Show, don’t tell, or, what The Da Vinci Code movie can teach writers about constructing a narrative

When a writer’s computer is in the shop, she is forced, alas, to try to figure out the mysterious phenomenon known as leisure time. What is it for, and how does one fill it?

For a serious writer under normal circumstances, the equation is very simple: time not absolutely dedicated to positively unavoidable pursuits — such as eating, sleeping, resenting one’s coworkers, etc. — is automatically writing time. But were you aware that there are people out there who DON’T use every second of their spare time to create things?

I know. Incomprehensible, isn’t it?

Apparently, people who don’t write fill their time in other ways — and not always with reading, as much as we might like them to do so in order to create demand for our books. No, they do things like having conversations with their significant others, watching television, playing sports, and climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro. The array is honestly dazzling.

At least, if my significant other is to be believed while he’s still in shock at seeing me outside my studio more than twice per day. Witnessing a minor miracle can play havoc with one’s reasoning skills.

In order to introduce me to this sort of “normalcy,” he rented the movie THE DA VINCI CODE — since I essentially spent the entire summer either locked in my studio or away at writers’ conferences, or writing this blog, I had missed the hype about it, which apparently was considerable. Now, I haven’t read the book, so I did not walk in with preconceptions about the story (other than the complaints one always hears about mega-sellers on the writers’ grapevine), but I must admit, I have never forgiven Ron Howard for A BEAUTIFUL MIND. It seems to me that if you’re going to tell the story of a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, and you profess to present his most famous theory on screen, you have at least a minor ethical obligation to present that theory correctly. Oh, and not to change a real-life story to encourage women to place their children in life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Little things like that.

But I digress — you see what mixing in the real world does to you? In any case, I wasn’t expecting much, other than perhaps some nice ranting opportunities for Sir Ian McKellen, who doesn’t seem to be hurting for them these days.

Little did I anticipate, therefore, what a gold mine of writing advice the movie would be! I didn’t start keeping track until about 20 minutes in, of course, but according to my informal hash marks, a good 90% of the relevant plot elements were given verbally by one of the characters, rather than shown by action. The plot was so reliant on spoken details that the screenplay could, with practically no modifications, have been used as a radio play.

Seldom, if ever, have I seen on screen a better illustration of the oft-given writing advice SHOW, DON’T TELL. This movie was positively aversion therapy for writers who favor telling their stories indirectly. As a writer on writing, if not as a viewer, I was in ecstacy.

Why is shoving most of the relevant plot elements into the characters’ mouths problematic? Leaving aside for the moment that film is, after all, a visual medium, and thus film buffs might reasonably be expected to be given information via, say, images or action, it’s just boring for the audience to receive so much of the important details through their ears.

In writing, as in film, it’s more entertaining if the author mixes up the means of conveying information. If interesting things are happening offstage, for instance, why not show the viewers that offstage scene, instead of making us listen to a summary of it? If an element important to the plot happened in the dim past, why not show a scene set in that dim past, featuring actual characters, rather than forcing the audience to sit through a silent version narrated by a voice-over?

The problem of telling a story indirectly arises very, very frequently in fiction manuscripts: all too often, essential plot points are conveyed either in narrative summary bursts or, even more frequently, by the protagonist’s going and finding someone to tell him or her a long-winded story that provides the relevant background.

The long, Spielberg-like explanatory exposition from a character who isn’t in fact central to the plot is particularly popular in novels. Call me sheltered, but in my experience, strangers seldom blurt out their most closely-held secrets to the first person who asks them, whatever happens in detective movies. To a professional reader’s eye, if a character appears in a manuscript a grand total of once, spills the beans, and disappears, it’s generally a sign of a plot that’s light on action and high on static verbiage.

The problem with conveying too much information this way, as THE DA VINCI CODE illustrates so beautifully, is that lengthy speeches are easy for a reader or viewer to tune out. People standing there talking can get old very fast. If you have a scene or two like this in your manuscript, it’s worth asking yourself: could any of this all-spoken explanation be replaced by an active scene?

To add insult to the injury to the reader’s intelligence, often, in spoken exposition scenes, the protagonist doesn’t even ask good questions to elicit the information necessary to move the plot along. Non-specific queries like “I need to know the truth” and “What do you mean?” are not, after all, staples of the hard-core interview. Nor does it make for very interesting — or particularly life-like — dialogue.

What it does make for is novel dialogue that reads as though it came out of a movie, and conflict that feels as though it’s second-hand.

Summarizing essential plot twists in narrative form, rather than showing the plot actually twisting by including the relevant conflicts in a scene, carries many of the same liabilities. Obviously, you will need to summarize from time to time, to avoid the problem of needing to describe every step a character took to cross a room, but in most cases, an active scene will be more engaging — and more memorable — than a mere explanation of the same activity.

Think about it: which are you more likely to remember tomorrow, someone at your work telling you about her brother-in-law’s narrow escape from a car crash, or seeing the near-miss between the cars yourself?

There is, as there so often is in dealing with the publishing industry, also a strategic reason to avoid telling important parts of your story indirectly: SHOW, DON’T TELL is widely regarded amongst agents, editors, and contest judges as one of the most damning critiques possible for a submission — and one of the most common. In the industry, writing that tells instead of shows is more or less synonymous with writing that needs serious revision.

And I think most of you are already aware of how agents tend to feel about manuscripts like that. If it were a movie, they would walk out of it.

But you’re all better writers than that, aren’t you? You know to read through your manuscripts carefully before you submit them, to catch this kind of static scene, right?

If you didn’t, you do now. Keep up the good work!

The limitations of style, or, is there a way I can make my submission screener-proof?

Is everybody thawed out yet? Nothing like a good cold snap to inhibit driving and drive us all back to our writing studios, I always say. During the recent shivery period, I’ve been going back to questions readers have posted as comments that really deserve entire posts of their own. Today, I have a question that I know will interest all of you writers of literary fiction out there: how to prevent the pretty language experiments you like to unleash upon the world from being misinterpreted by the average agency screener. Take, for example, intelligent and insightful reader Mary’s dilemma:

“I am frantically working on a proposal to be submitted within the next week or two. As I am working on my sample chapters, I’ve realized that part of my writing style consists of sentences that are fragments.

“I have an excellent grasp of grammar and have no trouble writing in complete sentences. But the style I have developed over the years owes part of its rhythm to fragments. I like the emphasis they provide, and the way they “pace” the writing.

