Hitting the narrative target: your voice, your whole voice, and nothing but your voice

No, the photo above is not a lopsided bull’s-eye: it’s an aerial shot (okay, not a very high aerial shot, as I am not very tall) of a freshly-cut ornamental cherry tree — the one that used to be in my back yard, as a matter of fact. Can’t tell that we get a whole lot of rain in my neck of the woods, can you?

No, you don’t want to know about the freak of landscaping machinery that resulted in our needing to chop it down. But thanks for asking.

Yesterday, I brought up the subject of narrative voice — or, to be a bit more specific, the desirability of revising your manuscript with an eye to making it sound like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important.

Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else — to be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually AT LEAST a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

Let’s rewind a little. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, part of the reason that many aspiring writers become confused about voice is that — brace yourselves — not all published writing exhibit an original narrative voice.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from the chorus of readers who missed yesterday’s post, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers, take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing IS good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege. Evidently not.)

Books get published for all kinds of reasons, after all. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

To have a voice is to take a SIDE. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option.

In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices fit with all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself NOT to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write.

For instance, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles, for heaven’s sake, (when I was underage, as it happens), as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

(Some professional advice for anyone who should find herself writing wine descriptions: there are only a certain number of adjectives that may be safely and positively applied to any given varietal; nobody is ever going to object, for instance, to a chardonnay description that mention vanilla undertones. Go ask the enologist who blended the wine you’re supposed to be describing to give you a list of five, then start seeing how many of them you can use in a paragraph. Voilà! Wine description!

See? Every writing project is a potential learning opportunity.)

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right?

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston – ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

What might the latter look like on the page? Like a police report, potentially. Let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story in a just-the-facts-ma’am voice:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the 7’ x 10’ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the pinnacle of colorful, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would then subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

Another technical criterion often used in evaluating voice is consistency, as I mentioned last time. Having made a narrative choice, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters?

Your more sophisticated professional reader (Millicent’s boss, perhaps, who has been at it a decade longer than she has) will often also take freshness of voice and point of view into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before?

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire, doesn’t it? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then the narrative choices of bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing.

You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a book’s narrative voice is: three days after a reader has finished it, will he remember how the story was told? Individual phrases, even? In a generic-voiced narrative, usually not.

Of course, after Millicent and her cronies take all of these factors into account, whether the professional reader happens to LIKE the narrative voice is still going to weigh heavily into her calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Because then one reader, at least, will be satisfied: you.

Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!

Sic transit gloria.

The reconstruction of my devastated back yard proceeds apace — there have been so many workmen with great big boots tramping through my erstwhile flowerbeds of late that I’m quite positive the resident mole believes a hostile army has invaded his territory.

The photo above represents the last hurrah of our hot tub before it went the way of all flesh. Since my agent is currently circulating my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, it seemed only appropriate that the little statue should be the last thing evacuated.

With great destruction comes the possibility of new growth, though, and I have to say, even as an editor experienced in making large-scale cuts to manuscripts, I have been impressed to see just how many new vista opportunities have been opening up each time a backhoe accidentally knocks over a small tree.

An ornamental cherry, just about to bloom. Talk about killing your darlings.

The process has been reminding me a great deal of the first two years after I sold my memoir to a publisher, actually: after working up courage to dig up a story that hadn’t seen the light of day for over twenty years, all hell broke loose for two solid years. Every time I started thinking, “Okay, I could learn to live with the new status quo around this book,” BANG! Down went another tree. Or a backhoe took a great big hole out a flowering pear, doubtless cutting the coming summer’s crop by a third.

Metaphorically, of course.

The upheaval on both the garden and memoir fronts remains substantial — and ongoing — but I’m sure the wee Buddha would approve of the hourly evidence my environs are giving that nothing is really permanent. And that building something lasting typically involves quite a bit of ground-clearing first.

Doesn’t that just make you want to take out the machete and leap back into revising your manuscript? No? Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But before we launch into the topic du jour, a drum roll, please, for an announcement of moment: this is my 500th blog on this site!

To those of you who didn’t follow me over from my old Resident Writer blog on the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s website, this total may seem a bit off, as there are about 800 posts archived here, including roughly 300 from my former gig. (Also, I haven’t been counting guest posts and interviews toward the final count.)

So these last half-thousand have all been written specifically for you, the Author! Author! community, under my own aegis. You’re welcome.

When the blog has reached similar milestones in the past, I have gone back and figured out how many pages I’d written, measured in standard manuscript format, but at this point, it’s just too daunting a task. Suffice it to say that it’s been thousands of pages of my ranting at you about the joys and imperatives of standard format, the ins and outs of pitching and querying, and my vast preference for writers reading their work — chant it with me; you surely know the words by now — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it to make its merry way through an agency or publishing house.

Clearly, I need to take a weekend off.

But let’s finish this mini-series (so to speak) first, shall we? For the last week, I’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home, a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears.

After a lifetime of reading and a decade of editing, I have to say, I don’t think that most writers appreciate just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a full meal come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

A good place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home is when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

This is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character who is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a gander at one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in manuscripts that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do all of these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Not quite a 500th post kind of day, perhaps, but close.

I can feel some of you getting restless out there. “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show MY view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit; it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened the front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Tanya, refused to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her day had been.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Mary. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Mary shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom,” she said, “she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Mary. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Now, this story contains elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book, diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along.

Effectively, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Tanya’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

A pity, isn’t it? If only Tom had thought, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Tanya’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Had the narrative just gone ahead and SHOWN Tom and Mary being patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist’s therapist.

ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s excellent ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which you should strive to do as often as possible — at least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Happy 500th, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part V: when you SHOULDN’T let your conscience be your guide

For the last few days, I’ve been talking about the Short Road Home, my pet term for a scene that introduces a potential conflict, only to resolve it so quickly that the reader barely has time to notice an increase in ambient tension. Short Roads Home have been the downfall of many a submitted novel, as such scenes almost invariably tell rather than show, minimize inter-character conflict, and let the tension of the story lag.

Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it. I want to be as clear as possible about this, so you may spot it as you revise your own work.

Why the urgency? Well, there is a reason that most professional readers will dismiss a manuscript that has more than one Short Road Home in the first couple of chapters: it is one of the single most frequently-seen mega-problems in fiction. So much so, in fact, that an experienced pro might not even have to read more than a couple of lines of a scene to identify it — and shove the submission into the rejection pile.

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb just appear above your heads? Did it occur to you as if archangels suddenly appeared and shouted the news into your awed ears that, as with nonstandard formats, an ultra-frequent mega-problem in a manuscript might actually be a WELCOME sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or further reading time?

If so, congratulations — you now have a much, much firmer grasp of how submissions work than a good 95% of the writers currently slapping stamps on SASEs. It’s one of the great agency paradoxes: yes, they are always on the lookout for that great undiscovered new talent, but the faster they can sift through the rest and reject them, the better they like it.

Or so I’m told. By literally everyone I’ve ever met who has ever worked in an agency.

