It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

So you’ve pitched or queried successfully — now what? Part X: oh, my itchy fingers!

I had intended to devote Labor Day weekend entirely to posts on craft, campers, on the theory that since simply scads of you will be spending the next few days sending out flotillas of fresh queries and/or submissions, you might enjoy a creativity break. I find, however, that I have a few more things to say about submission that you might want to know before Tuesday rolls around.

How did I know you were gearing up to hit the SEND key? Well, the New York-based publishing world’s annual holiday has traditionally run from the end of the second week of August through, you guessed it, Labor Day. The presses no longer halt with quite the completeness with which they did in days of yore, but still, it’s a hard time to pull together an editorial committee.

Why should that affect the mailing and e-mailing habits of writers trying to break into the biz? Simple: when the editors are not in town, agents have an awfully hard time selling books to them, so agency denizens tend to take those same weeks off.

Again, that’s less true than it used to be, but if the Submission Fairy had whacked you with her magic red pencil last week, teleporting you into the average agency, you would have been chased out of the building by a smaller mob than would have caught up pitchforks and torches in, say, October.

In case I hadn’t mentioned it lately: don’t show up at an agency unless invited to do so, aspiring writers. And hold off on the calls until one of the member agents offers to represent you, please.

Admittedly, even in the bad old days, agencies were often not universally deserted in late August: the luckless soul left to guard the fort often got quite a lot of reading done. Still, it wasn’t then and isn’t now not the worst idea for a writer eager to hear back on a query or submission to hold off until after everyone returned to work with a suntan.

Thou shalt not query or submit between July and Labor Day has featured prominently in the annals of credible advice to writers for decades, and rightly so. Which may render what I am about to say next something of a surprise: if you are planning to query or submit to a US-based agency via e-mail, I would implore you to hold off until at least the middle of next week.

And the masses collapse onto the nearest chaises longues, overcome by astonishment. “But Anne,” they shout, and who could blame them? “I’ve been holding off! For the latter half of the summer, I have been twiddling my thumbs, biting my nails, and playing endless games of cat’s cradle, all to keep my itchy keying finger from hitting the SEND key while the agent of my dreams was likely to be vacating. Since I have every reason to expect that the AOMD will be flinging herself into her desk chair bright and early Tuesday morning, clutching that latté her eager assistant Millicent got her and scowling at the stacks of manuscripts awaiting her august attention — or, rather, her post-August attention — why shouldn’t I hammer on that SEND key like Hephaestus forging armor for the Olympian gods? I have a three-day weekend in which to ignore my kith and kin while I pursue my dream!”

You just answered your own question, itchy-fingered many: because any established agent — and thus any Millicent employed in an established agency — will be greeted upon her return to the office by the small mountain of submissions send over the last month. Her inbox overfloweth. And since millions of aspiring writers will also have been actively avoiding the warm embrace of kith and kin in order to crank out e-mailed queries and submissions this weekend, a hefty percentage of that overflow will be from writers just like you.

Why might that be a problem, if she and Millicent down those lattés, roll up their sleeves, and work through those queries and submissions in the order received? Well, let me ask you: if you had 1,572 messages from total strangers gracing your inbox Tuesday morning, how would you feel about it? Delighted to see that literature was alive and well in North America — or just a trifle grumpy at the prospect of working through them all?

Still not seeing the wisdom of not adding your query or submission to that queue? Okay, think of it this way: would you rather that Millicent first cast eyes upon your query as #1376 of Tuesday, or as #12 of Friday? Would you rather that she read your submission with fresh eyes — or with eyes bleary from the imperative of reading her way down to the point where her desk is visible from above?

Just something to think about. Naturally, a querier or submitter exercises very little control over the conditions under which Millicent reads his work, but if a savvy writer can minimize the chances that she will be assessing it at a point when she will predictably be swamped, why not rein in those itchy fingers for another few days?

Speaking of the trouble into which over-eager fingers can land their owners, as well as our ongoing focus on some of the unanticipated side effects of successful querying and submission, I’d like to devote today’s post to a couple of excellent questions from long-time members of the Author! Author! community. First, let’s learn of the travails faced by witty gun-jumper Robert:

I must have smoked something funny during Querypalooza, because I prematurely sent an agent my query. Only fifty pages in, with no end in sight, I was asked for my completed MS! How would one tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested?

I love the blog and appreciate every moment you put into it. There is nothing out there that comes close in style, entertainment, or value. Thanks for the tools to push my writing career forward.

Why, thank you, Robert; how kind of you to say so. Also: what on earth were you thinking?

Ah, how loyal you all are; I can feel half of you rushing to Robert’s defense. Lower those pitchforks a trifle, please, so I may hear you better. “Whoa there, lady — what’s with the indignant italics? It can take months to hear back from an agent these days; why couldn’t he have sent out that query the nanosecond he whipped it into shape?”

Well, obviously, he could, because he did, but I get what you’re saying: querying turn-around times can indeed be quite lengthy. One can also, as I know some of you can attest, hear back within an hour of hitting SEND, if someone at the agency of your dreams happens to be sitting in front of a computer at the time.

To quote the late, great Fats Waller, one never knows, does one?

What one does know — and what I suspect has sent our Robert into a belated fit of qualm — is that for fiction, agents expect that any manuscript a writer queries or pitches to them will be at the completed draft stage. Oh, they’re aware that occasionally, an overeager writer will begin setting up prospects a little early, but Robert is quite right to assume that if he ‘fessed up, the agent of his dreams would not be amused.

So how would a savvy writer, in Robert’s words, tiptoe out of this situation, keeping the agency interested? Simple: he wouldn’t.

Was that behemoth thunk a sign that half of you just introduced your lower jaws to the floor? I’m not entirely surprised: as we have been discussing throughout this series, the apparently immortal myth that an agent requesting pages will only accept them if the writer breaks all extant land speed records in getting the manuscript under her peepers has encouraged a whole lot of successful queriers and pitchers to do a whole lot of silly things. Or if not silly, than at least unstrategic — not bothering to spell- or grammar-check before hitting SEND, for instance. Neglecting to proofread, to make sure that the coworker called Monica in Chapter 1 is not Monique in Chapter 5. Fudging the typeface or the margins, so that a particularly strong scene or line will fall within the requested 50 pages, not thereafter. Sending 52 pages, when the agent asked for 50, for the sake of the aforementioned bit. Or simply printing the darned thing out the instant the request for materials arrives and dashing to the post office, only to realize halfway home that the packet did not include a SASE.

Oh, you may laugh, but I know good writers — gifted ones, intelligent ones, ones whose prose a literature lover could have sung out loud — that have made each and every one of these mistakes. Sometimes more than one at a time.

They, like Robert, have jumped the gun, and it did not pay off for them. It seldom does, because — feel free to chant it with me, those of you who have been following this series — since a submitter gets only one chance to place a particular manuscript under a particular agent’s eyes, it simply does not make sense to hit SEND until that manuscript is polished enough to represent her best work.

If you don’t mind my pointing it out, Robert, that level of polish is rarely a characteristic of a first draft. Even if you had hit SEND when you were only a chapter away from finishing the novel, you might have been better off taking the time to read and possibly revise it before querying. But in thinking otherwise, you certainly were not alone: the overwhelming majority of first novels are queried, pitched, and submitted while still in the first-draft stage.

“Okay, I get it,” jaw-rubbers everywhere say sullenly. “My pages should fairly shine before they wing their way to Millicent. But what is my buddy Robert to do? He meant no harm; he had merely assumed that the most he would be asked to send was 50 pages, tops. I hate to see him punished for that piece of misapprehension.”

And he needn’t be, if only he bears in mind the principle that his gun-jumping pretty clearly shows he did not embrace in the first place: when an agent requests a full or partial manuscript, she is not expecting to receive it right away.

So if Robert could conceivably complete that manuscript within the next year to year and a half, he may eschew tiptoeing altogether: he could simply apply his nose diligently to the proverbial grindstone until he finished — and spell-checked, resolved the burning Monica/Monique debate, etc. — and then send it off as requested. No need to apologize in his cover letter, either: since he had no reason to believe that the AOHD had cleared her schedule in anticipation of its arrival, he should simply thank her for asking to see it.

Some of you jaw-rubbers are eying me dubiously. “But Anne, isn’t that a trifle rude? I mean, doesn’t he owe it to the agent of his dreams — that’s what that acronym means, right? — to e-mail her right off the bat to tell her that as much as he would love to comply with her request for pages right away, he won’t be able to do it for months?”

The short answer to that is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOOOO.

Seriously, why would he have an obligation to send her an update? It’s not as though Robert’s was the only query her office received, or the only one to which the AOHD said yes. And while most successful queriers and pitchers do crank their submissions out the door rather quickly, there’s always a sizable contingent that never elects to send the requested pages at all. Perhaps because, like Robert, they queried in haste and repented at leisure.

The AOHD is unlikely, in short, to be sitting around four months hence, filing her nails over a desk completely devoid of manuscripts, idly wondering why that nice Robert never sent her that nifty book. But he doesn’t write…he doesn’t call…

Trust me, she has better things to do. Like reading through the pile of manuscripts that did make it to her desk.

Does that giant, gusty collective sigh that just blew my cat sideways indicate that more than a few of you wish you were aware of that before you hit the SEND key on at least one occasion. Again, I’m not surprised, but trust me, Roberts of the literary world, no one will even blink if you don’t get requested materials to them within six or even nine months, much less change their minds about wanting to see it. Plenty of writers, and good ones, take that long to revise existing manuscripts.)

Should Robert’s itchy fingers prove incapable of not tapping out an e-mail, however, he could legitimately drop the AOHD a note in five or six months, thanking her for her continued interest and saying that the manuscript will be on its way soon. Which may well be true: in current agency reading terms, another three months would be soon. I wouldn’t advise hitting SEND sooner, though, because there’s always a danger that the agency’s needs will have changed in the meantime — you definitely don’t want your polite update to be construed as a request for a second permission to send it, lest they say no, right, Robert?

No need to rap our Robert on the knuckles for his infraction, then, you’ll be glad to hear. I wouldn’t want to affect his ability to type the rest of his manuscript quickly.

I’m always astonished, though, at how often good, well-meaning writers rap themselves on the knuckles when they realize that like practically every first-time successful querier or pitcher, they have sent out their manuscripts before their precious pages were truly ready. Take, for instance, intrepid reader Anni:

I have a question that has nothing to do with this topic (sorry) but I just couldn’t keep worrying about it in silence any longer.

A couple months ago, I made it as far as sending out 5 queries with samples as requested for my manuscript and received 4 form rejections and 1 non-reply. I took this as a sign that something was amiss, and discussed it with my feedback readers. The conclusion: the first third of the manuscript wasn’t on par with the rest. It needed to be rewritten into something more fast-paced and exciting.

To pull me through the tedious rewriting, I compiled a list of agents for when the manuscript is once again ready, and I realized something: There aren’t that many agencies for that want YA fantasy novels.

As I understand it, agents do NOT like re-submissions, even if I’ve rewritten half the manuscript from scratch. I’ve already lost 5 agents from my potential agencies list! What happens if I run out of agents to query without signing with one of them? Is there an acceptable period of time after which I can query a second time?

I may be jumping the gun with these worries, but I’m afraid to send out my next batch of queries and possibly waste another 5 agents because the query/manuscript isn’t absolutely perfect. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend the next year striving for that impossible perfection. Instead of facing just the potential for rejection, I get to watch my list of potential agents dwindle to an eventual zero.

I don’t know what I should do! Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks very much.

Nor should you have suffered in silence for even an instant, Anni — this is far too common a problem. As I like to remind my readers early and often, if you’ve been wondering about something, chances are that another 3,274 regular Author! Author! readers have as well. So for both your own sake and theirs: please ask.

I’m especially glad that Anni spoke up on this issue, as this is a problem under which masses of good writers suffer in silence, assuming (often wrongly) that if they talk about it, they will be labeling their work as unmarketable. Then, as she did, they wake up one morning and realize that they’ve exhausted their entire agent list.

And all too often, like Anni, they leap to the conclusion that if they’ve been rejected, it has been because of the scant few pages some agencies allow queriers to include in their query packets. Yet of a Millicent is turned off by a query, she’s unlikely to bother to read the samples.

Yes, even if her agency specifically requests them — and especially if the query was online. Online submissions typically get a bit less scrutiny than e-mailed queries, which in turn usually receive less of Millicent’s time than paper letters. (There’s not much a querier can do about that if the agency vastly prefers online submissions, of course, but the trend is worth knowing.) Since she’s scanning literally hundreds of the things per week — and thousands, if it’s immediately after Labor Day — it generally doesn’t take much to generate a knee-jerk negative reaction. The sad fact is that just as the vast majority of submissions get rejected on page 1, most queries are rejected within the first paragraph.

So while I must applaud Anni on being brave and savvy enough to check with her first readers to figure out what was going wrong at the submission stage — very few writers would have had that pragmatic a response — I think she is jumping the gun. If she hasn’t run her query letter under objective eyes, she might want to do that before she sends it out again. (And if she hadn’t already run through the HOW NOT TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER and HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE categories on the list at right, she and those like her might want to invest some time in it, just in case they’ve inadvertently run afoul of a common agents’ pet peeve. You wouldn’t believe how often queries get rejected simply because the writer inadvertently omitted a word, or misspelled something, and just didn’t notice.)

Truth compels me to say that I also think she’s jumping the gun in the fear department. In the first place, the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES revolutions have assured that there are plenty of agents willing — nay, eager — to find the next great YA fantasy talent. With a sample as small as five queries (yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel small, but it’s not at all unusual these days for talented writers to send out a couple of hundred before landing an agent, alas), Anni might also want to consider the possibility that her specific subsection of her chosen book category isn’t selling particularly well right now — or that the agencies in question already have a number of similar books in circulation.

Neither of those things would be a reflection upon the quality of Anni’s writing, but either could easily result in rejection. And, let’s face it, in a book category as trendy as YA fantasy and in a literary market whose trends change with the rapidity that would make your garden-variety fruit fly say, “Really?” both are fairly probable.

That does not mean, however, that any Millicent that screened one of Anni’s five packets would have mentioned either reason in the rejection. Form-letter rejections leave no way for the writer to learn from the experience.

Anni is quite right, though, that agents dislike re-submissions — unless, of course, re-submitting was their idea. In fact, industry etiquette dictates that unless an agent specifically asks a submitter to revise and re-submit a particular manuscript, the writer must take the book and go someplace else.

What she probably has in mind here, though, is not re-submission, but re-querying. As I understand Anni’s story, she never submitted anything per se: she was querying agencies that asked to see the first few pages. Technically, that’s not submission; it’s querying with extras.

But again, Anni is correct in the larger sense: the norm is to query any given agency — not only any given agent — only once with any given book project. Almost any agency will balk at a writer who keeps querying over and over again with the same project, especially if those queries arrive very close together and nothing about the project seems to have changed. While Millicent tenure is often short, Anni could not legitimately assume that the same screener would not open her next query and huff, “Wait — I’ve seen this before, haven’t I? Next!”

That outcome is especially likely if the repeat querier, as some charmingly straightforward but misguided aspiring writers do, guilelessly tells Millicent in the query that she’s querying for a second time. Those attached sample pages are much better now, honest!

This delightful level of honestly is, alas, the equivalent of stamping the query with YOU’VE ALREADY REJECTED THIS. “Next!”

All that being said, if Anni simply punched up her query, ran through the rest of her querying list, and tried the first five a year or two later, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would take umbrage. At that juncture, in order for re-querying to generate hostility, someone at the agency would (a) have to recognize the query as a repeat, which would require both (b) the same Millicent having seen both versions (unlikely, given screener turnover) and (c) remembering a query which she’d spent a couple of minutes pondering a year before.

It’s just not all that likely, in short. Especially if Anni were strategic enough to re-query at a time of year at which millions of itchy fingers would predictably be simultaneously reaching for the SEND key, if you catch my drift.

You were expecting me to rap some knuckles here, weren’t you? I might have seven or eight years ago, but the well-known truism about agents disliking resubmissions is actually a rather old complaint, dating back to the days before e-mailed submissions were considered acceptable or online submissions even possible. Way back when agents started making this complaint at writers’ conferences and in interviews (which is how it became so pervasive on the writers’ rumor circuit, in case you had been wondering, Anni), many of them used to open each and every query themselves.

Now, due to the overwhelming volume of queries, an agent just wouldn’t have time to sell her current clients’ books if she opened all of the mail herself. (And that’s not even taking into account how radically the anthrax scare affected how mail was handled at agencies and publishing houses.) Even at relatively small agencies, that job is generally assigned to a Millicent or two.

Nowadays, an agent who complains about repetitive querying is usually talking about folks so persistent that they’ve become legendary at the agency, not your garden-variety aspiring writer who hits the SEND key twice within a year and a half. At my agency, everyone has stories about the writer who has not only queried every agent there individually five times, but recently launched into another round under a different name (but the same title).

Yet as so often happens when agents make conference complaints about specific instances, most of the aspiring writers who hear the story automatically assume that the agency obsessively maintains some kind of master list of every query it has ever received, so it may automatically reject any repeaters on sight. But practically, that would be prohibitively time-consuming: it would quadruple the amount of time its Millicents would have to spend on any individual query.

You were aware that the average query receives less than 30 seconds of agency attention, right?

That’s not a lot of time to have memorized Anni’s no doubt delightful premise, at least not well enough to recall it two years later based on the query’s descriptive paragraph alone. On the off chance that Anni might have been clever enough to change the title of the book the second time she queried that agency, the chances are even lower.

My, that jaw is coming in for quite a floor-battering this evening, isn’t it? I hate to break it to you, but only aspiring writers think of titles as set in stone. In practice, however, there’s no earthly reason that a manuscript has to be queried or submitted under the same title every time. Few first-time authors get to keep their original titles all the way to publication, anyway.

I guess I should stop before the bruise on anyone’s chin grows any bigger. For the nonce, suffice it to say that once again, we see an instance where a finger itching for contact with the SEND key has turned out not to be a reliable guide to its owner’s self-interest. In Anni’s case, I would far prefer to see that digit engaged in some serious online research in how many agents actually do regularly represent and sell YA fantasy.

And remember, folks, just because one has an itch doesn’t mean one has to scratch it. At least not immediately. Yes, the rise of e-querying and e-submission has increased the probability of swift turn-arounds — and the concomitant expectation of rapid acceptance — but it has also increased the volume of queries most agencies with websites receive exponentially.

Care to guess how many of those queriers also have itchy fingers? Or a three day weekend beginning tomorrow?

Not entirely coincidentally, tomorrow, we turn our attention to craft. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part VII: I’d describe the forest for you, but I’m too busy talking about Tree #147. And oh, look at Tree #412!

Can you stand to see one more post on structural repetition, campers, before we move on to the promised two-week overview of how to prepare a literary contest entry? I honestly shan’t blame you if the answer is no: many writers, even those deeply devoted to discussion of craft in general, become a trifle uncomfortable when it becomes time to sit down with their own manuscripts, whip out the highlighter pens, and try to identify recurrent patterns in their own writing. Hits a trifle close to the knuckle, I suspect: as loath as any of us may be to admit it, the writing gaffes that make our old pall and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, go pale and reach for the pile of photocopied form-letter rejections that’s never far from her elbow, are less often daring word experiments too radical for the current literary marketplace than simple reader-irritants like using and too often.