“I’m concerned, however, about putting fragments in my sample chapters. What if agents think I don’t know how to write in complete sentences? But without the fragments, my writing feels formal and a little bland.

What’s the scoop? Are fragments allowed in otherwise grammatically correct writing, or are they to be avoided like the mange in those critical sample chapters?”

Hoo boy, Mary, is this ever a complex question, and one that I have heard debated long into the night by many, many well-established writers of literary fiction, who have precisely this fear about boneheaded critics not understanding the interesting things they like to do with language from time to time. Basically, the underlying concern is that someone in some dark corner of the industry will not be able to tell the difference between the CHOICE to bend the rules of grammar a trifle and a simple ignorance of those rules.

As someone who reads a LOT of manuscripts, let me set your mind at least partially at ease: said difference is usually ABUNDANTLY clear to a professional reader. A writer unaware of the basic rules of grammar will make mistakes consistently, but an experienced writer will make them selectively. Also, if a good writer decides to use a stylistic quirk, such as sentence fragments, those quirks will affect only as small fraction of the sentences in the manuscript. In a submission by writer who does not understand the rules of sentence construction, on the other hand, this ignorance will show up in most of the sentences, and probably in all of the paragraphs.

And yes, Virginia, the difference is generally apparent on the first page. If someone has genuine writing talent, a professional reader will often already be excited by the end of the first paragraph.

So the short answer, Mary, is that if the sentence fragments are integral to your style — which certainly seems to be the case, from what you describe — keep ‘em. Usually, if fragments are part of a well-developed rhythm, it will be pretty apparent to a good reader’s eye that their use is a well-thought-out choice.

That being said, there are agents and editors out there who hate fragments like the mange you mention. (Great analogy, by the way, for the way grammar-hounds tend to think of it.) They are certainly in the minority these days — I mean, come on, most published writers will use a sentence fragment from time to time for emphasis, and let’s not even talk about how Joan Didion has raised the acceptance of the once-verboten one-sentence paragraph — but there are indeed industry folks whose English teachers beat into them that only complete sentences will do.

These people, I imagine, lunch with the Point-of-View Nazis, bemoaning the decline of American letters and plotting how to subvert anyone who is even thinking about doing something interesting and original with language. And after they finish sipping their post-prandial cognac, they stiff the waiter and go out kicking those Santa Clauses who ring bells on city street corners for charity. Or so I surmise. Then they go back to work, screening manuscripts.

Seriously, they’re not too common, and for good reason: this taste would basically render it impossible for these people to work much with literary fiction or NF written by journalists (who are trained to use fragments for effect). So you can usually avoid them by sticking to agencies that, well, deal with writers who break the occasional grammatical rule. But again, if the rest of your writing is solid, it’s unlikely that a seasoned professional would mistake a legitimate stylistic choice for lack of grammatical acumen.

However, the folks in power are not the only ones you need to worry about. As I believe I have mentioned before, at an agency or publishing house of any size, the first reader of a requested manuscript will almost certainly not be the agent or the editor herself, but at least one level of screener or assistant. Even a medium-sized agency will often employ a screener or two.

This is why, in case you were wondering, that requests for the rest of the book are often so vague. Few agents are brave enough to say outright, “Well, Thing One and Thing Two, my faithful screeners, really liked your first 50 pages. I haven’t read it yet, but if they read the rest of your manuscript and tell me it is worthwhile, I’m definitely interested.”

Why should the employment of screeners worry the occasional bender of grammatical rules? Well, while most agencies will school their screeners in what they should use as rejection criteria, the usual assumption is that the screeners will already be familiar with the basic standards of good writing. Most of the time, screeners are simply told to weed out the submissions with grammatical problems, but not necessarily given a crash course in the difference between stylistic choice and error first.


As those of you who kept up with the recent Idol series are already aware, plenty of screeners have freshly tumbled out of English departments of varying degrees of credibility. If it’s very freshly, they tend to perpetuate their professors’ pet peeves until they have read enough submissions to develop pet peeves of their own. And this can sometimes be problematic for submitters, because while screeners do not have much power within their agencies, they definitely do have veto power over submissions. If some over-eager intern screener fresh from his first serious English class takes umbrage at your use of fragments, there’s not much you can do about it.

Whether your submission ends up screened by such a sterling character is, alas, largely a matter of chance. So yes, you are taking a bit of a risk in including them; with such people, you would in fact be better off without the fragments. However, if the fragments add considerably to your writing, in your opinion, I am inclined to think that you would be better off not associating with agents and editors — or screeners, or editorial assistants — who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.

After all, almost anyone in the industry will tell you that it’s a mistake to mess with a style that works. Fragments are not all that rare anymore — heck, Annie Proulx even won the Pulitzer for a work chock full of ‘em. If you love them, they should probably stay.

Especially if your book’s category is one where fragments have a track record for being used with success. In literary fiction, for example, their use is very much accepted — but before I say more about that, I am going to need to talk about what is and isn’t literary fiction, and that, my friends, is the topic of another day.

Keep up the good work!

Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part V: the usual saws

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

“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you cry. “A list of changes in the manuscript? Why? And why on earth would any sane person ask a writer to produce such a list immediately after completing a revision, when the writer is likely both to be exhausted and a trifle touchy about her choices?”

The list of revisions is not all that unusual a request, once an editor at a major house is involved with a book. Essentially, it’s a time-saving technique. (Remember last week, when I was telling you about how busy such people are? Well…) Since manuscript changes are often quite subtle, and the editor is not going to sit down and read the old version and the new side-by-side (sorry to be the one to break that to you), many agents like to have the author provide a list, to forestall the objection that not enough of the requested changes were made.

Also, in the unlikely (a-hem) event that the editor does not have time to read the whole thing again, with such a list in hand, it would technically be possible for an editor to flip through and see what changed very quickly. Essentially, the list is the equivalent of having the author produce the kind of 1- or 2-page report that editorial assistants routinely provide on a project being considered.

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

And no, Virginia: no one in the industry will ever ask you for such a list for revisions performed BEFORE they saw the manuscript in the first place. So unless you want to get in practice maintaining such a list (not a bad idea, actually), there’s really no reason to keep track of your changes in such a concrete way until after you sign with an agent. But thereafter, it can be very, very helpful to be able to say, “What do you mean, I didn’t take your advice? Here’s a list of what I changed at your behest!” and be able to back it up.

