Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XXI: but wait, there’s more!

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Are you surprised to see another post on first-page rejection reasons coming after I’ve already gone over the Idol list of red flags? What can I possibly still have to say on the subject, after nearly three weeks of harping upon it?

Plenty, as it turns out. As excellent and extensive as the agent-generated list was in its day, as full of classic submission problems as any such list could possibly be, the agents in question generated it a couple of years ago. As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops practically since I began writing this blog, the standards for what agents are seeking in a manuscript change all the time, along with the literary market itself.

Contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, good writing, a solid premise, and catchy character names are not necessarily enough to catch an agent’s eye today. Yes, a novel or memoir submission typically needs all of those elements to be successful, but now as ever, it needs something else: to be a book that the agent can picture selling in within not an ideal market, but the one in which s/he is currently attempting to sell books.

Yes, I do realize what I just said: a manuscript could conceivably be perfectly marvelous and still not be what an agent would consider marketable in the literary market right now.

Why right now in particular? Well, agents have always made their living by selling their clients’ work to publishers — since reputable agents don’t charge fees over and above their contracted percentage of a book sale, they make money only when they hawk their clients’ books successfully — but even a cursory glance at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE will tell you that these are exceptional times for the publishing industry.

How exceptional, you ask? Well, I don’t mean to alarm you, but PUBLISHERS WEEKLY laid off its editor-in-chief earlier this week. (You will be greatly missed, Sara Nelson.)

What does this mean for aspiring writers? Probably, that agents will be a bit warier about picking up new clients until the publishing houses decide what their new strategies will be. That, and that vampire books like the TWILIGHT series will continue to get snapped up at a prodigious rate until the next surprise bestseller comes along.

So the best thing you could possibly do right now is rush right out and buy 50 books similar to yours — and convince 100,000 of your friends to do the same. Like it or not, that’s now new marketing trends are made.

Since my readership is made up almost exclusively of writers, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that none of you like it.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the next big thing — other than the novel I’m about to finish writing, of course — but there are a few trends in what gets rejected and accepted that I’ve noticed cropping with increasing frequency over the last year or so. Since once a pet peeve is established, it tends to hang around for a while on Millicent the agency screener’s red flag list, it’s probably a good idea to avoid them for the foreseeable future.

I know — kind of ironic, given how opaque the future of publishing is right now. Let’s plow ahead anyway. Some stuff that hasn’t been playing well lately:

1. Unprofessionally formatted manuscripts.

I know that I harp on this one quite a bit — as evidence and for the benefit of readers new enough to this blog not to have lived through my extensive discussions of what publishing professionals expect manuscripts to look like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the category list at right — but it honestly is true that if a submission does not look professional, Millicent is more likely to reject it, regardless of the quality of the writing. Since the volume of queries and submissions has been skyrocketing as the economy has worsened (writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, apparently), she can afford to be even pickier than usual.

Take the time to make it look right.

2. “I’ve seen that before.”

This is a practically inevitable side effect of the aforementioned volume of queries and submissions rising, but standard storylines, stock characters, and literary clichés in general seem to be getting judged more harshly of late, probably because Millicent has been seeing the same things over and over again.

Does this mean that this is a great time for writers who embrace radical originality. Not exactly, because…

3. Fiction that challenges the status quo very strongly.

This is one of the truisms of the publishing industry for the last century — during uncertain economic times, comforting and escapist plot lines tend to sell better. Unfortunate, but true. It has to do with what’s known as the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index: when Americans are feeling insecure about the future, sales of inexpensive comfort foods tend to rise — as do books that make readers all warm and fuzzy.

In light of the recent revelations about certain peanut butter manufacturers, it might be more accurate to call this the Oreo or Top Ramen index right now, but you catch my drift.

Historically, agents and editors have followed these trends, shying away from more challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and even experimental use of prose. Since I’m personally a big fan of challenging plot lines, unusual worldviews, and experimental use of prose, I’m not all too happy about this, but it might be worth holding off on submitting any of the above for a few months, until the industry has had time to get used to new economic realities.

I know; it’s annoying.

4. Vocabulary or tone inappropriate to book category.

I’ve been hearing a LOT of complaints in that bar that’s never more than a 100 yards from any literary conference in North America about submissions from writers who don’t seem aware of either the target audience or the conventions of the categories in which they have written books. From coast to coast, Millicents and their bosses have been railing about YA with too-adult word choices, literary fiction with a fourth-grade vocabulary, and cynical romances.

I suspect that the increased pervasiveness of this one is actually an expression of the publishing industry’s smoldering resentment that book sales have dropped; if the writers of these books were actually buying the new releases in their genres, the logic goes, they would be more conversant with what’s selling right now. Having met scads of writers who say, “What do you mean, what do I read? I don’t have time; I’m too busy writing,” I have to say, I have some sympathy with this one.

Remember, from the industry’s point of view, a writer’s being up on the current releases for her type of book is considered a minimum standard of professionalism, not an optional extra. At least take the time to go to a well-stocked bookstore and thumb through the recent releases, to make sure that your submission doesn’t fly too far out of the acceptable range.

5. Narrative voices that read as though the author has swallowed a dictionary.

This is a perennial complaint that’s been getting more play recently, probably because of the convenience of the Thesaurus function in Word, but for Millicent, a submission crammed with what used to be called three-dollar words does not necessarily read as more literate than one that relies upon simpler ones. Yes, I know that English is a beautiful language crammed to the gills with fabulous words, but use that thesaurus sparingly: from a professional reader’s point of view, the line between erudite and pretentious can sometimes be pretty thin.

Few readers, they argue, will actually stop reading in order to go and look up a word in a novel written in their native tongue. They speak from personal experience: it’s something Millicent would literally never do while scanning the first few pages of a submission.

Here again, your best guideline is the current market for your type of book: generally speaking, a writer will always be safe sticking to the vocabulary level of recent releases in his book category. If you want to sneak in more obscure words here and there, make sure that their meaning is evident from context.

Trust me on this one.

5. Humor that Millicent doesn’t find funny.

Perhaps it’s due to the major presidential candidates’ having employed speechwriters this time around who wrote better jokes for them, but in the last couple of years, more aspiring writers seem to be trying to incorporate humor into their work. Since genuinely funny writing is a rare and wonderful thing, I can only applaud this trend.

Just make sure that it’s actually funny before you submit it on the page — not just to you and your kith and kin, but to someone who has never met you and is from a completely different background. And no, having one character laugh at a joke another character has just made will not cause Millicent to find it humorous.

And remember, nothing dates a manuscript faster than borrowing a joke from the zeitgeist. Particularly if the joke in question is lifted from a sitcom.

If you choose to open with humor, run it by a few good, unbiased first readers before submitting it. Since even those of us who write comedy professionally are heavily reliant on reader reaction to determine what is and is not legitimately funny, I’m going to spend some time next week talking about how to scare up some genuinely useful feedback.

6. Unlikable protagonists.

This is another golden oldie that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency of late: it’s long been an industry truism that if the reader doesn’t find the protagonist likable, she’s not going to want to follow him through an entire book. And I don’t just mean finding him kind of tolerable; Millicent’s going to want to find the guy actively engaging.

Why might this perennial objection be flying out of Millicent’s mouth more often recently, you ask? Did you read that one above about the Peanut Butter and Jelly Index?

I can think of a few more long-standing writing red flags that didn’t make it onto the Idol list — over-use of the passive voice, for instance, or dialogue that doesn’t either flesh out character or advance the plot — but I shall save those for the craft discussion of another day. (Which is, I suppose, another way of saying that I’ve had a long day and I’m pretty exhausted.)

For now, suffice it to say that Millicent honestly does expect to see your best writing on page 1 of your submission — and that since she is going to assume that the writing on page 1 IS your best writing, it’s worth taking exceptional pains over it. As agents have been known to tell one another when they’re in their cups (in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference, natch), if the writing on page 1 isn’t remarkable, it doesn’t matter if the writing on page 15 is brilliant, because it’s not as though agents or editors open books at random to check out the writing.

Begin at the beginning, as a reader would, when you revise. Your time investment will bear the greatest returns there.

I’m going to sign off for today and go to sleep, but rest assured, I have a treat in store for you tomorrow, as a reward for having worked hard throughout this lengthy and often downright depressing series. Until tomorrow, then, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XX: and now for the good part — oh, and RIP, Mr. Updike

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A moment of silence, please: John Updike is dead.

Since nothing elevates the short-term literary stature of an established author as much as his death, I’m sure that there will be no shortage of superlatives being bruited about out there for Mr. Updike, so I shall not attempt to add to them here, nor shall I reproduce his oft-quoted comments about the decline of literary fiction as a mainstream art form. Suffice it to say that he was a writer who alternately impressed and infuriated me — not a bad goal in and of itself for a literary novelist — and leave it at that.

When I heard the news — one of the mixed blessings of being widely known as a writer and descendent of a long line of writers is that people very considerately call to break the news to me whenever any well-established author kicks the bucket, as if everyone who has ever set pen to paper were a distant cousin of mine whose death I should not be forced to learn from the standard media sources — I naturally went straight to my bookshelf and glanced through some of his work. In light of our ongoing series on opening pages and the fact that his first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, came out in 1959, I expected his initial pages would, to put it politely, have a tough time making in past Millicent the agency screener today, thus proving his frequently-made point about how literary fiction has been all but brought to earth over the last 40 years.

I was pleased to find that quite the opposite was true: his first pages were grabbers. Take that, eulogists of literary fiction, including Mr. Updike!

More to the point of the latter part of this series, his hooks largely operated not through garish action, but interesting character development. Take a gander, for instance, at the first two paragraphs of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1984):

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way; each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”
“A man?” Alexandra Spofford asked, feeling off-center, her peaceful aura that morning splayed by the assertive word.

Now, we could speculate all day about the probable insecurities of a male author who felt compelled not only to have a female character repeat the word man here, as though the very concept of the Y chromosome were inherently troubling to heterosexual women, but also to inform the reader that the word is assertive AND use splayed, a word commonly associated with the things models do in the centerfolds of men’s magazines, to describe a mental state. It might also not be too much of a stretch to assume based upon this opening that Mr. Updike wasn’t picturing much of a female readership for this book when he wrote it — intriguing, since in 1984 as now, women were far and away the most common purchasers of literary fiction.

But none of that concerns us at the moment. Look, I ask you, at how beautifully he has used visceral details to establish both a mood and character.

Some ears just perked up out there, didn’t they? “Visceral details?” those who had dozed off a bit, anticipating a eulogy, now exclaim. “Why, we were talking about those only yesterday. Weren’t those the kind of tidbits Millicent and her ilk liked to see, the tangible specifics that make vague generalities fade to gray by comparison?”

Those are they, indeed. Arresting, aren’t they, in this museum piece?

In fact, it’s a heck of an opening in general. Let’s take a moment to ponder why: instead of easing the reader into the story by an extensive description of the physical space in which we discover these characters, or the even more common physical description of the characters themselves, Updike introduces these women by providing specific insight into their mental processes and motivations. Instead of just telling us that Jane is mean and Alexandra shy, he shows us through an analogy and word choices that we might not expect.