Sad but true, I’m afraid — and even I, inveterate in-depth technical discussion-monger that you know me to be, can readily admit that it’s a whole lot more fun to sit around and complain about recent trends in literature than to put our collective heads together for a confab on common forms of redundancy in submission. I’m not averse to a good gossip on the former; it’s merely been my experience that devoting some serious attention to the latter is considerably more useful to most good writers at submission or contest entry time.

I’m a reasonable person, however: all work and no play makes Jack a boy that types all work and no play on every page of a manuscript in a snow-bound hotel, right? So before I launch into that practical discussion that you knew would be coming, let’s have a little fun, shall we?

Not too long ago, an author who had established her literary credentials some decades ago — let’s call her Martha, because it’s nothing like her name — came over to my house for tea and a vigorous discussion of the ever-changing literary market. I love chatting with well-read, highly opinionated people on this particular subject, and Martha did not disappoint. She is, to put it mildly, no fan of what she calls “the recent vampire/werewolf/zombie craze,” nor does she entirely approve of this golden age of YA.

“I keep meeting wonderful writers,” she says, “who have just given up on writing for adults. Or about anyone with a pulse.”

I do, too, but actually, I find this view a trifle outdated: when I walk into, say, a Barnes & Noble today, what strikes me is not the size of the YA section (I think the expansion of this particular book category has yielded some great things) or how few novel protagonists boast pulses (for me, a little contact with the undead goes a long way), but what a high percentage of the books currently available for sale were written by those who no longer have pulses at all. I’m as fond of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as the next person, but do they really need to take up half the recommended reading table AND an entire shelf of the sale books? Might an enterprising publisher not shell out for some display space for a few more living authors?

And while we’re at it, is there a particular reason that so many bookstores stock only FRANKENSTEIN, but not any of Shelley’s other novels? Again, I’m as fond of, etc., etc., but the lady was prolific. For my money, VALPURGA, her fictional account of the Inquisition, dances circles around FRANKENSTEIN.

But perhaps that’s merely another manifestation of my preference for living protagonists, rather than revivified ones. And for heaven’s sake, walking corpses, stick to ruling the night — it annoys me when vampires traipse around in daylight, sparkling.

Compared to Martha, however, I’m a positive paranormal-hugger. As so often happens, in this particular conversation, I ended up defending publishing trends I do not necessarily applaud, simply because she seemed so very determined to ring the death knell for the industry — because, she said, “All publishers think about now is cash.”

That’s a very popular complaint amongst those who landed their agents back when it was considered a trifle gauche for writers to admit that they wanted to make a living at it. I have to say, though, that my kith and kin have been involved in producing books since the 1920s, and I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a time when publishing was purely a charitable enterprise.

It is true that both agents and publishers routinely used to nurse promising authors through half a dozen books, despite anemic sales, in the hope that someday, he (and it was almost always he) would gain a larger audience. Now, if a new author’s book does not sell well, she (and it often is she these days) and her agent may well have trouble convincing even an editor absolutely besotted with her prose stylings to take a chance with her next.

Hey, the bookstore needs that shelf space for its fifth copy of FRANKENSTEIN.

To be fair, though, readers also have quite different expectations than they did when Shelley’s debut novel hit the shelves — or, for that matter, when Martha’s did. Pacing is considerably faster these days, particularly in the U.S. fiction market; the passive voice so popular prior to World War II is considered stylistically rather weak. In deference to that type of browser who habitually grabs books off the shelves and reads page 1 before purchasing — or takes up the LOOK INSIDE challenge on Amazon — action tends to appear much earlier in plots than in years past.

Yes, even in literary fiction. If you don’t believe me, do some comparative reading of what was considered a cutting-edge literary novel in 1934 and what is coming out today. Or 1954. Or even 1984.

If it’s any consolation, Martha didn’t want to believe it, either. Like most writers, she would prefer to believe that good writing is good writing, period.

But that’s not precisely true. Because I am, as you may have noticed, deeply devoted to concrete examples, I reached over to my fiction bookshelves for an example of good, solid literary writing that might have trouble getting published, or even landing an agent, today. I didn’t have to run my fingertips past more than half a dozen spines before I found a great page 1: William Styron’s breakthrough 1951 novel, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS.

For decades, Styron was considered a writer’s writer: not only was he a grand storyteller, but his prose stylings made other writers drool with envy. In fact, I would urge all of you to read this lyrical, moving book in its entirety (after you polish off VALPURGA, perhaps). For our purposes, though, I’m going to show you only what I read to Martha. Try to absorb it on two levels: for the quality of the writing — and Millicent might respond to it if it landed on her desk as a submission from an unknown writer today. To aid in that imaginative feat, I’ll even show it to you as she would see it.

“Wow, I had forgotten what a wonderful writer he was,” Martha said. “Why did you stop there?”

“Because,” I said, bracing myself for the inevitable outcry of the literary-minded, “an agency screener wouldn’t have read any farther.”

Any guesses why? How about that paragraph-long, 118-word opening sentence? Or the two subordinate clauses beginning with which and the one with where? Or the piling-up of prepositions? Or the abrupt shift from the third person to the second on line 6?

None of this, of course, mars the inherent loveliness of the writing; hearing it read out loud, Martha was quite right to be impressed. As seen on the submission page, though, how likely to you think Millicent is to exclaim, as my guest did, “Wow, this is a wonderful writer,” rather than “Wow, that’s quite a run-on sentence?”

And having emitted the second, how likely is she not to follow it with, “Next!”

Darned right, that would be a pity: this is a beautifully-written, incisive novel. But Millicent is in fact justified in believing that a browser picking up this page 1 is likely to set the book back on the shelf again halfway through that gargantuan opening sentence.

What would make her so sure of that? Because the difference between the literary market of 1951 and the literary market of 2012 lies not merely in how quickly professional readers make up their minds about submissions, but also in non-professional readers’ expectations for what constitutes good writing.

I know, I know. After I made that argument to Martha, she kept feeling my head to see if I had developed a fever.

Why might a browser not be able to see past the length of that opening sentence? Memory, partially: the browser’s high school English teacher would have marked her down for producing a run-on of this magnitude. Besides, subordinate clauses are simply not as highly regarded as they used to be. Back in the day, literature was rife with these; now, most Millicents are trained to consider them, well, a bit awkward.

In fact, chances are very good that she was specifically trained to zero in on relative pronouns like which and subordinate conjunctions like where with the intent of ferreting out run-ons. That, I suspect, is going to come as surprise to those of you who love 19th-century novels.

We could quibble for hours about whether literary tastes have changed for better or worse. Since they have undoubtedly changed, though, it’s vital for aspiring writers who prefer more old-fashioned structures to realize that what was hailed by critics in 1951 might well give Millicent pause on page 1 today.

Or even give her an excuse to stop reading. But that does not necessarily mean that if the late lamented Mssr. Styron were trying to break into the literary fiction market today, I would advise him to lose all of the subordinate clauses.

Oh, I would certainly recommend some tinkering. That semicolon, for instance, could be replaced by a period at no great loss to the passage. Because the writing is so pretty here, however, I would be reluctant to impose the necessary cuts and changes on this passage, even for the purposes of an instructive example. As an editor, all I can justifiably do is point out the problems; it’s the writer’s job to rewrite.

That, too, often comes as a surprise to those harboring old-fashioned views of publishing. I meet aspiring writers all the time who greet any and all revision suggestions with an airy and dismissive, “Oh, I’m sure the acquiring editor/the agent of my dreams/some luckless proofreader will take care of that. All that matters at the submission stage is the quality of the writing.”

To a professional reader, that sentiment is, I’m afraid, nonsensical. Sentence-level difficulties are not external to the writing; they’re integral parts of it.

How a writer revises — or doesn’t — is as important to the ultimate quality of the book as the initial composition. Contrary to popular belief, though, there is no such thing as a single best way to revise a narrative, any more than there is a single best way to tell a story.

That being the case, how could an editor justifiably perform all necessary revisions to a manuscript? Or an agent, for that matter? And why wouldn’t a savvy writer prefer to make those changes herself, so she can control the voice?

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

These are two perfectly reasonable self-editing goals, of course, but they are not the only conceivable ones. When dealing with what I call, with apologies to Madame Shelley, a Frankenstein manuscript — a text that, while perhaps prettily written, has not yet been revised to the level of professional polish — a conscientious self-editor might well perform a read-through for voice consistency, another for grammatical problems, a third for logic leaps, a fourth because the protagonist’s husband is a plumber in Chs. 1 -8 and 15, but the member of Congress representing Washington’s 7th District in Chs. 9-14 and 16-22…

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

Does that all sound dandy in theory, but perplexing in practice? Don’t worry; I am empress of the concrete example, remember? To help you gain a solid sense of how diverse different of levels of revision can be, I’m going to treat you to a page from one of my favorite fluffy novels of yore, Noël Coward’s POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE, a lighthearted romp set in a tropical British colony on the eve of a royal visit.

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

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

Yeah, I know: try pitching that at a writers’ conference today. To our muttons:

P&C sample

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

Before you give your final answers, here’s that page again, after it has been subjected to just the kind of repetition-spotting mark-up I’ve been asking you to perform of late. Sorry about the dark image; I honestly didn’t take the photograph in a dank basement, but it certainly looks that way here. (If you’re having trouble reading the specifics, try pressing COMMAND and the + key simultaneously to enlarge it.)

P&C edit 1

Replete with structural redundancy, is it not? By today’s publication standards, as Millicent would no doubt be overjoyed to tell you, it would deserve instant rejection on that basis alone. And that’s not even taking into account how under-commaed the text is.

But would you agree? Or is the very repetition an inherent part of this comic voice?

Arguments could be made in both directions, you know. After all, this narrative voice is not all too far from the kind of writing we all see every day online, or even in the chattier varieties of journalism. We can all see why some writers would favor this kind of voice, right? Read out loud, this kind of first-person narration can sound very natural, akin to actual speech.

That’s not to say, though, that Millicent would not cringe at the very sight of it in a novel submission. And why? Feel free to chant it with me: the level of repetition that works in everyday speech is often hard to take on the printed page. Normal chit-chat is God-awfully repetitious.

As you noticed yourself in the example above, I suspect. Now that you see all of those ands and other word repetition marked on the page, you must admit that they are mighty distracting to the eye. By repeating the same sentence structures over and over, our buddy Noël is practically begging Millicent to skip lines while skimming.

Nor is all of the redundancy here literal; there’s a certain amount of conceptual repetition as well. Take note of all of those visually-based verbs: not only do people look a great deal (as they do in a good 95% of fiction submissions that tumble onto Millie’s desk, incidentally), but our heroine also envisages AND tries to imagine how she might appear in his eyes.

And did you catch the over-use of subordinate clauses, all of those whiches in yellow? While a tolerant Millie might be inclined to glide past one every ten or fifteen pages, even a screener noted for her restraint would begin to get restless with a quarter as many as appear on that single page above.

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

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

P&Eedit2

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

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

In theory, Grandma M is quite right on this point — and more of her present-day descendants would side with her than you might suppose. Millie’s grandmother did not bring her up to set grammar at naught lightly, after all. But does that necessarily mean it would be a good idea for you to sit down today and excise every single-sentence narrative paragraph in your manuscript?

Perhaps not: the convention of occasionally inserting a single-line paragraph for emphasis has become quite accepted in nonfiction. The practice has crept deeply enough into most stripes of genre fiction that it probably would not raise Millicent’s eyebrows much. But how can you tell if the convention is safe to use in your submission?

As always, the best way of assessing the acceptability of any non-standard sentence structure in a particular book category is to become conversant with what’s been published in that category within the last few years. Not just what the leading lights of the field have been writing lately, mind you; what an established author can get away with doing to a sentence is not always acceptable in a submission by someone trying to break into the field.

Pay attention to what kinds of sentences first-time authors of your kind of book are writing these days, and you needn’t fear going too far afield. As a general rule, even first-time novelists can usually get the occasional use of the single-sentence paragraph device past Millicent — provided that the content of the sentence in question is sufficiently startling to justify standing alone. As in:

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

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

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

Grandma M would growl at this construction (my, Granny, what big teeth you have!), and rightly so. Why? Well, it violates the two-sentences-or-more rule, for starters. In the second place, this problem could have been avoided entirely by eschewing the RETURN key. In a slower world, one where readers lived sufficiently leisurely lives that they might be safely relied upon to glance at every sentence on a page, all of this information could have fit perfectly happily into a single paragraph. Like so:

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

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

At least a few of them. Please?

Really, it’s in your submission’s best interest to use the single-line paragraph trick infrequently, reserving it for those times when it will have the most effect. That will at least give your narrative the advantage of novelty.

How so? Well, amongst aspiring writers who favor this structure, moderation is practically unheard-of. Many, if not most, novelists and memoirists who favor this device do not use the convention sparingly, nor do they reserve its use for divulging information that might legitimately come as a surprise to a reasonably intelligent reader.

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

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

Beside the sidewalk, a daffodil bloomed.

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

Often, too, aspiring writers will use a single-line paragraph to highlight a punch line. This can work rather well, if the device does not crop up very often in the text — any literary trick will lose its efficacy if it’s over-used — AND if the joke is genuinely funny.

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

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

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

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

Grandma M’s other big objection to Noël’s page 272 — and this pet peeve, too, is likely to have been passed down the generations along with the porcelain teacups and the first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS — would be to, you guessed it, the many, many run-on sentences. The run-ons here, however, are not the result of the driving rhythmic pattern or descriptive complexity that made ol’ William go overboard on his opening; clearly, Noël was just trying to sound chatty.

Like so many aspiring novelists, our Noël favored an anecdotal-style narrative voice, one that echoes the consecutiveness of everyday speech. That can work beautifully in dialogue, where part of the point is for the words captured within the quotation marks to sound like something an actual human being might really say, but in narration, this type of sentence structure gets old fast.

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

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

Well, grammatical perfection is always an asset in a submission or contest entry, ex-jaw-droppers. A completely clean manuscript is not at all an unreasonable goal for your pre-submission text scan.

You are right, however, that present-day Millicents do tend to be weighing a great many more factors than their grandmothers did when deciding whether the manuscript in front of them has publication potential. But not all of those factors involve large-scale questions of marketability and audience-appropriateness; Millicent is also charged with going over the writing with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. Using, of course, today’s standards as a guide.

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

P&E edit 3

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

Back then, if you weren’t a straight, white man from a solid upper-middle class home, Granny expected you at least to have the courtesy to write like one. (Styron’s father worked in a shipyard, so he had to fudge it a little; so did his contemporary Gore Vidal, for other reasons.) If you did happen to be a SWMFaSUMCH, you were, of course, perfectly welcome to try to imagine what it was like not to be one, although on the whole, your work would probably be more happily received if you stuck to writing what you knew. And if there was a typo in your manuscript, well, next time, don’t have your wife type it for you.

You think I’m making that last part up, don’t you? That’s a quote, something an agent told a rather well-known author of my acquaintance in the mid-1960s. The writer kept quiet about the fact that he was unmarried at the time and composed his books on a typewriter. “Yes,” he said, shaking his head with what he hoped was credible Old Boys’ Network condescension. “The little woman does occasionally miss the right key.”

It’s not enough to recognize that literary standards — and thus professional expectations for self-editing — have changed radically over time. It’s not even sufficient to accept, although I hope it’s occurred to you, that what constituted good writing in your favorite book from 1937 — or 1951, or 1960 — might not be able to make it past Millicent today. If you’re going to use authors from the past as your role models — a practice both Grandma M and your humble correspondent would encourage — you owe it to your career as a writer also to familiarize yourself with current releases in your book category.

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

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

P&C basic edit

“Hey, Anne!” the sharper-eyed among you burble excitedly. “Despite the fact that Noël has added a couple of paragraph breaks, presumably to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between speech and thought, the text ends up being shorter. He snuck another line of text at the bottom of the page!”

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

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

P&C revision 2

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

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

P&C final edit

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

By familiarizing yourself with the current norms in your chosen book category, you can maximize the probability that your self-editing eye will coincide with Millicent’s expectations. Keep up the good work!

At the risk of repeating myself, part VI: and then? And then? And then?

All right, I’ll confess it: it always thrills me a trifle to see a writer’s fingertips stained with highlighter ink. Oh, I know, I know, not all writers are comfortable revealing their keyboard habits to their kith and kin; many, perhaps most of you might well cherish your ability to pass for anything but a writer trapped in the throes of an intensive revision.

But honestly, people, ink-stained hands, Liquid Erase dotting the forearms from when you leaned on marked-up pages, the paper cuts inevitable to those writers conscientious enough to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending them out to an agency, small publisher, or contest — those are the battle scars of revision. Wear them proudly.

Seriously, you should: they’re rare. Do you know how few aspiring writers actually take the time to re-read their work, let alone revise their prose significantly, before submitting it? Actually, nobody knows for sure, as plenty of re-readers don’t necessarily catch their own writing and presentation gaffes, but based upon what crosses Millicent the agency screener’s desk on a daily basis, as well as what turns up in her Aunt Mehitabel’s contest judging docket, not that many.

Why? Human nature, I’m afraid, combined with busy lives. Most aspiring writers’ first instinct upon typing THE END is to thrust the manuscript under professional eyes. And then they are surprised and hurt when writing that hasn’t yet had a serious second glance gets rejected.

In order to help you fine people avoid that hideous fate, last time, I urged you to scan your manuscript’s pages (in particular, the first five of a submission, or all of a contest entry) for over-use of the words and, but, and then — or, if you are the type that likes to equivocate, or. Because the average manuscript submission is positively peppered with ‘em, I suggested that you print out these pages and highlight these words throughout, so that you might get a sense of just how often you tend to utilize them.

A messy process, true, but well worth while. Once you started marking, it was pretty darned astonishing just how often those conjunctions leapt off the page, wasn’t it?

Realistically, of course, I realize that not all of you have spent this lovely, sunshiny Saturday marking up your manuscripts, preferring instead to devote yourselves to, say, the activities of normal people. Inexplicably, some writers occasionally want to pay a modicum of attention to their children, significant others, dogs, cats, turtles, or that boxed set of the first two seasons of BEING HUMAN.

Then, too, some you may have started the task and gave up three buts in. “What was Anne thinking,” I heard some of you muttering on Saturday afternoon, “to advise such a time-consuming (and potentially ink-consuming) exercise? Doesn’t she realize that a writer’s time is valuable, and sunny spring days are relatively rare in the Pacific Northwest?”

Well, in the first place, spring in Seattle is frequently beautiful, at least in short bursts; the popular belief that it rains here non-stop is a myth. At this very moment, I can see snow glinting off a mountain range from my studio window, tulips blooming in my garden, and that neighbor who, for reasons best known to himself, occasionally elects to collect his mail wearing nothing but a neon-green Speedo. None of those characteristically PNW sights would be visible if it were raining.