Okay, back to demystifying the Idol list. (If that sounds as though I have suddenly begun speaking in tongues, please see my post for October 31.) I know I’ve been harping on it at some length now, but my theory is that conference advice is not all that useful as long as it remains, well, general. I think it’s important to take the overarching principles and show how they might be applied to a specific manuscript.

That being said, today’s group is the most literal, and thus the easiest to remove from a manuscript. These are the rejection reasons that are based upon sheer repetition: any agent in the biz has not only seen these phenomena before at least 147 times — and thus will automatically assume that a submission that contains them on the first page is not fresh — but has, in all probability, seen any particular one at least once already on that same DAY of screening.

So best to avoid ’em, eh?

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

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

9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. Specifically singled out: our old pal, a character’s long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame.
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse to describe her long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame.

Why do I identify them as shortcuts, and not clichés? Well, obviously, the clichés are clichés, but the rest are the kind of logical shorthand most of us learned in our early creative writing classes. Introduce the character (which manifests as “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”). Show perspective (“This can’t be happening.”). Add a twist (“And then I woke up.”).

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

Another early English-class lesson has shown up with remarkable frequency on this list. Guesses, anyone? (Hint: the applicable rejection reasons are #9, the opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”, #14, a character’s long red or blonde hair, and #21, the character spots him/herself in a mirror.)

Congratulations, all of you graduates of Creative Writing 101: they all stem from the oft-repeated admonition to provide physical descriptions of the character right away. As in within the first nanosecond of their appearing in a scene.

Also, I suspect, a lot of us read short stories and books in our formative years that used the age, sex, and/or gender (yes, they’re different things: sex is biological, gender is learned) as THE twist. I, personally, have never gotten over my disappointment that Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ book A CLOCKWORK ORANGE glossed over the single most shocking line in the book, when we learn that the thief, rapist, and murderer who has been narrating the story is only 15 years old. (Hey, that was still shocking, back in the 1960s.)

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

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

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

But no: day in, day out, screeners are routinely introduced to characters by front-loaded visual images, a good third of them bouncing off reflective vases, glasses of water, and over-large silver pendants. We’ve all seen it: the first-person narrator who catches sight of his own reflection in a nearby mirror in order to have a reason to describe himself. Or the close third-person narration that, limited to a POV Nazi-pleasing single-character perspective, requires that the character be reflected in passing sunglasses, a handy lake, a GAP window, etc., so that he may see himself and have a reason to note his own doubtless quite familiar physical attributes.

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

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

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

I know; it’s disillusioning. But as I keep reminding you, no one in the industry regards the submitted version of a manuscript as the final version. Nor should you. If you’re absolutely married to an upfront physical description, you can always add it back in to a subsequent draft.

The last remaining reason — #12, the opening paragraph rife with jargon — is, too, a shortcut, usually a means to establish quickly that the character presented as a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, President of the United States, etc., is in fact a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, or President of the United States. However, how often do you think a screener — or any other reader, for that matter — gets a couple of lines into a novel, then throws it down in disgust, exclaiming, “There’s just not enough esoteric technical talk here! I just do not believe that this character actually is a doctor/lawyer/police officer/soil engineer/President of the United States!”

Doesn’t happen. The opposite, however, does: when there’s too much profession-specific word usage, it can be very off-putting for the reader. And for the screener. With predictable results.

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

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

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

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

A major milestone, and the return of the Point-of-View Nazis!

I have two reasons to celebrate today: first, my major novel revision is in the mail, on the way to my agent (and they said a year’s worth of revisions couldn’t be done in a month!); second, this is my hundredth post on my new blog site! Hooray!

For those of you new to my ramblings, this might be a touch confusing, seeing the 1600 pages or so (figured in standard format, naturally) of material on this website. Until mid-July, I was the Resident Writer for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, dispensing advice on their website, before I struck out on my own. So while there are obviously more than hundred posts archived here, only the last hundred were written for here.

I’d like to ask two favors to mark the occasion. First, please do tell your writing friends that this blog is here; since it switched locations rather suddenly last summer (and the PNWA’s new Resident Writer would not allow me to post a goodbye message, or even my new URL, for quite some time), some readers got lost in the transition.

Second, if you have been reading for a while but have never posted a comment, please consider chiming in. Start a discussion; join a discussion; ask a question. The more I know about my readers, the better I can tailor the blog to fit their needs. I know a LOT of folks in the industry; if I don’t know the answer to your question, chances are good that I know someone who does.

Back to the day’s business. For the last few posts, I have been tossing around the term “Point-of-View Nazi” in passing, while discussing the differences between what is a hard-and-fast rule in the industry (like, say, 1-inch margins all around) and what is a matter of style (like, for instance, whether to put character thought in italics). As I’ve mentioned over the last few days, not every writing guru makes a sharp distinction between the two. Nor, typically, do agents and editors speaking at conferences make a point of telling listeners which of their rejection criteria are widely-regarded bloopers, and which merely their personal pet peeves.

And that can be very confusing to those on the querying trail, can’t it? We’re all left wondering if that agent’s diatribe about how swiftly she rejects submissions written in the first person plural means that:

(a) every agent in the industry feels the same way,
(b) the agent in question just tends to market to editors who prefer another type of narrative voice,
(c) the agent in question was in an MFA program with some really annoying writer who insisted upon writing in NOTHING but the second person plural, and she never wants to hear it again as long as she lives,
(d) a wandering Greek chorus attacked the agent when she was a child, so first person plural brings back all kinds of bad memories, or
(e) the agent just didn’t like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES much.

Unfortunately for us all, every single one of these options is equally plausible. The moral: choose your dogmas with care.

Which brings me to the garden variety Point-of-View Nazi, a fellow with whom long-time readers of the blog are already familiar. Typically, he’s the most strident voice in any “only an amateur would do THAT” crowd.

No, I did not invent the term: it’s fairly widely-known industry jargon for any self-styled writing expert who will tell you — and anyone else who will listen — that his particular stylistic preferences are the only ones any sane writer could possibly pick. And, contrary to the experience of anyone who has actually spent any time leafing through volumes in the fiction section of a relatively well-stocked bookstore, a Point-of-View Nazis will often, like the disparager of italics, insist that any manuscript that does not follow his dictates has the proverbial snowball in Hades’ chances of being published.

Sound familiar yet?