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely right: this opening would grab Millicent because it’s not only well-written, but surprising.

Seeing all the elements in action helps to clarify what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t it? But while we’re at it, let’s be thorough about this. Quick, without rushing back and checking our initial list of red flags that often lead Millicent to reject a submission on page 1, what might strike her as problematic if she saw this opening in a submission by a brand-new writer today?

If you pointed out the typo in the very first sentence, give yourself a great big gold star for the day. (Technically, there should be a comma between oh and yes; as Mr. Updike was a graduate of my alma mater, I’m relatively certain that he should have been aware of this.) While some Millicents might be kind enough to read past a first sentence grammatical or spelling error, it’s not a foregone conclusion.

Proofread.

While we’re giving out prizes for observation, take a red ribbon out of petty cash if you flagged the repetitive dialogue. As we’ve discussed earlier in this series, repetitive dialogue tends to annoy agents and editors, since they’ve been trained since they were pups to excise redundancy. Besides, characters who simply echo what has already been said tend to come across as less intelligent than those who actually add something new to the conversations in which they participate — always a tad risky in a protagonist.

Anything else? What about the unnecessary tag lines (Jane Smart said, Alexandra Spofford asked), now out of fashion? Since Mr. Updike had already been established in the first rank of North American authors by the time the use of tag lines fell out of fashion, this might seem like an unwarranted quibble, but remember, we’re judging this by the standards that would apply to a writer trying to break into the biz now.

Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: an established author can often get away with things that someone new could not.

Did any of you red-flag the semicolon? If Mr. Updike were submitting this to Millicent labeled as anything but literary fiction, you’d be right to consider cutting it. Generally speaking, in fiction that isn’t aimed at a college-educated audience — as literary fiction is, ostensibly — semicolons are considered a bit highbrow.

The fact that Millicent regularly sees manuscripts whose vocabulary barely scrapes the 10th grade positively peppered with semicolons might have something to do with this, admittedly. No one but writers really like semicolons, and not even all of us use them correctly (which, John Harvard would no doubt be delighted to note, Mr. Updike has done properly above), but my, don’t we like to shoehorn them into a manuscript!

Unless you’re submitting your work as literary fiction to an agent with a successful track record of representing a whole lot of it AND her client list fairly bristles with semicolon-wielding authors, you might want to minimize their use.

All of which, as fate would have it, is a perfect lead-in to my wrap-up of the Idol rejection reasons because, really, it’s important to recognize that while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems, at least on page 1: we’ve been going over these points exhaustively so that you can meet standards far higher than when the late, great Mr. Updike faced when he was first trying to break into the biz.

Today, however, we get to see the reward: the kind of manuscript that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents and editors tend not to talk too much about what they love about books at conferences — they tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. Remember, agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market. It’s not enough for an agent to love your work; she needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you.

But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agents often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who have been taught (sometimes by agents at conferences) to believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or to those who believe that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book.

Or that there exists writing so beautifully literary that every agent currently drawing breath will instantly exclaim, “Oh, of course — I’ll represent that!”

Especially for first fiction, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as the Idol series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk.

So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service.

Here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date — in other words, what would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.

2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.

3. The author made the point, then moved on.

4. The scene was emotionally engaging.

5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.

6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.

7. “Good opening line.”

8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

Notice anything about this list? Like, say, that the opening of THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK knocks every single one of these criteria out of the proverbial ballpark?

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or “Wow, great hook” have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than to writerly skill. In essence, they are looking to fall in love with a premise, rather than a book.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient.

Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the beauty of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?”

Why not? Well, presumably, if any submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. As we have seen before, the question is much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, about SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation.

Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have both of these elements in your premise, and you present them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. Not necessarily, but usually. If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, all of this critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book.

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. Each of these elements are only enhanced by a beautiful writing style.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough in the current market. (Unless you’re already established like John Updike, of course, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read within the industry.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush seem astonishing. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering list, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds serious skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that — and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIX: genius is no excuse for lack of polish, or, quoth the raven, “Next!”

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Happy Year of the Ox, everyone!

We’re almost at the end of our very, very long examination of reasons agents tend to reject a submission on page 1, Can’t you feel the air buzzing with excitement? Haven’t you noticed the bees murmuring in their hives, the birds stopping in mid-air to gape, and every little breeze seeming to whisper, “Louise!” like Maurice Chevalier?

No? Are your dreams still haunted by Millicent hovering over your workspace, intoning “Next!” in the same sepulchral tone in which Edgar Allen Poe’s raven purportedly squawked, “Nevermore!” while you try to crank out query letters?

Quite understandable, if so. Facing the truth about just how harsh agents and their screeners can be — and need to be, in order to thin out the steady barrage of applicants for very, very few client positions available in any given year — requires great bravery. “True genius,” Winston Churchill told us, “resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.”

At first, it’s actually easier to keep cranking out those queries and submissions if a writer isn’t aware of the withering gaze to which the average submission is subjected. The pervasive twin beliefs that all that matters is the quality of the writing and that if an agent asks for a full manuscript, s/he is actually going to read the entire thing before making up his or her mind has buoyed many a submitter through months of waiting for a response.

Be proud of yourself for sticking around to learn why the vast majority of manuscripts get rejected, however — and not just because, as Goethe informs us, “The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth.” In the long run, a solid understanding of the rigor with which the industry eyeballs manuscripts is going to serve you well at every stage of your writing career. While the truth might not set you free of worry, it will at least enable you to take a long, hard look at the opening pages of your manuscript to scout for the most common red flags, the ones that have caused Millicent to grind her teeth so much that she has TMJ syndrome.

She has to do something with her mouth between cries of, “Next!” you know.

Speaking of jaws, you may find yours dropping over today’s selection of red flags. Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last. In fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks.

Why, you ask? Because these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined not by the text per se, but by the reader’s response to your work:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”

65. “Over the top.”

66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”

67. “It’s not visceral.”

68. “It’s not atmospheric.”

69. “It’s melodramatic.”

70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

From an agent, editor, or contest judge’s point of view, each item on this subset of the list shares an essential characteristic: these exclamations are responses to Millicent’s perception that the submission in front of her is unlike what she and her cohort expect a marketable manuscript to resemble. Not because it’s formatted incorrectly or uses language poorly (although submissions that provoke these cries often exhibit these problems, too), but because the writing doesn’t strike them as professional.

Since most aspiring writers operate in isolation, often without even having met anyone who actually makes a living by writing books, this distinction can seem rather elusive, but to the pros, the difference between professional’s writing and that of a talented amateur not yet ready for the big time is often quite palpable. How so? Because the pro is always, always thinking about not only self-expression and telling the story she wants to tell the way she wants to tell it, but about the effect of the writing upon the reader.

What makes that thought so obvious to Millicent on the printed page? A combination of talent and meticulous polish. As Thomas Carlyle liked to put it, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.”

I’m not merely bringing up the concept of genius for comic effect here, but as a conscious antidote to the all-too-pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers that if only a writer is talented enough, it’s not necessary for him to follow the rules — literarily, in terms of formatting, or by paying any attention to his work’s marketability. But I’ve got to tell you, every agent and editor in the biz has fifteen stories about writers who have tackled them, shoving manuscripts into their startled hands, claiming that their books are works of unusual genius.

Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but this kind of approach is a very poor way to win friends and influence people in the industry.

A much, much better way for honest-to-goodness genius to get itself noticed is by polishing that manuscript to a high sheen, then submitting it through the proper channels. Yes, it’s a great deal of work, but as Thomas Alva Edison urged us to bear in mind, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or, to put it rather more bluntly, Millicent can generally tell the difference between a submission that the writer just tossed off and one that has been taken through careful revision. Many a potentially marketable book has blown its chance with an agent by being stuffed into an envelope before it was truly ready for professional scrutiny.

I just mention, in case any of you were on the cusp of sending out requested materials before having read them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any lingering unpolished bits.

Yes, I’ve suggested this a few hundred times before. I’m perfectly capable of repeating that advice until the proverbial cows come home, and shall probably continue doing so as long as talented aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts containing mistakes that even a cursory proofreading would catch.

Enough banging on that particular tom-tom for now. Let’s get back to today’s list, shall we?

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

Which is to say, of course, that I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant.

Even if you hit the submission jackpot and your work slides under the eyes of a Millicent very open to the worldview and style of your book, do bear in mind that it’s the writer’s job to depict that world believably. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, remember, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book.

Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.

Yeah, I know: where had she been?

The numbered reasons above don’t necessarily spring from personal-experiential approaches to judgment, however, so much as how the story is presented. #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. It’s not necessarily that the concept or characterization is bad, or even poorly-drawn: there’s just too much of it crammed into too short a piece of prose.

Since most of us were taught that the opening of any piece of writing needs to hook the reader, the critique of over-intensity can seem a bit contradictory, if not downright alien. As we’ve discussed many times before, good writers are people of extraordinary sensitivity; “Genius,” Ezra Pound taught us, is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one.” So is it really all that astonishing when an aspiring writer attempting to catch an agent’s attention (especially one who has attended enough writers’ conferences to learn that Millicent LIKES books that open with action) begins with slightly too big a bang?

Not really, but this is a classic instance of where additional polishing can make the difference between an exciting opening scene and one that strikes Millicent as over-the-top. The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right.

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

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

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

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the believability continuum. Both tend to provoke what folks in the movie biz call bad laughter, chuckles that the author did not intend to elicit; because the writing seems mismatched to the action (the most common culprit: over-the-top or clichéd dialogue), the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is broken.

Thus, both #69 and #66 refer to ways in which the narrative pulls the reader out of the story — the exact opposite of the goal of the hook, to draw the reader into it.

What’s the difference between melodrama and drama, you ask? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli — if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally feel real, but if she sings a self-pitying aria because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama.

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

Usually, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict shown not being high enough for the characters. As a general rule of thumb, it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (As I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an excuse that generally gains much traction with Millicent.)

If you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine, but do bear in mind that to qualify, the conflict has to matter to the reader, not just to you. As I pointed out above, one mark of professional writing is a clear cognizance of the reader’s point of view; many a manuscript has been scuttled by bad laughter at a submission’s overblown insistence that a minor inconvenience is one of the major slings and arrows to which flesh is prey.

As Carl Sagan so trenchantly informed us, “the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

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

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

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Ditto if the reader still doesn’t have a strong impression of what it would be like to stand in the room/in the wilderness/on the burning deck where your opening scene takes place.

Not that you should load down your opening with physical description — that was a bugbear described earlier on the Idol list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there. (Because, after all, “The essence of genius is to know what to overlook,” as William James teaches us.)

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70,“This is tell-y, not showy.” Because of all the common writerly missteps that a pro would polish away from both fiction and memoir, nothing prompts Millicent to cry, “Next!” faster than prose that tells, rather than shows.

Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is the single most frequently-given piece of critique.

Visceral details don’t just show — they give the reader the impression of physically occupying the protagonist’s body, vicariously feeling the rude slap of air-conditioning upon sun-warmed skin, the acrid smudge of smoke on the tongue while fleeing the scene of the fire, the sweet tang of the slightly under-ripe peach that girl with long, red hair has just slipped into the protagonist’s mouth.

“The patent system,” Abraham Lincoln noted, “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (Oh, you think it’s easy to come up with an an apt quote every time? Besides, I had to get that redhead’s oral incursions out of your head somehow.)

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

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

The visceral details are often crucial to pulling off this magic trick. As I have bemoaned repeatedly in this very forum, the prominence of film and TV as entertainment has led to a positive plethora of submissions that rely exclusively upon visual and auditory details to set their scenes. (During the reign of radio, I am told, sound played a more important role in the average manuscript.) As a result, the vast majority of the first pages Millicent sees do not include any other sense-based detail at all.

Just how large a majority eschew it? Out of every hundred manuscripts a screener reads, perhaps two will include solid, well-described sensual details that are not based upon either sight or sound.

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

And that, my friends, is something to celebrate. Perhaps with that redhead pushing the peaches.

If you doubt your ability to do this, try this exercise: sit down late tonight and write a description of your primary festive meal of the recent holiday season, referring to ONLY the senses of vision and hearing. Then set it aside and write another one that uses only smell, taste, touch, and interpersonal vibration. Tomorrow, read them both: which tells the story better?

I’m betting that it’s going to be the one that makes the reader feel more as though she had been sitting at the table with you. Call it the intuition of a long-time professional reader.

There’s another reason to include a lot of visceral detail in your writing: sensations observed through the body tend to feel more personal to the reader. And that’s an important tool for developing voice, especially in memoir and other first-person narratives — after all, your physical experience of the world is different from everybody else’s, every bit as much as your intellectual and emotional interaction with it is. Situating the reader firmly in the midst of the total experience of being the protagonist — or, in a memoir, being you — is a perfectly lovely means of expressing your unique worldview.

“What is genius,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning asked us, “but the power of expressing a new individuality?”

Try to view the imperative to keep the reader in mind not as a limit upon your personal creativity, but as an extension of it, an opportunity to share the world you have created in your book more fully with your audience. Yes, to pull that off, you’re probably going to have to invest quite a bit of time in revision and polishing, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.”

Isn’t it better if you fine-tune that effect, rather than leaving the details to Millicent’s imagination? If the nature of genius has been the subject of so much disagreement amongst great minds who have boasted at least a nodding acquaintance with it (well, maybe not Sagan, but I liked the quote), is it either reasonable or desirable to assume that Millicent’s view of either the world of your book or the world at large is necessarily going to coincide with what you had in mind when you wrote it unless you take the infinite pains to make her feel as if she’s there?

A few last thoughts on this list follow next time, possibly along with a few additional first-page rejection reasons I’ve spotted since the Idol agents were kind enough to lambast submitters in order to come up with this list. In the meantime, enjoy the lunar new year, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XVIII: sins of excess, purplish prose, and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities

cups-of-coffee

Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to send out queries and pop those long-requested materials into the mail? Hurrah, if so, because the infamous New Year’s resolution should just about have petered out by now. (If you’re joining us late, half the aspiring writers in North America send out queries and manuscripts within the first three weeks of any given calendar year — and, like other New Year’s resolutions, the impetus to virtue tends to fade before February rolls around.) This is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably laboring toward that laudable goal this very weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the weekend’s backlog.

Why avoid weekend submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

That being said, shall we get on with the many, many reasons she is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can start prepping to send out that electronic submission come Tuesday? I’m going to keep this short today, so those of you using checking here at Author! Author! as a break in your marketing-prep endeavors may get right back to work.

As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

As we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all, so spotting even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up is a major red flag for them. In fact, it is likely to send them screaming in another direction.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have ben tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar from last time, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens mid-argument.

I know; it’s limiting. But being aware of this fact prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print, and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially wordy first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

That’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see WORD COUNT at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format (if you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right). If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly — actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.)

(4) Consider editing for length. If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

#59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the conclusions screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish: it’s seen as an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation, rather than through skillful sentences. Since this particular prejudice is shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class.

Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (they often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

#61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic opening considerably. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail™ of streets that is South London as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s flat, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.”

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes.

Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole. The Idol agents specifically singled out the use of phrases such as, She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of them see storms. That doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers, sighing as the sole indicator of protagonist disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more next week) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, virtually every agent and editor in the industry perceives him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell me as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails this weekend.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XVII: portraying a life less ordinary, or, would it kill you to give your protagonist a quirkier life?

curse-of-the-cat-people

I think going over our list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 one by one is being very fruitful, but heavens, there are a LOT of them, aren’t there? I’m moving through them as swiftly as I can, but still, it feels a bit like wading through mud. Not to nag, but I suspect it feels that way in part because folks haven’t been chiming in too much lately. That could mean one of three things: you don’t have anything to say, you’re all off madly pulling together queries and submissions now that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has passed, or this series has stunned and shocked you into a coma.

Of course, there have been one or two things going on in the outside world, too. But regardless of the reason, I would like to reiterate: if you have questions about any of this, PLEASE ask them. My goal in going over all of this so thoroughly is to be helpful, after all.

Today, I want to deal with the rejection reasons that did not fit comfortably into the kinds of general categories we’ve been discussing so far. The odd ducks, as it were:

39. Too many generalities.

40. The character shown is too average.

41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.

60. The details included were not telling.

Shaking your head over the practically infinite subjectivity of this set? That’s not entirely coincidental, you know: just as one agent’s notion of fresh is another’s idea of weird, one agent’s Everyman is another’s Ho-Hum Harry.

And this is problematic, frankly, to most of us who have lived through Creative Writing 101. Weren’t we all told to strive for universality in our prose? (Which, until fairly recently, was code for appealing to straight, white men.) Weren’t we all ordered to write what we knew? (Which led to forty years’ worth of literary journals crammed to the gills with stories about upper middle class white teenagers, mostly male.) Weren’t we implored to be acute observers of life, so we could document the everyday in slice-of-life pieces of practically museum-level detail? (Which left us all sitting in writing class, listening to aspiring writers read thinly-fictionalized excerpts from their diaries.)

I can’t be the only one who had this writing teacher, can I?

Unfortunately, from an agent’s point of view, all of the good students obediently following this advice has resulted in a positive waterfall of submissions in which, well, not a whole lot happens. Every day, Millicent the agency screener reads of universal protagonists (read: ordinary people) in situations that their authors know intimately (read: ordinary life) acutely observed (read: the ordinary seen through a magnifying glass).

There’s nothing wrong with portraying all of that ordinariness, per se. It’s just that Millicent sees so darned much of it that it’s hard for an average Joe or Jane protagonist in an ordinary situation not to strike her as…

Well, you get the picture.

Millicent is screening to find the extraordinary manuscript, the one with the fresh worldview, spin, or writing style applied to a story about a character (or characters) who are different enough from character(s) she’s seen before to remain interesting for the length of an entire book.

Aspiring writers, particularly memoirists, often seem to fail to take that last part into account when preparing their submissions: if the story presented does not appear from the very first line on page 1 to be about a fascinating person in an intriguing situation, the manuscript is going to be a tough sell to everyone from Millicent to her boss to an editor at a publishing house to a contest judge. So if a book is about an Everyman living a life with which an ordinary reader might identify, it’s IMPERATIVE that he demonstrate some way in which either he or his story is not ordinary right away.

Why? Because otherwise, the manuscript is far too likely to get dismissed as just not very interesting or surprising.

It’s not for nothing, you know, that agents complain about how many submissions they see that #6, took too long for anything to happen, along with its corollary, the story’s taking time to warm up, as well as #7, not enough action on page 1. Many, if not most, first pages have no conflict on them at all, but are purely set-up.

Such an opening scene may be beautifully-written, lyrical, human life observed to a T. But from the business side of the industry’s perspective — and, despite the fact that agents are essentially the first-level arbiters of literary taste these days, they need to be marketers first and foremost, or they are of little use to those they represent — a slow opening translates into hard to sell.

And, to be perfectly frank, professional readers simply do not have the time or the patience to read on to see what this story IS about. Millicent might well risk being a few minutes late for her lunch date for the sake of a page of gorgeous prose, but if she doesn’t have an inkling of a plot by the end of it, she’s probably not going to ignore her stomach’s rumblings long enough to turn to page 2.

Sorry. As I believe I have mentioned before, this is not how submissions would work if I ran the universe. If I did, all good writers would be eligible for large, strings-free grants, photocopying would be free, and all of you would be able to share the particularly delicious pain au chocolat I am enjoying at this very moment. It’s so gooey that the bereted gentleman (yes, really) at the wee round table next to me offered a couple of minutes ago to lick the chocolate off my fingers so I could readdress my keyboard in a sanitary manner.

The habitués of this coffee shop are exceedingly friendly, apparently. And very hygiene-minded. Or perhaps I have stumbled into — gasp! — the lair of the cat people.

This (the ordinariness of characters, that is, rather than licking chocolate off fingertips; stop thinking about that and get back to work) is something that comes up again and again in agents’ discussions of what they are seeking in a manuscript. An interesting character in an interesting situation is featured in practically all of their personal ads advice on the subject, particularly if the protagonist is not the character one typically sees in such a situation. A female cadet at a prestigious military academy, for instance. A middle-aged stockbroker arrested for protesting the WTO. A veteran cop who is NOTA paired in his last month of duty with a raw rookie.

That sort of thing. Interesting and surprising are synonymous more often than fans of the ordinary might think.

So while a very average character may spell Everyman to a writing teacher, an average Joe or Joanna is typically a very hard sell to an agent. As are characters that conform too much to stereotype. (How about a cheerleader who isn’t a bimbo, for a change? Or a coach who isn’t a father figure to his team? A mother who doesn’t sacrifice her happiness for her kids’?)

So I ask you: could you work an element of surprise onto page 1 of your submission, the best place to catch an agent’s eye?

Before you chafe at that, remember that lack of surprise can render a protagonist less likable, even for readers who do not, like Millicent, drop a book like a hot coal if the first few paragraphs don’t grab them. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, given how often writing teachers lecture about the importance of opening with a hook, this justification for keeping the opening lively is seldom mentioned, but it is in fact true: ordinary characters tend not to be all that engaging, precisely because they are average, and thus predictable.

For most readers, an unpredictable jerk is more interesting to follow than a beautifully-mannered bore, after all. It’s hard to blame Millicent and her cronies for that.

Or if it won’t work in your story to open with something surprising, how about vitally important? I don’t necessarily mean important on the global scale, but within the world of the story you’re telling.

One of the best ways of preventing your protagonist from coming across as too average is to elevate the importance of what is going on in the opening to that character. A protagonist or narrator’s caring passionately about the outcome of a conflict practically always renders a scene more interesting, because it prompts the reader to care about the outcome, too.