In the second place, I do realize just how important your time is to you — which is precisely why I’m advising you to invest a little time now in exchange for not having masses of your time wasted later in the submission process.

How so? Well, think of it this way: as those of you who have submitted to an agency or entered a contest lately are no doubt already well aware, preparing your pages and sending them off is quite time-consuming, and, if you’re like most aspiring writers, even more energy-consuming. We also all know, I hope, that the cleaner your manuscript — that’s industry-speak for pages free of basic spelling, grammar, formatting, and logic problems, in case anyone was wondering — the less likely it is to push Millicent’s must-reject-now buttons. The same holds true for her pet peeves: the better revision job you do, the less likely your pages are to come winging back in your SASE, accompanied by a form-letter rejection.

Sense where I’m heading with this? (And do stop thinking about the guy in the Speedo; it’s time to get to work.)

It may be counterintuitive to a writer just finished with a first manuscript, but getting caught in a submission-rejection cycle can end up eating far, far more of your valuable time than an intensive revision aimed at weeding out rejection triggers would take. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, aspiring writers who routinely send out first drafts, especially — sacre bleu! — ones that have neither been proofread or spell- and grammar-checked — because they are impatient to get their books published generally have a harder time landing an agent, winning a contest, and/or pleasing an editor than writers patient enough to polish their work before submitting it.

Just the way it works, I’m afraid. The sooner in the writing and submitting process a writer accepts that, the less frustrating the path will be,

Given such a long-term goal, concentrating upon something as basic as whether your narrative relies too heavily upon and, but, and then may not seem as if it would make a big difference, but actually, out of all the potential problems a self-editor might discover in a Frankenstein manuscript, overused conjunctions are some of the easiest to catch and fix. And the pay-off can be tremendous: quick-reading agency screeners, editorial assistants (who screen submissions for editors), and contest judges are routinely ordered to subtract points (Brownie in the case of the former two, literal in the case of the contest submission) for grammatical errors.

Word repetition is always high on their penalty list. As is that habitual roommate of conjunctions, the run-on sentence. Not sure what one looks like? Here’s a lulu:

Unsatisfied with Antoinette’s response, Guillermo withdrew his sword then wiped it disdainfully back and forth across his pantaloons to remove the blood and the gristle without bothering either to sheath it or thrust again afterward, because he would only need to draw it again if Claude turned out to be alive still and Antoinette wasn’t worth it in any case, but still, something about her facial expression, awed no doubt at his virile violence on her behalf but still feminine in its modesty, caused him to reconsider her earlier response, because mightn’t her apparent shock indicate mere innocent-bystanderish surprise and maidenly horror at what now seemed likely to have been his all-too-precipitate assumption that simply because Claude was in Antoinette’s drawing-room at half-past four in the afternoon and unaccompanied by a duenna or chaperone of any sort, he must perforce have been on the cusp of forcing himself upon her, although in retrospect, that seemed unlikely, since Claude had been cradling a cup of delicately-scented tea, eighteen smallish chocolate cakes, and a lap dog on the chintz couch — now covered in the sanguinary evidence of what now seemed a slight error of judgment, as well as quite a bit of chocolate frosting and Lhasa apso fur — whilst Antoinette was playing the spinet, the gift of her redoubtable grandfather who first founded the steel mill and thus founded the family fortune, all the way across the room against the far wall, the one which gave pride of place to that copy of the Mona Lisa Antoinette’s great-uncle had commissioned some starving artist to make for him in Paris that he always claimed in later years was the original.

Laugh if you like, but would it astonish you to learn that this is SHORTER than some of the sentences my aged eyes have beheld in manuscripts? I’ve seen sentences that have dragged on for more than a page; I once spotted one that expected the reader to follow its twists and turns for almost three.

Yes, really. For my sins, I have waded through sentences that would have made the late, great Henry James rub his eyes and murmur, “No kidding? Doesn’t this writer’s keyboard contain a period key?”

Although I have apparently lived to tell about it, there can be no legitimate justification for dragging the reader through such an epic. Run-on sentences, much like the repetition of a favorite word or phrase, are seldom the result of well-thought-out and purposeful writerly strategy. (Or, if so, it’s a strategy that bears reassessment: “I know! I’ll bore my reader and annoy Millicent by making her read the sentence twice in order to understand it!”) The vast majority of the time, writers stumble into the habit without really noticing.

Believe me, professional readers do notice — and reject accordingly. Yet another great reason to read your manuscript OUT LOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN THEIR ENTIRETY before you submit. As if you needed one.

How will you be able to spot a run-on when you encounter it in its natural habitat, the previously unrevised manuscript? Hint: if you can’t say any given sentence within a single breath, it might be a run-on.

Don’t believe me? Take a deep breath and try reading that last example aloud.

Another classic tip-off: where run-ons gather, there will be ands aplenty also, typically. And not only within single sentences, either — like ants, run-on sentences seldom travel alone.

So whip out your marked pages, please, and let’s observe the reproduction habits of and. If you’re like most writers, your marking project probably revealed four major patterns of andusage:

(1) In lists.
Remember, not all lists take the form of Kamala had three novels, two memoirs, and a dictionary in her backpack. Keep an eye out for lists consisting of named emotions, which often appear in groups (Kamala felt angry and betrayed), too-hurried accounts of activity (Kamala went to the store, searched fruitlessly for spumoni ice cream, ran down the block to her favorite trattoria, and begged them to sell her a couple of scoops on the sly.), as well as lists inadvertently formed by the use of and for emphasis (Kamala felt angry and betrayed and hurt and, consequently, ravenous for spumoni ice cream.0.

Don’t think of all of those types of sentence as lists? Millicent does, believe me — and are lists really the most interesting way to present your protagonist’s activities? Or to show off your writerly acumen?

(2) In the HUGELY popular X happened and (then) Y happened sentence structure.
We’re all familiar with this one, right? Edward ate his pizza and drank his Coke. The sky turned brown, and all of the birds stopped singing. I could go on like this all night, and if that lovely mountain view were not distracting me, I would.

There’s nothing wrong with this structure per se — but used too often, or too close together, all of those ands can start to feel quite repetitious quite fast. As can…

(3) In the almost-as-popular trilogy structure: Someone did X, Y, and Z.
Technically, this could be considered a list (as in, Christos cried, rolled over, and bawled some more.), but since most aspiring writers seem to like the three-beat rhythm, I prefer to talk about it as a separate sentence type. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this structure if used sparingly, but all too often, the three-beat descriptive sentence becomes the default in the manuscript.

The resulting repetition can feel quite percussive to a reader, even if the actual sentence structure varies. Take a gander:

Christos felt betrayed, confused, and, oddly enough, hungry for some spumoni ice cream. Puzzled, he wandered into his kitchen, yanked open the freezer door, and pondered his ice cream supply. Wait — what had happened to his long-hoarded supply? Suddenly, it came to him: he’d heard Kamala rooting about in here in the wee hours, rattling bowls and clattering spoons.

See how quickly those trios become predictable, even within the space of one short paragraph? Imagine how Millicent feels when confronted with pages upon pages of them — which happens more than any of us would like to think.

(4) In complex descriptions.
Descriptions with multiple elements almost always contain at least one and, particularly if the sentence is passive: Germaine was tall and lanky. Again, this is technically a list (albeit a short one), but few writers would think of it as such.

Pay close attention to descriptive passages for another common and bugbear: sentences containing more than one of them. A multiple-and sentence is to most professional readers what a red flag is to a bull, and yet they are so easy to produce almost inadvertently if a writer is trying to cram too much description into a single sentence. As in:

Germaine was tall and lanky, with long, straight hair that came down to her lean and boyish hips. She liked to dress in black-and-white dresses, the kind that confused the eye if she happened to walk past a strobe light, and skin-tight leather boots. She also favored tight jeans and tank tops, except of course for days she knew she would be running into Kamala and joining her on a spumoni ice cream run.

Quite a lot of ands, isn’t it? Millicent can’t get over how often writers don’t seem to notice this level of structural redundancy. As strange as it may seem, most writers have an infinitely easier time spotting it in other people’s work; in their own, they tend to concentrate on the description, not the repetitive structure.

Complicating matters is the fact that often, two or more of these four types of and usage will appear within a single paragraph — or even a single sentence. Not sure what that might look like in practice? Okay, see if you can ferret out instances of all four kinds in the wild:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

How did you do? Admittedly, we’re looking for something a bit subtle here. Although the types of repetition used in this example may sound merely chatty when read out loud, they would come across as structurally redundant on the page.

Even minor word repetition can set editorial teeth on edge, because editors — like other professional readers — are trained to zero in on redundancy. To see how this orientation might affect how one reads, let’s look at this same paragraph with a screener’s heightened antennae:

Abe took a deep breath and ran his palms over his face. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the red and black tattoo over his left eyebrow, folded it twice, and stuffed it back into his coat. A motley assortment of trash caused his hand to recoil: cast-off candy bar wrappers, half-sucked lollipops hastily stuck back into their wrappers, waiting for later, and both red and black licorice whips. Sure, he was a sane and sober adult now. Outwardly composed, he twisted his face into a smile, swallowed a groan, and extended his hand to Emile.

See? The repetition of all those ands can be downright hypnotic — the percussive repetition lulls the reader, even if the action being described on either end of the and is very exciting indeed.

There’s a technical reason for that, you know, and if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, it has probably already occurred to you. The swiftly-scanning eye’s automatic tendency is to jump between repeated words on a page, in very much the manner that a CLUE player might move his piece from the study to the kitchen via the secret passage about which everyone in the game is evidently quite well-informed. (Hey, it’s an editor’s job to demand precise word usage.)

The result: Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the revolver. I never trusted her.

Oops, wrong chain of events: the result relevant for our purposes is a submission page read far, far more quickly than the average submitter might wish. Not only by Millicent and her ilk, but by the average reader as well.

The best way to avoid triggering this skimming reaction is to vary your sentence structure. A great place to start: scanning your manuscript for any sentence in which the word and appears more than once. As in:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

Did your eye catch the subtle problem here? No? Take a gander at it as Millicent would see it:

Ezekiel put on his cocked hat, his coat of many colors, and his pink and black checked pantaloons. And he dusted himself out before heading toward the big top, clown shoes a-flopping.

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly valid if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed last time, in which a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

When I first began writing that last paragraph, I didn’t intend it to be an illustration of just how visually confusing word repetition may be on the page — but as I seemed to be succeeding brilliantly at doing just that, I figured I’d just run with it.

You’re welcome. Let’s highlight the repetition here, to determine precisely why a skimming reader might find it confusing:

All of the ands are serving slightly different functions here, two of which would be perfectly legitimate if they stood alone: the first is connecting the second and third items in a list; the second is connecting two characteristics in a shorter list. And the third — as in this sentence — is the kind of usage we discussed yesterday, in which a conjunction gives a false sense of chatty consecutiveness between the first sentence and the second.

Is your brain in a twist after all of that percussive redundancy? Never fear — the twin revising morals are actually quite simple to remember.

(1) EVERY writer, no matter how experienced, will occasionally write a poorly-constructed sentence or paragraph, so there will NEVER be a point where any of us can legitimately assume that our first drafts require no revision whatsoever, and

(2) Just because a given word may carry more than one meaning — or, as here, refer to distinct categories of things — that fact doesn’t nullify the effects of repetition upon the reader.

Because we writers tend to think of words according to their respective functions within any given sentence, rather than as images on a page, these kinds of repetition often flies under our self-editing radars. Unless one is searching for it specifically, it’s easy to overlook.

Thus the highlighting pens, in case you had been wondering. I’m just trying to make repetition jump out at you as garishly as it does to those of us who read for a living.

Incidentally, words that sound alike but are spelled differently — there, they’re, and their, for instance — often strike readers as repetitious if they are used in too close proximity to one another. Take a peek:

“They’re going to look for their zithers in there,” Thierry pointed out.

Why might this sentence give a reader pause? Because many pronounce words silently in their heads while they scan. Yet another great incentive to read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, eh? It’s the best way to replicate the silent reader’s mental experience.

And now, it’s time to go. Next time, I shall delve into some other problems that commonly arise from an over-reliance upon ands. And in the meantime, in between time, try to minimize word and sentence structure repetition, and keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by Slate.com’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

A word of caution to the tens of thousands of aspiring writers who resolved last weekend to pop those queries and/or requested materials into the mail at last


Here’s the promised word, New Year’s resolvers: don’t.

Oh, I don’t mean to give up on your estimable resolve to put in the work to land an agent this year, or even to send out queries on a regular basis to any agent at all likely to be interested in representing a book like yours. That’s all quite sensible: if your goal is to land an agent, working up the nerve to query is in fact a necessary step. (Either that, or you are going to have to work up the even greater nerve and financial resources required to pitch at a writers’ conference.) Go forth and query, with my blessings.

Nor would I even dream of dissuading those of you who, having queried or pitched successfully in the past six months or so, have decided that it’s about time that you stopped revising feverishly, screwed your courage to the sticking place, as Shakespeare would have it, and try your luck with the agent(s) that requested manuscript pages. Again, this is a sensible, requisite step to getting published: since no agent in her right mind would sign a writer without having read any of her work — contrary to popular opinion amongst pitchers and queriers — obviously, if you want an agent to offer to represent you, you are going to have to let her read the manuscript in question.

I’ll even stretch the point further: since the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published or landing an agent is the one that just sits in a drawer or on a hard drive, without the writer’s ever exposing it to professional scrutiny — something that requires quite a bit of guts, by the way; queriers and submitters don’t give themselves enough credit for that — I would actively applaud your efforts to get your work under professional eyeballs.

I just would advise against doing it anytime within the first three weeks of the year. The first three weeks of any year.

Why? Look to your left in those starter’s blocks, New Year’s resolvers, and to your right: you’ll find aspiring writers who made precisely the same New Year’s resolution you did. And since the whole point of a New Year’s resolution is that the resolver puts it in motion practically as soon as that shiny ball drops into Times Square, what do you think happens around this time every year?

That’s right, campers: pretty much every agency in the country gets swamped with queries — and with the submissions that the agency requested months ago.

How swamped, you ask, turning pale with horror? Well, let me put it this way: I usually run a caution about this on December 31 — or, at the latest, January 1. Since some of my readers chafed at the bit last year, insisting that my advice was delaying their querying efforts unnecessarily, my New Year’s resolution was that in 2012, I would not issue my yearly warning about the dangers of joining the annual early January lemming run until I had observed another annual phenomenon: the barrage of wondering complaints from people who work in agencies about why their mail bags are suddenly thrice as heavy. At agencies that accept e-mailed queries, inbox input roughly quadruples.

I heard the first of those complaints today. It’s January third — and in the U.S., post offices were closed yesterday.

Not sure why? Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her New Year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this coming weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Starting to get the picture, are we?

Unless some of you wanted to ask a question? Yes, eager beavers? “But Anne,” those of you who have already sent out a query, two, or seventeen this year protest, “what’s wrong with that? Because there are so many people who want to get published, well-established agents at reputable agencies are constantly overwhelmed with queries, aren’t they?”

Before I answer that, beavers, was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a highly laudable New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries, or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria.

At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If any or all of that seems like an oddly disrespectful way to treat the Great American Novel, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries the agency needs to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

“While we’re waiting for those new to the game to recover,” my previous questioners ask impatiently, “can we get back to my question? No matter how many queries might stack up in the early weeks of the year, Millicent will just answer them in the order received, right? Ditto with any backlog of queries that might have come in while she was home for the holidays. So it might take a little longer for me to hear back; big deal.”

Actually, timing in sending a query or submission is a big deal, beavers of eagerness. It’s not as though agencies typically hire additional staff to handle the January onslaught, any more than they call in temps to deal with the increased querying and submission volume immediately after Labor Day, Memorial Day, or any federally-mandated three-day weekend. So our old pal Millicent is faced with a radically increased workload, but the same amount of time with which to deal with it.

I appeal to your sense of probability, campers: if you were Millicent, would you be more likely than usual to reject any given query in that morass, knowing that you had another 10,000 to read, or less? Would you be more inclined to turn from page 1 to page 2 in that submission in front of you or less?

I have an even better question: why on earth do aspiring writers do this to themselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning (and, let’s face it, a hefty proportion of media outlets) encourages us to believe that it’s inherently easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year.

We buy this, interestingly, even though our bodies tell us the opposite, Not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spent yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine, well-intentioned people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript’s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

But why must that much-anticipated day be just after the New Year — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1? Or on the Wednesday following any long weekend, rather than on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, when everyone else will be diligently stuffing Millicent’s e-mail inbox to overflowing?

Yes, yes, I know: weekends are when a lot of writers have the time to query, and the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. That last is particularly true: although the NYC-based publishing industry does not shut down as completely between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as in years past, things still do slow down. So many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.

Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to that earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “You were just kidding about that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing, right? I thought that good writing was always welcomed, whenever it arrived at an agency. Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’

At the risk of making those of you new to the game hyperventilate, I’m going to ask those readers who followed last autumn’s Queryfest to chant the answer along with me: with any query or submission, an agent must weigh more factors than the quality of the writing. Because agencies are profit-seeking entities, not charitable institutions devoted to the promotion of literature (as much as writers might like them to be the latter), she can only afford to take on manuscripts and book proposals she is relatively certain she can sell in the current literary market.

That means, in practice, that plenty of good writing and good book concepts get rejected. And that in considering which queries and submissions her boss is likely to wish to represent, Millicent has to look not only for good writing, but book category-appropriate voice and storyline, appeal to readers already buying similar books, freshness of book concept, and many, many other factors.

Including — and here is where the statistical probability thing rears its ugly head — the sheer volume of queries and submissions.

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than one might expect: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since Millie’s desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog (or even close readers of this particular post) are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 4!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although a goal of ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right?) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions. Had I mentioned that the average one lasts less than three weeks?

Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Let her dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

Ditto with Monday mornings — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated ants, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 17. It would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off thereafter, though. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So, you may well be wondering, why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1?

Two reasons. First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It’s probably safe to assume that this year’s mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry, despite the fact that book sales for both e-books and traditional books have been on the rise lately.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes — yet another annual phenomenon.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that agency denizens tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might well be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, not: every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Or maybe you don’t know: aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, you will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter. Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the manuscripts and book proposals they worked so hard to convince Millicent or her boss to request. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks. Every year, good writers with good intentions fling themselves into huge expenditures of energy, only to find themselves burnt out with distressing rapidity.

If you must make a writing-related New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one you can reach in sensible increments. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the evening. Next time, I shall be examining another reader-generated query and talking about how to increase its probability of impressing Millicent.

Hey, we’re all about beating the odds here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

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

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

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

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premises, premises

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

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

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

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

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, campers —

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

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

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

Can we talk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. How are you?”

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

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

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

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

“Sure could use it.”

“Sure could. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

“Thanks. Watch out for that puddle.”

