the first place I look. That’s what trial transcripts are for, after all.

I am aware, though, that there are plenty of writers — and writing teachers — out there who would disagree with me. (Look, Ma: conflict on this page!) If you prefer to follow their precepts, fine. But do be aware that it’s hard to maintain a sense of forward motion throughout pages of dialogue-only text, particularly if one of the speakers is a character the reader does not know particularly well.

(5) Consider the dramatic appeal of duplicity.

This is a great way to liven up those dialogue-only scenes. In my experience, the vast majority of people do not say everything that is on their minds at any given moment. Anyone who has ever been a teenager being lectured by a parent, for instance, or an employee shouted at by a boss, has direct personal knowledge of a situation where what is said out loud and what is thought is WILDLY different, where reproducing merely the dialogue would not give an accurate picture of what is really going on between these two people.

Almost everyone holds something back when talking to others — out of politeness sometimes, out of fear others, out of strategy, out of love. The struggle to express oneself without giving away the whole candy store is one of the great human problems, isn’t it? So why not let that struggle manifest on the page?

(6) Double-check all dialogue-based scenes for tension.

Is there enough conflict in them? If no emotion is being generated on either side of a discussion, there probably isn’t.

The conflict need not be large; an argument certainly isn’t appropriate to every scene. Are there a couple of small tweaks you could make to increase the tension between these characters, or the tension within the character’s own mind?

(7) Excise dialogue that doesn’t advance the storyline or provide memorable character development.

Is the conversation providing new information, or just rehashing what the reader already knows? If the latter, could the line be cut without the reader losing a sense of what is going on?

You’d be stunned by how often the answer is yes. Remember, repetition bogs down pace considerably. Trim as much of it as possible — yes, even if real-life characters would say precisely what you already have on the page.

(8) Scrutinize fill-in-the-friend scenes for conceptual redundancy.

Pay particular attention to scenes where the protagonist is telling another character what just happened; such dialogue is notoriously redundant. In fact, know a very prominent agent, one who gives classes and writes books to give advice to aspiring writers, who insists that any scene where characters are talking over ANYTHING that has already occurred in the book should be cut outright. However, since he also counsels removing any scene where the protagonist drinks tea, sips coffee, drives anywhere alone, or thinks about what is going on, I’m not sure I would advise taking his admonitions as revealed gospel.

But the next time you find your characters sitting in a coffee shop, chatting about what has happened in the previous scene, you might want to ask yourself: would the reader be able to follow what is going on in the book if this scene were cut?

(9) Generally speaking, a manuscript that has ups and downs will be perceived by the reader as more exciting than one that does not.

Consider changing the running order of the scenes. Alternating action scenes with processing scenes, or fast-paced scenes with slower ones, will give more movement to the plot.

(10) Experiment with varied sentence structure.

If you find yourself perplexed about the drooping energy of a scene whose action would seem to dictate tight pacing, try this trick o’ the trade: at exciting moments, make the sentences shorter than at more meditative times in your plot. That way, the rhythm of the punctuation echoes the increased heart rate of your protagonist. Your reader will automatically find himself reading faster — which, in turn, will make the suspense of the scene seem greater.

Good trick, eh? You can perform a similar feat with dialogue, to give the impression of greater underlying hostility between the speakers.

(11) Let the dialogue reflect the speakers’ breathing patterns.

People breathe less deeply when they are upset; breathing shallowly, they tend to speak in shorter bursts than when they are relaxed. Also, agitated people are more likely to throw the rules of etiquette to the four winds and interrupt others. It is not a time for long speeches.

Dialogue that reflects these two phenomena tends to come across to readers as more exciting than exchanges of hefty chunks of speech. If you are trying to make a dialogue-based scene read faster, try breaking up the individual speeches, providing interruptions; the resulting dialogue will seem more conflict-ridden, even if the actual conversation is not about something inherently conflict-inducing.

Seriously, it works. Consider this tame little piece of dialogue:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked. “I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like. The kids would love it; it would mean so much to them. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

Janie chuckled ruefully. “I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all. Even from preserves, though, the cherry cobbler you like takes a terribly long time to make. I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s pie recipe, the one she learned from that traveling pie pan salesman during the Great Depression. Infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey, with both: your Aunt Gloria certainly learned her lesson from that salesman well. But I’m sure that the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor, so to speak, show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

“Well,” Janie said, sighing, “you have a point, but I simply don’t have time to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

Not exactly a conflict-fest, is it? Now take a gander at the same scene with Albert and Janie taking shorter breaths — and some editorial rearrangement with an eye toward maximizing conflict. To make it an even higher dive, let’s maintain it as a dialogue-only scene:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, “to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

“I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like.’

“Even from preserves, the cobbler you like takes a long time to make.”

“The kids would love it. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

“I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all.”

“I’m sure the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

Janie sighed. “Look, I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s Great Depression cherry pie recipe…”

“Yeah, your Aunt Gloria certainly learned something from that traveling pie pan salesman.”

“…And infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it, even though the dialogue is almost identical? Hardly divorce-court material, even now, but now the scene isn’t about pie v. cobbler at all: it’s about clashing expectations within a marriage — and what does Albert have against Aunt Gloria, anyway?

If you really get stumped about where to break the speeches, try running around the block, then coming back and seeing how much of each character’s speech you can say out loud before you have to gasp for breath — thus allowing another party opportunity to speak up.

I swear that this really works.

(12) Consider the possibility that you may be able to convey the necessary tension by showing only part of the scene — or winnowing down a conversation to a quick exchange.

Sometimes, less honestly is more. If the goal is to put tension into this particular scene, do you really need more than the beginning and end of the Janie-Albert exchange?

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, ‘to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner. Your favorite cobbler takes an entire afternoon of my time, but I can throw together a pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Sufficient, isn’t it? That’s four lines of pure interpersonal conflict that could be dropped into any kitchen conversation between spouses of a certain age.

And that, my friends, is enough about editing for pace for one year; as of tomorrow, I’m on to other topics. Keep up the good work!