How may NOT being aware of this paradox harm a submitting writer? Because it often — and I know that all of you are far, far too savvy to do this, dear readers — leads the aspiring to leap to the unwarranted conclusion that an agent or editor will be so delighted by a fresh new voice that s/he is automatically going to be willing to ignore other problems in the manuscript until after the contract is signed.

In practice, this doesn’t happen much, even for manuscripts with minor problems. Certainly not for those with pacing or storytelling problems.

Out comes the broken record again: you can’t safely assume that when you submit your work in any professional context, it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, this manuscript certainly needs work, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix it.”

And never, alas, does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along and maintaining tension, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist.”

As delightful as it would be if they DID habitually say express such sentiments — better still, if they routinely acted upon them — this just doesn’t happen for writers who don’t already have a solid platform (i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to a book). I suspect that, say, the first readers of Barbara Boxer’s recent novel or Ethan Hawke’s granted them quite a bit of latitude (not to say editorial help), because, in the industry’s eyes, what is being sold when a celebrity writes a book is the celebrity’s name, rather than the manuscript.

As a non-celebrity writer, you can generally assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons TO weed your work out. Millicent and her ilk don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars, I notice — don’t like to talk about that much. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control. As far as I’m concerned, mega-problems are very much within the writer’s control, as are other rejection triggers — but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission.

So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up this mega-problem.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home seems to appear most frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character (or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket) will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length.

A common example: when a protagonist apparently shows up to a scene purely in order to comment upon it as an outside observer, rather than participating actively in it.

“I did not press the panic button!” James insisted.

Barnaby pointed to the city skyline melting into a fluorescent puddle in the distance. “The warhead didn’t launch itself!”

Etienne listened to the argument swirling around him, knowing it wasn’t really about who bombed what when. Anybody could see that the rapidly-disintegrating city was just an excuse for James and Barnaby to snipe at each other, a transparent mask laid delicately over the face of their unadmitted mutual passion. He wished that they would just rent a motel room and get on with it, so he wouldn’t have to listen to their bickering — assuming, that is, that James’ little slip of the finger had left any motels standing.

Essentially, the protagonist is acting as the reader’s translator here: no need to draw one’s own conclusions while Etienne is on the job, eh? No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader turning pages.

Even when these helpful characters are not therapists by trade (although I’ve seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis: “I realize that you’re upset, Cheryl, but aren’t you displacing your underlying dissatisfaction at being laid off at the lumberyard onto your boyfriend? After all, it’s not his fault that pastry chefs remain in such high demand. If you were not envious of his job security, would you really have minded his torrid affair with those Siamese twins?

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

“But Anne,” I hear Jiminy Cricket protest, “I don’t understand. Don’t my explanations move the plot along? Don’t they provide necessary character development? And isn’t my spouting them a fabulous way of making sure that the reader doesn’t miss any critical nuances?”

Why, yes, Jiminy, your running commentary can indeed perform all of those functions — but by definition, your pointing them out to the reader is telling, not showing.

And I’m not just bringing that up to sound like your 10th grade composition teacher, either. While no one minds the occasional foray into summation, both characters and situations tend to be more intriguing if the narrative allows the reader to be the primary drawer of conclusions based upon what the various characters do, say, and think.

It makes for a more involving narrative.

Also, when the instant-analysis device is overused, the reader can become jaded to it pretty quickly. After the third or fourth use — or after the first, if the reader happens to be a professional manuscript-scanner — the reader is apt to become convinced that that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist, because if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed.

Which, correct me if I am wrong, completely prevents the reader from enjoying one of the great joys of getting into a novel, trying to figure out what is going to happen next. Hyper-analytical protagonists seldom surprise.

As we saw yesterday (thank you, Elinor Glyn), instant analysis can relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on WHILE it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments?

In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling. Memoirists LOVE foreshadowing, because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented AS the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

A great structural rule of thumb for memoirs: show first, conclude later.

I’m going to stop for the nonce, but I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject next time. In the meantime, make sure those protagonists stay active, concentrate on giving the reader enough material so s/he may draw the correct conclusions about what’s going on, and keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part IV, and good news about yet another long-term reader!

It never rains good news but it pours here at Author! Author! Long-time reader Janiece Hopper‘s first novel, Cracked Bat, is being released today by Ten Pentacles Press. Congratulations, Janiece!

You know how every time I talk about book categories, I lecture you all long and hard about how the industry expects you to pick one of the already-established one and be done with it? Well, Janiece’s book honestly does cut across several. Since we’re approaching conference season again, let’s take a gander at the novel’s pitch:

Linnea Perrault is the editor of The Edge, a successful community newspaper. Happily married to Dan, Spinning Wheel Bay’s premier coffee roaster and owner of The Mill, she is the mother of an adorable four-year-old daughter who insists upon lugging a fifteen-pound garden dwarf everywhere they go.When Linnea’s wealthy father returns to their hometown to make amends for abandoning her to a cruel stepfather twenty-eight years earlier, she painfully resurrects his old place in her heart. He buys the local baseball team. Before long, fairy tales, Islamic mystics, and a host of cross-cultural avatars come into play as the team is propelled to the top of the league. After a foul pass and an accident at the stadium, Linnea finds herself locked in the stone tower of pain as she realizes how much the man she married is like the father she never knew. Doctors can’t diagnose her debilitating condition, but kind, magical strangers give her a chance to save her soul. Cracked Bat is dedicated to the approximately five million people who have experienced the mystifying and frustrating ailments of myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue.

Did you catch the extremely clever marketing twist here? The author not only identified the target market for the book, but (like a reasonable person and prudent writer aware of how the business works), she did not leave estimating just how big that potential market was to an agent or editor’s imagination.

Trust me, left to their own devices, they virtually always guess low.

Since Janiece has been kind enough to let me run amok with her marketing materials, let’s take a peek at her author photo:

Nice, isn’t it? I’m guessing that wasn’t entirely accidental — or that this represents Janiece’s first sitting for her author photo.

All too often, aspiring writers leave the genuinely difficult task of coming up with an author photo they like until a week before they need to provide their publishers with one. Unless one happens to be a supermodel with a portfolio crammed with fabulous shots, this is a strategic mistake.

Why? Well, gone are the days when your garden-variety publisher paid some ritzy photographer to spend several hours coming up with something like this for a book jacket:

The jacket photo from the bestseller IT.

That’s the jacket photo for the first edition of Elinor Glyn‘s 1927 bestseller, IT, incidentally — and yes, Madame Glyn was in fact the person who coined the phrase “The It Girl.”

Clearly, this is a photo designed to maximize intensity — which, then as now, would have been a marketing decision. And with good reason: when IT was published, Madame Glyn had been THE name in potboiler romance for a decade. Her breakthrough novel, Three Weeks, was considered so scandalous when it came out that it inspired a popular song:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

Catchy, no? Even before World War I, most authors would have happily cut off a toe or two in exchange for that kind of free publicity.