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

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

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

“You, too, Ambrose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? Anyone out there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The logic behind the SASE, or, how to be prepared for something falling on you from a zeppelin

Last time, I broached the subject of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope (get it?) that should accompany every mailed query letter and/or submission packet. (E-mailed queries and submissions cannot include them, obviously, as these forms of communication have no temporal heft to them.) There’s no such thing as a Get Out of Thinking About It pass on this one, I’m afraid: forgetting to include a SASE in a query is an instant-rejection offense at virtually every agency in North America.

Or, to put that in terms even Narcissus could understand, no matter how gifted, talented, and/or beautiful a writer or his work may happen to be, neglecting this small piece of industry etiquette effectively assures that Millicent the agency screener will not spend enough time with ol’ Narcissus’ query packet to find out that he and his work display any or all of these delightful attributes. The packet will simply be rejected unread.

And not merely because Narcissus’ nasty habit of assuming that the rules that apply to ordinary mortals could not possibly apply to him is darned annoying to anyone who has to deal with him professionally. If the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions — and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense.

Yes, I know: it’s trying to be expected to underwrite one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the SASE-provider in this arrangement. To name but one: actually finding out that your query has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Oh, you would prefer to be left to wonder whether (a) the agency has a policy of not informing rejected queriers if the answer is no (quite common), (b) the agency has a policy of not reading incomplete query packets (like, say, those that omit a SASE), or (c) your packet got stuck sideways in the mailbox, and never reached the agency at all?

The expectation that an aspiring writer will always include a SASE with any kind of paper query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that I’ve noticed that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. It’s become one of those secret handshake things, a practice that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my taking a second post to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

SASE logic seems to be counterintuitive for many aspiring writers. Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. To accompany a single-page query, it’s letter-sized, but should you happen to be querying an agency whose guidelines call for writers to include more than five pages of additional materials (e.g., writing sample, synopsis, author bio, book proposal, a chapter or two), you’d be sending that in a Manila envelope, right? In that case, the SASE would need to be a second Manila envelope, stuffed inside the first, carrying sufficient materials to ship all of those additional materials back to you.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I heard not a collective gasp, but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript submission. That tends to come as a great big surprise to even writers who have been querying and submitting for a while: since the prevailing wisdom is that the point of the SASE is ease of getting back to a writer to say yes or no, it’s far from uncommon for submitters of 500-page manuscripts to include a simple business-size envelope as a SASE. While certainly understandable, this misses the primary goal of the SASE: ensuring the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency.

Thus, you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed with a minimum of effort on the sender’s part. That means, in practice, including a shipping container (second envelope, box, or a shipping label to affix to the box in which you sent the manuscript) already addressed to you with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to you in one piece.

Since all of that will need to be tucked into the same envelope or box that contains your query, any materials the agency’s submission guidelines request, and/or requested materials, it can get cumbersome, once the time comes to pack it all up. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to US-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to wrap their eager fingertips around some US stamps.

Don’t worry, foreign readers: there’s a trick to it. I’ll be getting to that.

I’m constantly barraged with questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

Oh, would only that were possible, Melospiza, but there’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript. Chant it with me now, campers: as with a SASEless query, not including a SASE in a submission is usually an automatic-rejection trigger.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the submission packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by only a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “Okay, I can understand why Millicent would reject SASE-free queries without reading them,” the head-clutchers cry, “but why, in heaven’s name, would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

The longer answer is hardly more comforting, I’m afraid. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send — wait for it — EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. If the SASE isn’t tucked into the packet, or if the postage is not sufficient, and if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, it is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back. Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection — which costs the agency not only the price of the return postage, but also an envelope and Millicent’s time to address it — or, as is increasingly popular, no response at all. Yes, even for a submission. Pages often go bye-bye, because it would be expensive for the agency to ship back the whole shebang.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do not omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript. Unless, of course, the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do, but check anyway.)

“You must be pulling our collective leg, Anne,” I hear some of you muttering. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agent is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript for Millicent to read.

Remember, it’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk; even a very successful agent at a giant agency seldom picks up more then 5 or 6 new clients per year, even including ones poached from other agencies. (Which happens all the time, by the way. It would astonish most aspiring writers to know just how many of us agented writers are unhappy with our current representation. As I say early and often, you don’t want just any agent to represent you — you want a well-connected, fully engaged agent who loves your writing and will defend it to the death.) Every submission that disqualifies itself on technical grounds is another step toward that ongoing goal of thinning the pack of contenders.

Do you really want to volunteer your precious manuscript for that particular kamikaze mission?

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice inevitably leads to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the gentle, tolerant souls who actually pay for the return postage. After all, from the writer’s perspective, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes a partial, they’re going to ask to see the entire manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office. Fingers crossed!

If, on the other hand, the agent of your dreams does not like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above re: secret handshakes.)

If you’re willing to risk it, you could always include a line in the cover letter, politely asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Originally, the whole paper-wasting arrangement was set up this way in order to protect writers. The logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling, if you don’t count Abe Lincoln’s scrawling the Gettysburg Address on the back of a used envelope — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to anyone querying or submitting for the first time today.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents because publishing houses still read through their slush piles, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to the advent of personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz, obviously. Nor could you attach a Word document to an e-mail and send it off via Pony Express. Or even pop down to the corner copy store to run off half a dozen copies.

Equally obviously, no sane human being would entrust her only copy of a manuscript to the vagaries of the mails. So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses or agencies simultaneously?

They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single syllable, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s such a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE used to assist the average aspiring writer that I have no qualms about trotting it out again. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out. She would come home and edit them; he would type a revised version. One or the other of them would get a good idea, and they would collaborate in writing the result: one dictating, one typing. She would take them to writing classes and the magazine editors who were already publishing her brother’s SF short stories, returning with still more feedback. Off he went to type another draft.

From scratch. Every single time either of them wanted to change a word. Hard for those of us who write on computers even to imagine, isn’t it?

As writers did in those dark days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into gray Manila envelopes with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Except for the ones that Kleo hand-sold by taking to a magazine editor, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. She was, in effect, his original agent. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it into the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Do you really want to be crawling about in the ashes, frantically trying to find the remnants of your hard disk?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their minuscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with that many rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their perfectly nice mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: Philip had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story depressing, the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

Admittedly, it was not the most comforting lullaby to have sung above one’s cradle, but she knew whereat she spoke. It’s as true today as it was six decades ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

You’re welcome.

Also, as I mentioned last time, the practice was intended to protect the writer’s copyright. Just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something pointy falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

Three other things of which a savvy writer keeps very good track: which agents she has already queried (and with what unsolicited-but-permitted extra materials), which already-queried agents have requested materials (and what they requested; every agency asks for the submission packet to contain different components), and which agents are still waiting for her to send them those materials. If an aspiring writer is querying and/or submitting to multiple agents at once — and she should, unless the agent of her dreams has a no simultaneous submissions policy — she had better maintain excellent records; otherwise, it’s just too easy to mix things up.

Or not to know where to send Query #18 when the first 17 SASEs turn up in her mailbox. Or her inbox.

Speaking of minding the details, a savvy writer also takes care when applies postage to her SASE. Let’s take a gander at what postage-related fears were keeping intrepid reader Rachel up at night:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp (and the same shipping box), because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go. Is that how they’re doing it now?

Good question, Rachel. Before I answer it, let’s clarify the situation by reiterating the difference between a query packet’s SASE (a missive containing the query letter + any unsolicited materials an agency’s website said were permissible to send with it) and one tucked into a submission (requested materials).

When sending a query, SASE use is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope. (Oh, like you’ve been able to get the SA out of your mind since yesterday’s post.)

When sending a submission packet, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see limited number of pages, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

Don’t worry; I shall be devoting some of our collective time in the week to come to explaining how to handle a request for a partial. I wouldn’t leave you hanging.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, again, tune in tomorrow.)

Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end. (Again, don’t panic: I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully early next week.

If you have already submitted a partial, and then the agent asks for the whole manuscript, don’t just send the rest of the pages: by the time they arrive, Millicent probably will not have a clear enough recollection of the partial just to pick up the story where your initial submission left off. (Heck, by then, Millicent may already have moved on to pastures new; the turnover amongst screeners can be pretty remarkable.) Send the entire manuscript, in the aforementioned box.

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies. The far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

Good news for the far-flung: the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad. The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

But let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last decade has indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions. A few scary mailings later, and suddenly, agencies all over New York were opening e-mail accounts. Hey, they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly doesn’t want its screeners to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, most agencies have policies forbidding e-queriers from sending unsolicited materials as attachments. Too much risk of computer contamination. Instead, they will usually ask queriers to copy any permissible additional materials and paste them into the body of an e-mail.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript, since they tend to be heavy little critters. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself, or even that the Millicent who screened it will. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. (Sensing a pattern here?) Check policies before you submit.

Interestingly, agencies that operate this way virtually always still expect submitters to include SASEs with their submissions. Go figure. The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actual stamps, rather than metered postage. It’s called a STAMPED, self-addressed envelope for a reason, you know. The goal here is not merely convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for his own manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either lobbying her to use a flat-rate Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer; coughing up the dosh for speedier return is not going to impress Millicent. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. Print your manuscript on nice, bright-white, 20-pound paper while you’re at it, please. It’s aesthetically more pleasing than the cheap stuff.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the logic that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet our old pal, the Sanitary Author, is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of trenchant questions. Keep up the good work!

Nicely stamping your SASE and other Millicent-pleasing habits of the Sanitary Author

sanitary-author

Why, yes, now that you mention it, long-time Author! Author! habitués, I have used this photograph before. Several times, in fact: it’s one of my favorites, for reasons I shall discuss below. Although, really, does cultivating and maintaining an affection for the mythical Sanitary Author require much defense?

Before I launch into that very defense, however, I have some good news to announce about a member of our little community: Austin Gary’s novel, Miss Madeira has just come out in paperback and as an e-book. Congratulations, Austin!

If Austin’s name sounds familiar, it should: he was one of the literary fiction winners in the Author! Author! Rings True Competition earlier this year, albeit for another work. Nor his he a stranger to award winning: under the name Gary Heyde, he is also a BMI award-winning songwriter, with recordings by Tammy Wynette, John Berry, and Jeff Carson.

Miss Madeira was semi-finalist in the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom fiction competition. Here’s the blurb:

Brilliant teacher Amelia Madeira is torn between her love for the woman who will eventually become her sister-in-law and a gifted male student. Despite producing several generations of students forever known as Madeira’s Kids, gossip begins to grow like apples on a poison tree. As anyone with an intimate knowledge of the workings of small-town America knows, episodic memory is the bailiwick of barbershops, beauty shops, and pool halls.

Keep that good news rolling in, folks. Celebrating our fellow writers’ triumphs substantially eases the long and curvy road to publication.

Back to business. Since I’m aware that many of you are rushing about madly, pulling together flotillas of post-Labor Day queries and submissions, I thought it would be a good time to devote a few days to how query and submission packets should be put together.

Yes, yes, I know: not the sexiest of topics, but lest we forget, Millicent the agency screener is charged not only with assessing the aptness of a queried or submitted manuscript for her agency’s representation list; she’s also going to be drawing some conclusions from the packets about the querier or submitter’s professionalism. Why is that relevant, you ask? Because a writer who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry expects to see writing presented is going to be less energy-consuming to represent.

Before anyone bristles at the idea that an agency — not a non-profit entity, usually — might consider non-literary factors such as the ability to present writing professionally when weighing the pros and cons of picking up a particular writer, let me recommend that those of you who feel strongly on the subject have a spirited discussion about it in the comments. My goal here is not to judge how agencies operate, but to help good writers navigate the often opaque and counterintuitive querying and submission process.

For the next few days, then, I am going to be talking in minute detail about how to put together professional-looking query and submission packets. To lead gently into that noble endeavor, let us pause and consider the mystery of the Sanitary Author.

I’m not much given to double-takes, campers, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant passerby, it is fraught with enigma. Among its mysteries: according to its ostensibly unofficial municipal website (last updated, apparently, in 2008) Neskowin’s population is a sparse 170, a human density that renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising.

Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with an affection for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, however, next to the enigma of the Sanitary Author. What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left to speculate, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness, a plaudit akin to the Nobel Prize, in order to raise him or her so very high in the town’s esteem?

Not, obviously, as high as videos, coffee, or ice cream, but let’s face it, it’s more recognition than most authors get.

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, clamoring to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And I don’t want to alarm anybody, but should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there? The mind positively reels at the vast array of germs Millicent could conceivably pick up from their query and submission packets.

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to say: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintain the sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find.

So the mystery continues. I shall make a valiant effort to wrest my mind away from the Sanitary Author and concentrate on the matter at hand: queries and the things that accompany them.

Oh, it’s no use: the image is burned into my brainpan. A psychologist friend of mine once told me that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks as current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist.

The writer’s descent into a creative trance is one of the least-understood of human phenomena, isn’t it? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing.

Personally, when I’m in mid-chapter, I have been known to lose my sense of the passage of time. If my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, most cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if a task can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard. Or — and I honestly am getting around to the point of today’s post again — when you are embroiled in sending out the aforementioned flotilla of queries.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who spaced out? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a querying binge or writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline or, heaven help us, immediately after an agent asks to see a partial or full manuscript.

I suspect that this checking out from the everyday world is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As recent Nobel laureate — and about time, too — Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is devoted to his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame him for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who intended to get queries and/or submissions out the door now that the annual post-Labor Day return of the publishing world to New York has arrived becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to find an agent. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical marketing concerns we’ve spent much of the summer discussing?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that query-screeners like Millicent actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

The querying hurdle is, at least in principle, set in place to maximize the probability of discovering the next Great American Novel — or memoir, or nonfiction book — by freeing agency staff from the necessity of reading pages from every ambitious soul currently writing in English. That way, the theory goes, Millicent can concentrate on deciding amongst the crème de la crème.

Your mind is still focused on the paragraph before last, isn’t it? Yes, you did indeed read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls her immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings her heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. (Perhaps Austin could do something with it.) As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor.

So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially nobler put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. I meant to begin this post by talking about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in my writing. Excuse me a moment while I feed my languishing cats.

Or perhaps I zoned out because, let’s face it, SASEs are not the most thrilling of topics. But they are absolutely vital to discuss, because a mailed query or submission unaccompanied by a SASE will get rejected automatically at virtually every U.S. agency. Almost invariably without being read.

Pause to ponder the implications, please: if Millicent doesn’t read your query, it’s literally impossible for her to decide to request your manuscript, and therefore impossible for her to fall in love with your writing. Which, in turn, renders it impossible for her boss, the agent, to fall in love with your writing, for the agent to convince an editor to fall in love with your writing, for the editor to convince an editorial committee to fall in love with your writing, and for the publishing house’s marketing department to convince readers to fall in love with your writing.

So omitting the SASE isn’t just a technical gaffe; it’s the catalyst in a tragic tale of lost love.

That’s the writer’s opportunity cost of neglecting to include a SASE in a query packet, but there are costs on the agency end as well. Think about it: having the SASE arrive in the same envelope with the query means that Millicent can grab either a form-letter rejection or please-send-us-pages note (oh, didn’t you realize that both were boilerplates?) the very instant after she makes up her mind which is appropriate.

It takes very little time, and the writers themselves are providing the resources for their own rejection. What’s not for the agency to like?

In fact, they like it so much that that most agencies have standing policies against accepting SASE-free queries at all. Providing an envelope and a stamp to reject a single forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800-1500 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they have already decided not to represent.

So if you didn’t hear back on that last raft of queries — you know, the ones where you glibly told Millicent to contact you via e-mail if she wanted to see pages — that’s probably why.

Yes, in answer to what half of you just thought so loudly, answering your mailed query via e-mail would have been costly for the agency, too, although obviously, not as costly as hauling an envelope from the supply cabinet and donating a stamp to your ongoing quest to be published. The Millicent charged with opening all of those envelopes and scanning the paper queries would have to stop what she was doing, carry your query — and only yours — to a computer, open the agency’s e-mail server, type a rejection (which would probably be identical to the form letter she’s been stuffing in SASEs all day), hit SEND, then head back to that waist-high pile of queries that came in last week.

Multiply that effort by every querier who thinks he’s being clever, considerate, and/or paper-saving by making a cavalier suggestion to contact him by e-mail, and it would add up to a lot of unnecessarily expended energy over the course of a year. Far, far cheaper for the agency just to tell its Millicents to toss any query unaccompanied by a SASE into the recycling bin.

Although if she does decide to ask for pages, she will probably let you know via e-mail, rather than by sending a reply in the SASE you so thoughtfully provided. I like to think of this as the SASE Utility Paradox: the rejected writer must pay for the postage and envelope that carry the bad news; the accepted writer must offer the stamp and envelope as a sacrifice to the gods of querying.

Either way, you’re going to be buying some envelopes and stamps. (Don’t forget to keep receipts; if you file a Schedule C for your writing business, you may be able to deduct these costs as promotional expenses. Talk to a tax expert with experience handling writers’ returns — which I am not –before you deduct anything, however, because the IRS rules governing writers are, I am told, both strange and different than those applicable to other kinds of artist.)

Believe it or not, part of the SASE’s original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but to render the querying and submission processes cheaper for the writer: it was substantially less expensive than if the agencies sent back manuscripts with postage due. (Which used to be the alternative, by the way.) It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the writer ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to prove copyright over unpublished writing, the writer needs to know at all times where all the extant copies are, saying who can and cannot read it. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, writing posted online is technically published. It makes it easier for writers to prove that they were the original authors of their online work.

The control-who-reads-it doctrine still governs how agencies operate. When you send previously unpublished material off to an agency — to a credible one, anyway — you are operating on the tacit assumption that no one on the other end will reproduce your writing without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

(Which means, by the way, that you should be very wary of an agent who implies, as some have been known to do in order to edge out the competition, that she has already shown submitted materials to an editor as an inducement for you to sign with her. Technically, she cannot market your writing to anyone until you give her explicit permission to do so — but a writer who has just won a literary contest and is juggling manuscript requests from several agents might not be aware of that.)

When you send a SASE with a submission, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if the agency rejects it, they will mail the pages back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 18th, 19th, and 20th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agencies’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions; prior to that, virtually none of them did. (Some still don’t; double-check before you press SEND.) And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be to contemplate, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince Millicent of your Socratic intellect, encyclopedic knowledge of how publishing works, and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would love to be able to say dispense with the SASE, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY. Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you precisely how to play the SASE game correctly.

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), tuck a stamped (not metered) envelope addressed to yourself into the envelope. Do this every time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides. It’s expected, whether they say so or not.

If you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage.

Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours. This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. (If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages. This isn’t really necessary, though: in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.)

Again, do this every time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read each and every agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission packet. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs. Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Next time, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the practicalities of the e-mailed query, as well as the ins and outs of submission. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared if your query is successful, would you?

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the Sanitary Author. You wouldn’t want to miss him/her/it, would you? Keep up the good work!

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

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

“I wised up,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have I piqued your curiosity sufficiently yet? Too bad — you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow’s post to find out what this classic Millicent-annoyer is. I know what I’m talking about here, and that’s enough for now.

