Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XIV: the over-stuffed bird

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! The turkey is in the oven now, and I have taken a break between making the cardamom carrots and the cinnamon-honey sweet potatoes in order to write to you. So don’t ever think that you don’t rate.

Here is something for which we should indeed be thankful: I shall be going over the last of the Idol rejection reasons (see post of October 31, if this reference seems cryptic) today! Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last – in fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks. For these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined entirely by the reader’s response to your work:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

“Unbelievable” also came up a lot, but usually in conjunction with other reasons. This is telling: basically, whether a situation is believable or not is largely dependent upon the reader’s life experience, isn’t it? Since my childhood strongly smacked at times of having been directed by Federico Fellini, I would expect that I would tend to find a broader array of written situations plausible than, say, someone who grew up on a conservative cul-de-sac in an upper middle-class suburb, attended to a minor Ivy, and was working at my first job in Manhattan while my parents paid a significant portion of my living expenses.

Which is to say, of course, that I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, remember, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book. (Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.)

However, the numbered reasons above speak to less personal-experiential approaches to judgment. #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. And this can be counter-intuitive, right, since most of us were taught that the opening needs to hook the reader?

The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right. You don’t want to so overload the reader with gore, violence, or despair that she tosses it aside immediately, nor do you want to be boring. Usually, though, it is enough to provide a single strong, visceral opening image, rather than barraging the reader with a lengthy series of graphic details.

Before half of you start reading the opening page of THE LOVELY BONES to me, allow me to say: I know, I know. I don’t make the rules, after all: I just comment upon them.

All I can say is this: there is no such thing as a single book that will please every agent and editor in the industry. If you are worried that your work might be too over the top for a particular agency, learn the names of four or five of their clients, walk into your nearest well-stocked bookstore, and start pulling books from the shelves. Usually, if your opening is within the intensity range of an agency’s client list, your submission will be fine.

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the believability continuum. What’s the difference between melodrama and drama? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli – if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally feel real, but if she throws a tantrum because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama.

Need I even say that the rise of reality TV, which is deliberately edited to emphasize interpersonal conflict, has increased the amount of melodrama the average agency screener encounters in submissions on any given day?

Usually, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict not being high enough for the characters. As a general rule of thumb, it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (And no, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an excuse that generally works within the industry.)

So if you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine.

And this goes double if you are writing comedy, because the line between cajoling the reader into laughing along with the narrative and at it is a fine one. Overreaction to trifles is a staple of film and television comedy, but it’s hard to pull off on the printed page. Especially on the FIRST printed page, when the reader is not yet fond of the protagonist or familiar with his quirks – much sitcom comedy relies upon the audience’s recognizing a situation as likely to trigger character responses before the character realizes it, right?

Generally speaking, comedy grounded in a believable situation works better in a book opening than a scene that is entirely wacky, or where we are introduced to a character via his over-reactions. The more superficial a situation is, the harder it is for the reader to identify with the protagonist who is reacting to it.

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Not that you should load down your opening with physical description – that was a bugbear described earlier on the Idol list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there.

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70,“This is tell-y, not showy.”

Let me let you in on a little secret gleaned from years of hanging out with agents and editors at conferences: after they’ve had a few drinks, most of them will start describing the manuscripts they long to pick up in much the same way as a hungry person describes meat. They want something they can sink their teeth into; they want a satisfying sensual experience; they want to savor flavors they’ve never tasted before. They want to be seduced, essentially, by the pleasurable shock of stepping into a ready-made world that is not their own.

Piece o’cake to pull that off on a first page, right?

The visceral details are often crucial to pulling off this magic trick. As I have bemoaned repeatedly in this very forum, the prominence of film and TV as entertainment has led to a positive plethora of submissions that rely exclusively upon visual and auditory details to set their scenes. (During the reign of radio, I am told, sound played a more important role in the average manuscript.) This may be hard to believe, but out of every hundred manuscripts a screener reads, perhaps two will include solid, well-described sensual details that are not based upon either sight or sound.

Movies and television limit themselves to these two senses for a very good reason: it’s all they have. But a book can work with all the senses – even that sixth one, the one that senses danger and picks up unspoken vibes. If you can work at least one of these other senses into the first few paragraphs of your submission, you will be sending a signal to that screener that perhaps yours is the book that will seduce her boss this week.

And that, my friends, is something to celebrate.

If you doubt your ability to do this, try this exercise: sit down late tonight and write a description of your Thanksgiving dinner using ONLY the senses of vision and hearing. Then set it aside and write another one that uses only smell, taste, touch, and interpersonal vibration. Tomorrow, read them both: which tells the story better? Which makes the reader feel more as though she had been sitting at the table with you?

Speaking of which, I have some sweet potatoes to season.

But before I go, since a lot of people like to take stock of their lives this time of year (partially, I suspect, to construct the dreaded New Year’s resolution), allow me to suggest something: when you are assessing how far you have progressed toward achieving your writing goals and what you would like to achieve by this time next year, don’t use the yardstick of an author who is already on the bestseller list. Chances are, it took that writer years of patient, frustrating effort to get to that point, and really, the ultimate goal of successful publication, or the interim goal of landing an agent, are not the only desirable achievements for a writer.

Here is the standard I like to use: am I a better writer than I was two years ago? (Two years is better than one year, as it often allows consideration of more than one project.) Have I added skills to my writer’s bag of tricks in the last two years? Have I found friends, connections, resources that can help me on my way in that time? If my work is being rejected, am I getting better rejections? And what can I decide to do in the year to come to improve my work still more?

I am very, very lucky, my friends: I started this blog 15 months ago, and it has undoubtedly made me a better writer, both because it has forced me to take a long, hard look at the premises under which our industry operates and because I have had the opportunity to answer questions from writers at all levels. I have met many wonderful writers, agents, and editors over the past two years, and I have taken continuing education classes to hone my skills. I have exchanged work with very good writers from backgrounds different from mine, and have benefited from their advice. I have finished manuscripts, and I have revised them.

And all of this, believe it or not, is actually a better indicator of my progress as a writer than the fact that I have sold a book to a publishing house in the last two years, or that I have a novel under serious consideration at another house right now. Why? Because these activities sharpened my writing and marketing skills; successfully marketing my books was my excellent agent’s achievement, ultimately. For all of this, I am grateful.

My gut feeling is that all of you who read this blog regularly have been doing some fairly hefty writer’s toolbag refurbishment, too. Don’t forget to pat yourselves on the back for that.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

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