Allow me to define the term more specifically. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her (usually his) thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of narration, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN mad with rage.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you so. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, terrible writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary. Feh.

So much for most of the fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And so much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good reader or editor who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems. If a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes, so to speak, for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. They believe it, too. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Take that, CATCH-22.

Pop quiz, all of you who have read my posts over the last few days: is the POVN’s view on perspective a matter of format, and thus a rule to be observed religiously, or is this a matter of style, to be weighed over thoughtfully while deciding what narrative voice would tell your story best? (Hint: the POVNs will tell you it is one, and I will tell you it is the other.)

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is and isn’t possible.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant. (Fortunately, she already had an agent when she wrote it.)

Similarly, I had always been told that it is a serious mistake to let a protagonist feel sorry for himself for very long, as self-pity quickly becomes boring, but Annie Proulx showed us both a protagonist AND a love interest who feel sorry for themselves for virtually the entirety of THE SHIPPING NEWS (and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, come to think of it), with great success.

And so on. I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forfend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population. One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar.

(And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated thinkers rather than doers. The kind of people who might, say, have the time and resources to go through a low-residency MFA program. Astonishing coincidence, eh? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the POVN’s teachers were also the ones who kept barking, “Write what you know!” could it?)

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are EXACTLY as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization, if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context.

The result: often, I find myself asking while reading a manuscript, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Tomorrow, I shall, I suspect, take issue with this. Keep up the good work!

Writing standards III: dueling italics, and some information for those of you who attended the Surrey writers’ conference

Before I launch into specifics about italics today, I want to flag down those of you who attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference last weekend — in particular, those of you who pitched to Cricket Pechstein or Jeffery McGraw, agents from the August Agency. A reader of this blog, experiencing post-conference difficulties in tracking down the agency’s website (, had asked me to find out what was going on. I made an inquiry or two, and YES, my friends, they DO want to hear from you. Here’s what Cricket had to say:

“While Jeffery and I were in Surrey at the conference something right out of a technothriller was playing itself out. Our webhost called me to say he was battling cyber pirates who were trying to highjack our server in an attempt to access some of his other clients, banks! He was slamming doors shut as fast he could, so I told him to bolt ours, too. It worked. The cyber pirates were left to search elsewhere for a website to highjack to either raid information or funds, or as part of a convoluted trail around the world to hide their tracks.

“We’re pleased to say our website is back up and running smoothly today, open for business, with only a hint of smoke from shots fired across our bow…

“See everyone again next year at Surrey — the world’s BEST writers conference.

Cricket Pechstein”
The August Agency LLC

So all’s well that ends well, to coin a phrase. Just another piece of evidence, I guess, that online searches alone are not necessarily the best way to check on the credibility of an agency.

Back to the italics issue. Rejoining our story in progress, excellent question-asker Claire had written in to observe: “I’ve heard it preached that… only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized.”

I have to say, I am inherently wary of any advice that begins, “Only an amateur would…” I don’t think it’s supportive of writers just starting out, but hey, that’s my own personal style of advice-giving. To be blunt about it, every writer is an amateur until after the first book contract, right? So that critique could be leveled at everyone who hasn’t worked with an editor.

So there.

I also know many published authors who would be mighty surprised to hear that the italics they have been using in their manuscripts for years were a sure sign of amateurism.

Italics ARE the industry standard for emphasis and foreign words (replacing the underlining that used to be the norm for typewriter-produced material for both these usages), so taken out of context, I cannot tell why anyone would have made such a sweeping statement against them as a species. But I’ve noticed in the last year or so that there are apparently still some sources out there that are telling submitters to underline, instead of italicize, such words.

Considering how tradition-bound standard format is, it seems a little funny to have to say this, but: this advice is outdated. In the old days, authors were asked to underline words that either needed to be checked for foreign-language accuracy or were to be italicized in the manuscript. Why weren’t the words to be italicized on the final printed page italicized in the old typed manuscripts, you ask? Simple: you needed a special typewriter for it. Every typewriter, however, was capable of underlining.

Now, however, NOTHING IN A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD BE UNDERLINED, and for one very good reason: to an editor’s eye, underlined words equal more ink; italicized words do not.

While this might not seem like a big deal in a 300-page manuscript, try multiplying those 300 pages by 3000 copies, and then figure the cost of the extra ink. (Actually, to be technically accurate, multiply those 300 pages by 2/3, because books shrink between manuscript and printed page, then figure out the ink consumption. But you get the general idea, right?) It’s like that story one heard about Northwest Airlines’ cost-cutting efforts in the early 1990s: they removed one olive from each of the salads they served in first class.

Not a big change, right? Net savings in the first year: over $100,000.

Since now italics are within the price range of every computer user, obviously it’s more straightforward for the author just to italicize the words she wants italicized. So go ahead and do it — but do be aware that this is a stylistic choice, not a technical one, and thus a decision that you will need to defend to an agent or editor. (And, just so you know: long italicized sections in printed books are generally there by the editor’s choice, not the author’s.) .

One caveat, however: I do know many agents, editors, and screeners who routinely skip over entire italicized paragraphs at the beginning of submissions, as well as over long, all-italics sections and opening epigraphs. Their assumption, accurate or not, is that such sections are italicized specifically because they are not integral to the plot, and thus may safely be ignored.

I just mention. You might want to stick your long clumps of italicized text after, say, page 15. Or rethink whether those big bits need to be italicized at all.

It IS still expected that writers will italicize foreign words, for the benefit of the line editor and proofreader — who, incidentally, do both still exist in the industry, unlike the vanished typesetter. You’re free not to do it, of course, just as you are free to ignore any of the other rules of standard format, but it will just look to professional eyes as though you misspelled an English word.

Usually, the discussion on the net about italics is NOT about their limited technical use, but about the stylistic choice whether to use them as automatic indicators of character thought OR the popular use of them mentioned above, to offset entire chunks of text. Opinion is sharply divided on this subject — with one side typically using the “only an amateur would do THAT” argument.

Since, as I mentioned yesterday, I blogged about the character thought side of this very issue for three days straight at the end of August, I’m not going to recap the arguments on the various sides here. Suffice it to say, the people who feel strongly anti-italic like to go out to lunch with the Point-of-View Nazis and bitch about the rest of us and our slovenly ways.