See how frustrating it is when the writer considers only what she needs to get out of the words on the page, rather than her readers’ desire to know what’s going on? And have I given you strong enough evidence of the point I made yesterday, that false suspense — withholding information from the reader purely for the sake of building suspense — is darned annoying?

My work is done here for the day, clearly. Tune in next time for a few last concrete examples of Millicent-irritants before Pitchingpalooza begins on Wednesday. In the meantime, remember your readers, and keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXV, structural repetition, part III, and the role of pretzels in a well-rounded breakfast

This morning, I was puzzled into wakefulness by my fiancé’s waving a soy latte and a freshly-baked pretzel under my nose. A new German bakery has 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 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, mustard-laden food options are generally not the first to pop to mind. 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. Or so I surmise from the fact that he could not resist pointing out 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. 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 usual 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, hadn’t the pretzel-paragraph construction parallel hit you instantly? 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.

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.) I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts, though, without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

Positive legions of hands shoot into the air. 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?”

Quite right, hand-wavers: 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 — treat it as such for the purposes of our ongoing discussion of repetitive sentence structures and their predictably negative effect on Millicent the agency screener’s weary peepers.

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, “a conjunction 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 occasionally scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions. And really, who could blame him?

(I couldn’t resist. Hey, a pretzel is not exactly the breakfast of champions.)

Time and the language have been marching merrily onward, however, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers, journalists, and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex stomping his feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already, but 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. Like so:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Arbogast 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 Arbogast 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 a little something like this:

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast 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 he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes, 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 substantial 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 Ghislaine’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as subtle narrative 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. Like, say, most of us who read manuscripts for a living.

Before we leave that last set of examples, did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves. Rather than merely noticing that this third version reads better, why not challenge your revision skills by trying to figure out why?

Ghislaine spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Arbogast 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.

How did you do? Take a nice, shiny gold star from petty cash if you immediately cried, “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 conceptually unnecessary. And would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear those of you who did not shout any of those three observations 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. Since conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Seem paradoxical? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

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

“But Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Yet you are astonishingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingénue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. And, naturally, you are entirely unarmed. 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 turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

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

“Yvette, you’re backing recklessly away from the conventions of our chosen genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. You are fleet of foot in the face of danger, yet surprisingly prone to tripping over easily-avoidable bits of bracken your surer-footed male counterparts and non-ingénue sidekicks never seem to twist their ankles navigating. Naturally, you are entirely unarmed. 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 turn me in to the Stereotype Enforcement Police?”

“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.

We all encounter this phenomenon so often in everyday life that giving a concrete example seems a tad, well, repetitive. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, though, 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 that last trait is desirable.)

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

(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 at a stretch. 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: run-on sentences discourage interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

Perhaps for this reason, aspiring writers just love to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: it can create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to establish 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.

Also, had I mentioned that aspiring writers just love to overload their manuscripts with conjunctions? And that they use the device a lot? Or that by the time Millicent picks up your submission, she’s probably already read hundreds of conjunctions that day?

In case I’m being too subtle here: since false consecutiveness is a narrative 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. That presumption enables them to stop reading as soon as they decide that the writing is weak.

Or, to cast it in terms of our running analogy: Millicent didn’t like the second pretzel of the day, she takes it as given that she’s not going to like the 145th. She does not feel the need to gobble up pretzels 3-144 to confirm that.

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.

Feel free to pause here to punch the nearest pillow, sofa cushion, or other relatively soft object seventeen or eighteen times. I’ll wait.

Got all of that frustration out of your system? Excellent. Let’s shift our energies to what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not merely matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy.

And, frankly, the oh-so-common practice of conjunction overuse is not particularly good strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in your writer’s kit 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 any of my late relatives? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thereby 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 or contest entry with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed.

Again, we could waste a lot of energy complaining about the necessity for this (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), but I would rather we concentrate instead upon heading the problem off at the proverbial pass. Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out at least 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.

And before anybody asks: no, reading through those pages on your computer’s screen is not an adequate substitute here. Nor is simply doing a Word search for those particular words. The goal here is not to come up with a simple accounting of how often you are using these words, but to spot patterns in how and where you are habitually including them.

(2) Pick a color for and, another for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and a third 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 per sentence. Yes, really.

(3) Mark every single time each of those words appears on your pages.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but every instance.

(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?

(5) If you were even tempted to skip Step 4, does then appear more than once within those first 5 pages? More than once on page 1?

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 thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: some professional readers’ visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then borders on the physically painful.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text — and with good reason. 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-Marc 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-Marc poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

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

“Pardon my asking,” Millicent says, wondering why I have a latte at my elbow and she doesn’t, “but why is do submissions so often include it repeatedly, as if it were stylish? Or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice? It’s seldom necessary, and it’s hardly original.”

That would be hard for anyone who has read more than a handful of manuscripts or contest entries to dispute. To professional eyes, this percussive use of then is 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.

Is this really the reaction you want to elicit to your narrative voice within the first few pages of your book?

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 occurred so abruptly that it would have been so to onlookers. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Marc 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.

(6) 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 logically imply contradiction to what has already been stated. 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. Let’s take a gander at what a savvy reviser might spare.

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Josette 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?” Josette 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 passage. 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, alas. 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 Josette 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?” Josette 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, 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 questioners, 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 that out of any 100 submissions, a good 92 will all share this 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, rejoining us after a coffee run, “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 word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics.

Yes, I brought this up a few days ago, but it’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 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 formulated for a less erudite audience not liable to galvanize 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, 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 to include a pet word or phrase. 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.

It’s also a necessary step towards individualizing your authorial voice. Just as a matter of practicality, if Millicent has already seen several conjunction-heavy narratives within the last hour, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to impress her with the originality of a manuscript that’s embraced a similar narrative strategy.

Speaking of developing a sensitivity to repetition across manuscripts, as well as within them, did anyone happen to catch the too-close similarity of Yvette and Josette in the two of today’s examples? “What’s going on?” Millicent shouts immediately after burning her lip on her too-hot latte. “A plague of -ettes? Did a bestseller from a year ago feature a heroine with an -ette name, and are the writers of these two passages copying that?”

Well caught, Millicent: I didn’t catch that one myself until about ten minutes after I wrote the second example. Clearly, I should have had a more balanced breakfast.

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

Finding your voice, part II, or, why am I introducing you to a small, annoying bug?

My apologies to those of you looking forward to Sunday’s promised foray into book promotion. I shan’t bore you with the details of why it didn’t happen; suffice it to say that I will be really, really grateful when the universe stops finding such amusement in causing the lady with the cane to tumble over sideways. I’m hoping to do a couple of posts on subject this coming weekend, lenient gravity permitting.

I’m walking upright again today — Darwin would be so pleased — but I must confess, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed. It’s all in a good cause, however: my backyard lilac tree has been waving bushels of lavender flowers in my general direction. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to those not from those parts: please, whatever you do, don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a well-developed city on the south end of the quite rural Napa Valley. If you’re thinking of vineyards, you actually mean the latter, and if you’re thinking of a quaint little tourist trap, you’re probably thinking of my home town, 20 miles north of Napa. Believe me, when you’re living there, the difference between a city of 130,000 and a town of 5,000 could not be greater.)

Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves ranging from bright green to mellow gold to sunburned red, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring. The vines are dormant then, blasted-looking and leaf-free, but the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers: acres and acres of neon brilliance.

The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies during a Napa Valley spring, you never will. Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies while I was growing up. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen is evidently virulent in a completely different fashion.

Particularly, I notice, lilac pollen. A-choo.

I bring this up, not merely so you will excuse me if I pause occasionally for a ladylike wipe of the nose, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic, a continuation of Sunday’s discussion of voice. Let’s cut right to the central issue, as expressed by intrepid and curious reader Gordon’s comment:

Anne — How do we tell if our voice is actually ‘our voice’? Is there an easy answer, or do we rely on our early reader to tell us? Or our editor?

Terrific question, Gordon, and one that is surprisingly rarely discussed at literary conferences or in writing classes. There’s a pretty good reason for this: while craft is general, voice is individual. While craft must be learned — and should be learned, as a means of clarifying and amplifying one’s voice — authorial voice is, like talent, inherent. And, like talent, individual voice is not always apparent in even a very gifted writer’s early efforts.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to Gordon’s question was, “Please, don’t expect your future editor to define it for you — by definition, the best arbiter for a truly original voice is its author.” Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are some writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point). It arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

And I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “A very pretty notion, Anne,” these mutterers say, “but we’re looking for practicality here, not philosophy. What precisely is voice, and why should I worry about whether my work exhibits a unique one?”

For those of you who have heard the term bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, vocabulary, and style that makes one author’s work differ from another’s, even if they are telling the same story.

It is, to put it as simply as possible, what makes YOUR work sound like YOU, and not like someone else. In a book with a strong, well-developed voice, every paragraph — indeed, every sentence — will be in that voice, a phenomenon the pros call consistency.

And that’s darned hard for a writer to pull off, particularly (as is often the case for those new to the craft) if the writer in question isn’t quite sure what her voice is. “Is my voice how word patterns appear in my brain?” she might catch herself wondering. “Or on the page of a first draft? Or is my voice what ends up in a final revision? And how is what I like to read in other writers’ work different — and the same — as my personal voice?”

Yes, in response to what half of you just thought exceedingly loudly, those are some mighty weighty questions, ones that a thoughtful writer could spend a productive lifetime answering. But think about it on a practical level: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice in a published book? Haven’t you ever read a book where the tone, vocabulary, and/or style abruptly altered so much that it jarred you out of the storyline?

Millicent the agency screener has, alas. So have her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, and their aunt, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Lovers of literature that they are, it genuinely saddens them to see a voice that they have come to like and respect suddenly transmogrify into something else 150 pages into a manuscript. Or 50. Or 10.

And how do you think they are likely to react if the voice is uneven on page 1? Avert your eyes, children — it’s not a pretty image.

Nor are they alone in preferring consistency. Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so pros tend to edit with an eye to removing it. The result: the authors we tend to love are those whose voices are so consistent that if we took a two-line excerpt from Chapter 2 and another from Chapter 8, we could tell that the same person wrote them.

“Golly,” say the scoffers we met above, “voice sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote immense amounts of time to helping aspiring writers seek out and develop theirs?”

Beats me — unless it’s because by definition, teaching a group means catering to commonalities; to help a writer develop his voice, an instructor would have to read enough of his work to figure out what he does better than any other writer on the planet. That’s assuming, of course, that the instructor has the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), as well as the time to encourage the writer, draft after draft, to cater to his own strengths.

Kind of a tough brief for a one-time two-hour seminar with twenty students, no?

To be fair to conference organizers, most submissions do fall under the weight of formatting, grammar, and clarity problems long before your garden-variety Millicent would take issue with inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. When a writer is still struggling to express herself clearly and in a way that will appeal to an established market, those are definitely the skills she should master up front. And it’s not all that uncommon for an aspiring writer only to begin addressing herself to acquiring craft skills until after she is relatively happy with the overall story she wants to tell.

Or, to put it another way, at the submission stage, if her manuscript is not in standard format, contains many grammatical errors, and is confusing to read, an agent or editor’s rending his garments and crying, “But the voice is not consistent!” is probably the least of her worries. Nor is it likely to be Millicent’s first concern if the story has been insufficiently thought-out.

But let’s assume that you’ve been working tirelessly on these foundational issues, and now are pondering Gordon’s question: how does a writer know when he’s found his voice?

Does his writing abruptly jell in a way it had not before — and, if so, will that appealing congealing be immediately apparent to him? Or will he stumble upon a passage when he is reading his completed manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, AND OUT LOUD (I couldn’t resist) before responding to a request for pages, causing him to cry out, “Wow, I would like my entire book to read like this! I shall instantly drop everything to go back through this entire manuscript, page by page, line by line, to apply this engaging voice consistently throughout the book!”

Um, no, on all three counts. Not usually. Especially that bit where the writer realizes that if his newfound voice is going to work qua voice, he’s going to have to use it consistently throughout the manuscript.

So how does a writer discover her own voice? Well, for starters, it’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes. Why? Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as expressing ourselves as no one else does, doing so in writing is a rather difficult skill to master. Even for those most beloved of the Muses, it takes time, and it takes practice.

It takes, in other words, more than just sitting down and writing a complete draft of a book. That’s the first step, typically, not the last: most writers will experiment with quite a few voices, vocabulary levels, approaches to scenes, etc. in drafting their first book or two. And that’s perfectly fine: after all, how are you going to know what you can and can’t pull off, or even what you like in your own writing, if you don’t try a variety of styles?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering for the last few paragraphs, professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to manuscripts featuring a smorgasbord of voice experiments. To them, inconsistency of voice is a sign that the writer in question has not yet decided what she wants the book to sound like overall. So why not throw that fish back into the sea, to wait for it to grow bigger, stronger, and more consistent?

Okay, so that analogy crumbled a bit at the end; try as I might, I can’t figure out what an inconsistent fish would act like. (Attempt to breathe air every second Thursday of the month, maybe?) But that’s precisely why I used it: see how jarring even a single consistent sentence can be to a narrative?

Besides, most writers begin by imitating the voices of authors they admire, so it’s not at all uncommon to see a manuscript scene that contains a patch that reads a bit of Annie Proulx, a terse dialogue reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, and a blistering line or two of Jay Mcinerney cynicism, all tied together by a few straightforward declarative sentences.

Tell me, out of all of those disparate elements, which part is the writer’s own voice? Is it really Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel’s job to guess?

Most of the time — and you might want to sit down for this one, campers; some of you may find what I have to say next rather discouraging — a writer comes to recognize her own voice because over time, it becomes the most natural for her to use. Its consistency sits up and announces itself to be how she should be writing all the time.

Which means, Gordon, that you may not yet know what your voice is, but you will probably recognize it when you see it.

I know, I know; that sounds very woo-woo, but I swear that it’s true. For most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration. Like all of those lilac and mustard flowers bursting into bloom on a rainy spring morning, its essence will waft over the page, marking it.

And the writer says, “Hey, I like that. I think I’m going to write like that all the time.”

To complicate matters, just as those early spring flowers make some people smile and others sneeze violently, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, no not all published writing exhibits an distinct narrative voice. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant, generic voice may not.

Oh, you didn’t know that was one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike on the printed page? They are urged to keep their individual voices out of the story, so as not to distract the reader.

The ambient mutters have been steadily growing to a near-roar. “Okay, now I’m really confused. If I understand you correctly, it’s safer not to write in an individual voice — but if I want to be known for the beauty of my writing, I need not only to do just that, but to do it consistently throughout my manuscript.”

Nicely summarized, ghostly mutterers: it is a genuine paradox. It’s also a choice that every writer has to make for himself. Or herself, as the case may be. (I’ve alternated so often in this post that I’m not sure whose turn it is.)

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess,” my muttering friends continue, “is what separates a good voice from a bad voice. Or, to put it another way, how on earth can an agent, editor, or contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?”

Remember last autumn’s Querypalooza series, when I pointed out early and often that contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a savvy writer shouldn’t want to sign with just any agent — she should aspire to signing with one who truly loves her work? This is precisely why: response to voice is quite individual. No matter how beautifully-written a manuscript may be, it’s not going to be every agent’s proverbial cup of tea.

Is the common rejection line I just didn’t fall in love with it making a bit more sense now?

In order to represent you successfully, an agent needs not only to like your voice, but be able to identify what is individual about it lucidly enough to be able to go to an editor and say truthfully, “Look, based on the books you have been buying lately, I think you are going to like this manuscript, for these twelve reasons…”

Because a runny nose is apparently conducive to decoding cosmic mysteries, allow me to add: that’s why nonfiction is reputed to be easier to sell than fiction; fiction is inherently much more heavily reliant upon voice, right? Particularly literary fiction, where the freshness and strength of the voice is the book’s primary selling point.

And, let’s face it, no matter how strong a story is, few readers will finish a novel if they dislike the author’s voice. “I just couldn’t get into it,” they will say, setting it aside.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the interest of the subject matter, the slant of the approach, and — yes, I must say it — the credentials of the author. (Oh, stop your groaning — you didn’t honestly expect me to talk about selling NF without bringing up platform, did you?) Just think of the many, many nonfiction books sold each year by journalists: while a strong voice may be an additional selling point, clarity is generally the main desiratum.

Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, where voice is nearly as important as in a novel.

Is your head spinning from all this? Not to worry; tomorrow, I shall discuss voice choices in greater detail. (And I’m going to try like heck to do it on the literal morrow, not merely the next time the pratfall-happy medical gods happen to allow me enough energy to post.)

For today’s purposes, it’s less important that you come away from this with a clear idea of the strategic uses of voice than to realize that you may well have more than one voice lurking inside your creative mind at this very moment — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to have to (a) identify the contenders, (b) decide which one you want to dominate the narrative, and (c) set aside some serious revision time for implementing that decision. If, as sometimes amuses the Muses to facilitate, you happen to like more than one of your voice options, you might want to (d) give some thought to which would be most appropriate to the book project at hand (which would fit most comfortably into your chosen book category, which is most likely to appeal to your target readership, etc.), reserving other options for your second, third, or fourth book.

Hey, no one ever said that developing a unique voice was easy. Or uncomplicated.

“I’ve got just one more question,” the disgruntled mutterers who have been dogging me throughout this post are piping up to say. “Why did you decide to start talking about voice at the end of the Pet Peeves on Parade series? If my authorial voice is what is most distinctively me in my manuscript, shouldn’t we have been talking about it all along?”

Ah, but remember what I said above about the usually progression of the authorial learning curve: first comes story, then craft, with voice discovery generally lollygagging to a distant third-place finish. That’s necessary and appropriate — and, frankly, it’s a heck of a lot easier for a writer who has already invested energy in polishing up storytelling and craft issues to tinker with voice than one who has not.

There is more to revising a manuscript than deciding whether this sentence is necessary, that paragraph is clear, or a scene tells rather than shows. All of these are necessary, of course — but ideally, a revising writer should also be asking himself, “But does this part of the manuscript fit with the overall voice? Does it sound like ME?”

Just a small, noisy bug to stick in your ear while you’re reviewing your manuscript in the wake of the Pet Peeves on Parade series. Allow it to jump around freely until next time; perhaps it will awaken an exciting aspect of your voice that’s been napping, waiting until you were ready to hear it. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXII: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to Millicent.

Ooh, we have a burgeoning buffet of professional readers’ pet peeves on the Author! Author! sideboard today, campers. Let’s begin with a personal least-favorite of mine that I hope and pray will shortly be a least-favorite of yours.

In anticipation of that happy day, may I ask a favor of all of you involving the eradication of an unfortunately ubiquitous query letter pet peeve? Would those of you who have been sending out queries containing the phrase complete at X words kindly erase them?

Right now, if it’s not too much trouble. I’ve just seen my 500th query this year to include the phrase, and while I pride myself on being a tolerant, writer-friendly professional reader, I’m sick of it. It’s clumsily phrased, unoriginal, and it’s not as though it will do a query any good.