These days, authors are almost universally expected to provide their publishers with jacket and promotional photos, rather than the other way around, so accepted a practice that I just go ahead and include mine on my author bio when I submit a manuscript.

But that’s not why you should start thinking about blandishing a photographer friend into snapping you now. Unless you are the aforementioned supermodel, chances are that it will take many, many shots to come up with one that you like enough to want it emblazoned upon your book forever and ever.

When would you rather be trying to capture that immortal look, before an agent picks up your book or in the 24-hour period between when your publisher first mentions needing your photo and when the marketing department expects to receive it?

Believe me, you’ll have other things to do at that point. Like providing the marketing department with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of every bookstore in every city where you know even a single soul.

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you?

Everyone, please join me in a round of applause for Janiece — and a thank-you for reminding me to bring up the author photo issue.

Since I’ve covered so many issues today already, I’m a trifle reluctant to launch into the promised practical examples of the Short Road Home, lest this post turn into a 15-page treatise. But since the editors and critics of 1927 were much less concerned with moving a plot along than their current equivalents, let me take a quick stroll through IT to see if one jumps out at me.

While I’m leafing, I should probably underscore that novels (or memoirs) published more than 20 years ago would not be the best role model choices for pacing a book a writer planned to submit today. Yes, even if the book in question is a recognized classic.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to blame agents for this, since over that particular period they have become the weeders-out of what editors at the major US publishing houses see? (In case you didn’t know, all of the big American publishers now have policies specifically forbidding considering unagented work. If an editor from one of them implies otherwise on a conference podium — not unheard-of — ask point-blank if he’s allowed to pick up a book by an unagented author before pitching. Most of the time, even if they love a book they find at a conference, they will merely refer its writer to an agency, anyway, so you’re usually better off using your pitch appointments with editors from smaller presses who do not have this policy.)

But the fact that pacing standards have sped to near-breakneck rates in recent years really isn’t the agents’ fault: it’s genuinely difficult for them to sell more moderately-paced books. Ditto with long ones.

Why? The price of paper has risen astronomically in recent years, as has the cost of binding. This, in case you are curious, is the primary reason that Millicent the screener tends to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to a first novel much over 100,000 words (estimated, which translates to 400 pages in standard format; if what I just said sounded like Urdu to you, please see the WORD COUNT category at right): at 120,000, the cost of binding shoots up.

Bad news for all of us who grew up wanting to emulate John Irving’s pacing, certainly. Or really, any meganovelist who wrote prior to the Second World War.

For reasons of history, then, as well as practicality, Millicent starts to tense up when a submission’s pace begins to slow. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in a writer’s interest to skim over interesting conflict too quickly with a Short Road Home.

Oh, goodie, I’ve just found a lulu of an example. IT’s impoverished society-girl heroine, Ava Cleveland, is desperate for money to maintain her lifestyle in the face of her brother’s bordering-on-criminal gambling debts. When our scene begins, she’s just told her friends that she is spending a season in the country to hide the fact that she is — gasp! — going to be asking her admirer John Gaunt for a job:

So she shut up the Park Avenue flat and dodged her creditors and disappeared to “Virginia” — which happened on the map to be her old nurse’s abode in an ancient house in the old-fashioned poorer quarter of Brooklyn. Close, if she had known it, to one of John Gaunt’s hospitals for children.

Something made her restless, even from the first day of her arrival — so at last she looked at John Gaunt’s card again — and rang Hanover 09410 — once more.

I’m going to pause here to ask you a trenchant question: you’re already a trifle bored, aren’t you? That’s probably because you’re so used to the current standards of writing that even this much summary strikes you as skirting the edge of show-don’t-tell comfort.

But actually, Millicent probably wouldn’t have made it beyond the first sentence of this excerpt — and for a reason that is VERY common in present-day submissions. Any idea why?

Hint: go back and take a gander at that first sentence. Quite a few ands in it, aren’t there? And technically, quotation marks should not be used to indicate so-called; italics would have been the preferred choice here.

But let’s remember it’s 1927, when submission standards were a bit more lax. Moving on:

Miss Shrimper answered and was as insulting as she could be, when she heard a refined female voice…No, Mr. Gaunt could not come to the phone — he never came to the phone! The idea!

Ava’s voice sharpened. “Be good enough to tell him that the lady he met at Mrs. Meriton’s is speaking.”

It is doubtful that even this would have succeeded, had not John Gaunt himself chanced to come out from his inner shrine and seem Miss Shrimper’s acid face — something told him instantly that it was Ava trying to get through to him.

John Gaunt turned to re-enter his private room. “Put her through,” was all he said.

And as she did so, Miss Shrimper’s eyes filled with apprehensive tears.

Okay, Anne again here. Did you see what just happened?

The narrative had gotten a legitimate conflict going between Ava and Miss Shrimper (albeit through having chosen to summarize the latter’s indignation rather than showing it through dialogue and tone) — when along comes stupid old John (called by both names each time he appears, please note, a rookie narrative mistake) to intuit what’s going on by some mysterious, doubtless magical means.

Presto! Conflict killed.

Not content with abruptly cutting off the hostility between the two women, Glyn goes on to minimize Ava’s difficulties in asking for what she wants — another version of the Short Road Home. To top it off, her characters take refuge in that most boring of dialogue forms, the ultra-polite. Lookee:

“Good morning, Miss Cleveland.” His voice was deep, and Ava, at the other end, quivered strangely. “What can I do for you?”

“I want to — work.”

“You had better come and see me tomorrow at eleven, then — I am altering some posts in my office. You may wish to give the name of Miss Clover, perhaps?” The tones were cold as steel and entirely businesslike.

Ava experienced a chill — but “Miss Clover!” That was an idea! “Very well, she answered, and put down the phone.

John Gaunt lay back in his chair and smiled.

“How surprised she will be,” he said to himself. Then he went out and had his rather long hair trimmed slightly so that its thick, deep waves lay close against his Napoleonic head. His nails, which Ava had thought too brilliantly polished, were given a still brighter luster too. Then he went to his Club and was sphinx-like and almost surly with one or two business friends he met.

I could have stopped earlier, but who was I to deny you that Napoleonic head? (Hard to imagine that less than a century ago, that description would have been considered inherently attractive, isn’t it?)

I could run through a laundry list of all the reasons Millicent might give for not making it all the way through this excerpt — the repeated two-part name, the telling rather than showing (how exactly may one be sphinx-like without either posing riddles or having a cat’s head?), the paragraph containing only a single sentence — but that’s not what I want you to focus upon here.

Instead, concentrate on just how effectively the use of the Short Road Home in this last bit smothered ALL of the following:

(a) the tension that the narrative summaries seem to be assuring the reader exists;

(b) the sense that Ava was having to overcome any scruples in going to work, since she just blurted out the request with no preamble or hesitation, beyond the moment indicated by the dash;

(c) any indication that Ava was going to have to beg for the job, since John Gaunt agrees instantly, and

(d) any anticipation the reader might have felt prior to this scene about difficulties Ava might encounter at her first job, since John Gaunt (ugh) has very kindly handed her a simple alternative to having to be honest about who she is — and in case we were in any doubt about this suggestion’s utility, Ava considerately just tells the reader that it’s a good idea.