I tend to discourage the use of block italicization of entire sections, for the same reason that I frown upon writers whose work is from several points of view using different typefaces, italics, or boldface to indicate a point-of-view switch: to professional eyes, these tactics can look like an admission on the part of the author that she lacks the writing skill to make voice or venue changes clear any other way. Also, long blocks of italics are simply harder to read on a manuscript page than regular print.

So should you do it? It’s up to you. As with all matters of style, there are agents who hate italicized thought and agents who love it. Ditto, as Claire points out, with writing gurus.

The problem, as I pointed out a couple of days ago, is that many of the people out there writing about writing don’t seem to make much of a distinction between legitimate style issues, which are up to the author, and formatting issues, which are not. Since the industry itself does not take the logical step of simply posting lists of standard format requirements, it is hard to find a final authority on matters of format. To complicate matters, the widely-taught AP format is incorrect for manuscripts, so there is a tremendous amount of conflicting information out there.

Which means, I suppose, that you could just surf the net until you found advice you like. Personally, I wouldn’t do this, but that’s because I’ve seen how information tends to travel on the rumor circuit.

Here’s how it typically goes: a single agent on a single conference panel expresses a personal opinion — and the next day, it turns up on a half a dozen writers’ fora as THE ONLY way something can be done. Writers tell other writers about it, and so on, until it becomes well known as a rule. But the fact is, a lot of these so-called rules are actually just personal taste taken out of context.

Which isn’t to say that if your manuscript violated the quasi-rule AND fell under the eyes of that particular agent who lambasted it, it wouldn’t be rejected. But generalizing from a single case to an entire industry is not the best way to obtain accurate results.

Again, I am not setting myself up as the sole authority on the matter — I am only sharing my experience about what does and doesn’t tend to get a manuscript rejected. The formatting rules I have been posting here are pretty much what every major agent in the country has clients use. However, if you’re happier sticking to Courier and eschewing italics altogether, or following whatever over-and-above-standard-format restrictions you’ve heard advised, by all means do it.

For the record, I routinely use italics for emphasis, and I italicize all foreign words. I also add the trademark symbol to every word for which it is appropriate (another one that a lot of authors would like to see go) — and I have NEVER had anyone in the industry suggest that any of these things were even vaguely problematic. Neither have any of my clients, friend… again, you get the picture.

Thanks for raising these issues, Claire, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Writing standards II: the font of wisdom?

Yesterday, I wrote at length in response to reader Claire’s questions about why writing advice on the Internet is so often contradictory. To set your mind at ease, for the record: if I am wrong in what I’m telling you, we’re all going down together. I have walked countless books through the submission process, including a memoir of my own (and a novel that is at an advanced stage of submission to a major house). The rules I show here are the rules that I apply to my own work — and my clients, and the published writers in my critique group, etc.

So I do have pretty good reason to feel that I’m steering you right. However, as I said yesterday, Claire is quite correct to inquire a little more closely into the sources of internet-based information, because there is quite an array out there. Since agents and editors see so many technically perfect manuscripts, a mistake can be costly: a poorly-formatted submission is often not read at all. So it is only prudent to check and double-check one’s understanding of submission guidelines.

Also, kudos to Claire for being brave enough to ask for clarification on specific points; please, everybody, feel free to do that anytime. My blog, like all the others out there, has to be written with a very broad constituency in mind: since we all have both brand-new readers and long-time loyalists reading each of our posts, we net-based writers on writing have to walk a fine line between providing enough basic information that those absolutely unfamiliar with the industry will be able to glean useful information from a post, while at the same time not repeating ourselves so much that returning readers get bored.

In my case, I receive feedback from everyone from someone who started submitting for the first time this month to writers who have been with their agents several years. Heck, I even know a few successfully published writers who read my blog for kicks. Obviously, this is one reason that I make my archives available, so readers can have access to specific topics easily when they need it most. And one of the reasons I welcome readers’ questions – actually, some of the best questions I’ve gotten have come from readers putting query to paper for the first time, because those are precisely the questions that someone farther along in the process would never think to ask. (And that conference- and class-goers tend to be too cool to ask in public. Come on, you know it’s true.)

It’s really, really important that you let me know, though, if I haven’t clarified something enough — or recently enough. For instance, I had written at length on the subject of italicization in my blogs of August 24 – 26, so revisiting it was not high on my list of priorities. Thus, if Claire had just kept quiet, I might not have come back to it for another month or two, and the masses would have been left wondering.

So let’s get to the nuts-and-bolts part of Claire’s missive, the actual technical questions. I want to address them specifically, because it’s been my experience that for every one person who writes in to ask, there are dozens who have heard similar claims. To recap:

“I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized.”

As far as I know, only one literary agency in the country demands Courier to the exclusion of all other typefaces. It may not be the only one, but since the one I have in mind also has a reputation for charging prospective clients rather hefty editing fees, I do not consider them a good indicator of the norms of the industry, nor do I wish to promote them by posting the name of their agency here. That’s just my opinion, though. (See? I’d make a bad Point-of-View Nazi.) Suffice it to say that this particular agency’s typeface preference is set out clearly in their guidelines — and, as always, you should read the submission guidelines before you send.

Otherwise, it is my understanding that Times and Times New Roman are actually more widely preferred amongst agents and editors, but either is acceptable. BOTH the Times family AND the Courier family are ostensibly replicas of typewriter fonts — Times echoes Elite (12 characters per inch) and Courier replicated Pica (10 characters per inch) — so both are regarded as “normal” by the tradition-loving industry. Basically, by accepting them both, they are making a rather sweet, if anachronistic, attempt not to discriminate against those darling Luddites who still write on typewriters.

Not that the industry doesn’t feel perfectly dandy about discriminating against folks who prefer writing in longhand. But I digress.

All of the standard screenplay software programs will automatically convert your work to Courier, since that is the industry standard. I have heard from many, many script agents that they simply will not read anything in another typeface. Why? Well, their assumption is that if a writer does not know which typeface to use, he’s probably unfamiliar with the other formatting restrictions of this very format-heavy medium.

For book submissions, I recommend Times or Courier because, in my experience, manuscripts just look more professional to industry eyes. Most of the agents in the country will tell their clients to use only these two fonts for materials that they intend to submit to editors. (And in response to the implicit question: yes, I have had a conversation with an agent within the last week where he uttered the sentence, ”Well, obviously, I’m going to have the writer change the typeface before I send it out,” because the manuscript wasn’t in either Times or Courier. He did pick up the client, though, so it wasn’t an absolute deal-breaker.)