Yes, you read that correctly: this phrase can only harm a query packet’s chances of success. Stop it, please, before it kills again.

Is that giant collective gasp an indication that this phrase is lifted from some soi-disant foolproof online boilerplate? As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while are already aware of how I feel about those pernicious one-size-fits-all query patterns, I shan’t reflect yet again on their overall efficacy, but even amongst those who don’t moan, “Why do all of today’s queries read identically?” on a regular basis have been perplexed by this awkward phrase’s sudden rise in popularity. It popped into usage only fairly recently — one seldom saw it before ten years ago — but it is far too pervasive to have been passed along by word of mouth alone. Since it contains a piece of information anyone who has taken a conference course on query-writing should know does not need stating, this stock phrase is unlikely to have originated from the writers’ conference circuit.

So whence, the pros wonder, did it emerge? Some doors mankind is not meant to open, I guess.

More importantly for pet peeve-avoidance purposes, why might this innocent-seeming phrase set Millicent the agency screener’s teeth on edge? Simple: if the manuscript being queried is fiction, any agency employee would presume that what the writer is offering is a finished version of the book. First novels are sold on complete manuscripts, period; it would not make sense, therefore, to approach an agent with an incomplete draft. Using precious query letter page space to mention something so obvious, then, is a quite reliable sign of inexperience.

“Besides,” Millicent grumbles, “isn’t part of the point of the query to impress me with one’s writing skills? How on earth am I supposed to be impressed with a writer who stuffs her letter to the proverbial gills with uninspired stock phrases? Show me your phrasing, not some canned clause lifted from the same allegedly sure-fire template half of the queriers who will contact my boss this week will be using!”

Through the whish-whish-whish of frantic erasing on query letter drafts all over the globe, some faint cries of protest arise. “But Anne,” those of you who habitually tuck the phrase into your opening paragraphs argue, “I just thought that was the professional way of including the word count. I realize that Millicent wants to see some original writing, but honestly, isn’t this information to express as quickly as possible and move on?”

The short answer is this: why include it at all? (And the long answer is W-H-Y-I-N-C-L-U-D-E-I-T-A-T-A-L-L?)

No, but seriously, folks, word count is not a standard, necessary, indispensable part of a query. Yes, some agents do prefer to see it up front (and if they have expressed that preference in public, by all means, honor it), but as including it can only hurt a submission’s chances, I’m not a big fan of mentioning word count in a query letter at all. Don’t lie about it if an agency’s guidelines ask for this information, of course, but don’t volunteer it.

And don’t, whatever you do, assume that because some agency guidelines request word count that every agent will expect to see it. As those of you familiar with last autumn’s Querypalooza series may recall, it’s very, very common for an individual agent’s personal preference, once expressed in passing at a conference or in an interview, to be broadcast by well-meaning aspiring writers as the newly-revealed universal key for landing an agent.

But individual preferences are just that: individual. Pretending that every agent currently accepting clients in the United States wants to see word count in the first paragraph of the query letter (and, the accompanying logic usually goes, will automatically reject a query that does not announce this information within the first three lines), despite the fact that the majority of posted submission guidelines do not ask for it, makes about as much sense as including the first 5 pages of text in your query packet as a writing sample just because one of the fifteen agencies you decided to query last week called for you to include it. Out comes the broken record again:

When querying, as when responding to a request for materials, send precisely what that particular agent wants to see — no more, no less. Because part of what a querier is demonstrating in a query packet is the ability to follow directions — a perennially agent-pleasing trait — there is just no substitute for checking every individual agency’s submission guidelines every single time.

Or, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it — and let ‘em have it just that way.

It’s a matter of respect, really. Adhering to any given agent’s expressed querying preferences is a laudable means of demonstrating from the get-go that you are serious enough about your writing not to want just any agent to represent it — you want a specific agent whom you have determined, based on his past sales record, would be a good fit for your book.

According to this principle, an aspiring writer’s including word count is a courtesy to those who ask for it. Offering it unasked to those who do not is, while certainly not required, something that Millicent is likely to regard as a positive blessing — but that doesn’t mean it’s in your best interest to do it.

Why? Knowing from the get-go that a manuscript is too short or too long for its stated book category can save a query-screening Millicent masses of time. Shouting, “Next!” is, we all must recognize, quite a bit speedier than sending out a request for materials, waiting for them to arrive, then seeing first-hand that a manuscript falls outside the length norms.

Heck, if the querier followed the extremely common precept that complete at 127,403 words should appear in the letter’s opening paragraph, she might not even have to read a single additional sentence; if her agency happens to adhere to the belief that 100,000 words is the top cut-off for a first novel — as is the case in most fiction categories — she would have no reason to request the manuscript.

“How kind of this writer,” she murmurs, reaching for the never-far-off stack of form-letter rejections, “to have waved that red flag up front. This way, there’s no possibility of my falling in love with the text before realizing it’s too long, as I might easily have done had I requested pages.”

That one-size-fits-all boilerplate is no longer fitting so comfortably, is it? Typically, agencies that request word count up front like to see it for precisely the same reason a Millicent at a non-requesting agency would be so pleased it appeared: it enables them to reject too-long and too-short manuscripts at the query stage, rather than the submission stage. In essence, it’s asking the writer to provide them with a means of speeding up her own rejection.

But should you include it in a query, if the agency guidelines ask for it? Absolutely: it’s a matter of respect.

I hear you grumbling, campers, and who could blame you? But you might want to brace yourselves, complete at… users; you’re going to like what I’m about to say next even less: many queries rejected for on the basis of excessive word count are actually not too long for their chosen book categories. The listed word count merely makes them appear too long.

“How is that possible?” word count-listers everywhere howl, rending their garments. “I’ve been including what my Word program claims is the actual number of words in the document. By what stretch of the imagination could that number be misinterpreted?”

Quite easily, as it happens: that 100,000 word limit I mentioned above does not refer to actual word count; it is an expression of estimated word count. Although actual word count is appropriate to list for short stories and articles, it is not the norm for book manuscripts — but again, individual agents’ preferences do vary. Therein lies the miscommunication: the overwhelming majority of the considerate souls busily typing complete at… up use actual word count, not estimated, leading Millicent to conclude that a long manuscript contains quite a few more pages than it really does.

Why would she assume the word count is estimated? Respect for the traditions of her industry, mostly: before the rise of Word and its automatic word-count function, estimating was hours more efficient than laboriously counting each and every word. Just as magazines and newspapers used a standard number of words per line, the publishing industry came up with an average for the two most common typewriter key size’s words per page: 250/page for Elite, 200/page for Pica.

With the rise of the home computer, that expectation carried over to the most similar fonts: the standard estimation for a standard manuscript in Times New Roman is 250 words/page; for Courier, it’s 200 words/page. Since TNR is the industry standard, when Millicent sees 100,000 words, she automatically thinks 400 pages.

I see some of you shaking your heads and calling her a Luddite, but for the agency’s purposes, an estimate is more useful than a toting-up of every word. Think about it: since the number of words that appear on a page can vary wildly, actual word count does not tell an agent or editor how many pages to expect, does it? That’s legitimate information for Millicent to consider: the page count is part of the publication cost calculation generally included in the paperwork an editor has to fill out before taking an exciting new project before an editorial committee.

While there is not a one-to-one correlation between the number of pages in a manuscript and the number of pages in its published form — most submission manuscripts shrink by about two-thirds by the time they hit hard copy — page count is hugely important in figuring out how expensive it will be to publish a book. The more pages, the greater the amount of paper and ink required, obviously. Perhaps less obviously, longer books are substantially more expensive to produce than shorter ones: at about 500 pages (an estimated 120,000 words), the binding costs rise dramatically.

Starting to see why our Millie might reject a query that told her in line 3 that it was complete at 127,403 words?

Unfortunately, the majority of queriers who use actual word count, as would be appropriate for a short story or magazine article, are unaware of this publishing reality. Compounding the problem: almost invariably, this number is higher than the estimate would lead one to expect: it is well within the realm of possibility that 127,403-word manuscript would be closer to 400 pages than 500. (Which is why, in case those of you who already have agents had been wondering, agents representing long first novels generally leave the word count off the title page.)

The actual number of pages is irrelevant at rejection time, though, if querier and query-reader are operating on different sets of expectations. While the last digit in that actual count might tip off a professional reader that the writer is using actual count, not an estimate a Millicent in a hurry — and with good math skills — is prone to spot that number and mutter, “509 pages! That’s far too long for a first novel in this category! Next!”

It makes the muses sad enough if the title page prompts this reaction. Imagine, then, how bitterly the muses weep when a good novel gets rejected in this manner because the writer thought the first paragraph of her query needed to contain the words complete at…

Just take it out, willya? I’m tired of listening to the old girls bawl.

Speaking of notorious query-related pet peeves that often engender a cry of “Next!” — and speaking of ungraceful phrases; that segue was a lulu — it would be remiss of me not to mention two others. Since they are such perennial favorites, annoyances to Millicents dating back to at least the Eisenhower administration, let’s haul out the broken record player again, shall we? Nothing like a one of those old-fashioned phonographs when one wants to dance to the oldies-but-goodies.

When approaching an agency with several agents who represent your type of book, it’s considered rude to query more than one of them simultaneously. Pick one — and only one — to approach in any given year.

In publishing, as in so many other areas of life, no means no. If an agent has rejected your query or submission, it’s considered rude to re-approach that agent with the same project again, ever. If the agent wants you to revise and submit that particular manuscript, he will tell you so point-blank; if he likes your voice, but does not think he can sell the manuscript in the current market, he may ask to see your next book.

The second is fairly well-known, but aspiring writers new to the game are constantly running afoul of the first. In a way, that’s completely understandable: if one doesn’t take the time to learn what each agent at a particular agency has represented lately — and few queriers do — it can be pretty difficult to tell which might be the best fit for one’s book.

“I know!” the aspiring writer says, feeling clever as it occurs to her. “I’ll just send it to both of ‘em. That way, I can’t possibly guess wrong which is the agent for me.”

And then both of those queries appear in the inbox belonging to those agents’ shared Millicent. What do you think will happen?

Hint: it has to do with respect. And if you were about to say, “Why, Millicent will weigh carefully which agent would be the most appropriate for my work and forward my query accordingly,” you might want to reconsider you answer.

I don’t care who hears me say it: this is a business where politeness counts. Sending queries to more than one agent at an agency or over and over again to the same agent is, quite apart from self-defeating behavior, an annoyance to those who have to deal with those queries and manuscripts. Need I say more?

Oh, I do? Okay, try this explanation on for size: no one, but no one, likes to be treated as a generic service-provider. Most agents pride themselves on their taste, their insight into current market conditions, and their client list. So when an aspiring writer targets agents with side-by-side offices, as though it were impossible to tell the two of them apart, it’s tantamount to saying, “Look, I don’t care which of you represents me; all agents look alike to me. So what does it matter that one of you already said no?” The same logic applies when a writer queries the same agent who has already rejected that book project: respect for an agent’s choices would dictate honoring that no the first time around.

Speaking of respect issues, let’s not forget the single most common screeners’ pet peeve of all: unprofessionally formatted manuscript submissions. While this is seldom an instant rejection trigger all by itself, not presenting one’s writing in the manner in which the pros expect to see it does mean, effectively, that one is walking into the submission process with one strike against the book.

See why that might prove problematic, in a situation where a manuscript seldom gets more than two strikes before being tossed out of the game?

While veteran members of the Author! Author! community sigh with recognition, those of you new to this blog look a trifle bewildered. “Whoa!” perplexed agent-seekers everywhere cry. “How is formatting a respect issue? Baseball metaphors aside, how on earth could how I choose to present my words on the manuscript page be construed as in any way indicative of my general attitude toward the agent to whom I am sending it? Or, indeed, toward the publishing industry?”

Fairly easily, from the other side of the submission envelope. As it may not be entirely astonishing to you by this point in the post, when Millicent spots an improperly-formatted manuscript, she sees not only a book that needs at least some cosmetic revision to bring up to professional standards, but a writer who does not have enough respect for the industry he aspires to join to learn about its expectations and norms.

“Oh, presentation doesn’t matter,” Millicent imagines the brash new writer saying as he doesn’t bother to spell-check. “That’s my future editor’s job to fix. All that matters is the writing, right?”

Actually, no. Any good agent receives far, far too many beautifully-written manuscripts from aspiring writers who have taken the time to present them properly to waste her time with those that do not. This is such a common rejection reason that there’s even a stock phrase for it.

“That writer is talented,” publishing types will say to one another, “but he hasn’t done his homework.”

Yes, this is often said of talented writers who have yet to develop technical skills, but as any Millicent could tell you, rejection reasons are like wolves: they tend to travel in packs. Improper formatting is merely the quickest indicator of a lack of professionalism to spot. Since all professional book manuscripts and book proposals in this country look alike, adhering to a standard format distinct from what is de rigueur for short stories, articles, academic writing, and even many contests, Millicent can often literally identify a submission from someone who hasn’t done her homework at five paces.

To a literature-lover who handles manuscripts for a living, that’s a genuinely astonishing authorial choice. Unhappily, not doing one’s homework is infinitely more popular than doing it — which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a great deal of sense as a long-term strategy for publishing success. Even the most naturally talented baseball player doesn’t expect to hit a home run the first time he steps up to the plate, after all; he knows that he must learn the rules and hone his skills before he has a chance at the big leagues.

Many, if not most, aspiring writers, by contrast, seem to believe that the New York Yankees are going to sign them the first time they pick up bats and don gloves. Can you really blame Millicent for feeling that’s just a trifle disrespectful to all of the great authors who have invested the time in learning to play the game?

“But Anne,” those of you new to querying and submission point out huffily, “why should it surprise anybody that a first-time novelist, memoirist, or book proposer should not already know every nuance of how the industry works? Why is being new a problem to a business ostensibly concerned with seeking out what is fresh and exciting?”

Good question, neophytes. To those used to dealing with professional manuscripts, everything that appears on the page is assumed to be there because the writer made an active choice to include it. By that logic, a typo is never just a typo: it’s either a deliberate misspelling for effect, a proofreading omission, or evidence that the writer just can’t spell. The same holds true for holes in a plot, voice inconsistencies — and yes, formatting.

As I may seven or eight hundred times recently, good agents are inundated with fresh, exciting manuscripts that do not have these problems; clearly, then, it is possible for a writer brand-new to the biz to learn how to avoid them. So when a promising writer has not taken the time to burnish her submission to a high polish, it’s likely to look an awful lot like an assumption that his future agent is going to do all the work of bringing that manuscript into line with professional standards for her.

In other words, not formatting a submission in the manner Millicent has been trained to expect will effectively mean that she will start reading it already assuming that it is not the final draft. How could a manuscript that does not adhere to professional presentation standards be considered a completely polished manuscript?

It’s not as though the agent of your dreams could submit it to an editor that way, after all. An agent who permitted her clients to deliver work in any of those formats would have to waste her own time changing the cosmetic elements so it would be possible to take it to a publishing house. For this reason, Millicent regards incorrectly-formatted work as indicative of a writer not particularly serious about his work .

Or, to put it a trifle more bluntly: she’s not judging it on the writing alone. Necessarily, she has to consider how much extra time her boss would have to invest in a writer who would have to be trained how to put together a manuscript.

I see those of you who worked your way through last autumn’s mind-achingly detailed Formatpalooza series rolling your eyes. “Yes, yes, we know, Anne,” veteran format-contemplators say wearily. “You walk us through standard format at least once a year, addressing at length the digressions from it in which aspiring writers all too frequently unwittingly indulge at great cost to their books’ submission chances. I now no longer add a row of asterisks to indicate a section break, allow Word to alter my doubled dashes with spaces on either end to emdashes bridging the space between the words before and after, nor embrace the AP style practice of capitalizing the first word after a colon, as if it were the beginning of a new sentence. Heck, I even know what a slug line is. I still secretly agonize in the dead of night because another website — one that does not draw a firm distinction between the correct format for a book manuscript and how a short story should be submitted to a magazine, perhaps — says I should place the chapter title on the line directly above the first line of text, as is proper for a short story, rather than on the first line of the page, as is appropriate for a book manuscript, but overall, I feel pretty good about how professional my submissions look. Why keep nagging me about it?”

Actually, my frequent reminders of the importance of adhering to standard format are not aimed at you, conscientious researchers, but toward those who have not yet learned to emulate your laudable example. Aspiring writers who have taken the time to learn the expectations of the industry into which they are trying to break are not, generally speaking, those whose submissions make Millicent grind her teeth down to nubs. If you’re already following the rules, chances are good that she is judging your manuscript on your writing.

Congratulations; that’s a relative rarity. Unfortunately for the overall happiness of aspiring writers everywhere, most submissions reflect an almost complete lack of awareness that standard format even exists. Oh, most are double-spaced and feature page numbers (although you would be astonished at how often the latter are omitted), but beyond the application of one or two isolated rules, it’s quite obvious that the writers who produced them think presentation doesn’t matter.

Surprised to hear that’s the norm? You’re in good company — Millicent is flabbergasted. Despite a wealth of formatting advice floating around the Internet — some of it accurate, some of it not — the average manuscript landing on her desk displays a blithe disregard of standard format. It’s almost as though it’s daring her to like the writing in spite of the careless presentation.

It is, in short, disrespectful. And we all know how Millicent, the industry’s gatekeeper and thus the person who sees far more promising writing gone wrong than anybody else, tends to respond to that: “Next!”

I’m bringing all of this up in the middle of our ongoing discussion of craft not to say that presentation is more important than the writing quality — no one who dealt with manuscripts for a living would argue that — but to remind everyone that to a professional reader, everything on that page matters.

There are no free passes for careless omissions; with any given agency, there are seldom even second chances after an insufficiently-polished first approach. Yet despite the vital importance of making a good first — and second, and third — impression, most good writers become so impatient to see their words in print that they start sending out queries and submissions half an hour after they type THE END.

Sometimes even before. Had I mentioned that it’s considered disrespectful to query a manuscript that is not yet completed? (It is, perversely, acceptable to give a verbal pitch at a conference under the same circumstances, however. Agents and editors who hear pitches know how stressful it is; most would agree that a practice run at it a year or two before one is doing it for real isn’t a bad idea.)

As exciting as the prospect of getting your baby published may be, sending it out before it’s ready to meet Millicent is not the best long-term strategy. At least not now, when personalized rejection letters have become exceedingly rare: while up to about a decade ago, an aspiring writer could hope to gain valuable and useful feedback from the submission process, now, the volume of queries and submissions is so high that the manuscript that prompted Millicent to mutter, “Oh, here’s another one who didn’t do his homework,” and the carefully-polished near-miss are likely to receive precisely the same form-letter rejection: I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current tight literary market.

The wording may vary slightly, but the sentiment is the same. Aspiring writers are not the only population fond of boilerplates, apparently.

Choose your words thoughtfully, take the time to learn the rules of submission, and treat your future agent — and his Millicents — with respect. Believe me, once you are working with them on an intensive basis, you’ll be glad you did.