A pretty efficient page’s work — and that’s not even counting the significant achievement of impressing the reader with Ava’s apparent inability to hold still for more than a paragraph without quivering for reasons she doesn’t understand. (Nor do we.)

By handling potentially conflict-ridden material in this manner, Madame Glyn effectively killed the tension of what should have been a harrowing scene. So much so that I sincerely doubt that today’s Millicent would have kept reading all the way through it.

The funny thing is, this super-quick resolution is not even representative of the rest of the book. Oh, Madame Glyn does favor the Short Road Home from time to time — but given the exchange above, would you be expecting Ava to try to sell herself to John in order to save her brother? Or John to use the solicitation of same as a complex ruse to propose marriage?

The moral: just because a storyline is full of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be a page-turner. How a writer chooses to present that conflict is crucial.

Frankly, Millicent would be a less cynical woman if more aspiring writers realized this.

More on the subject follows tomorrow, of course. Beware of unexplained quavering, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part III: wait, where did the category list go?

Weren’t expecting THAT plot twist, were you? Frankly, neither was I.

So before any of you start e-mailing me frantically to tell me about it: I’m aware that all 151 categories have vanished from the category list at right — and, believe me, no one could be more appalled at the prospect of losing them than I am. I shudder to think how long it would take to re-code all of those thousands of archived pages. Or to search them all for a relevant topic, for that matter.

Okay, let’s all take a few nice, deep breaths. Nothing to panic about here. It’s not as though the archives themselves have disappeared…

But if everyone reading this would please clap his or her hands (you know, the way you did as a kid to bring Tinkerbell back to life) and chant, “This is a simple problem to fix. This is a simple problem to fix,” until the category lists reappear, I would certainly appreciate it.

Let’s get back to the topic at hand, before I start picturing other parts of the blog vanishing as well.

Over the weekend, I brought up a manuscript mega-problem — i.e., a writing problem that is difficult to catch unless you sit down and read the work straight through, as a reader would, rather than on a computer screen, as most writers do — that I like to call the Short Road Home, a too-quick resolution of a major problem in the plot. For the sake of discussion, I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version, where it directly affects the plot in a notable way: “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor of Short Road Home, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well.

I see it in my freelance editing practice all the time, and literally every time I have been a judge in a literary contest, I have seen otherwise excellent manuscripts infected with it — and, inevitably, penalized for it.

(Not that the other judges would have called it that when they saw it. Just so you know, the names I tend to bestow upon manuscript mega-problems — and the terms mega-problem and micro-problem themselves — are of my own making. So if you use them with an agent or editor, be prepared to be rewarded with a blank look. You’ll get used to it.)

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel. First-time novelists tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while.

Those of you who have done time in critique groups and writing classes are familiar with the phenomenon, right? The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, these eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it, often for pages on end. If a nuance tries to escape unpinned-down, perhaps in order to grace a later scene, the narrative leaps upon it like a vicious wildcat, worrying it to bits.

Frequently, this analysis takes the form of what could be an interestingly subtle conversational conflict’s being presented as provocation + protagonist’s mulling over the provocation without responding overtly at all. Rhetorical questions are just dandy for this. It tends to run a little something like this:

“No more cake for me,” Moira said with a sigh. “I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, have some more, Moira,” Cheyenne wheedled. “You could use to pack on a few pounds.”

Moira’s hand froze in mid-air, crumb-bedusted dessert plate trembling aloft. What did Cheyenne mean by that? Was he just being polite — or was this a backhanded way of reminding her that she was supposed to be on a perpetual diet, with the Miss America pageant only three months away? Or was he afraid that if the guests didn’t consume every last morsel, he would revert to his habits from before, from those torrid days at the emergency reduction boot camp where they’d met, and snort up all of the remaining calories like a Hoover? She had to smile at the thought: he had been adorable chubby. But that’s not the kind of person who should be seen on a beauty queen’s arm.

She decided to change the subject, as well as her conversational partner. “So, Barbara, how are you enjoying wombat farming?”

See what the narrative has done here? The long internal monologue provides both backstory and character development, but it has also deprived the reader of what could have been a meaningful exchange between Moira and Cheyenne. Instead of allowing the reader to derive impressions of their attitudes toward each other through action and dialogue, the narrative simply summarizes the facts.

Why is this a problem? Well, when situations and motivations are over-explained, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

To depress the tension of the scene even further, once the logical possibilities for Cheyenne’s motivation have been disposed of in this silent, non-confrontational manner, the scene proceeds as if no conflict had ever reared its ugly head.

The subtle Short Road Home is, as we’ve just seen, far more conducive to telling than showing — and after Millicent has thought, “Show, don’t tell!” once, she’s probably not going to cut the submission any further slack.

Most aspiring writers tend to forget this, but professional readers do not, as a rule, devour an entire chapter, or even an entire page, before making up their minds about whether they think the submission is marketable. They read line by line, extrapolating patterns.

How might this affect a submission in practice? Let’s say Millicent has in her hot little hands the first 50 pages of a manuscript. She reads to the end of page 1 and stops, because a subtle Short Road Home has already appeared. Because this is her first contact with the writer’s work, she left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. Depending upon which way she decides, she may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe and keep reading — or, and this is by far the more popular choice, she may pass with thanks.

Generally, she will conclude that this is a recurring writing problem, and score the piece accordingly. She labels the writer as promising, but needing a more experience in moving the plot along.

Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle Slow Road Home is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how. In addition, I would provide them with three weeks of paid holiday every six months just for writing (child care provided gratis, of course), a pet monkey, a freezer full of ice cream, and a leather-bound set of the writings of Madame de Staël.

Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me, as anyone who has ever been in a writers’ group with me can tell you. I feel that they should be stopped in our lifetime, by federal statute, if necessary.

For me, seeing a subtle Short Road Home stop the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of my house, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again.

Little Georgie had disrupted their narrative, you see. Once an overly-enthusiastic in-text analysis has laid the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship completely bare, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum. When a text over-analyzes, the reader is left with nothing to do.

Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters — to keep turning page after page, to find out what happens to them.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. We’ve gotten accustomed to being told immediately why any given character has acted in a particular manner.

The various LAW & ORDER franchises excel at this, particularly L&O SVU: in practically every episode, one of the police officers will, in the interests of drama and character development, lose an apparently tenuous grasp on his or her emotions/underlying hostility/grasp of constitutional law and police procedure and let loose upon a suspect.

Or a witness. Or a coworker. The point is, they yell at somebody.

Then, practically the nanosecond after the heat of emotion has passed, another member of the squad will turn up to explain why the character blew up. Helpfully, they often direct this explanation TO the person who has just finished bellowing.

Whew — just when the audience member thought s/he might have to draw a conclusion based upon what s/he had seen occur.

