The Frankenstein manuscript

Hello, readers –

I’m in a terrific mood today – first, the 2005 Food Blog Awards have just come out, and my good friend and PNWA member Shauna James’ wonderful blog has just been named the best theme-oriented food blog in the world. As in: on the entire globe, in any language spoken by human beings.

So three cheers and a hat in the air for Shauna – and for all of you out there who have the guts, persistence, and determination to keep putting your writing out there for all the world to see. Whether you can eat gluten or not, if you are even vaguely interested in food or food writing, you owe it to yourself to trot on over to her site. Really luscious stuff, with some of the finest food photography you’re likely to see anywhere.

As if that weren’t enough to make me happy on this miraculously azure-skied PNW winter day, an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. Few writers, no matter how talented, find their voices the first time around, and we’ve been working together for months, trying to pin down how exactly to tell her story. And, as happens sometimes, it just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

On an artistic level, I’m thrilled that she’s found her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work for me. Because, you see, now we have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, to today’s topic: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it – because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as with my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK – which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Even more unfortunately, for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the problem yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Sometimes, the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple POV, changes in voice, or structural changes in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of a Frankenstein game plan.

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

Well, to be frank, I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys. As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town prostitute’s lair, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just me.

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

But in this case, the author seemed like an interesting guy, so we exchanged work, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise – even to me, who knew the premise of the book. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact. However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

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

He, to put it mildly, did not like this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. We all obviously, he said huffily, just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh. We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud.

Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, because we’ve seen so very, very many. He continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, as I said, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story. In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary. It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book.

And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose. It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s hard to sell a piece that meanders stylistically.

Before I meander into my years of experience fixing Frankenstein manuscripts, I am going to stop for today. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house – as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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