I submit all of my work in Times New Roman, which has raised nary a murmur. So does every published writer I know. NEVER has anyone in the industry suggested that this was an inappropriate font, to me — or anyone of my acquaintance. Or, as far as I know, to anyone at the quite prominent agency that represents me.

Seriously, to those of you who had just dropped a submission in Times in the mail, you’re going to be fine. Take a deep breath; the universe isn’t out to get you.

So why, in the face of two quite widely-accepted fonts, would an online writer on writing insist that only one would do. My guess would be that the writer’s agent has a personal preference for one over the other, or represents a lot of screenplays. Or – and this is usually the way that such information is disseminated within the larger writing community, alas – the writer may have heard a preference for Courier expressed by some agent or editor at a conference. Or knows a successful writer who swears by it.

Any of these things could have resulted in a Courier-only pronouncement including the fateful words, “Only an amateur would…” And that’s not even scratching the surface of the many psychological reasons a writer might champion that particular typeface: since it’s one of the two standard fonts, recommending it is not going to hurt anyone, and being able to make a categorical pronouncement is a dandy way to make sense of an often arbitrary industry.

No matter how we net writers like to kid ourselves, though, VERY few agents, editors, or executives in the industry ever read blogs or writers’ fora. Even those who write their own blogs, for precisely the same reason that I don’t spend the days it would require to surf around to other sites and argue with people who give different advice than I do — they’re all really, really busy with the business of publishing books. So no matter how much all of us complain about, say, the irksome double dash or typeface norms, the industry standards are not likely to change as a result of it.

But the fact is, either Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New looks right to agency screeners. And that’s the important thing, isn’t it?

On to the italics issue tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Conflicting opinions on writing standards: what’s a girl to do?

Reader Claire wrote in the other day with an interesting observation, one that I thought merited its own post. Quoth she:

“I tend to read your blog as if it were the Bible, but as I’ve seen conflicting formatting advice on the use of italics and font all over the Internet from equally wonderful writers, I find myself having a crisis of faith. I’ve heard it preached that only Courier will do because it’s not mono-spaced as is Times New Roman, and that only an amateur would use italics because manuscripts are not formatted like books, and that we still need to pretend we’re indicating to the typesetter that certain words need to be italicized. I guess I need reassurance that your advice is what belongs in the canon. As for the life changing news that query letters should be in correspondence format, I am truly grateful. Thanks for opening the doors of the temple to the uninitiated.”

Well, for starters, Claire, I’m not sure anyone should be treating what I say — or what anybody says, for that matter — as Gospel, and on matters of style, there simply isn’t a canonical source that will answer all conceivable questions for every kind of book. (Sorry, but it’s true.) On matters of formatting, it’s been my experience that the folks who take such matters as italicizing foreign words seriously take it VERY seriously, so I can certainly understand why an aspiring writer would want there to be a firm canonical text that states beyond the shadow of a doubt what needs to happen in a manuscript.

So while admittedly, my first impulse was to disclaim the idea of a canon at all — the substance of my original answer: if you don’t like my advice on any given point, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it! — I’m going to talk explicitly today about a subject I generally avoid like the plague, out of professional courtesy to other writers on writing. I’m going to talk about why we writing advice-givers so often advise diametrically opposed things.

To set everyone’s nervous pulses at ease right off the bat, most of the conflicting advice I have seen deals with matters of style, with industry trends in what is liked and disliked, rather than with matters that will get your submission rejected unread after three lines. (Next week, I am planning a fairly hefty series on what industry professionals said at the two conferences I attended this month about why they stop reading a submission — and I think it may surprise you how many of those reasons are matters of personal preference.) The industry assumption is, alas, that only properly-formatted submissions deserve serious consideration, so you are quite right, Claire, to be concerned with whether you are getting the real story on how to present your work.

I try to maintain a fairly strong distinction between what a writer MUST do in a submission (i.e., adhere to standard format) and what it might help a writer to do in it (e.g., matters of style). And I have to say, my version of the must-do advice has never steered anyone wrong, as far as I know.

There’s a good reason for that. In the must-do posts, all I am presenting is a discussion of what has worked successfully for my own work and that of my editing clients, and what I have seen used by career writers throughout my life. I know from long experience that no manuscript adhering to the standard format guidelines I have given here will be rejected for technical reasons — but I have seen many, many manuscripts that do not adhere to them rejected.

Beyond that, I talk about matters of style, and those discussions are, too, based upon my observations of the industry as a writer, editor, contest judge, and interviewer of agents, screeners, etc. As with all advice, I would hope that my readers recognize that what I am presenting is my opinion, and thus not to be regarded as the revealed word of God, any more than any other fallible mortal’s. Seriously, it’s not really possible to comment credibly upon one’s own credibility, and I suppose if I were worried about it, I would go on about my doctorate, publishing successes, my status as a fine human being, my kindness to stray kittens, etc. I don’t make any secret of my background — my bio is posted on this site for all to see, after all — but I would prefer to think that my advice speaks for itself.

As I routinely tell my editing clients, if a particular piece of stylistic advice doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it. Yes, it’s important that your work be professionally packaged, but it’s equally important that you sound like you.

I have to say, though, I think the tone of my blog is one of the least order-barking of any writer’s on the net, yet every time I post a list of standard format restrictions, I am barraged with questions each time I set foot outside my door for the next month. As if MY changing my mind on a particular point would make a particle of difference to whether it is necessary to adhere to industry standards. But as I believe I have pointed out several times before, I run neither the publishing industry nor the universe: I don’t invent the rules; I just report ’em to you. Sorry about that.

Believe me, my life would be FAR easier if I just stopped being honest with my readers about the doubled dash vs. the emdash, or about underlining vs. italics. Yet about a fourth of the people who ask me about them seem to be wanting me to say, “Oh, I was just kidding about THAT part of standard format,” or to be trying to draw me into a dispute with another online writing advice-giver, as if we could settle differing opinions on stylistic issues by arm-wrestling once and for all.

Trust me, neither is going to happen; I have neither the time, the inclination, nor the arm strength. I have manuscripts to get out the door, people, mine and others: believe me, devoting a couple of hours a day to misleading you about how title pages should look would NOT be an efficient use of my time.

Although it’s not a bad premise for a comic novel, come to think of it.