Of course, this is a whole lot easier to pull off in an opening scene that features a conflict, right? Which, as #32. Where’s the conflict? suggests, is not as common to those first few pages as agents and their Millicents might like.

That’s why too-typical teenage characters often fall flat for screeners, incidentally: a character who is trying to be cool and detached from a conflict can often convey the impression that what is going on in the moment is not particularly important. But what’s more engaging than a protagonist who feels, rightly or wrongly, that what is going on before the reader’s eyes is the most important thing on earth right now? When the protagonist wants something desperately, that passion tends to captivate the reader.

All of which leads us nicely to critique #41, the stakes not being high enough. “Why should I care?” is a question screeners ask with distressing frequency. If a book opens with the protagonist in an emotionally-fraught or otherwise dangerous situation, Millicent may answer that question may be answered immediately.

Which is, in case you’d been wondering, one of the reasons lecturers as writers’ conferences so often spout the advice to start a book with a conflict already in progress. It’s not from a rabid desire to excise quiet scenes from literature in favor of action movie-type antics; it’s a means to draw the reader into caring about what is happening to the protagonist.

Okay, so it’s also a way to avoid boring Millicent, but good writing has been known to multi-task.

It doesn’t always work to open with an honestly life-or-death situation, of course, but far too many novels actually don’t start until a few pages in. As I’ve mentioned before (and shall no doubt mention again), it’s not at all uncommon to find a terrific opening line for a book on page 4 or page 10, or for scene #2 to be practically vibrating with passionate feeling, while scene #1 just sits there. (Again, I think this is a legacy of the heroic journey style of screenwriting, which dictates that the story open in the protagonist’s everyday reality, before the challenge comes.) Choosing to open with a high-stakes scene gives a jolt of energy to the reader, urging her to keep turning the pages.

I sense some disgruntled shifting in chairs out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” some suspense-loving rules lawyers protest, “if I begin on a high note, the story has nowhere to go but down. Isn’t it more surprising if I start small, then startle the reader with a bang?”

Many, many writers want to keep something back, to play their best cards last, to surprise and delight the reader later on. But for very practical reasons, this is not the best strategy in a submission: if this series has made anything clear, it is that you really do need to grab a professional reader’s attention on page 1. Preferably within the first paragraph.

#39, too many generalities, is a trap that tends to ensnare writers who are exceptionally gifted at constructing synopses. How so? Well, In a synopsis, it is very helpful to be able to compress a whole lot of action into just a few well-chosen words; it’s a format that lends itself to a certain amount of generalization. To folks who excel at this, it’s tempting to introduce a story in general terms in the book itself.

As any professional reader could tell you, those who do not excel at summary also fall prey to this temptation pretty often. Generalizations abound on page 1.

So why do agents frown upon this practice? Well, it feels to them like the writer is warming up, rather than diving right into the story.

Sound familiar? It should by this point in the series: your garden-variety fiction or memoir agent is looking for good, in-the-moment sensations on the first page, visceral details that will transport her quickly to the time and place your characters inhabit. The writer is the travel agent for that trip, and it’s your job to make the traveler feel she is actually THERE, rather than just looking at a movie or a photograph of the events described.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: too many writers rely too heavily on visuals.

Sensual details sell. Or, to put it another way: doesn’t your protagonist have a NOSE? What about fingertips?

Conveniently enough, this segues very nicely into #60, the details included were not telling. This is editor-speak for a manuscript that mentions specifics, but not ones that are very evocative. They don’t help set the mood of the piece, nor do they give the reader a sense of place. They just say what’s there, period.

These details are, to harken back to my first point, ordinary.

For instance, I could tell you that the café I currently inhabit is brightly-lit, with windows stretching from the height or my knee nearly up to the ceiling, small, round tables with red-varnished wooden chairs, and a pastry case full of goodies. A young and attractive barista is making the espresso machine emit a high-pitched squeal. I just held the door for a woman on crutches who was wearing a yellow rain slicker and a green scarf, and four of us here are working on laptops.

That description is accurate, certainly, but what did it tell you as a reader? I could be in virtually any café anywhere in the world; it is probably raining outside, but my reader does not know for sure; you don’t even know the sex of the barista.

But what if I added the telling detail that, in order to work, I have had to turn my back to the glass doors keep sending fog-chilled blasts past my skirt as patrons shed their coats in the doorway? That gives you both seasonal detail and information about me: I am concentrating; I am wearing a skirt despite the cold weather; I am not expecting to meet anyone I know here.

Or what if I mention that the barista’s three-day stubble reminds me of a Miami Vice-loving guy I dated in college? That both describes the guy in my peripheral vision and tells the reader my age, in rough terms.

Or that I am bouncing my leg up and down at roughly the same rate as the fresh-faced girl in sweats across the room, scowling into a sociology text book? That conveys both caffeine consumption and the fact that I’m near a university.

Get the picture?

Now how much more do you feel you are here with me if I add that the air is redolent with the smell of baking cheese bread, the oxtail soup of the flat-shoed retiree at the table next to me, and the acrid bite of vinegar wafting from her companion’s I’m-on-a-diet salad? What if I work in that I have been moving my cell phone closer and closer to me for the past 15 minutes, lest the clanking of cups, nearby discussions of Nancy Pelosi and the war in Iraq, and vintage Velvet Underground drown out my call to flee this place? What about if I tell you that the pony-tailed busboy currently unburdening the overflowing wall of meticulously-labeled recycling bins — a receptacle for glass, one for plastic, one for newspaper, one for cardboard, one for compostable products — is a dead ringer for Bud Cort, of HAROLD & MAUDE fame, put down his volume of Hegel to attend to his duties, and ran his beringed hand across the Don Johnson clone’s back as he passed?

All of these details help convey a sense of place, and of me as a character (a rather nervous one, I notice from the last paragraph; must be all of the coffee I’ve been drinking) within it. Thus, these details may properly be regarded as telling.

The wonderful short-short story writer Amy Hempel once told me that she believes that the external world her characters inhabit is only relevant insofar as it illuminates the character’s mood or moves the plot along. I’m not sure I would put it quite so baldly, but I think this theory can be applied very productively to lackluster ambient detail. If a protagonist is sad, I want to hear about the eucalyptus trees’ drooping leaves; if she is frenetic, my sense of her heartbeat will only be enhanced by the sound of cars rushing by her as she jogs.

And, of course, if I’m going to be told about her shoes — which, I must confess, don’t interest me much as objects, since I’m not the heroine of a chick lit novel — they had better reveal something about her character.

Few good short story writers would think to take up space with unrevealing details, but even very good novelists frequently get bogged down in description for its own sake — and if you doubt that, revisit our initial list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 for abundant evidence of just how often submitters tumble into this particular pitfall. But I’ve noticed in my travels that if the details are interesting, revealing, and yes, surprising, professional readers like Millicent tend not to squawk about them much, even if there are a few too many. If the description is peppered with revealing details, it is hard for it to feel extraneous to what is going on.

All right, I’ve outstayed the beret-wearing finger-lover, so I am going to venture out onto the street now. Since my feet are practically rattling on the floor, I probably should not drink any more coffee.

Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XV: but it really happened that way!

pearlfishers

I went to see THE PEARLFISHERS at the Seattle Opera again last night; since the tenor had been practically inaudible with the cast we saw the first time, we went back and saw the other, in which the baritone was practically inaudible. Oh, well, you can’t have everything — where would you put it? (As comic Stephen Wright has been asking plaintively for years. One should never borrow a good joke without attributing it.)

During opera mach II, I was thinking about you fine people and the list of common reasons submissions get rejected on page 1 we’ve been discussing, admittedly a bit one-sidedly, for the last couple of weeks. During the protracted opening scene with the acres of milling supernumeraries and ten minutes of heavily Balanchine-influenced prancing around (don’t even get me started on the five minutes of dance in Act III that’s apparently lifted directly from THE PRODIGAL SON), I kept murmuring to myself, “Um, haven’t we heard this dialogue already? And is it really necessary to tell the audience fifteen times that you’re dancing when the choreographer has placed ocular evidence at the front of the stage?”

I suppose that my response could be regarded as a sort of SCARED STRAIGHT for would-be editors — this is where hardcore manuscript screening leads, kids — but seriously, the opera’s first ten minutes ran afoul of a hefty percentage of our cringe list for openings:

3. The opening is about setting, not about story.
6. Took too long for anything to happen.
7. Not enough happens in the opening.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
32. Where’s the conflict?
38. Repetition (all of that explanation that they’re dancing in Sri Lanka)
39. Too many generalities.
51. Hollywood narration

It just goes to show you: judging one art form by the standards of another isn’t all that productive — so any of you who are planning to defend repetitious or Hollywood narration-based dialogue to your future agents and editors as something done in movies, plays, or on opera stages all the time might want to think twice.

I just mention. Back to not entirely unrelated business.

I’m writing today’s post between appointments, balanced on the rather unstable table of a coffee-purveying chain that shall remain nameless. While I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you a couple of days ago, and I freely admit it: was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print.

Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be bearable as written dialogue.

It may be that the patrons’ caffeine purchases haven’t hit their bloodstreams yet, but if they were on the page, our old pal Millicent the agency screener would be reaching for the Xeroxed rejection letters within seconds. You wouldn’t believe how similar the things one customer says to a barista are to the things the next customer says, and the next.

Which brings me to #31 on our list of common reasons submissions get rejected before the list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. If I may be so bold as to elaborate upon this excellent observation, permit me to add: and neither is real-life dialogue, necessarily.

This is a point I harp upon this particular point with fair regularity (and if you doubt that, please see the BUT IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY! category on the archive list at right), I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make ABSOLUTELY certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Suffice it to say that real-life events are so frequently shoved into otherwise fictional accounts wholesale so often that any Millicent worth her weight in lattes soon learns to spot ‘em a mile away.

Already, I sense some readerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some writers of the real point out querulously, “one of the virtues of fiction is the insight it gives the reader into life as it is actually lived. So how precisely is it a remotely negative thing if Millicent the agency screener thinks, ‘Oh, that bit seems real’?”

Counterintuitive from the writer’s perspective, isn’t it? It’s a storytelling problem, at base: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating real events into a fictional narrative, it’s undoubtedly jarring for the reader trundling along merrily within a fictional reality to suddenly be confronted with a scene or incident that is, as the LAW AND ORDER folks like to say, ripped from the headlines. Anything that pulls the reader out of the story by breaking the smoothness of the narrative’s worldview is bound to be distracting.

Which is a nice way of hinting obliquely that aspiring writers very frequently just drop in real elements — and real dialogue — into a story as if their very veracity were sufficient excuse to include them. From the reader’s point of view, that’s just not true; to get and remain involved, the story in from of him must appear to be one unbroken piece.