Next time, we’ll wend our way merrily back to the Short Road Home. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, Part III: always let your conscience be your guide — except when you shouldn’t

Did you miss me, campers? I’ve been hiding under the covers of both a good book and my bed for the past few days. Why, you ask? Well, I can take a hint: the last time I poked my nose outside my front door, I sprained my ankle and caught a cold.

Clearly, Somebody Up There is harboring a preference for my staying put. With my foot in the air and a mug of hot tea clutched to my chest.

I am venturing forth this evening, however, to reignite our discussion of the Short Road Home, my pet term for a scene that introduces a potential conflict, only to resolve it so quickly that the reader barely has time to notice an increase in ambient conflict. Short Roads Home have been the downfall of many a submitted novel, for a small handful of exceedingly simple reasons: such scenes almost invariably tell rather than show, minimize inter-character conflict, and let the tension of the story lag.

So why, you might well have spent last week wondering, do Short Roads Home remain immensely popular in manuscript submissions? Much of the time, the writers who construct such shortcuts are not even aware that they are doing it.

That, I think, is both unfortunate and unnecessary. Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it.

As in right now. Or at least before you send your baby out again.

Why the urgency? Because the Short Road Home is so very common, an experienced pro might not even have to read more than a couple of lines of a scene to identify it — and shove the submission into the rejection pile. In fact, it’s in the interest of a time-strapped Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, or Mehitabel the veteran contest judge to be on the lookout for this phenomenon: it’s a pretty good indicator that a manuscript has not seen very many critical first readers.

As such, M, M, and M tend to assume, the book is probably at least one revision away from being polished. Or, to put it as they would, “Next!”

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb appear above your heads somewhere in the course of those last two paragraphs? Did it occur to you as if archangels suddenly appeared and shouted the news into your awed ears that, as with nonstandard formatting, the appearance of an ultra-frequent megaproblem in a manuscript might actually be a welcome sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or, more to the point, without investing further reading time?

If so, congratulations — you now have a much, much firmer grasp of how submissions work than a good 95% of the writers currently slapping stamps on SASEs across the English-speaking world. It’s one of the great paradoxes of being in a position to discover new writers: in order to unearth that great undiscovered talent, they have to read a lot of, well, everything else. So the faster they can sift through the rest and reject the bulk of what they receive, the more time and energy they have to devote to that elusive perfect book.

Which is great, if your manuscript happens to be that needle in a haystack. It’s substantially less great if your project is a pin that merely needs a bit more sharpening and an eye installed before M, M, and/or M will recognize it as what they have been seeking.

Was the refreshing breeze that just wafted across my elevated foot the collective result of all of you agent-seekers sighing gustily? I’m not surprised: polishing a manuscript to professional standards is hard work, and not something that is going to happen all by itself. As much as the artist in all of us would like to believe that each and every sentence to fall off our fingertips onto a keyboard is camera-ready, more than talent is typically necessary to bring a wonderful story to publication. It takes inspiration, yes, but it also takes craft and an acquired knowledge of how the publishing industry expects good writing to be presented.

And half of you sighed again. But honestly, if you were setting out to be a professional baseball player, would you expect to hit the ball out of the park the first time you tried? Even a natural benefits from training.

But as M, M, and M can tell you to their cost, that’s not the prevailing notion of how books get published. Quite the opposite: most aspiring writers new to the business leap to the unwarranted conclusion that an agent or editor will be so delighted by a fresh voice that s/he is automatically going to be willing to ignore other problems in the manuscript until after the contract is signed.

In practice, this doesn’t happen much, even for manuscripts with minor problems. Certainly not for those with pacing or storytelling problems.

Out comes the broken record again: when submitting your writing in any professional context, it is not safe to assume that it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, this manuscript certainly needs work, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix it.”

And never, alas, does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along and maintaining tension, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist for the three or four years it will take her to learn to correct these problems.”

As delightful as it would be if they did habitually express such sentiments — better still, if they routinely acted upon them — this just doesn’t happen for writers who don’t already have a solid platform (i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to a book). As a non-celebrity writer, you can safely assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons to weed your work out, rather than reasons to accept it. At least for the first half of the book or so. Millicent and her ilk don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

Until then, they’re hoping that those great ones will take a hint, stop submitting, and polish their manuscripts before approaching the pros again. Oh, and becoming a celebrity in the meantime would be a selling point, too.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars, I notice — don’t like to talk much about this hope. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control.

As far as I’m concerned, megaproblems are very much within the writer’s control, as are the other rejection triggers we’ve been discussing over the last few months– but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission. So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up the subtle Short Road Home.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home crops up frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character — or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket — will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length. Case closed!

Not sure what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a common example: when a protagonist apparently shows up to a scene purely in order to comment upon it as an outside observer, rather than participating actively in it.

“I did not press the panic button!” James insisted.

Barnaby pointed to the city skyline melting into a fluorescent puddle in the distance. “The warhead didn’t launch itself!”

Etienne listened to the argument swirling around him, knowing it wasn’t really about who bombed what when. Anybody could see that the rapidly-disintegrating city was just an excuse for James and Barnaby to snipe at each other, a transparent mask laid delicately over the face of their unadmitted mutual passion. He wished that they would just rent a motel room and get on with it, so he wouldn’t have to listen to their bickering — assuming, that is, that James’ little slip of the finger had left any motels standing.

See the problem? Essentially, the protagonist is acting as the reader’s translator here: no need to draw one’s own conclusions while Etienne is on the job. No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader turning pages.

Even when these helpful characters are not therapists by trade (although M, M, and M have seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis: “I realize that you’re upset, Cheryl, but aren’t you displacing your underlying dissatisfaction at being laid off at the lumberyard onto your boyfriend? After all, it’s not his fault that pastry chefs remain in such high demand. If you were not envious of his job security, would you really have minded his torrid affair with those Siamese twins?

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

“But Anne,” I hear many an amateur Jiminy Cricket protest, “I don’t understand. Don’t my explanations move the plot along? Don’t they provide necessary character development? And isn’t my spouting them a fabulous way of making sure that the reader doesn’t miss any critical nuances?”

Why, yes, Jiminy, your running commentary can indeed perform all of those functions — but by definition, your pointing them out to the reader is telling, not showing.

I’m not just bringing that up to sound like your 10th grade composition teacher, either. While no one minds the occasional foray into summation, both characters and situations tend to be more intriguing if the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

It makes for a more involving narrative. Hyper-analytical protagonists seldom surprise; they’re too thoroughly explaining what’s already gone on, what’s going on now, and what is likely to be going on in future to allow a twist to sneak up on the reader.

Also, when the instant-analysis device is overused, the reader can become jaded to it pretty quickly. After the third or fourth instance — or after the first, if the reader happens to be a professional manuscript-scanner — the reader is apt to become convinced that that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist.

Why bother, if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed? Which, correct me if I am wrong, completely prevents the reader from enjoying one of the great joys of getting into a novel, trying to figure out what is going to happen next.

Besides, as we saw last week, instant analysis can relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on while it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments?

In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling, incidentally. Memoirists just adore foreshadowing — because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented as the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

A great structural rule of thumb for memoirs: show first, conclude later.

But what’s that you say, Great Hinter in the Sky? That burgeoning swelling in my ankle means I should stop for now? Thanks for telling me — I wouldn’t want to risk drawing the wrong conclusion from the evidence, after all.

I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject tomorrow. In the meantime, make sure those protagonists stay active, concentrate on giving the reader enough information so s/he may draw the correct inferences about what’s going on, and keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, Part II: establishing and preserving narrative intensity, or, why not let those characters roll around on the tiger skin for a while?

Quite the author photo, is it not? That’s the jacket picture for the first edition of Elinor Glyn‘s 1927 bestseller, IT, incidentally — and in response to what those of you familiar with silent film just thought, yes, Madame Glyn was in fact the person who coined the phrase the It Girl for Clara Bow. She also discovered Rudolf Valentino, bullied early Hollywood set dressers out of depicting the stately homes of England with suits of armor in every corner, and convinced the reading public that kissing a lady on the inside of the wrist was far, far sexier than smooching the back of her hand.

She was crucial in establishing many of the long-standing conventions of the romance genre, in short. No great prose stylist, she nevertheless managed to establish her own particular brand of smoldering, setting the standard for passion-on-the-page for decades.

Getting the word out about a writer to that extent was no mean achievement, back in the long-ago days before the Internet — and she pulled it off before telephones were common in private homes. Yet by the time IT was published, Madame Glyn had been THE name in potboiler romance for a decade. Her breakthrough novel, Three Weeks, was considered so scandalous when it came out that it inspired a popular song:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

Catchy, no? Even today, most authors would have happily cut off a toe or two in exchange for that kind of free publicity.

Why bring up Madame Glyn in the middle of a discussion of narrative shortcuts and too-quick resolutions of major plot conflicts? Ah, I could tell you up front, but if I have learned anything from studying her work, it’s to draw out the mystery.

To our muttons, then, Last time, I broached the monumental twin subjects of tension and conflict in novels and memoirs. While lack of either is a frequent rejection trigger, there are as many individual underlying causes for flabby tension and minimal conflict as there are manuscripts — or, indeed, as there are pages in individual manuscripts. But that’s not going to stop me from talking about how to attack some of the more common culprits.

Yesterday, I introduced the Short Road Home, the all-too-common narrative practice of resolving a conflict practically as soon as it is introduced — or the first time the protagonist really puts his mind to it. Whether it’s stamping out a fallen match before the reader’s had a chance to see it be even the vaguest threat to the drapes or a protagonist so distracted by subplots that she doesn’t get a chance to devote serious thought to the book’s central problem until Chapter 32 in a 33-chapter novel, professional and non-professional readers alike tend to find cutting to the chase dramatically unsatisfying.

Surprisingly, the intention underlying most Short Roads Home is less often a matter of a writer’s trying to pick up a story’s pace than an attempt to skip over a series of events the writer just doesn’t find very interesting. Oh, the provoking event may be interesting, as may the eventual resolution; it’s all of the action needed to get the reader from Point A to Point B that tends to get omitted. SRH solutions may be very attractive to writers not eager to deal with scenes necessary to resolve a conflict and/or the solution’s messy and page-consuming results.

“What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

It’s so much easier, the logic runs, just to summarize what happened, telling rather than showing the reader what is going on. SRH solutions are, in a word, shortcuts — and in the vast majority of manuscripts, shortcuts that both minimize conflict and reduce tension.

The good news is that the Short Road Home is exceptionally easy to spot in a manuscript, once a writer knows to be looking for it. While a bit time-consuming to fix — often, SRH are small shortcuts, rather than extensive plot detours, so it may require some pretty close reading to spot ‘em — the benefits in added character development tend to be substantial.

Okay, so good news is relative. I never promised you that revision would be a breeze, did I?

Not all too-quick resolutions of a major problem in the plot fall under the SRH rubric, however. Last time, for the sake of discussion, I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version. Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick narrative analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well.

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel or memoir. Writers new to the craft tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while. First-person and tight third-person narratives are particularly susceptible to over-analysis: since these point of view choices allow the reader to see the protagonist’s every thought and feeling, it’s pretty easy to get carried away.

The result, alas, is often text in which the conclusions drawn from even the least significant event positively swamp the event itself. In the face of such apparent narrative overreaction, the poor reader is left to guess what is significant and what is merely a passing annoyance.

The border guard eyed him with suspicion. “Your passport, sir?”

Why on earth had the man asked that? Gregory wondered. Was the contraband bulging under his winter coat? Was it too odd that he was wearing a winter coat at all in July?

But what could he do but comply? “Of course. Would you mind holding my monumentally heavy valise while I dig it out?”

The guard accepted the load. “What have you got in here, sir? Gold bars?”

What did the man mean by that? Could he possibly know just by hoisting the bag what was within? Or did the clank give the gold bars away?

As Gregory pulled the necessary papers from his inside coat pocket, a matchbook from the Kit Kat Klub tumbled to the tiled floor. He was too fearful of dropping anything else to pick it up. He lamented the inconvenience. What if he needed to light someone’s cigar on the boat? What if the generator went out, and he was forced to light a candle? Where would he get a candle in that contingency, and did the power go out on steamers very often?

“Here, you are, sir.” The guard returned his passport with a curt smile. “Enjoy your trip.”

Just what did that sinister little smile portend? Gregory wondered uncomfortably. Had he actually gotten away with smuggling, or was the guard merely toying with him?

Exhausting, isn’t it? The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, narrative eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it, sometimes for pages on end. If a nuance tries to escape unpinned-down, perhaps in order to grace a later scene, the narrative leaps upon it like a vicious wildcat, worrying it to bits.

Frequently, this analysis takes the form of what could be an interestingly subtle conversational conflict’s being presented purely in the form of the protagonist’s mulling over the provocation without responding overtly at all — creating a scene in which all of the conflict takes place in a character’s mind. As we saw above, rhetorical questions are just dandy for achieving this effect.

Oh, what the heck. Let’s see speculation run wild again.

“No more cake for me,” Moira said with a sigh. “I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, have some more, Moira,” Cheyenne wheedled. “You could use to pack on a few pounds.”

Moira’s hand froze in mid-air, crumb-bedusted dessert plate trembling aloft. What did Cheyenne mean by that? Was he just being polite — or was this a backhanded way of reminding her that she was supposed to be on a perpetual diet, with the Miss America pageant only three months away? Or was he afraid that if the guests didn’t consume every last morsel, he would revert to his habits from before, from those torrid days at the emergency reduction boot camp where they’d met, and snort up all of the remaining calories like a Hoover?

She had to smile at the thought: he had been adorable chubby. But that’s not the kind of person who should be seen on a beauty queen’s arm.

She decided to change the subject, as well as her conversational partner. “So, Barbara, how are you enjoying wombat farming?”

See what the narrative has done here? The long internal monologue provides both backstory and character development, but it has also deprived the reader of what could have been a meaningful exchange between Moira and Cheyenne. Instead of allowing the reader to derive impressions of their attitudes toward each other through action and dialogue, the narrative simply summarizes the facts the reader needs to know. To depress the tension of the scene even further, once the logical possibilities for Cheyenne’s motivation have been disposed of in this silent, non-confrontational manner, the scene proceeds as if no conflict had ever reared its ugly head.

Why is this a problem? Well, when a text over-explains situations and motivations, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

I see you scowling, but honestly, given how many manuscripts she has to read in a day, this is a completely understandable reaction. Most aspiring writers tend to forget this — or never knew it in the first place — but professional readers do not, as a rule, devour an entire chapter, or even an entire page, before making up their minds about whether they think the submission is marketable. They read line by line, extrapolating patterns.

How might this affect a submission in practice? Let’s assume that Millicent has the first 50 pages of the manuscript containing that last example. If it appears on page 1, she is likely to stop there, because a subtle Short Road Home has already appeared. Because this is her first contact with the writer’s work, she left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. Depending upon which way she decides, she may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe and keep reading — or, and this is by far the more popular choice, she may pass with thanks.

If the SRH doesn’t appear until page 43, however, she might well continue. She already has some reason to believe that SRHs are not this writer’s go-to solution for conflict. Generally speaking, though, the sooner a writing problem occurs in a manuscript, the more likely she is to diagnose it as inherent to the writer in question’s style, and score the piece accordingly. Even if the overall writing style is strong, a reliance on the SRH is likely to get the writer labeled as promising, but needing a more experience in moving the plot along.

Or, to put it in the parlance of the business, “Next!”

Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle SRH is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how his manuscript has slipped onto the primrose path of the Short Road Home. In addition, I would provide them with three weeks of paid holiday every six months just for writing (child care provided gratis, of course), a pet monkey, a freezer full of ice cream, and a leather-bound set of the complete writings of Madame de Staël.

Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me. I feel that they should be stopped in our lifetime, by federal statute, if necessary.

The way a subtle Short Road Home halts the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of my house, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again. Little Georgie had disrupted their narrative, you see.

A subtle SRH disrupts an ongoing narrative, too, smashing imaginative possibilities to the ground with a single blow. Once an overly-enthusiastic analysis has laid the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship completely bare, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum.

When a text over-analyzes, how can the reader draw any conclusions? That’s not a bad definition of telling, rather than showing, come to think of it: showing the reader what is going on and allowing her to draw her own conclusions tends to produce a richer reading experience than simply stating the facts.

Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters. to keep turning page after page, to find out what happens to them.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. We’ve gotten accustomed to being told immediately why any given character has acted in a particular manner. The various LAW & ORDER franchises excel at this, particularly L&O SVU: in practically every episode, one of the police officers will, in the interests of drama and character development, lose an apparently tenuous grasp on his or her emotions/underlying hostility/grasp of constitutional law and police procedure and let loose upon a suspect.

Or a witness. Or a coworker. The point is, they yell at somebody.

Then, practically the nanosecond after the heat of emotion has passed, another member of the squad will turn up to explain why the character blew up. Helpfully, they often direct this explanation to the person who has just finished bellowing. Whew — just when the audience member thought s/he might have to draw a conclusion based upon what s/he had seen occur.

Or — and this one’s my personal favorite — one of the police officers (or forensic pathologist, or administrator, or someone else entitled by billing to a series of close-ups of an anguished face) does or says something well-intentioned at the beginning of the episode that triggers (however indirectly) someone else to do something stupid. An actual example: “If I hadn’t bought my nephew that computer, he would never have met that online predator!”

Hard to argue with that one, isn’t it? It’s also hard to imagine the next line of dialogue’s not being a cliché, because an assertion like this isn’t precisely conducive to any response but, “Oh, Mrs. Miniver, you mustn’t blame yourself.”

But I digress. With both of these structures, the character in question exhibits his remorse, naturally, by repeating this sentiment at crucial points throughout the episode, looking tortured. Then he bends some pesky police regulation/federal statute/commandment because (and in the interests of brevity, I’m going to cut to the essentials of the argument here) the ends of catching that creep justify the means.

Cue recap of feeling guilty — often punctuated by a co-worker’s patient explanation that capturing the creep du jour didn’t REALLY change the underlying emotional situation, raise the dead, get the nephew un-molested, etc. — and leave those emotional threads hanging for next week’s episode. Wash, rise, repeat.

What identifies this series of events as a Short Road Home is not so much that the villain is pretty much always caught and convicted, but that complex human emotions that talented actors would surely be delighted to play are simply summarized in the plot. Or, to put it as an editor might, the turmoil is told, rather than shown.

To be fair, TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way. A novelist or memoirist, on the other hand, can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts himself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Don’t see how this might apply to your revision? Okay, consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist instead:

(a) sits around (often while driving in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion, ruling out possible actions instead of testing them through doing? A species example, so you may recognize it in the wild: Should I go to my boss and confess? No, he’ll never understand. Maybe I should just return the money quietly, hoping no one will notice. But whom am I kidding? Or perhaps I should…

(b) sits around drinking coffee/tea/another beverage with her friends while they come up with analysis and solution? As in: “What do you think, Angela and Trieste? Should I try to save my relationship with Bertie, who might be an axe murderer, or should I leave him? Compare and contrast the possibilities, please, while I score us some more of this luscious chocolate cake.”

Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up:

(c) sits around with her therapist/his significant other, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution? As in: “Oh, stop kicking yourself, George. You’ve done the best you can for your daughter. It’s not your fault that her mother died in that hideous lacrosse accident when she was only six, and has hated netting ever since.” “I know you’re right, Martha, but by Jove! I can’t help feeling responsible.”

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through, beginning to end. Afterward, ask yourself: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

Just a suggestion. (“And just what does she mean by that?” Gregory worried, gnawing his fingernails down to the elbow.)

Speaking of elbows, do I see a few waving in the air? “But Anne,” lovers of the classics protest, “Some of my favorite 19th-century novels spend chapters on end wallowing in the type of intensive introspection you describe. Since good writing is good writing, regardless of the era in which it was produced, Millicent couldn’t possibly regard this orientation as slow pacing.”

Actually, she is fully capable of doing so — in fact, she’s trained to do it. Readers today expect more action on even the literary fiction page than they did back in the days when the next train through town might not show up for a week. That’s why, incidentally, novels (or memoirs) published more than 20 years ago would not be the best role model choices for pacing a book a writer planned to submit today.

Yes, even if the book in question is a recognized classic. I love JANE EYRE as much as the next person, but there’s a reason that all of the film adaptations have simply omitted the huge section of text dealing with the heroine’s conflict over whether to become a missionary or not. As interesting and character-revealing as it is, it’s not as dramatic as the rest of the story.

Do all of those averted eyes mean that some of you don’t want to believe that reading tastes have changed since the Civil War? Believe me, I understand the impulse: it’s tempting, isn’t it, to blame agents for this, since over that particular period they have become the weeders-out of what editors at the major US publishing houses see? (In case you didn’t know, all of the major American publishers currently have policies specifically forbidding considering unagented work; the much-vaunted slush pile no longer exists.) But the fact that pacing standards have sped to near-breakneck rates in recent years really isn’t the agents’ fault: it’s genuinely difficult for them to sell more moderately-paced books. Ditto with long ones.

Why? The price of paper has risen astronomically in recent years, as has the cost of binding. This, in case you are curious, is the primary reason that Millicent tends to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to a first novel much over 100,000 words (400 pages in standard format; if what I just said sounded like Urdu to you, run, don’t walk to check out the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and WORD COUNT categories on the archive list at right). At 120,000 words — around 500 pages — the cost of binding shoots up.

Bad news for all of us who grew up wanting to emulate John Irving’s pacing, certainly. Or John Steinbeck’s. Or, if we’re honest about it, the protagonist introspection levels of pretty much any meganovelist who wrote prior to the Second World War.

For reasons of history, then, as well as practicality, Millicent starts to tense up when a submission’s tension begins to wilt. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in a writer’s interest to skim over interesting conflict too quickly with a Short Road Home.

I’ve gleaned a lulu of an example from our cover girl of the day’s best-known novel, IT. The impoverished society-girl heroine, Ava Cleveland, is desperate for money to maintain her lifestyle in the face of her brother’s bordering-on-criminal gambling debts. When the following scene begins, she’s just told her friends that she is spending a season in the country to hide the fact that she is going to be asking her admirer, John Gaunt, to give her a — gasp! — job:

So she shut up the Park Avenue flat and dodged her creditors and disappeared to “Virginia” — which happened on the map to be her old nurse’s abode in an ancient house in the old-fashioned poorer quarter of Brooklyn. Close, if she had known it, to one of John Gaunt’s hospitals for children.

Something made her restless, even from the first day of her arrival — so at last she looked at John Gaunt’s card again — and rang Hanover 09410 — once more.

Admit it: you’re already a trifle bored, aren’t you? That’s probably because you’re so used to the current standards of writing that even this much summary strikes you as skirting the edge of show-don’t-tell comfort. Don’t feel bad, if that was your reaction. Actually, Millicent probably wouldn’t have made it beyond the first sentence of this excerpt — and for a reason that is very common in present-day submissions.

Any idea why? Hint: go back and take a gander at that first sentence.

Quite a few ands in it, aren’t there? And technically, quotation marks should not be used to indicate so-called; italics would have been the preferred choice here.

But let’s be charitable: this was published 1927, when submission standards were a considerably more lax. Moving on:

Miss Shrimper answered and was as insulting as she could be, when she heard a refined female voice…No, Mr. Gaunt could not come to the phone — he never came to the phone! The idea!

Ava’s voice sharpened. “Be good enough to tell him that the lady he met at Mrs. Meriton’s is speaking.”

It is doubtful that even this would have succeeded, had not John Gaunt himself chanced to come out from his inner shrine and seen Miss Shrimper’s acid face — something told him instantly that it was Ava trying to get through to him.

John Gaunt turned to re-enter his private room. “Put her through,” was all he said.

And as she did so, Miss Shrimper’s eyes filled with apprehensive tears.

Did you catch the Short Road Home? The narrative had gotten a legitimate conflict going between Ava and Miss Shrimper (albeit through having chosen to summarize the latter’s indignation rather than showing it through dialogue and tone) — when along comes stupid old John (called by both names each time he appears, please note, a rookie narrative mistake) to intuit what’s going on by some mysterious, doubtless magical means.

Presto! Conflict killed.

Not content with abruptly cutting off the hostility between the two women, Glyn went on to minimize Ava’s difficulties in asking for what she wants — another perennially popular version of the Short Road Home. To top it off, her characters take refuge in that most boring of dialogue forms, the ultra-polite. See for yourself.

“Good morning, Miss Cleveland.” His voice was deep, and Ava, at the other end, quivered strangely. “What can I do for you?”

“I want to — work.”

“You had better come and see me tomorrow at eleven, then — I am altering some posts in my office. You may wish to give the name of Miss Clover, perhaps?” The tones were cold as steel and entirely businesslike.

Ava experienced a chill — but “Miss Clover!” That was an idea! “Very well, she answered, and put down the phone.

John Gaunt lay back in his chair and smiled.

“How surprised she will be,” he said to himself. Then he went out and had his rather long hair trimmed slightly so that its thick, deep waves lay close against his Napoleonic head. His nails, which Ava had thought too brilliantly polished, were given a still brighter luster too. Then he went to his Club and was sphinx-like and almost surly with one or two business friends he met.

I could have stopped earlier, but who was I to deny you that Napoleonic head? Hard to imagine that less than a century ago, that description would have been considered inherently attractive, isn’t it?

I could run through a laundry list of all the reasons Millicent might give for not making it all the way through this excerpt — the repeated two-part name, the telling rather than showing, the paragraph containing only a single sentence, the mysterious capitalization of club, the burning question of how exactly may one be sphinx-like without either posing riddles or having a cat’s head — but that’s not what I want you to focus upon here. Instead, concentrate on just how effectively the use of the Short Road Home in this last bit smothered all of the following:

(a) the tension that the narrative seems to be assuring the reader exists, yet doesn’t actually show;

(b) the sense that Ava was having to overcome any scruples in going to work, since she just blurted out the request with no preamble or hesitation, beyond the moment indicated by the dash;

(c) any indication that Ava was going to have to beg for the job, since John Gaunt agrees instantly, and

(d) any anticipation the reader might have felt prior to this scene about difficulties Ava might encounter at her first job, since John Gaunt has very kindly handed her a simple alternative to having to be honest about who she is — and in case we were in any doubt about this suggestion’s utility, Ava considerately just tells the reader that it’s a good idea.

A pretty efficient page’s work — and that’s not even counting the significant achievement of impressing the reader with Ava’s apparent inability to hold still for more than a paragraph without quivering for reasons she doesn’t understand. (Nor do we, as it happens.) By handling potentially conflict-ridden material in this manner, Madame Glyn effectively killed the tension of what should have been a harrowing scene.

That’s unfortunate, because this super-quick resolution is not even representative of the rest of the book. Oh, Madame Glyn does favor the Short Road Home from time to time — but given the exchange above, would you be expecting Ava to try to sell herself to John in order to save her brother? Or John to use the solicitation of same as a complex ruse to propose marriage? Or for businesslike John to express his burgeoning feelings to Ava through (I kid you not) the delicate art of interior decoration?

The moral: just because a storyline is full of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be a page-turner. How a writer chooses to present that conflict is crucial.

Frankly, Millicent would be a less cynical woman if more aspiring writers realized this. Beware of inexplicable quavering, everybody, and keep up the good work!

A detour from the pet peeve parade: the short road home

Throughout our rather sprawling Pet Peeves on Parade series, I have been chattering blithely about narrative conflict and tension, as though every aspiring writer out there were already hard at work, trying to ratchet up the quotas of both in their manuscripts. As, indeed, those of us who read for a living so frequently advise: make sure there is conflict on every single page is, after all, one of the most commonly-given pieces of how-to-please-the-agent-of-your-dreams revision advice.

But if you’ll pardon my asking, what does it mean?

Seriously, how would a conscientious self-editor apply this advice to the manuscript page? Insert a sword fight every eight paragraphs or so? Have the nearest gas station should spring a leak just because the protagonist happens to be strolling by? Force the lovers in your romance cease stop billing and cooing in favor of snarling at one another?

Of course not — but you would be surprised how often aspiring writers stumble into the harsh daylight at the end of a writers’ conference muttering to themselves, “Must ramp up conflict. Tension on every page!” without being certain what that means on a practical level. There’s a pretty good reason for that: colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

So let’s take a moment to define our literary terms, shall we?

Narrative conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force. The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Narrative tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next — rather than, say, idly wondering whether it is time to check in again with a 24-hour news network. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from a lack of one often suffers from a paucity of the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, enough so that the professional readers’ stereotype of a first submission is — are you sitting down? — a story that meanders episodically from event to unrelated event, just like real life.

“And just like real life,” our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, has been known to murmur over manuscripts, “any randomly-chosen scene will not appear to a bystander to be going anywhere in particular. Is there a point to all of this slice-of-life activity?”

Why might first books be more likely to fall prey to this pervasive problem than others? Keeping both conflict and tension high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult; it’s a learned skill, and many quite talented writers have been known to write a practice book or two before they learn it.

Oh, should I have checked again that you were sitting down before I broached that one?

The other major reason first books tend to drag is that writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer. Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep Millicent turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read this way.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on-the-screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline — or has just received a request for pages from a real, live agent.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting not to give your work a thorough read-through. Especially in the second case: if you’re like the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers, you’ll be so excited by a positive response to your query that you’ll want to pop those pages in the mail or hit the SEND button within 24 hours or so. You know, before that nice agent changes his mind.

If you read that last paragraph and cried, “By gum, that’s me!” relax. Requests for pages don’t expire for a year or so, typically. Even if the request came as the result of a successful pitch — and if so, kudos on your bravery — an aspiring writer does not, contrary to popular panicked opinion, need to get the requested materials onto the agent’s desk before s/he forgets the pitch. If one pitched at a reasonably busy conference, it’s safe to assume that s/he will forget your pitch — but that s/he will have taken good notes.

Translation: you have time to proofread before sending all or part of your manuscript. In fact, it’s only professional to take the time to do so.

Unfortunately, those whose writing would most benefit from a good, hard, critical reading tend to be those less likely to perform it. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

So let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you submit so much as a paragraph of your writing to a professional reader, it would behoove you to read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so it doesn’t slip your mind the night before that contest deadline.

Many a hand has been in the air for many a paragraph now, hasn’t it? “But Anne,” anguished middle-of-the-night manuscript contemplators everywhere wail, “how can I tell if my manuscript does indeed lack conflict and/or tension? I’ve read some of the individual passages so often now that they seem set in stone to me.”

Excellent question, anguished self-editors. While there are as many individual causes of sagging tension and conflict minimization as there are plotlines, certain types of narrative choices are more conducive to producing them. In the interest of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home crops up when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension to the story — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve — or understand what the stakes are.

What might the SRH look like on the page? Well, in its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages –- and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character’s internal conflict is depicted as insurmountable — and then it turns out that all he needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in Madagascar leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

The thing is, though, blocked roads tend to be quite a bit more interesting to read about than unblocked ones. So you can hardly blame Millicent for becoming impatient when pages at a time pass without conflict — and then, when the long-anticipated conflict does arise, the narrative swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. Perhaps like so:

Percy rumpled his hair for what must have been the fifteenth time that day. How on earth was he going to find his long-lost relative in a city of half a million people, armed with only a ten-year-old photograph and a dim memory that Uncle Gerard adored hazelnut gelato?

Perhaps that was the best place to start; he nipped around the corner to Gelato Galleria. After all, sensory memories were always the strongest.

“Hazelnut?” The man behind the counter seemed thunderstruck. “Only one customer has ever ordered hazelnut here. Mr. Gerard’s my best customer.”

Percy reached across the counter to grasp him by his striped lapels. “When was he last in? Be quick, man — it may be a matter of life and death.”

“Th-this morning. He ordered seven pints for a party this evening. I’m supposed to deliver it.”

“Allow me.” Percy’s tone dispensed with the possibility of further discussion. “I would be delighted to deliver it for you.”

Or maybe like this:

Irene mopped her sopping brow, staring after the departing train. Her last chance for redemption chugged away from her. If only she hadn’t been so stubborn! Or so true: Mother had been wrong to extract that promise on her deathbed, the one about never revealing her true identity. Now, the only sister she would ever have was gone from her life forever.

She was wiping her eyes furtively when someone tapped her on the shoulder. Really, strangers were so pushy these days. She wheeled around.

“I missed my train,” Eileen said sheepishly. “Would you mind putting me up for another night?”

“Another night?” Irene threw her arms around her sibling. “You can stay with me forever. You are my identical twin!”

“Well,” Eileen murmured into her sister’s curls, “that would explain why meeting you three hundred pages ago was so like gazing into a mirror. How strange that nobody else noticed the resemblance, eh?”

Or, even more common, the too-quickly-resolved conflict on the scene level:

“I had that paper a minute ago,” Archibald said, beginning to contemplate perhaps thinking about maybe starting to contemplate looking for it. “Where can it be? Without it, I cannot walk into that meeting.”

“Is this it?” Grace held up the wastepaper basket, angled so he could see within its shallow depths.

Relieved, he fished it out. “Thanks, I would have been lost without it.”

It drives Millicent nuts. “If a conflict so unimportant to the plot and/or character development that it can be disposed of this quickly,” she murmurs, “why include it in the manuscript at all?”

Good question, Millie — often, a problem’s being too easy to solve is an indicator that it could be cut with no cost to the story. Or that the problem was not set up in sufficient detail in the first place. Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker except a propensity toward good manners.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an exchange that crops up in a good 90% of submitted manuscripts.

“Why, hello, Betty,” Marjorie said.

“Hello, Margie. How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks. And you?”

“Fine. How are the kids?”

“Fine. How is your mother doing?”

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

“Oh, yes. It seems to be spring at last.”

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

Put down that revolver, Millicent. I assure you, life is still worth living.

But you see the problem, right? On the page, good manners are predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Trust me: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent it if the narrative doesn’t point it out the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows, or even sees, for six more chapters. Amongst the pros, it’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

Not sure why? Okay — my God, what’s that creeping up behind your desk chair? Oh, it’s…horrible. Too horrible to describe…

Not a very satisfying plot twist, is it? And it should look familiar from last time: it’s a variation on the she ran through the woods opening.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — how will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes. A zany crew of misfits is hardly likely to solve the world hunger problem in that amount of time, after all. But a trumped-up conflict based upon Janie’s being afraid Fred will find out that she lied about something really, really unimportant? You can probably write the last scene right now, based upon that last sentence alone.

“Wait a gosh darned minute,” I can hear some of you say. “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it reflects the fact that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the entertainment industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase it at a crucial point? Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict and tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Before you answer that, bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. In the classic comic novel TOM JONES, the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true.

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff these days. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something fresh,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Well, that was easy. I guess my work here is done.

Or does a certain amount of disgruntlement linger in the air? “Well, you may not like it, Anne,” some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, someone is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots are not typically first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly better than what is already on the market.

To be blunt, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

That inconvenient reality can create some tension (hooray for drama!) in a critique group made up of a mix of published and unpublished writers. Years ago, a genuinely fine writer of many published books brought my critique group a chapter in which her protagonist escaped from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happened to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slunk off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Naturally, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the bad guy automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker was able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marked this exchange as a SRH rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book. One swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agreed to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me. By this story’s standards, everyone who works at my college alumni magazine is a dedicated stalker.

But because my colleague was an established author, she was able to get this SRH past her agent, although her editor did subsequently flag it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

But that’s not the only reason I brought up this example. I wanted you to have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a SRH is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the first effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first thought about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step. If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does a minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you? You don’t read many manuscripts, I take it. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise all the time. An astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to someone they have never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain extremely articulately with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at exactly the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?”

If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a SRH on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile, or a cohort a touch less competent. Add a subplot about a school board election. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can, in short. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

For some fabulous examples of this, take a gander at almost any film from the first decade of Jackie Chan’s career. In many of them, Our Hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain early in the story — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see him painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or check out the early HARRY POTTER books. When Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t noticed that the plots of the first three books were essentially identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, quite a bit of that pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story’s ultimate goal of pitting Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book. We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

Remember, the goal of storytelling is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as quickly, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip. And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. Varied outcomes are usually interesting for the reader than continual triumph or perpetual defeat.

Next time, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — because yes, Virginia, today’s was the easy one to fix. Keep up the good work!

Author! Author! interviews: a chat with Song of the Crow author Layne Maheu about literary fiction, seven-year revisions, and what to do when the water rises above your head

Sorry about the several-day silence, campers — I’ve been trying to adjust to a new set-up. Since my car crash last July, I haven’t been able to write at a desk, so I had become accustomed to writing my blog posts on a laptop while reclining like an ancient Roman at a feast. When the docs told me this week to stop taking that whole laptop thing so literally, I had to figure out a new way to recline whilst typing. It turns out to be doable, but very, very slow.

What’s that you say? That the point of the advice may have been to stop me from typing altogether? I may not be hearing you correctly, what with my fingers stuck in my ears and all.

Besides, my will to communicate is just too strong. This does, however, seem like a dandy time to post another in what I hope will be a long and productive series of interviews with published authors about the craft of writing and the often rocky road to publication. After the rollicking success of February’s highly interesting discussion of literary fiction with debut novelist Heidi Durrow, I’ve been blandishing all kinds of authors into sitting down to chat about their first books.

Why first books, rather than just their most recent offerings? Well, frankly, I feel that there are already quite a few venues for the latter, but surprisingly few where authors, particularly those with recent debuts, are encouraged to talk about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles, and triumphs of writing, at least at the level of specificity we prefer here at Author! Author! I wanted to talk to writers with interesting voices about how they developed them. And to be blunt about it, I wanted to grill them on your behalf about how they went about landing their agents.

Today’s interview with literary fiction author Layne Maheu will cover all of that, of course. But as the second offering in this series, it seems particularly appropriate to be talking to an author positioned at what used to be universally acknowledged as a crucial point in his career: after having produced a well-received first novel, he is finishing up revisions on his second. We began the interview, not entirely surprisingly, by chatting about the inspiration for his first.