That being said, Claire’s crisis of faith is quite understandable, because there are a LOT of people on the net claiming to be experts on what does and doesn’t work in a submission. And, frankly, a lot of them seem to be speaking in tones of great authority. The burning bush sounds like a timorous stutterer compared to some of the Point-of-View Nazis out there, and there is certainly no shortage of prophets of doom who will tell you that their advice alone holds the hidden key to publication.

Being emphatic doesn’t mean they’re correct, though — or that their opinions are either reflective of or influential in the industry as a whole. I — and most of the good writing bloggers out there, I think — try to be honest with you about the fact that, as nearly as I can tell, the only magic key to success is writing talent; I merely try to let you in on the not-quite-secret handshakes, such as submitting in standard format, that will enable you to get your talent under the right eyes for long enough that it can be discovered.

And the first step to that, in my experience, is submitting in standard format. The second is avoiding the most common manuscript mistakes, and the third is polishing one’s style. The first two, I think, tend to be fairly cut-and-dried; the last is much more personal to the writer. But, again, my goal here is to try to help speed up my readers’ progress through those steps by showing what I have seen does and doesn’t work, not to give dicta for the ages.

I’m not convinced that any writer about writing, however well qualified, is entitled to be regarded as an authority beyond that. It’s not as though the online advice-givers make the rules of the industry — and as much as some of our readers might like to see us step into the ring and duke it out, I, for one, don’t think that it would be appropriate for any of us to dictate matters of style as unwavering rules. Personally, as a fiction writer, I do tend to take far more seriously the insights of writing gurus who have actually written a novel or two themselves (which surprisingly few have), but again, that’s my individual choice.

Yet when writers farther along in the publication process give advice to the aspiring, practically everything we say can sound like a prescription for literary greatness, can’t it? It’s a fine line between being honestly self-revealing and saying, “Hey, I think you should work precisely the way I do.” And, as anyone who has ever spent much time at writers’ conferences can tell you, a lot of writers who teach writing stray across that line with some frequency.

In my experience, what works for one writer will not necessarily work for another — and really, the vast majority of us writing about writing are not writing about immutable rules most of the time. We’re writing about practice; we’re writing about style; we’re writing about our experience of what does and doesn’t work in the industry. We’re writing about our writing habits, and while I do definitely think listening to the more experienced is a great way to learn, sometimes our quirks are not transferable.

To make the distinction clear, I would NEVER even consider sending out a submission that did not have the foreign words italicized, any more than I would send out one that did not include a slug line on every page; because I know that to be the norm of the industry, I would encourage you never to do it, either. I’m completely comfortable presenting that as a hard-and-fast rule, one that I am equally likely to preach to you as to the fairly well-known foreign-born author of 5 published novels and 2 nonfiction books in my writers’ group, who is not always consistent about it (at least before I get my grubby paws on her chapters). I’m known for harping upon standard format in a variety of contexts.

However, I always put my longish hair up in a French roll while I am revising my own work, and for a very good reason. For years, the left side of my nose always broke out when I was revising. I thought it was just due to stress, but during a revision of my memoir last year, I noticed that my nose looked better after hot days of revising than after cold ones. That seemed counterintuitive, so I started paying attention to what I was doing while I was staring at the screen re-reading my work for the 521rst time — and lo and behold, it turns out that some little imp in my id springs to life at that particular moment, grabs a few strands of my hair, and idly rubs it against my nose while I’m thinking. I must have been doing this for years, but I had never noticed the cause, only the effect. Thus my skin’s being happier on hotter days: those were the days I wore my hair up. So now, whenever I revise, I twist my hair into a French roll, to keep it away from my face.

Now, this is my own personal pre-revision ritual, right? Flipping up my hair, just like always starting a writing session playing the same piece of music, alerts my body to the fact that it’s revision time, helping me to sink into the task faster. It works for me.

I am not, however, under the illusion that wearing a French roll would help anyone else get published. See the difference?

But perhaps that is straying a bit far afield from Claire’s questions, which were after all about my credibility on the hard-and-fast rule front. Why does my advice on format sometimes clash with that of others with equally good credentials? Well, there are a quite a few of us, and while I can understand why readers might like it if we all gave the same advice all the time, the fact is, we’re all individuals, with different levels of experience in the industry. I honestly don’t think it’s too astonishing that we don’t always agree.

Some of what is said out there does astonish me, admittedly, but that’s just my opinion and my experience talking. Since I grew up in a family whose members have been getting published since the early 1930s, I probably have a stronger sense of tradition than most, as well as a longer list of anecdotes about what happens to submitters who do not adhere to standard format. I was told scary bedtime stories about such people, after all. But I was also one of the few 10-year-olds in the country who knew what all of the major fiction-printing magazines paid per word for short stories, and probably the only junior high schooler on the planet entrusted with the delicate task of proofing galleys. I’ve had my mitts on a LOT of manuscripts in my day, and obviously, that is the perspective I bring here.

I think it’s completely legitimate for all of us to present our various arguments and let the reader decide, though. Yes, even on matters of formatting. You’re smart people. (And, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I believe this strongly enough that I prefer not to expend my scant writing time here in arguing over what somebody else has advised, especially without knowing the context or the rationale he used in advising it.) Presumably, if you are reading several different writing blogs on a regular basis, they are all giving you something. If they have given you advice that makes sense to you, who am I to say that you should not take it? Or to decree that your work would benefit from getting your hair off your face while you’re working, for that matter?

So I guess my answer, Claire, is that I don’t think you should take any of my ilk’s pronouncements as canonical, especially when it’s a matter of style, not hard-and-fast rules — which, incidentally, is what most discussions of italicization choices are (but of that, more tomorrow). A good writer or editor can certainly give you stylistic advice, but honestly, style is personal: it’s really not something about which you should be taking anyone’s word, no matter how authoritative-sounding, as unquestionable Gospel. The ultimate choice, always, is yours.

But then, I am the author who spent a significant part of her memoir urging readers not to be too credulous about anything any author says in any memoir. I’m just not all that into authority. The writer at the next blog over may well feel differently.

Oh, my — just look at the time. I’ll deal with the specifics of fonts and italicization tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Manuscript revision VIII: har de har har har

My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.

Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.

But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.

Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.

So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.

Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.

First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.

Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?

The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?

Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”

Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)

Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.

Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.

The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.

Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?

This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.

#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”

Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.

If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…

And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.

Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.

Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.

People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!