“But Anne,” the disgruntled pipe up again, “I can understand where that might be problematic in mid-book, after the story has gotten up and running, but on page 1, there isn’t an already-established narrative line to break, is there? It seems to me that if I should be dropping real elements into my writing wholesale — which I fully understand that you’re advising me not to do — page 1 would be absolutely the safest place to do it.”

Actually, no: strategically, you’re going to want page 1 to exhibit not only your best writing — the better to entrance Millicent, my dears — but to be representative of the writing throughout the rest of the book. If, as is often the case in dialogue, the real is not as compelling as the fictional, it’s not going to be as effective an introduction to the rest of the book as a writer might like.

One of the things we’ve learned in this series is that in order to be grabbed by a manuscript, Millicent needs to be sufficiently charmed by the narrative voice and storyline from the very first sentence, so it is imperative for the writing to establish the author’s unique voice and worldview right away. If that first sentence — or anything on the first page, really — is at odds with the rest of the narrative, the transition is going to feel rocky whenever it comes. And if that displacement rocks the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on page one, it’s going to be pretty difficult for the reader to sink into the story.

Particularly if that reader is as jaded to the practice as Millicent.

But I said I wasn’t going to lecture you on the inherent perils of dropping the unpolished real into your manuscripts, didn’t I? Honestly, all I intend to do is nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the Idol panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel.

The editorial advice against utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters. (And if you doubt that, try explaining to a 14-year-old why anyone was shocked when Rosa Parks declined to proceed to the rear of a certain bus.)

Many, many writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Most of the time, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more. Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay.

This part of the process can be lengthy, even for a book that ultimately sells very well inded. Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed.

Often, it is longer — so a reference that seemed fresh as paint (where that cliché come from, do you suppose?) when it fell off the writer’s fingertips onto the keyboard will almost certainly be AT LEAST two and a half years old before it reaches readers of the published book.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript automatically sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About seven years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was seeking to add to an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books NOT to write.) So, as I tried to explain gently to the writer, this manuscript was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I pointed out, “this will make your book obsolete. You want readers to keep finding your book relevant, don’t you? Could you possibly come up with less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be adequately characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere. About a year and a half later, she contacted me to gloat: she had managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher.

The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air. It did not see a second printing.

My point is, be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones into your manuscripts — and seriously consider excising them entirely from your first few pages. The chances that Millicent will immediately exclaim, “Well, that’s an interesting example/analogy/temporal marker, but it’s going to read as dated by next week,” are just too hight.

Yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of NF books on current events, even ones recent enough that they could not have possibly gone through the lengthy pre-publication process I’ve just described. The next time you’re in that bookstore, take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform.

Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN — and at this point, even the latter might well strike an agent or editor as a dated credential. Mainstream culture marches on FAST.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do decide to disregard my advice entirely and include them, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names you cite correctly. Not only people’s names, but brand names as well.

Stop laughing; this is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir dunned for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ‘em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Make sure, too, that the sources you consult for verification are reliable; remember, it’s not as though everything currently posted on the Internet is spelled correctly. If you’re in serious perplexity about where to turn to double-check, call your local public library and ask where to start looking. But whatever you do, don’t just run them through a spell-checker — because the more up-to-the-minute those names are, the less likely your spell-checking program is to be aware of them — or check with kith and kin, who may also have been laboring under your misconception that it’s FDR that delivers flowers, rather than FTD.

Not that I wouldn’t pay good money to see President Roosevelt show up on my doorstep bearing a bouquet, mind you. I’m just saying that Millicent up on her presidential history might be a trifle startled to see him bounding out of his wheelchair today.

There’s an important lesson to take from this, over and above the perennial proofreading imperative to get technical matters right before submitting pages containing them: the written word is for the ages, not the moment. That can be easy to forget in catering to agents focused on what’s selling to publishing houses right now, but it’s nevertheless true. Nothing ages as quickly (or as badly) as last year’s pop culture reference.

Or, to get back to my initial nag, as last year’s cool catchphrase. If you’re devoted to reproducing actual conversation, you might want to bear that in mind, because, as anyone sentenced to listen to ambient chatter in a café could tell you, everyday conversation is loaded with catchphrases and references that would make the reader of ten years from now mutter, “Huh?” under her breath.

And the well-trained Millicent to shake her head over them right now. Choose your references carefully, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XV: a few more words about repetition…repetition… repetition…

broken-record

If you’ll permit me, I’m going to take a brief hiatus from running though our agent-generated list of reasons that submissions tend to get rejected on page 1 to discourse learnedly upon a related subject.

Actually, I’m going to go ahead and so it even if you won’t grant me permission, because this is important; I was merely being polite. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to stick as closely as possible to the list of rejection red flags, as I know that many of you are once again querying like mad and trying to get requested materials out the door, but as my focus throughout this series is on how to revise your manuscript to minimize its chances of running afoul of screener Millicent’s hyper-critical eyes, I feel justified in taking today to elaborate on a previously-made point.

So there.

Last time, in the course of discussing reason #30, over-use of dialogue in the name of realism, I blithely suggested that writers enamored of the idea of reproducing dialogue precisely as it is heard in real life try a little experiment: sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim. Afterward, go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using ONLY the dialogue that you actually overheard.

If you can complete the second part of that exercise without falling into a profound slumber, you either have an unusually high threshold for boredom or a great affection for the mundane. Either way, have you considered a career as an agency screener, where these traits would be positive boons?

It’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result of this exercise past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding REAL is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining.

Yes, Virginia, even if it happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Slice-of-life pieces can be quite effective IF they are short — but frankly, in my opinion, most of what goes on in the real world doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Far, far better to apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something BETTER than reality, I say.

Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives. “I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, to take the reason most relevant to us today, because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because I spoke earlier in this series about how little Millicent appreciates repetition of any kind; I also rattled on a bit last time about how conceptually repetitious most real-life dialogue tends to be. But today, I want to talk about repetition on a smaller scale, within the actual writing.

As I have pointed out before, the single most common word appearing in submissions in every book category is and. Leaning on this multi-purpose word can lead to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting the bubonic plague.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last.

But the results still aren’t pretty, from Millicent’s point of view. You would not believe, for instance, just how often the sentence structure, X happened and Y happened turns up in both submissions and contest entries.

From a hold-the-mirror-up-to-nature point of view, that’s completely understandable, because it’s structure that speakers use all the time. Even when writers are constructing narrative rather than dialogue, they tend to find this structure appealing: like stringing together sentences beginning with conjunctions, it artificially creates the impression conversation-like flow, as in:

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

See? Chatty, casual: the way your local poisoner is very likely to say it to her next-door neighbor, right? In a single sentence, it makes for a rather likable voice.

If this structure is used sparingly, it can work very well indeed — but as any professional reader who has been at it a while would be delighted to tell you, its advocates seldom seem to be able to restrain themselves. Let’s take a peek at several sentences of this type in a row, to see why it might annoy your garden-variety Millicent at the end of a long, hard day of rejection:

Esmeralda blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

See what I mean? Although each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English, it’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Esmeralda blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Rolando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least flushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Lest any of you just thought, “Well, all Millicent would have to do is read on to the next paragraph” (or next page, or next chapter) “to discover that I know a whole lot of ways to structure a sentence; I’m not going to worry about that,” may I remind you of one of the most startling truths divulged in this series, that most manuscripts get rejected on page 1? If the opening paragraphs of a submission are structurally repetitious, how likely is it that she’s going to keep reading to find out if the writer shakes things up a little later on?

The sad fact is, most agents, editors, and contest judges would not, alas, at least while perusing a manuscript by an author with whom they do not already enjoy a professional relationship. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure.

Seriously. I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of an X happened and Y happenedsentence within half a page. (See why I felt this issue was important enough to interrupt our review of the Idol list to cover?) At minimum, it would be very much in your submission’s best interest to ferret out over-use of the word and.

So while you are going over your first page with a fine-toothed comb in the wake of this series anyway, why not identify and considering reworking ANY sentence in which and appears more than once? Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case:

In avoiding the police, Zelda ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on: too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions.

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ classic comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spend all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.)

I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. YOU may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading agency screener to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve sensed disgruntled rumblings out there since I mentioned point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format restrictions on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

Clearly, then, these matters are not under my personal control, so kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s rather dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Thus, unless you are getting a valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back, to avoid your submission’s coming across as the work of — gasp! — a habitual runner-on.

Sometimes repeated ands work rhythmically, but to an agent or editor, a manuscript that employs X happened and Y happened as its default sentence structure it just starts to read like uncomplicated writing — which makes it less appealing to the pros.

The other common conclusion trained eyes often draw from over-use of this technique smacks of either the narrative’s trying to rush through an otherwise not very interesting series of events — which, if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, should automatically make you cringe at the idea of boring Millicent.

It’s not always a fair assessment of an and-ridden text, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader. Do keep it up.

Since your revision eye is getting so sophisticated, let’s consider the opposite possibility: in paragraphs where ands abound (or, sacre bleu, sentences!), are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry? Or did you think you were the only writer in the history of the world who did this?

Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the quickest way to do it.

It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story: within them, actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important.

Which — you guessed it — encourages the reader to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which is not exactly the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right?

When in doubt, revise to minimize the ands. I hate to come down unfairly on any grammatically correct sentence, but the fact is, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”

I would prefer to see your submissions getting long, luxurious readings, on the whole, not getting knocked out of consideration over technicalities. I’m funny that way.

Next time, onward and upward with the rejection red flag list. Keep those editing spectacles handy — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIV: Dear John, you might want to think about streamlining your dialogue — and checking to see if the fine folks to whom you’re submitting have posted guidelines for your benefit

speechgraphic

“It is my custom to keep on talking until I get the audience cowed.”

— Mark Twain

I seldom post calls for submissions to publications, particularly online ones — there are so very many of them, after all, and as one of the primary joys of agent in life is that somebody else markets one’s writing, I don’t have much personal incentive to do the requisite background research — but I have to say, the relatively new Ink-Filled Page’s call for submissions from 6 – 12th graders completely won my heart with the meticulous specificity of one of its guidelines:

We are specifically looking for fresh, untold stories and unique voices that draw us into the world of the story. While we know and love many Jo(h)ns, we are inundated by character Jo(h)ns. We ask that you only submit characters by that name if it is necessary for the story.

Stumbling across this filled me with rapture; this is one of the best expressions of a professional reader’s pet peeve that I’ve seen for a long time. Not only it tell you clearly what particular super-common manuscript condition will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance, but it explains why seeing just one more Jon or John will make their screeners’ hair stand on end with annoyance. Yet mindful of the remote-but-not-inconceivable possibility that stories exist where the inclusion of a John is absolutely unavoidable — the mind positively reels, doesn’t it, with images of battalions of Jons and Johns battering mercilessly upon writerly doors worldwide, demanding entrance to the printed page? — the guideline begrudgingly informs the prospective submitter that Johnning it up is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense.

Don’t you wish that everyone who solicits submissions were that up front about what irritates them — and what fate is likely to meet the hapless writer to commits those faux pas? And yet as a longtime professional reader and frequent contest judge, I can tell you right now that despite the pellucid clarity of this restriction, the callers-for-submissions in this instance will STILL be up to their navels in characters named Jon or John.

Or possibly even Jo(h)n, just for the comic relief. My point is, it’s extraordinarily likely that most submitters will either not notice or choose to ignore this request.

Do I hear the abundant Johns out there rising to second that? “Darned right, Anne!” they and their h-less brethren shout as one. “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases? And who are agents, editors, contest judges, and professional readers to tell us what to do, anyway?”

Well, to be literal for a moment, they’re the people who can make sure that your manuscript is seen by the right eyes, are empowered to make the decision to publish it, have the capacity to award it a great big blue ribbon and abiding fame, and see what everyone else is submitting these days. Theirs may not be opinions an artist wants to take into account while making creative choices, and it’s certainly every writer’s prerogative not to, but by and large, they tend to be pretty well-informed pronouncement-makers.

As glorious as it would be if every rule-breaker did it consciously, as a magnificent gesture toward artistic liberty, that’s apparently not the usual reason that submitters dismiss this kind of admonition. Most of the time, adhering to such formal requests would make little or no artistic difference to a submission, at least from a reader’s perspective; even more of the time, failure to honor expressed preferences is not the only problem the submission has, especially if it is an entry to contests with unusual formatting restrictions.

Which is why most professional readers, particularly experienced contest judges, would tell you that most submitters don’t read submission requirements very carefully, even when, as is the case with most literary contests, the sponsor’s printed literature and website make it quite, quite clear that deviation from the rules is a disqualification-level offense. Apparently, there are a whole lot of would-be entrants and submitters out there who just assume that whatever format and content they have happened to have selected for their own pieces will automatically be acceptable to the professional readers to whom they decide to submit it.

And when these well-meaning-but-myopic folks hear otherwise, they often feel betrayed, as did the Johns above, demanding, “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to write anything he darned well pleases?”

Well, off the top of my head, I can come up with three reasons. First, as I’ve discussed extensively in earlier posts, the sheer volume of submissions leads screeners and contest judges to use formal criteria (like adherence to posted preferences, standard format restrictions, and the kind of unpromulgated pet peeves this series has been examining) to narrow the field to those submissions that are, in their opinions, closer to being ready to publication-ready. Liberty-loving writers may have a problem with that, but the second reason, the fact that in order to work successfully with an agent or editor, a writer needs to be able to follow directions fairly well, is difficult to dispute.

Which renders the third reason a trifle less easy to swallow: informally, one does hear quite a few professional readers cite the high percentage of manuscripts that don’t honor posted guidelines as a primary reason that so few agencies and publishing houses actually provide such formal guidelines anymore. “Why bother?” such off-the-record informants will inquire rhetorically. “The writers will ignore them, anyway.”

Before any of you rend your garments, exclaiming, “How on earth can I conform to your standards if you won’t tell me what they are?” let me hasten to add: yes, this logic is indeed circular. If not promulgating pet peeves meant that submissions didn’t get rejected for exhibiting them, that would make more sense, from a writerly point of view.

All of which is to say: if you’re planning to enter a contest or submit to an agency or small publishing house that does go the extra mile to render its screening criteria public, read its rules carefully. Several times. Then follow them to the letter, because the rule-mongers have actually done you a great big favor by telling you up front what they do and do not want to see.

If you’re not willing to do that — because you’re too busy, too committed to presenting your work precisely as you would like to see it in print, or just haven’t fallen into the laudable habit of checking whether those to whom you’ve decided to commit have such guidelines posted on their websites — I would suggest considering not submitting to those who do post their preferences. Save the contest entry fee.

I can tell you from experience, hell hath no fury like a screener who knows for fact that the often-repeated manuscript problem in front of her is specifically barred by her agency, contest, or publishing house’s published submission standards.

But enough about the guidelines that are easily accessible to aspiring writers. Let’s get back to the ones that we’re expected to guess.

Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see the first post in this series.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

I dealt with the first three on this list last time, of course, but It’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary.

Because, as we may see, agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.

Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you who don’t know, a tag line is the he said part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, said is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.

(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”

While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52, the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue, is a fairly industry-wide objection. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.

I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST.

To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a fairly average chunk of dialogue:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”

“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception, that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.

However, to most folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive – or, to put it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.

So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:

“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”

Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”

“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”

“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”

“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”

“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”

“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”

A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?)

Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?

Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it goes by another name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”

Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir.

And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation.

More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?

There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session from which I derived the list of pet peeves we’ve been discussing. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case.

Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.

The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:

*The characters are telling one another things they already know.

*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.

*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)

*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)

*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”

Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.

Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue – which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?

So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?

If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.

Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.

99.9% of the time, it won’t.

Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.

And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party.

It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.

I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Move it along. In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.

Besides, it’s just a fact that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!” or even “How dare anyone attempt to restrict an artist’s freedom to name his characters anything he darned well pleases?”

More common first-page rejection reasons follow anon. Keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part XIII: in praise of individuality, or, a few thoughts on character-revealing dialogue

i-have-a-dream

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I know it’s common to reduce all of the Reverend Dr.’s accomplishments to the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech (leaving out, say, the fact that he held the world’s record as most prolific registrar of voters for at least two decades), but if you are interested in good rhetorical writing, do yourself a favor and find a compilation of his other writings. He was, among other things, an extremely talented writer, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

But that’s not why everyone is celebrating, is it? No, the country is ringing with joy from sea to shining sea for just one reason: the long, long Thanksgiving-to-MLK-Day Do You REALLY Want To Query NOW? annual downtime is now officially over.

Okay, so maybe not everyone is dancing in the streets because of that. Grant me some poetic license here.

So for all of you who have been holding your breath and avoiding the post office: you once again have my blessing to send rafts of queries and submissions to agents. True, they still need to get tax information out to their clients by the end of the month (the IRS keeps an eagle eye on royalty payments), but by now, the New Year’s Resolution rush of queries has died down to a trickle, a mere overlay atop the usual weekly avalanche.

Translation: Millicent the agency screener is a WHOLE lot less grumpy today than she was two weeks ago.

Of course, you don’t actually need to send out those requested materials this very instant. One might, for example, want to spend the next week or so checking in here on a daily basis, to absorb the discussion of the rest of the reasons that submissions often get rejected on page 1.

Or not. I’m a great proponent of the doctrine of free will. I’m also a great fan of the art of conversation, which is why I’m going to spend the next couple of days going over the rejection reasons related to dialogue.

One caveat before I begin: as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; the red flags we’ve been discussing are not the only ones that might conceivably raise Millicent’s hyper-sensitive hackles. They are merely some of the most common hackle-elevators, the ones that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would see with great enough frequency that the sheer repetition across otherwise unrelated submissions might start to seem like some sort of immense writerly conspiracy.

Why am I repeating this caution? Because although it pains me to say it, there’s quite a bit of unpolished dialogue running amok out there. As any professional reader — agent, editor (freelance or otherwise), contest judge, agency screener, etc. — could wearily confirm, much of the dialogue that crosses her desk is genuinely trying to read. Here are a few of the many reasons this might conceivably annoy an agent on page 1:

17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.

25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents on the panel seemed to have a problem with this.)

26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.

30. Overuse of dialogue, ostensibly in the name of realism.

51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (The agents on the panel did not call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)

52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example cited: “She squawked.”)

Already, I hear some discouraging dialogue flying at me in response: “Wait just a minute, missy,” readers with retentive memories cry. “Didn’t we already cover that first one when we were talking about creating false suspense? What are you trying to pull here, recycling rejection reasons?”

Well caught, memory-retainers: I did indeed bring up #17 within the context of my discussion of why it’s a bad idea to withhold pertinent information from Millicent in the opening lines of a book. However, since opening pages often do feature characters exclaiming things like, “Oh, it’s horrible! Keep it away from me!” without specifying what it is, this problem is legitimate to discuss as dialogue.

While there’s nothing wrong with depicting such cries from time to time, its main stumbling-block as dialogue is that tends to be generic, rather than character-revealing — and that is often a mistake in the first lines a major character speaks, which tend to be branded upon the reader’s memory as setting the character’s tone for the book. Just as a character who spouts nothing but bland, predictable courtesies often comes across on the page as dull, one whose primary function when the reader first meets him is to react to some unspecified stimulus can come across as a trifle annoying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take, for instance, this sterling opening:

Ermintrude’s large gray eyes stretched to their maximum extent, a good three centimeters in height by five and a half centimeters in diameter. “But — George! How long have you been suffering from this terrible affliction?”

George smiled as extensively as his newly-acquired deformity would permit. “Not long.”

“Is this…condition…a common after-effect of trench warfare?”

“Come, come,” Norma said reprovingly. “It’s not polite to stare. Would you like some tea, George? I could slip a little brandy into it.”

Ermintrude was not so easily distracted. She inched closer, the better to gape at the awful sight. “Does it hurt? I mean, would it hurt you if I touched it?”

Quick: what are these three people talking about? More importantly, who are these people?

Beats me; based upon what is actually said, could be any group of three people responding to whatever has happened to George. Like so many such wails, this dialogue is purely reactive, a generic response to it rather than individualized, character-revealing statements.

On top of which, it’s not very gripping, is it? Although TV and film have accustomed most of us to hearing people emit such ejaculations — and to judging how shocking/exciting/horrifying a stimulus is primarily by how the protagonist reacts to it — they often don’t make for very scintillating talk on the page.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, some professional readers will profess knee-jerk negative responses like 25. The first lines were dialogue. Sorry about that; a lot of Millicents like to have a sense of where the speakers are and what’s going on mixed in with their dialogue.

No accounting for taste, eh?

Or, glancing again at the example above, maybe there is. Remember, the first questions that Millicent is going to need to answer in order to recommend this manuscript to her boss are “Who is this protagonist, and what’s her conflict?” If the first page of a submission doesn’t provide some solid indication of both how she is going to answer those questions and how those answers are going to be fascinating and surprising to the target market for the book, it’s not the best calling-card for the story.

Admittedly, the opening above does convey the situation rather effectively — George is evidently a trifle difficult to gaze upon, due to something that may or may not have occurred during World War I — but other than that, what has this exchange actually told us about the speakers? Is Ermintrude an adult, a teenager, or a child, for instance? Does she have any genuine affection for George, or merely curiosity? Does Norma have a right to scold her due to her relationship with either Ermintrude or George? Is she Ermintrude’s mother, George’s wife, or the housekeeper? Does George resent this attention, or does he welcome it?

Yes, yes, you’re right: these are a great many questions to expect the first 14 sentences of a book to answer. Allow me to suggest, however, that this excerpt of dialogue would have been more interesting to the reader — and accordingly more likely to grab Millicent — had the dialogue been less focused upon verbalizing Ermintrude’s horror at the sight and more upon conveying character.

Oh, and while you’re at it, Reticent Author, you might want to give us a glimpse of what Ermintrude is actually seeing when she is seeing it. Millicent kind of likes to know.

The great frequency with which generic dialogue graces the first pages of submissions is often the basis for professional pet peeves like #26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and #25. The first lines were dialogue. If the dialogue is surprising, character-revealing, and fascinating, even the most rule-bound Millicent actually isn’t all that likely to start waving these particular red flags.

And yes, I am aware of the startling twin implications of what I just said: first, although most of the agents’ pet peeves on the list are shared by a great many, if not most, professional readers, each individual Millicent will hold these irritants as noxious for her own set of reasons. Like a good protagonist, Millicent’s responses are not merely reactive to input in precisely the same way that anyone else holding her job would respond, but in her own personally neurotic manner.

See my comments earlier in this series about accepting what a submitting writer can and cannot control.

The second implication, and perhaps the more trenchant for today’s topic, is that — is the fainting couch handy? — what Millicent might regard as an instant-rejection offense in 99.99% of the submissions she scans might not strike her as irremediable in the one manuscript in 10,000 that is so beautifully written and gripping that the violation doesn’t seem all that glaring in context. But before anyone gets too excited about that possibility, let me hasten to add: but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provoke her.

I bring this up because in practically every context where aspiring writers discuss what agents do and don’t like — you can’t throw a piece of bread at most writers’ conferences without hitting at least one member of a group discussing it, for instance — someone who apparently doesn’t really understand the difference between a reliable trend and an absolute rule will pipe up, “Oh, manuscripts don’t get rejected for that; I know a writer who did that who landed an agent.”

Or, even more commonly uttered: “Oh, that’s not true: (book that was released 5+ years ago) began that way.” Since I’ve already discussed in this series both why what wowed agents in the past will not necessarily do so today, as well as why incorporating the stylistic tricks of bestsellers is not always the best way to win friends and influence people who happen to work in agencies, I shall leave you to ponder the logical fallacies of that last one.

Suffice it to say, however, that I have heard similar logic blithely applied to every potential agent-annoyer from incorrect formatting to a first-person narrative from 17 different perspectives (not counting the omniscient narrator who somehow managed to sneak in to comment from time to time) to outright plagiarism. Heck, I’ve even heard writers at conference claim that spelling doesn’t really count in a query letter, because they once met someone whose single typo didn’t result in instant rejection.

In the uncertain and often arbitrary world of querying and submission, you’d be amazed at how little evidence can prompt the announcement of an immutable rule — or the declaration that an old one doesn’t apply anymore.

Spell-check anyway. And while you’re at it, take a gander at the dialogue on your opening page to see if it is purely situation-based, rather than character-based. Because, really, why chance it?

Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne? May we backtrack to something you said earlier? What did you mean about the first line a character speaks setting his tone for the rest of the book?”

It’s a truism of screenwriting that the first line a character speaks is his most important — since film is limited to conveying story through only two senses, sight and sound, how a character introduces himself verbally tells the audience a great deal about who he is and his relationship to the world around him. On the printed page, character can be conveyed through all of the senses, as well as thought and the waving of psychic antennae, but still, the first lines the writer chooses to place in her characters’ mouths should be regarded as introductory.

In other words, why not use them to present something interesting about that character, rather than merely as a demonstration that the writer is aware of how real people actually speak? After all, you have an entire book’s worth of dialogue to prove the latter, right?

I suspect that most aspiring writers radically underestimate dialogue’s potential for character-revelation: in the vast majority of the dialogue on the first pages of submissions, one senses a great deal more writerly attention concentrated upon making sure the dialogue is realistic, something that a person in that situation might actually say, than upon producing statements that ONLY those particular speakers would say in THAT particular situation.

The first is generic; the second is individual. Which do you think is likely to strike Millicent as the utterance of a gripping protagonist?

Shall Ipause for a moment to allow the implications of that disturbing question to sink in fully? If you’re feeling an overwhelming urge to stop reading this and hurriedly open the file containing your manuscript to reread its opening page, well, I can only applaud that. Go right ahead; I’ll wait.

Ready to move on from that startling piece of theory to the nitty-gritty practicalities of 26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified and our old friend #25. The first lines were dialogue? Excellent. Let’s take a look at an example where both occur — see if you can guess why this opening might irritate a Millicent in a hurry.

“Hey — who’s there? Hello? Hello?”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Is this the way to Professor Blaitwistle’s class?”

The old man leaned on his broom, his faithful companion and coworker for the past thirty-seven years. “Yes,” he lied. “Just down that hall, then take a right immediately after the mad scientist’s laboratory, the doorway with the two growling three-headed dogs guarding it. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, sinister lurker. I would so hate to be late for my first day of class.”

He chuckled at her retreating back. “Last day of class, more like.”

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, this opening relies on false suspense to create a sense of mystery, withholding information such as who these speakers are and what the physical environment is like in order to rush the reader into a confused sense of imminent danger!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two — hey, they’re small — if you also pointed out that the character heading smack into that imminent danger spoke in dialogue that didn’t reveal anything about his or her personality other than a tendency to be polite to frightening strangers.

However, none of those things are what I want you to concentrate upon at the moment. Go back and reread the passage again, then ask yourself, “What purpose does not identifying who is speaking actually serve here? And why am I talking out loud to myself?”

I can’t help you with the second question, not being conversant with your personal quirks and motivations, but I can provide an answer to the first: none. Not one iota. All the writer has achieved here is to make the reader wait until paragraph 3 whose voice opened the book, and not to identify the other speaker at all.

I appeal to your sense of probability: if you were a Millicent trying to screen ten more submissions before lunchtime, would you be intrigued by being kept in the dark on these salient points for so many lines, or would you think huffily that the submitter had some nerve to expect you to invest energy in guessing based on such scant evidence?

The moral of today’s story: if you’re going to open with dialogue, make it count.

Let it reveal more than it conceals about who your protagonist is and precisely why s/he is going to turn out to be a fascinating character in an intriguing situation. Because, after all, if a writer is going to go to all of the trouble of creating a fully-realized, completely unique character on the page, the reader is going to want to sit up and take notice when s/he speaks.

I’ll tackle the rest of the dialogue-related reasons next time. Enjoy the rest of MLK Day and the inauguration, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part X: Millicent’s frequent sense of déjà vu, or, the benefits of venturing off the beaten path

Revisiting my posts from a couple of years ago on reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1, I notice that I have been feeling compelled to add quite a bit of commentary, so much so that they are essentially new posts (which is why I’ve stopped doing the boldfaced introductions, in case anyone has been wondering). I’m not entirely sure whether this is due to how much the literary market has changed since I originally ran this list in the autumn of 2006, and how much is that, having edited, commented upon, and judged for contests scads of manuscripts in the intervening time, I have developed more pet peeves of my own.

I suspect it’s a combination of both. But I’m not the reader we’re discussing in this series, am I?

Here, we’ve been talking about the pet peeves of agents, editors, and the screeners they employ to accept or, more commonly, reject manuscripts. For the last couple of days, I’ve been going over something that is seldom discussed at writers’ conferences, in craft seminars, or even socially amongst aspiring writers, the possibility of submission’s getting rejected because it just doesn’t strike Millicent the agency screener as particularly exciting.

Funny, isn’t it, that although pretty much every writing teacher will underscore the importance of opening with a hook — an arresting conflict or strong image that draws the reader into the story from line 1, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, not to be confused with a Hollywood hook, a 1-line pitch for a book — very few seem to bring up the opposite possibility, inducing a yawn? Yet to understand what makes a hook effective, shouldn’t we writers give some thought to what might bore a reader in an opening?

More to the point of this series, shouldn’t submitters be casting a critical eye over their first pages before mailing them off, asking, “If I were Millicent the agency screener and this was my 25th first page before lunch, would I be turned off by anything in this opening?”

Yes, yes, I know — it’s painful to contemplate the possibility of even a line’s worth one’s own writing being less than scintillating, but it’s actually a much, much more useful exercise than the one usually conducted at the few writers’ conferences that devote seminar time specifically to opening pages. Some of you have probably been to these, right? They tend to be panel discussions where the published and their agents and/or editors discourse about what does and doesn’t grab them in an opening, using examples from books that have been out for years.

Can anyone see a problem with culling from that particular set of examples in order to help writers who are trying to land agents and publishing houses today?

If you said that what sold ten or fifteen years ago would not necessarily wow an agent or editor today, give yourself three gold stars and a pat on the back. When aspiring writers complain — admittedly with justification — that their favorite authors breakthough books probably couldn’t land an agent these days, the pros tend to shrug and say, “Why would anyone be surprised by that? The market is constantly changing.”

But you’d never know that to walk into most conference panels on craft, let alone on opening pages, where the examples tend to be rather long in the tooth. For instance, at a seminar on hook creation I attended not long ago, 5 of the 6 panelists selected as their favorite example of a stellar opening the first lines of Gabriel García Márquez’ A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

A stunning specimen of an opening for a book, certainly, but it was first published in 1991. Would it really work today, or would Millicent mutter, “Oh, great, another knock-off of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.” (Millicents tend to be rather well-read.) Or — and this is the most probable reaction — would she roll her eyes and say, “Make up your mind which timeframe this book will be in, already! Next!”

More proof, in case you needed it, that the times they are a-changin’.

Speaking of which, a writer friend of mine forwarded an interesting article in the New York Times that actually contained some good news about reading rates in this country, something of a novelty these days. Apparently, for the first time since 1982, the percentage of adults who say that they’ve read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the previous 12 months actually rose in 2008.

I suspect that I would be happier about this news if consuming a short story or poem didn’t require a rather different level of commitment to reading than polishing off an entire book, or if the markets for the various types of writing weren’t wildly different. We’re just supposed to rejoice over increased readership in general, I guess.

No word on whether these wordhounds bought the works in question or checked ‘em out of the library, though, or whether those newer to habitual reading were more likely to do one or the other. From the point of view of those of us who write for a living — or want to — this is a rather important follow-up question, but I gather that this particular census did not make specific inquires in this direction.

As a professional reader, I’m all about asking the follow-up questions. I look at a poll like this and immediately wonder, “Gee, are these new readers snapping up the latest that’s on the market, or are their friends who have been reading voraciously for years passing along their dog-eared paperback copies of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE?”

Oh, you thought that’s all there was to that conference anecdote? Not by a long shot — if you’d attended that panel I mentioned above, the first sentence of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE would instantly start rattling around in your cranium the instant anyone mentioned analyzing the dos and don’ts of book openings for the rest of your natural life.

Why was that particular example so memorable? Well, in addition to the panelists’ devoting a full 15 minutes of the half-hour seminar to enthusing about that opening and no other without once even raising the possibility that what agents and editors seek in a submission might have changed just a trifle since 1991, they also missed something else about this opening that rendered it a less-than-perfect example of what they were trying to show.

That something was so obvious to me that I actually started timing how long it would take for anyone to mention it. Five minutes before the end of the seminar, when the moderator finally recognized my impatiently raised hand, I asked, as politely as I could, “I love A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE’s opening, too, but could you give a couple of examples of great book openings that were written in English?”

5 of the 6 panelists looked at me blankly. Apparently, it was news to them that they had been reading GGM’s work in translation for years.

Why bring this up within the context of this series? Even in translation, A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was a magnificently influential book for English-language writers; for years afterwards, Millicents across the English-speaking world were seeing many, many manuscripts that opened similarly.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I doubt, personally, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose), Márquez should have been blushing for a decade, based upon those submissions. So how effective do you suppose Millicent found such openings in, say, year 8 of seeing them?

Exactly: what began as brilliant had through sheer repetition begun to seem banal and derivative.

Another novel that apparently affected masses and masses of novelists was Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES. How do I know? Well, take a gander at the opening:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

A grabber? Definitely. But look how many agents’ pet peeves it spawned on the Idol list of rejection reasons, just a couple of years after it came out:

9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”

44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.

45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.

In answer to what half of you just wondered: yes, when asked, all three of the agents who generated this list did spontaneously mention that they’d been rejecting many, many more submissions on these bases since THE LOVELY BONES had come out. Which just goes to show you why so many great books from the past would have a hard time getting the Millicent stamp of approval today: they would seem derivative of themselves.

Fame for originality can create its own type of predictability. Kind of an interesting paradox to contemplate, isn’t it?

While you’re busy pondering it, let’s revisit that subset of the list of rejection reasons dealing with the many ways submissions disqualify themselves by not grabbing Millicent the agency screener within the first page:

35. The story is not exciting.

36. The story is boring.

38. Repetition on pg. 1

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

57. The writing is dull.

Last time, I took issue with the difference between not exciting and boring, as well as the many, many reasons that a writer might be temped to repeat words, phrases, dialogue, or even action on page 1 without necessarily thinking of it as redundancy. This time around, I’m going to finish out this list with the style-oriented items on this list, the ones that involve a reader’s judgment about how the sentences in question are actually written.

Yes, I realize what I just said; I’m going to let the implications of that last statement sink in for a bit. In the meantime, let’s look into some more ways to avoid boring Millicent, shall we?

#55, took too many words to tell us what happened, is admittedly the most subjective reason on the how-to-bore Millicent list, as perceptions of wordiness are as personal to the reader as perceptions of beauty. For some writers, overwriting takes the form of sounding as though the word processor swallowed a dictionary and is coughing up every obscure three-syllable word in its technological stomach, but for most, it’s a matter of trying to cram too much information into any given sentence. In its simplest form, it tends to look a little something like this:

Bewildered yet not overcome, the lovely Clarissa pushed her long, red hair back from her fair-yet-freckled forehead so she could think better, a process with which she was not overly familiar, not having been brought up to the practice in her twenty-six years as Bermuda’s most celebrated debutante. Since the horrid pestilential fever that had so nearly claimed her life and had taken her handsome brother, harp-playing mother, flamenco master third cousin, and verbally abusive pet parakeet, she was ever-careful about over-heating herself through the the exercise of rigorous, excessive, or prolonged mental effort of any sort. Not for her the perplexing parliamentary papers of her grandfather, the stern advocate for planters’ rights yet friend of the downtrodden slaves who never failed to come near his petite lamb chop, as he had so loved to call her while he was still alive, without his august pockets crammed with sweets, pretty trinkets from far-off lands that he had picked up for a song at the local bazaar, and, always, a miniature of Clarissa and her mysteriously vanished yet equally beautiful twin sister, snatched at babyhood by brigands unknown.

Tremulously yet bravely, she sank gracefully against the gold-flocked wallpaper, gay with fleurs-du-lys, as tears of abject confusion clouded her usually sky-blue eyes and she felt for the comforting sofa beneath her, a gift from her now-dead but exceedingly generous whilst living mother back in their days of familial plenty, not to say opulence, before cruel Papa had been forced to auction off her favorite pony, Red Demon, who had merely mauled those silly Miller girls from across the river on that terrible day when Clarissa’s one true love, Roberto, had been swept away by piranha. If only she had listened to her beloved dog, Lassie, who kept barking vociferously at her as though trying to say, “Lady, your boyfriend’s fallen into the river!”

Seating herself with her delicate hands resting upon the still-sumptuous red velvet of her dress, a hand-me-down from Grandmamma, whose prowess at swordfighting was still the stuff of island legend…

Okay, what’s the problem here?

If you can’t see a number of reasons that this opening might make Millicent take umbrage, I can only suggest that you go back to the beginning of this series and read it all the way through again. But for our purpose of the moment, I ask you to consider only one question: what has actually happened in the course of this barrage of prose?

In the timeframe in which the story appears to be set, all that has actually occurred is that Clarissa pushed her hair off her forehead and sat down to think, right? Yes, yes, the author happened to stuff quite a bit of background information into this opening, too, but at the expense of moving the plot forward.

Or, as Millicent might put it rather less charitably, “I’m two-thirds of the way down page 1, and all the protagonist has managed to do is sit down and feel sorry for herself? Next!”

Overwriting tends to be forgiven a bit more readily in publishing circles than underwriting — partially because it’s a bit rarer than just-the-facts writing, partially because published authors’ first drafts tend more toward the prolix than the spare — but still, it’s not unusual for Millicent to get annoyed if a submission takes three paragraphs to say that the sky is blue and the protagonist is frightened.

Like redundancy, excessive overwriting is hard to sell to editors. Publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them. If you’re not sure whether you’re overburdening your opening pages, run them past a few first readers.

The last reason on our not-exciting sublist, #57, dull writing , also responds well, in my experience, to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. Unfortunately, I am far, far too talented to be able to produce a practical specimen of dull writing my own construction — not to mention far too modest to mention my brilliance and good looks — and I’m far, far too ethical to use any of the examples I have seen in my editorial practice.

But I’m betting that although writers often don’t know when they have produced it, pretty much everyone recognizes it when they see it in other writers’ work.

Dull writing usually runs to the opposite end of the terseness spectrum from overwriting: in many instances, it’s lean to the point of emaciation, with one verb doing the office of fifteen, adjectives reined in severely, and adverbs banished altogether. Its point is to tell the story — or, as commonly, a portion of the story that the writer doesn’t want to show in much detail or first-hand — as quickly and in as few words as possible.

This approach can work well for some book categories, but by and large, professional readers tend to regard the point of narrative prose not as an exercise in coughing up a purely bare-bones story, but as an art form in which the artist renders the story fascinating through how he chooses to tell it, the charming embellishments and insightful character development that render the reader’s journey from Plot Point A to Plot Point B enjoyable.

To understand why Millicent might feel this way, an aspiring writer need go no farther than your garden-variety cocktail party. We’ve all been cornered by someone who insists on telling us dull anecdote after dull anecdote, aren’t we? While successful anecdote-tellers are apt to please their listeners with building dramatic tension, amusing vocal mimicry, or even the choice of unexpected words that elicit a chuckle through sheer surprise, the dull anecdotalist makes the fatal mistake of assuming that the story itself is so inherently interesting that it doesn’t matter how he tells it.

And tell it he does, remorselessly ploughing forward despite his listeners’ glazed-over eyes, desperate glances toward other bunches of party-goers obviously having a better time, and repeated declarations that they must be getting home to check on kids they don’t actually have.

To Millicent, a run of dull writing is like being trapped in a closet with an anecdote-teller of this kidney for hours on end. All she wants is to get away — and the simplest expedient for doing that is to reject the submission as quickly as humanly possible.

The sad thing is, since the rise of the heroic journey story structure as novel blueprint, many novels open with material that even the writer considers the least interesting of any in the book — the normal, everyday world soon to be left behind. Since it is only the jumping-off point, many aspiring writers seem to think, why invest a great deal of narrative space and/or writing style to it? Or to the background information so many new writers are eager to stuff into the first page or two? There’s much better stuff in a page or two — or a chapter or two.

I can give one very, very good reason to open with your best writing, early-page style minimizers: because if Millicent isn’t wowed by that first page, she’s not going to keep reading. She’s going to assume, and with some reason, that what she sees on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing in the rest of the book.

Changes the way you think of a submission to know that, doesn’t it?

The best way to determine whether your first page has any of these problems is – and you should all know the tune by now, so please feel free to sing along — to read your submission IN HARD COPY, OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

Trust me on this one. But now, back to the pondering already in progress.

Were you struck when I mentioned above that only the last couple of items on the how-to-bore-Millicent list were style-based? That’s reflective of a trend observable on the Idol list of rejection reasons as a whole: had you noticed how many more of them were about content and storytelling than about writing style per se?

I don’t think that’s accidental — or insignificant, especially given that this particular list of rejection reason concerned only the first page of any given submission, a point at which most manuscripts are far more concerned with providing background information than telling the story of the book.

Which leads me back to a boredom-defeating strategy I mentioned in passing yesterday, and clever and insightful reader Adam was kind enough to elaborate upon in the comments: while scanning the early pages of your manuscript for rejection red flags, you might want to consider the possibility that your book should start somewhere rather later than your current page 1.

I’m quite, quite serious about this. I can’t tell you how many great first lines for books I’ve found on page 4, or how many backstory-laden first scenes could have been cut altogether. Background, contrary to popular writerly opinion, does not necessarily have to come first in a book.

Or even — brace yourself — in the first chapter.

Just as explaining why a joke is funny right after telling it tends to kill its humor, overloading the first few pages of a book with backstory is often a major storytelling mistake. We’ve all see it work sometimes, of course, but in practice, an opening scene tends to grab a reader (especially an impatient one like Millie) a bit faster simply to introduce an intriguing protagonist already embroiled in an exciting situation, and fill in the backstory gradually or later on.

I’m not advising that you simply throw out your first scene on general principle — it pays to be wary of one-size-fits-all editing advice. But I would advise conducting this diagnostic test: save your current first chapter in one document, and open a new document. Write a fresh opening scene that presents something surprising about your protagonist; make that scene as active as possible. Then hand both your current opening scene and the experimental draft to a first reader you trust. Ask her to read both, wait half an hour, then have her tell you what happened in each. While you’re at it, find out which version of the protagonist struck her as more likable.

If her recall of the fresh scene is substantially better, you might want to consider changing the opening of your manuscript — not necessarily by substituting the experimental scene, but by lightening its explanatory load.

What makes me think that the scene with more explanation is not going to be as memorable? Simple: action in the moment is almost always more memorable to a reader than summarized backstory — and backstory in a first scene is almost always summary. It happens offstage, as it were.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen authors front-load opening scenes with backstory; it used to be considered perfectly acceptable. And at one time, the first lines of both A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and THE LOVELY BONES would have struck Millicent as absolutely unique and fresh.

The times they have a-changed. Being cognizant of that may help save you from falling into one of the most frequently-seen rejection-trigger traps of all: “I’ve seen this a thousand times before.”

Next time, to what I suspect will be everyone’s grateful relief, I shall be moving past the boredom-related rejection reasons and on to juicier ones. Keep those opening pages spicy and original, everybody, and keep up the good work!