Or — and this one’s my personal favorite — one of the police officers (or forensic pathologist, or administrator, or someone else entitled to a series of close-ups of an anguished face) does or says something well-intentioned at the beginning of the episode that triggers (however indirectly) someone else to do something stupid. An actual example: “If I hadn’t bought my nephew that computer, he would never have met that online predator!”

The character in question exhibits his remorse, naturally, by repeating this sentiment at crucial points throughout the episode, looking tortured. Then he bends some pesky police regulation/federal statute/commandment because (and in the interests of brevity, I’m going to cut to the essentials of the argument here) the ends of catching THAT CREEP justify the means.

Cue recap of feeling guilty — often punctuated by a co-worker’s patient explanation that capturing the creep du jour didn’t REALLY change the underlying emotional situation, raise the dead, get the nephew un-molested, etc. — and leave those emotional threads hanging for next week’s episode. Wash, rise, repeat.

What identifies this kind of plot as a Short Road Home is not so much that the villain is pretty much always caught and convicted, but that complex human emotions that talented actors would surely be delighted to play are simply summarized in the plot.

Or, to put it as an editor might, the turmoil is told, rather than shown. But, to be fair, TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way.

A novelist, on the other hand, can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts herself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist sits around (often in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion?

Or sits around drinking coffee with her friends while THEY come up with analysis and solution?

Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up — sits around with her therapist, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through. Afterward, consider: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

Just a little food for thought. (“And just what does she mean by that?” Moira worried, gnawing her fingernails down to the elbow.)

Next time, I shall load you with practical examples of subtle Short Roads Home, and discuss how to work with them. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The nuts and bolts of revision — and a long-time reader gets PUBLISHED!

Before we begin what I hope will be a rather lengthy and fruitful headlong dive into craft issues, may I have a drumroll, please? Long-time Author! Author! reader Arleen Williams’ memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, has just been published by Blue Feather Press!

Congratulations, Arleen! Here’s the book’s official blurb:

The Green River murders were headline news throughout the 1980s. By the time the perpetrator was sentenced in 2003, at least 48 young women had met an untimely death at his hands. What started as as string of local killings in Seattle became a national nightmare before it was over. In homes all across America, television news programs and newspapers large and small carried feature stories about the ever-growing list of victims.

Now imagine that during this time, someone you love — your baby sister, a beautiful young woman of 19 –suddenly goes missing. The police are at best unhelpful, and at worst, seemingly uninterested in what’s happened to her. And then comes word you hoped you’d never receive: your youngest sister’s remains have been found. She is yet another victim of the Green River killer. With amazing candor, Arleen Williams tells the story of her family’s journey, before and after the Green River killer murdered her sister Maureen and left her body in a stretch of wilderness off the west side of Highway 18.

As insightful as it is heart-wrenching, The Thirty-Ninth Victim gives you a window into the family dynamics that contributed to this life-altering tragedy. This is a memoir unlike any other. The author set out to tell Maureen’s story, but in doing so, she tells bits and pieces of every family’s story. You cannot read this profoundly personal and cataclysmic tale and come away unchanged, nor will you ever view your own family in quite the same way. You will applaud Ms. Williams’s courage in sharing this recounting of her family’s trauma through one of the most atrocious streaks of serial killings in American history. And like the family, you will never forget The Thirty-Ninth Victim.

I’m always thrilled when one of our community makes the leap into print, but in this case, I’m particularly tickled. I read an early draft of Arleen’s memoir a couple of years ago — and even as recently as last week, driving past the lovely forested hills east of Seattle, where poor Maureen’s remains were discovered, I still got chills, remembering some of the scenes in this book about the intense fragility of human life and collective memory.

What struck me most about this memoir is that, unlike so many books about particularly horrific crimes, the victim here comes alive on the page. Not as yet another in an almost unimaginably long list of murdered women (so long, in fact, that it sparked the nationwide Take Back the Night rallies) or as merely an object to be acted upon with violence, but as a vibrant light suddenly snuffed. And as part of a family so deeply attached to its own self-image as normal that even a daughter’s disappearance is allowed to disrupt it.

Chilling stuff. And powerful.

So please join me in giving Arleen a great big round of applause for pushing an unusually brave piece of writing to publication. THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM is now available on Amazon or at a slightly lower price on Blue Feather’s website.

That was invigorating, wasn’t it? Makes you just long to chat about editing your own manuscript, eh?

No? Okay, let’s warm up first by talking about a controversial subject amongst manuscript editors: editing for style.

As a freelance editor, I can tell you: much of what an editor does is fairly straightforward; the average manuscript abounds in non-standard usage, grammar, and spelling that would not, to put it kindly, make the soul of Noah Webster sip his lemonade happily in literary heaven.

Any editor would make these kinds of changes in almost exactly the same way; these matters are relatively non-negotiable.

I’m talking about good editors, of course — not the ones who neither like prose nor know how to fix its problems. (Don’t even get me started about the ones who aren’t well enough read to be editing in the first place. Because I am a very tactful individual — no, really — I shall eschew mention of the not-very-experienced editor who, in handling a certain memoir at an imprint that shall remain nameless — even though it went out of business last year when its parent company was bought out by a larger concern — spied the name Aristotle in the text and scrawled “Who?” in the margin.)

Contrary to popular opinion, though, editing for style, in either someone else’s manuscript or one’s own, is significantly slipperier than the good-writing-is-good-writing aphorism-pushers would have you believe.

Why? Well, every editor — just like every writer, every agent, and every reader in North America — was taught something slightly different about what makes a paragraph well-written.

And not only do we all THINK we are right about our particular favorites — we all actually ARE right about it. Style is very much a matter of taste. Obviously, certain tastes prevail at any given time in any given genre, but that does not mean that every reader in the genre will like the same stylistic choice.

Do I hear some grumbling out there? “Wait just a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you cry, the ones who have taken a whole lot of writing classes, attended more than your share of writers’ conferences, or wrote your way through an MFA. “I’ve always been taught that good writing is good writing, period. My teacher/mentor/that guy who ostensibly had a background that justified his yammering at me for an hour at a literary conference told me that there’s actually not a whole lot of variation amongst different styles of good writing, just what each particular market will embrace. Good writing, I have always been given to understand, is good writing, across venues.”

Ah, that old bugbear — yes, grumbling readers, you are quite correct to point out that experts thither and yon are indeed prone to saying things like this. The mere ubiquity of a saying, however, is not necessarily proof of its truth.

If you doubt this, I sentence you to a couple of hours contemplating all of the disparate things, people, and concepts tagged with “That’s hot!” over the last couple of years.

This is one of those translation issues, yet another instance where industry truisms are subject to misinterpretation if one listens to the actual words being said. What publishing professionals actually mean when they say that good writing is good writing is twofold: every format demands CLEAR writing, and standard format is standard format across venues.

In that respect, yes, good writing is good writing: standard manuscript format demands specific structures, norms for spelling and grammar, preferred typefaces; clear writing that says what the writer wants it to say AND is easily comprehended by others on a first read.

Go back and read that last paragraph again, because it’s awfully important: these, dearly beloved, are the minimum standards for professional writing.

If a manuscript does not adhere to this standard, it will invariably have problems making its way through an agency, publishing house, literary contest, or good English program. Thus, mastering these basics is the necessary first condition to producing a marketable manuscript.

Period, unless you are a celebrity on some other basis. And even then, chances are good that your publishing house will assign you a ghost who is VERY proficient in the basics.

Why am I bringing up this distinction at the beginning of a series on self-editing your work, you ask? Because unless a manuscript is clearly-written, perfectly formatted, and free of technical problems, revising for style is not going to render it publishable.

Want some time to go back and read that last sentence again? Go ahead; I’ll wait.

As a professional book doctor, I would STRONGLY recommend that any aspiring writer contemplating large-scale revisions perform a basic-level clarity-and-grammar editorial sweep through the manuscript FIRST.

Yes, I’m fully aware that this level of revision will be no fun whatsoever. Do it anyway, not only because it needs to be done if you ever intend to sell the book in question, but also because cleaning up the non-negotiable points will clear the decks for higher level revisions.

THEN you can begin to think about style.

And promptly fall into a quagmire, at least if you happen to be a person who likes to follow the current trends of writing advice.

What constitutes good style is quite subjective. This is why, in case you were curious, you can walk virtually into any good writing program and hear at least a couple of people arguing over whether good writing can be taught.

Writers quibble a lot amongst themselves over this. I have always thought that this question was formulated incorrectly: it really should be whether style can be taught, or whether talent can be learned.

Certainly, the mechanics and forms of the base level of good writing can be taught, or at any rate learned: it is hard to imagine someone absolutely new to the craft spontaneously electing to set up a manuscript in accordance with standard format. Its strictures are rather counter-intuitive, aren’t they, to those of us who read published books from time to time? And any good listener willing to take critique can learn to be, if not a clear writer, at least a clearer writer.

Which brings us right back to the good old basics.

While the basic level of good writing may not seem particularly ambitious — not worth, say, the years of alternated stomach-churning submission stress and nail-biting waiting to bring to publication — it is a truism of the industry that the VAST majority of submissions agencies and publishing houses receive do not rise even to this level.

Again, you might want to take a second gander at that last sentence.

I cannot stress this enough: no amount of personal flair or innovative insight will permit a technically problematic manuscript to clear the minimum standards hurdle. Agency screening guidelines, contest judging rules, and editorial expectations are almost invariably set up to prevent it.

That massive moan you just heard, new readers, the sound so like all of the banshees of the world complaining about their respective stomach aches, was my long-time readership anticipating my dragging them yet again through the logic behind standard manuscript format.

Actually, I’m going to spare you that march through grimness for the time being (but if you have even the smallest doubt on the subject, please run, don’t walk, to the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category in the list at right). For now, suffice it to say that I tend to harp on the basics because, frankly, the basics, not matters of style, are where most manuscripts meet their Waterloos.

This was not always true. In the not-so-distant past, when agents were not required equipment for fiction and editors were able to spend more of their time on editing and less on acquisition, it was not uncommon for the Writer With Promise’s first work to be taken on, with the intention that over time, the editor would work with the author to help that promise ripen into something beautiful.

These days, however, agents and editors both see enough technically perfect manuscripts in their submission piles that the decision to reject the technically imperfect ones is considered a no-brainer. Today’s Writer With Promise, then, needs to be producing impeccable basics before s/he can get a serious read for style.

Hmm, where have I heard that before?

I wish this were more widely known, or at any rate that if agents and editors MUST use form letters, they would have a version that reads, “Your style is promising, but unfortunately, this manuscript has too many technical errors for us to be able to consider it as is. Please consider getting a whole lot of good feedback or taking a professional formatting class, revising it, and sending it to us again.”

But that’s not writers are told, is it? No, we hear “this manuscript does not meet our needs at this time,” or “I just didn’t fall in love with it enough to take it on.”

Leaving many an aspiring writer to wonder: what do these generic phrases mean with respect to MY manuscript? Was it rejected because it had typos, due to running afoul of a common agency screeners’ pet peeve, or because Millicent the screener did not like the style?

Left with this kind of ambiguity, the average writer will almost invariably conclude that the problem was stylistic. Yet until she has done a basic clarity/format/grammar edit, how can she be sure?

More to the point, how can she possibly even begin to guess what she should change in order to make her work more marketable?

In practice, she typically can’t: most writesr will just send out the same manuscript every time an agent or editor requests it. Or, if it gets rejected several times, they might tweak their submissions stylistically and send it out again, without correcting the technical problems that got them rejected in the first place.

Anyone but me sensing a vicious cycle here?

Here is my hope for all writers: if we are going to be rejected, let it be because an agent, editor, or browser in a bookshop legitimately doesn’t like our style. Not because the margins are the wrong size, or we’ve used a bizarre typeface, or we really didn’t understand how a NF book proposal should be put together, but because each of our voices is so strong that it comes down to whether the individual reader LIKES it or not.

Because at that point, my friends, we will all be marketing our work like professionals, building our individual stylistic choices upon a firm foundation of clarity, literacy, and a thorough understanding of how the industry works.

Don’t make me take that metaphor any further. I’m fully capable of constructing that metaphorical house right up to the rafters.

All of which was a lengthy preamble for this: starting tomorrow, I’m going to start talking about how to diagnose and make stylistic changes to your manuscript. Throughout, I shall be focusing mostly upon novels, but much of the techniques will be applicable to creative nonfiction and memoir as well.

But fair warning: I shall be operating on the assumption that the manuscript you are looking to revise is already crystal-clear, perfectly formatted, and free of technical errors — because if you want to make a living as a writer, you need to begin thinking of that level of polish as the BEGINNING of the revision process, not its end.

Yeah, I know: I have high standards for your work. Aren’t your ideas worth it? Believe me, on this point, I am cruel only to be kind; I would much, much rather be announcing the publication of your first book than consoling you after a rejection.

I’m funny that way.

Congratulations again, Arleen, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Guest blogger Anne Cushman: but what if they think it’s ME on the page?

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I have another Sunday treat for you campers: Anne Cushman has given in to my blandishments to share her insights on the writing life with us here at Author! Author!

I’m very excited about Anne’s guest blog — and not just because she has a fabulous novel coming out this week. Enlightenment for Idiots is due to be released on April 15by Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Random House.

You may perhaps have heard of them.

The book’s already for sale on the publisher’s website (at a slight discount over bookstores). It’s also available on Amazon, of course, as are the many books in which her excellent nonfiction has been anthologized:

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The lady has some serious writing chops, in short, and the advance press for the novel shows that she’s been using her writing time wisely. Take a gander:

“A hilarious take on the quest for truth that manages to respect the journey while skewering many of the travelers… Cushman brings devastating wit and a thorough knowledge of her subject to her first novel, evoking an India that fills the senses and stirs the spirit even as it occasionally turns the stomach.”
~Publishers Weekly

“Cushman brilliantly interweaves snippets of Buddhist teachings with the mishaps and successes of their journey, infusing the book with wisdom and humor.”
~Booklist, starred review

“Cushman’s send-up of the New Age American dream is both thoughtful and wise.”
~The Shambhala Sun

The amazing thing about this first novel is that you feel as though you are reading about your own life. The details are so honest; the writing so clear and sure-footed, sprinkled with great humor. Kudos to Cushman–this is a wonderful debut.”
~Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

Whetted your interest, haven’t they? Here’s a brief synopsis:

Nearing age thirty, Amanda thought she’d be someone by now. Instead, she’s just herself: an ex-nanny, wannabe yogini who cranks out “For Idiots” travel guides just to scrape by. Yes, she has her sexy photographer boyfriend, but he’s usually gone—shooting a dogsled race in Alaska or a vision quest in Peru—or just hooking up with other girls. However, she’s sure her new assignment, “Enlightenment for Idiots,” will change everything; now she will become the serene, centered woman she was meant to be. After some breakup sex, she’s off to India to find a new, more spiritual life.

What she finds, though, is an ashram run by investment bankers, a yoga master who trashes her knee, and a guru with a weakness for fashion models. She escapes a tantra party at the Taj Hotel, has a nasty argument outside the cave where the Buddha used to meditate, then agonizes through the ten-day meditation retreat that’s supposed to make her feel better.

No, India is not what she’d pictured. But she finds a friend in Devi Das, a red-headed sadhu who refers to himself as “we.” And when a holy lunatic on the street offers her an enigmatic blessing, Amanda realizes a new life might be in store for her—just not the one she was expecting.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? As if all that were not enough, Anne’s also running an essay contest to celebrate the book’s release. So if any of you out there have a great yoga romance story to share, scuttle on over to her website with all possible dispatch.

Please join me, everybody, in welcoming guest blogger Anne Cushman. Take it away, Anne!

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A few weeks ago — right around the time it really began to sink in that my novel, Enlightenment for Idiots, was going to hit the stores soon, and that people might actually be going to read it, including such people as my ex-husband, my fellow Buddhist meditation teachers, and my 86-year-old Catholic retired-Army-general father — I had a vivid anxiety dream.

In the dream, I was skating around a roller rink on white fur-trimmed roller blades, dressed only in a black velvet bikini. I caught a glimpse of myself in a floor-length mirror, and — at 44 years old — I looked totally hot.

But two thoughts flashed through my mind — is this get-up really suitable for this stage of my life? And what are my colleagues at Spirit Rock Meditation Center going to think of it?

As I scribbled the dream in my notebook the next morning, I clearly saw the fear it reflected. As a longtime practitioner and teacher of Buddhist meditation and yoga, was it really appropriate for me to be publishing a sexy, irreverent romp about a screwed-up young wannabe yoga teacher looking for enlightenment in India while stumbling through an increasingly disastrous love life?

It was bad enough that the novel poked fun at many of the sacred cows of the spiritual world, including some of its most august teachers. It was even worse that just about every one of my ex-boyfriends would imagine that he recognized pieces of himself in Matt, the main character’s charming, creative, and noncommittal lover.

But what if people actually thought that the protagonist, Amanda — a funny but painfully insecure young woman who is desperately seeking a spiritual band-aid for her chronic sense of emptiness — was based on me?

But the dream also points to one of the basic principles of good writing. If you’re going to touch people in any way — and particularly if you’re going to make them laugh — you have to risk revealing yourself. You have to forget about what’s appropriate, and what other people might think, and be willing to be ridiculous in your honesty and vulnerability.

If you stay in the safety zone, your words will never reach below the surface, and the most you can hope for is a superficial chuckle.

When I’m writing, the voice I aspire to is the voice I use when I’m hanging out with my very best friends — the ones to whom I can say absolutely anything and know that it will be heard, if not agreed with. It’s that intimate, self-revealing voice that speaks the truth — even when it’s totally making things up.

Because even fiction — especially fiction — works best when it rings true.

While the plot and characters of “Enlightenment for Idiots” are invented, the novel was, paradoxically, an opportunity for me to speak more honestly about the absurdities of the spiritual journey than I’d ever been able to in my nonfiction work.

So as a writer, how do you find that intimate, honest voice? For me, one shortcut is to write to my best friends — literally.

When I first began writing personal essays (after years as a journalist), each draft began as an email to someone I loved and trusted — most often, to my older sister Kathleen, who’s also a writer. “I’m not sure how to tell this story,” I’d begin. “But I’d really like to write about the time that I…”

And off I’d go, telling my story to someone who loved me, and who would continue to love me even when I shared with her my most embarrassing moments, my most inappropriate desires, my wackiest observations.

After a few emails on that subject, I’d cobble the pieces together, cut off the fat, and — presto — an essay that made people feel like they were hanging out on their bed with their best buddy, laughing, bitching, and crying about their all-too-human lives.

Of course, I’d have to do some filtering at that stage — and for that, it’s good to have someone who will act as a reality check before you send your finished piece off to your editor.

For instance, maybe I really don’t want to tell you — a bunch of total strangers — about the time in my 20s I sat in my car before knocking on my date’s door (a last-minute dinner invitation that I hadn’t had time to dress for) and decided that I should probably take off my ratty old bra now, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it if he undressed me later. So I removed my bra and dropped it behind my car seat, and then went in for my date; but unbeknownst to me, the bra hook snagged on my sweater, so I walked into his living room trailing my bra behind me like a grubby tail.

Maybe that story’s just too embarrassing, and should be cut. On the other hand, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a story I can give to a fictional character. Or maybe I won’t give the story itself, but just the feeling behind the story — and then invent the details that go along with that story.

In fact, maybe that’s what I already did. As a reader, you’ll never know.

But one thing I know for certain: as a writer, you’ll never get anywhere if you censor yourself before you write something down.

And then, if what you say is too revealing — if it crosses the line where the readers sense of sympathy with you or your character turns into pity and revulsion — your trusted best-friend reader, the one you’re emailing your drafts to, will let you know.

But don’t worry about that now.

For now, put on that black bikini. Try on those roller skates. Know that we all have cellulite, just like you — like you, we all worry that our thighs are too fat, our breasts too small, our butts too droopy. And when we see you out there, skating around in that rink in all your human imperfection, it gives us incredible joy.

Thanks for those lovely and inspirational words, Anne!

Remember, everybody, Anne Cushman’s Enlightenment for Idiots (Shaye Areheart Books, 2008) will be coming out this week. You can read more about it at www.enlightenmentforidiots.com, or race on over to Amazon to buy it.

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ac-photo.jpg As a writer and teacher of yoga and meditation, Anne Cushman explores the poignant intersection between the lofty ideals of spiritual practice and the gritty, comical, and heartbreaking details of ordinary life. She is a contributing editor to both Yoga Journal and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the coauthor of From Here to Nirvana, a seeker’s guide to spiritual India.

Her essays have appeared in the the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Salon.com, and have been anthologized in Best Buddhist Writing 2004 and 2006, A Woman’s Path: Best Women’s Spiritual Travel Writing, Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Tales, and other books. She co-directs the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California; and lives in nearby Fairfax with her seven-year-old son, Skye.

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Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: you say tomato, I say, “Please don’t throw it.”

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You’ll be delighted to hear, I expect, that today will be the next-to-last installment in my series on ways to ease the difficulties of incorporating written feedback. Later in the week, I shall be tackling the specific problems associated with dealing with a critiquer who has the power to enforce a change request — your agent, for instance, by not sending your manuscript out to editors until he’s certain the latest version will fly, for instance, or the editor who acquires it. This can be tricky, especially if one does not happen to agree with the feedback in question.

Hey, I warned you at the beginning of the series that we would be building up our feedback-incorporation muscles. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself, and repeating myself…), it is not merely for the sake of maintaining peace in a writing group or friendships between more casual first readers that it behooves writers to add good listening and critique-accepting skills to their tool belts: these skills come into play at every stage of a writing career.

Seriously, your future agent, editor, publicist, and probably anyone who happens to be frequenting your domicile when your first book’s reviews start rolling in are going to bless the time you put in now developing a measured response to literary criticism. So will you.

Your very pets will be happier for it, because you will be less stressed when you need to incorporate editorial feedback on your tenth book. Not UNstressed, mind you — I’ve been doing this for years, and even my backyard raccoons get a mite testy when I’m on a short revision deadline — but certainly able to manage even the most extensive revision request in your stride.

You can do this, I promise.

For now, though, let’s keep swimming in the relatively less shark-infested waters of dealing with written feedback in general. To review the tips so far:

1. Don’t argue about the feedback with the feedback-giver.

2. Read, reread — and get a second opinion.

3. Don’t decide right away how you’re going to handle the critique — or how you’re going to apply its suggestions to your work.

4. Remember that you and the critiquer are on the same side. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.

5. Don’t use an industry professional as the first — or only — reader of your manuscript.

6. Don’t expect your readers to drop everything to read your work. Especially if they happen to work in or with the publishing industry.

7. Don’t try to do it all at once.

8. Make a battle plan, setting out reasonable deadlines for each step.

9. Allow some room in your battle plan –and time in your schedule — to respond to inspiration, as well as to experiment.

10. Make sure that you’re not over-estimating the critiquer is requesting.

11. When in doubt about what a critiquer expects you to do, ASK.

12. Avoid making the same mistake twice — at least for the same feedback-giver.

Phew — that’s a heavy list, isn’t it? Let no one say that being a tolerant and wise recipient of feedback is the proverbial walk in the park. Moving on…

13. Keep excellent records about the changes you have made to the manuscript — and keep both hard and soft copies of EVERY major version of the book.

Having grown up in a family of writers — ones who were fighting the good fight back in the golden days of typewriters, no less — I was STUNNED to learn that most revisers do not keep copies of each draft. Seriously, the first time I met a writer who didn’t, I thought he was joking.

Why is it such a jaw-dropper, from a professional point of view? Quite simply, either the writer or the editor might conceivably change his or her mind.

Remember last week, when I mentioned that writers tend to be the only ones involved in the publishing process to cherish the illusion that a book is DONE until it’s actually been printed and is for sale at Borders? Well, that mindset of continual modification is not, some of you may be alarmed to hear, necessarily a one-way process.

That’s right: critiquers’ opinions have been known to vacillate from time to time. They also — please don’t throw anything heavy at my head; I’m just the messenger here — been known to forget that the aspect of Draft #2 they liked least was in fact something they asked the writer to do after reading Draft #1.

Or — and I’m already ducking under my desk — be displeased with a writer’s specific solution to a vaguely-phrased concern.

Did you feel that lurch your stomach just took? The goal of Strategy #13 is to avoid that feeling’s ever being associated with your manuscript, by providing concrete records through which you can retrace your revising steps.

While the maid is mopping up all of the soggy tomatoes my readers just lobbed in my general direction, let’s concentrate on the first problem on the list: just because a critiquer suggested last month that you kill off your protagonist’s sidekick does not necessarily mean that she will prefer the revised, sidekick-free storyline.

Because I love you people, I’m not going to go into detail about how much farther a writer’s stomach can displace itself when the stakes are higher — when, say one’s agent or editor changes her mind. I suppose I could describe what the moment of hearing one’s agent say, “Sandy, I’ve been thinking about it, and your first running order was better,” means to a Sandy who has been simply saving each new change in the same Word file, but frankly, gut-wrenching, sustained groaning is hard to convey in words.

And even if Sandy’s agent/editor/first reader DIDN’T later backtrack, how is Sandy supposed to figure out three months after a revision whether Scene Q worked better in draft #1 or #2?

Especially if — as is, I’m still stunned to report, very frequently the case — Sandy hasn’t kept a meticulous list of what has changed between those drafts?

A wise reviser ALWAYS maintains the ability to check both versions side by side — and a clever one records the major changes separately, keeping it handy for future reference.

Why, you ask? Well, several reasons, potentially. Many, many books go through many, many drafts, for starters; do you really want to be rending your garments two years from now because you can’t remember whether Draft #3 or Draft #4 included Cousin Max’s funeral? Or at what point you realized that Dennis and Denise’s names scanned too similarly, and readers might get confused if you didn’t rechristen one of them?

Also — and this may come as something of a surprise, after my recent diatribe about how critiquers tend to notice when writers haven’t taken their advice on previous drafts — especially if the same feedback-giver has followed the book through several versions, he might not always remember what precisely he asked the writer to do.

Is that gagging I hear out there? “But Anne,” some of you sputter, “aren’t we talking about dealing with WRITTEN feedback here? Surely, there’s no question about what has been said after, say, an editor requests a textual change in an editorial memo.”

How shall I put this delicately…

Professional readers go through a LOT of manuscripts in any given month; it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the details began to blur a bit would it?

And honey, if your nerves will stand calling up the editor who’s just acquired your book and saying, “Hey, I’m calling foul — your last two memos contradicted each other,” well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I can also tell you right now that ol’ Gunga Din’s agent is going to throw what used to be called a conniption fit immediately after that act of bravery — because from the editorial end of that phone line, that statement might very well have sounded like a declaration of war.

Hey, I’m not the only message-bearer who fears the wrath of the angry tomato-thrower.

Instead, think about how much more smoothly the exchange might have gone has our pal Gunga instead been able to whip out both the list of suggested changes (prepared, perhaps, in response to Strategy #8) and the roster of what he had changed between drafts in preparation for such a discussion.

Armed with such tools, perhaps Gunga could have blunted the potential for confrontation even further by prefacing his remarks with, “I think I’m confused. From what you said in the memo, it sounds as though I may have misunderstood what you were asking for last time. Or are you asking for something completely different now?”

In short: keep good records of changes, and make it as easy as possible for yourself to revert to an older version, if necessary and appropriate.

Whew, I think we could all use a nice, long nap after that little exercise in hypothetical horror, couldn’t we? The rest of the strategy list will be much less stomach-wrenching, I promise.

Keep up the good work!