The myth of objectivity

Hello, readers –

I have received some interesting responses to Monday’s post about the relative weight public and private history should bear within the context of a memoir or novel (Getting the Balance Right, April 17). A couple of people have asked: what about objectivity? Aren’t there times when an objective statement of what is going on in a situation is appropriate?

A good question, and one that certainly deserves discussion.

Obviously, there are writing situations where a certain narrative distance from the subject matter is helpful to telling the story, but I’m not convinced that narrative distance, even far narrative distance drained of personal commentary, is inherently the best way to describe anything. Nor is it actually objectivity. Objectivity, it seems to me, does not lie in discounting the personal experiences of the individuals actually affected by the larger phenomenon being described, or in stripping a story of emotional content; these, too, are reflective of the storyteller, conscious choices in selecting a style of narrative. True objectivity, I think, consists of showing a complex story in all of its emotional roundness without judging the characters.

Or, as Mme. de Staël put it, “Philosophy is not insensitivity.”

I know, I know: this is most emphatically not how we generally hear the term objectivity bandied about. Most often, we hear it when the news media praises itself: they like to plume itself on presenting stories objectively. However, as anyone who reads a newspaper regularly can tell you, how journalistic objectivity tends to be more about balance than distance.

The imperative to balance, as if there were two – and only two – sides to any issue, often results in articles that are only superficially objective, or in presenting only the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum. In an effort to be fair to both sides, both of the sides presented are depicted as equally reasonable, and often as though humanity itself were split absolutely 50-50 on the point. Which in turn often gives the impression that every group involved is equally large. (I’m not giving the obvious example here, just in case any future president should want to appoint me to the Supreme Court.) And while the journalists who write such articles seem to be adhering strictly to the rules of objectivity they were taught in journalism school, the necessity of selecting which two POVs to highlight as the only two relevant arguments, and which to relegate to obscurity, is in itself a subjective choice.

We’ve all seen such articles, right? The structure is invariable: begin with personal anecdote about Person A on Side 1; move to description of overarching phenomenon; state what the government/institution/neighborhood proposes to do about the phenomenon; bring in the opinion of Person B on Side 2; discuss what that side would like to see done; project future. Then end with an emotion-tugging paragraph on the lines of, “But for now, Person A must suffer, because of all of the events mentioned in Paragraph 1.”

Now, is that truly objective? It is balanced, sure, insofar as Side 1 and Side 2 are both presented, but since the structure dictates that the reader gets more personal insight into Person A’s plight, doesn’t the choice of which side to highlight first dictate where most readers’ sympathies will tend?

How a journalist or any other writer – or a researcher, or a pollster, for that matter — chooses to frame a question is necessarily subjective. Heck, how we decide what is important enough to write about is a subjective decision. If you doubt this, I suggest an experiment: the next time a telephone pollster calls, pay attention to how the questions are worded. Are they encouraging certain answers over others? How many questions does it take you to figure out who commissioned the poll?

I’m not saying that writers should throw objectivity out the window; far from it. However, I think we are all better writers when we recognize that how we choose to define an objective stance is in itself a subjective decision. Once a writer acknowledges that, taking authorial responsibility for those choices rather than assuming that distance equals objectivity, and that objectivity is good, all kinds of possibilities for nuance pop up in a manuscript.

Which bring me back to my original point: from the reader’s POV, the objective facts of a story are only important insofar as they affect the characters the reader cares about – and that can be liberating for the writer.

Movies and television have encouraged the point of view of the outside observer in writing, because no matter how close a close-up is, the camera is always separate from the action it is filming to some extent. But not every story is best told from the perspective of a complete stranger standing across the room from the action; even in an impersonal third person narrative, the author can choose, for instance, to take into account the observations of the crying toddler being held in the arms of the protagonist. It is not better or worse, inherently, than the detached, across-the-room perspective; it is merely different. Considering it as a possibility, along with a wealth of other perspectives, gives the writer much more control in producing the desired emotional impact of the scene.

Not all editors, writing teachers, or readers would agree with me, of course, but as there were so many writers trained in the early-to-mid 20th century that a Graham Greene-like narrative detachment was the best way to tell most stories, resulting in a generation and a half of schoolchildren being taught that the third person SHOULD mean complete narrative detachment, I’m not too worried that all of you out there won’t hear the other side’s arguments.

I’m not a journalist, after all; I am under no obligation to show you Side 2.

One final word on objectivity for those of you who write about true events: many, if not most, members of the general public confuse their individual points of views with objectivity, as if we all went through life testifying in an endless series of depositions. They insist that their individual, subjective POVs are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and therefore the only possible version of events.

I bring this up, because literally every author I have ever met who has published a book about real events that took place within living memory (myself included) has been accosted at some point by someone whose life was touched by the events depicted in the book. These accosters then summarily inform the author that she is WRONG; the events certainly did not take place that way, and no reasonable person could possibly think that the author’s POV on the subject was accurate. Obviously, then, the author must have maliciously twisted the facts on purpose, to create a false impression. Because facts are objective, by gum: in a well-ordered universe, everyone would tell every story exactly the same way. And the author is left standing there, open-mouthed.

I just wanted you to be prepared.

Sadly, there is little the author can do in response to this sort of attack. It’s been my experience, and my true story-writing friends’, that it does not aid matters to try to explain the basic principles of subjectivity vs. objectivity or point of view to people who insist there can be only one POV. It’s easiest to treat such vehement amateur readers as you would a professional POV Nazi: thank them warmly for their input and get out of the room as fast as you can. If you see them in future, run the other way. (For further tips on handling the POV-insistent, see my posting, Help! It’s the Point-of-View Nazis!, April 4 and 5.)

I honestly do wish that I could give all of you who write about real events a talisman that would protect you, but this is one of those areas where writers tend to view the world very differently than others. If you doubt this, just try explaining to someone who has never tried to write what it’s like to be so grabbed by a story that you feel compelled to lock yourself up for months on end to get it on paper, without anyone paying you to do it. By non-artistic standards, the creative drive just doesn’t make sense.

I say that we should just embrace the fact that we think differently from other people. Let’s revel in our subjectivity, because insightful subjectivity is the cradle of original authorial voice. Let’s not be afraid to tell stories from various subjective POVs, where that’s appropriate. And above all, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at any given event. Or even two. Because that kind of attitude robs writers of the power to choose how best to tell the story at hand.

As Flaubert tells us, ”One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” Let the story’s complexities dictate how it needs to be told.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini