Not another best and worst of the decade list!

one-way sign in graveyard

It’s certainly been a year — and a decade — of mixed blessings, hasn’t it? Why, only last month, as I was noting with annoyance that Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the top 100 new releases of 2009 did not contain a single book by a female author, I realized with a shock that the Matthew Crawford at #8 used to sit next to me in grad school seminars. Naturally, I rushed out and bought Shop Class as Soulcraft at a brick-and-mortar bookstore right away, on general principle and to boost my writerly karma, but it made me think: the dark, dark clouds of the last year have certainly had some odd silver linings.

So, belatedly: congratulations, Matt. And here’s to finding writers I like on 10-best lists, anywhere, anytime.

I’ve been mulling over those unexpected flashes of silver in the sky all month, as I’ve been gearing up to this, my last post of the decade. I had planned to come up with one of those ubiquitous best and worst lists from a writerly perspective — you know, books I hated, editors at Random House I was sorry to see take early retirement, that sort of thing.

Frankly, coming up with a worst list was no problem at all. Took about four minutes. Yet every single one of my hard-found bests — all seven of them — were charming surprises like seeing Matt’s name turn up on the PW list, not genuine trends I could laud as harbingers of good things coming to writers everywhere. And while I could follow the excellent example of other end-of-the-decade commenters like Julianna Baggott (whose recent Washington Post article on why it is so hard for female authors to crack those top ten lists is well worth reading, by the way), devoting my last post of the year purely to criticism of the status quo, I just can’t bring myself to believe that those silver linings, however few and far between, are not something worth celebrating.

But let’s not kid ourselves: we writers have a heck of a lot to complain about these days.

So here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’ll be taking a barefoot run through what I think are the ten worst things to happen to writing over the last decade, followed by what I consider the single nastiest development for aspiring writers. Then, with all of that out of our collective system, I’ll let you in on some reasons that I think all of us should continue keeping the faith.

With me? Tremendous. Let the snarly bits begin.

The Ten Worst Things to Happen to Writing in the 2000s So Far

(10) Benefit-free simplification of the language
You know what I’m talking about, right? We’ve all picked up a newspaper — remember those? — and been knocked out of an otherwise interesting article by , say, the completely gratuitous capitalization of the first word following a colon. It’s never been correct in English — so why the heck has it suddenly become so very common in recent years? Why, in fact, has it become acceptable by AP editing standards?

For heaven’s sake, it’s not a new sentence!

Okay, so maybe that’s not the type of irritant that makes folks who don’t read or write manuscripts for a living choke on their coffee, but I assure you, such creeping attacks on literacy drive those of us who do absolutely nuts. Why? Because after enough readers have seen the incorrect version often enough and in authoritative enough sources, it will begin to look correct to them.

Can the fall of civilization be far behind?

No, but seriously, the last decade has seen the dubious legitimization of quite a lot of technically incorrect practices. More nails on the proverbial blackboard:

* The use of quality as a synonym for high-quality, without the necessary modifier. Technically, quality could be high, low, or middling. The sole exception, as far as I know, is when it refers to obsolete social class distinctions: it was obvious from her bearing that she was a lady of quality.

See? I didn’t capitalize the first word after the colon in that last sentence, and the grammar gods didn’t strike me dead on the spot.

* The use of unique with a modifier, as in she is very unique. By definition, something is unique because it is the only one of its kind.

* Leaving question marks off sentences that are clearly questions, as in do you hear me. It’s a lame writer’s trick, intended to convey flatness of tone. If only the language contained some sort of descriptors for sound, so the reader could know how a speaker’s voice sounds…oh, wait, it does.

Nit-picky? You bet. But since when did wielding the language correctly become optional for good writers?

(9) Conspiracy theories whose individual elements can be adequately exposed within a three-page scene.
I’m looking at you, Dan Brown. Just once, couldn’t a necessary clue not be instantly recognizable the second our hero stumbles upon it? Followed, perhaps, by that crusty old character who has held his tongue for the past forty-three years not blurting out everything he knows the instant the protagonist happens to ask? Or sometimes even before he asks?

Call me a complexity-monger, but if a long-unsolved mystery can be revealed to the first yahoo who bothers to glance in its direction, and that within the first four minutes, I’m just not interested. I have too much faith in the inventive capacities of mystery writers to settle for boneheaded plot twists.

(8) Single spaces after periods and colons in manuscripts.
Yes, yes, I know: eliminating these necessary spaces in published books saves a lot of paper and ink. In a manuscript, however, omitting these spaces is not only an offense to the rules of punctuation, but renders text significantly harder to edit by hand.

Which, in case you’d been wondering, is generally the only way to catch the kind of errors mentioned in (10). And why it’s so obvious to most professional readers handed a manuscript without the necessary two spaces that the writer has not worked with an editor before.

(7) A radical increase in pop culture references in published books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in, say, a memoir: mentioning that the protagonist’s sister is lying on the floor, watching a brand-new Gilligan’s Island episode is a legitimate way to give a sense of place and time to a scene. But using current pop references in a novel to make it seem up-to-date now will simply render it out of date in five years.

Sorry; I don’t make the rules governing the turnover rate of pop culture. Nor of the passage of time.

I object to this one, like the last, primarily for its negative effect upon aspiring writers. It can take a couple of years for a manuscript to travel the bumpy road from sale to a publishing house to a spot on a bookshelf at Borders; what’s hip today may well be dated by then. Manuscripts still do get rejected, and often, by old-school professional readers trained to spot references that readers will not necessary catch three years from now.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen plenty of published books with these references. So have I. That doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interest to follow their example.

(6) Not dividing the YA market into as strongly-defined book categories as the adult market
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Well, I guess you might have to talk to a lot of writers, agents, and editors to notice this problem, but since YA has taken off as a major market, more and more agents who represent primarily adult fiction have, predictably, started actively seeking out the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Which are, correct me if I’m wrong, quite different from each other. So how is an aspiring writer to know what an agent who says she’s looking for YA, any YA, to know what she’s got in mind?

Defining YA books more precisely would be very, very helpful to agent-seeking writers — and not just by guiding those who write YA paranormal romance to agencies with a more successful record with vampire stories than horse books. Lumping too many kinds of YA together makes it harder for those who write for niche markets — like, say, the book for the smartest girl in the class, rather than for the boy who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable girl — find the right homes for their books.

There is literally nothing writers can do about this one, of course. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth grumbling over.

(5) “Whatever!”
Oh, God, how I wish that this one had never entered the language — although, as a means of irritating adults, I suppose the very fact that I want to strangle the next character who utters it indicates that it has been a rousing success.

Fine; you win, whatever-ers. Now give it a rest, already.

I’m not talking to young writers here, although I must admit that I have had a younger students hand me pages where whatever played a prominent role. (Unfortunately, the pages were in a term paper on Rousseau, and the first sentence that caught my eye was In human beings’ natural state, they all lived alone or whatever. The ensuing discussion was not pretty.) I’m aiming this complaint squarely at adult writers who shove whatever into their teenage characters’ mouths in an effort to make them sound like, well, teenagers.

Personally, I find this dismissive; most of the teenagers I know are pretty interesting people. As a reader, I want to hear what a specific teenage character has to say, not to see her merely parrot what any generic teenager might say.

And don’t tell me that young people really talk that way; real-life dialogue can be pretty boring. Astonish me with how your characters are different from anyone I might overhead in a movie ticket line, rather than lulling me to sleep with a transcript.

Want to show an attitude problem? Go right ahead. Writers have plenty of other narrative tools with which to demonstrate all kinds of emotional states.

(4) The demotion of the art of memoir to mere journalism
As recently as seven or eight years ago, memoirists signed contracts with their publishers that specified that the stories they were telling were essentially true, to the best of their knowledge. Lawsuits did occasionally happen, but pretty much everyone concerned recognized that (a) every human being recollects any shared event differently, (b) one of the things that separates a gifted memoirist from the rest of the population is the ability to hone and plane reality into a story that someone might conceivably want to read, and (c) occasionally, the effective exercise of (b) might lead to a bit of narrative fudging.

In short, no one seriously believed that all memoirists did was stand around for their entire pre-publication lives, taking notes like a court reporter. Poetic license was considered legitimate. Heck, ten years ago, you’d only have to buy a junior editor at a major publishing house one drink before he’d be assuring you that the latest celebrity memoir was a good 87% poetry.

Oh, I’m sorry — should I have warned you that the emperor’s clothes were about to be affected by gravity?

Now, memoirists are not only often required to sign iron-clad contracts, taking on all legal liability for any misstatements, but sometimes have to obtain signed releases from anyone mentioned in the book. Under the threat of negative publicity, publishers have been regarding memoirs with a far more suspicious eye. And no wonder, given how the media has reacted to the news: one established memoirist after another is outed as having made up salient facts, and some hyper-literal reporter so misunderstood David Sedaris’ essays that he meticulously fact-checked them.

Sedaris writes humor, people. Comedy writers see things differently than the general population. And may I introduce you once again to the concept of poetic license? Should I invite you all over for dinner, so you may get better acquainted?

It’s tempting to blame James Frey, he of the Million Little Pieces scandal, for this rather severe shift in publishing attitude. If only those rumors that his agent sold the book as a novel, not a memoir, would stop circulating so persistently, I might be able to jump on that bandwagon. However, as a memoirist whose publisher was dogged with lawsuit threats (unfounded) over my book, I’m inclined to think that the real culprit here is a trend for authors to be saddled with more and more of the burdens of bringing out a successful book.

If an author is now expected to, say, pay for his own book tour or hire his own publicist, is it really all that astonishing that he should be saddled with all of the risk of telling his own story? The emperor needs a new wardrobe, after all.

(3) The rise of editing on computer screens
I’m placing this one near the top of my list, since it has contributed so heavily to some of the problems lower down. Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: since the human eye reads 70% faster on a screen than on a page, it is markedly more difficult to catch typos, logical problems, and other textual errors if one edits on a computer screen.

I could — and have — unleash an avalanche of examples at this point, but I’ll restrain myself and provide only one, a little something I like to call the according to Smith problem. See if you can spot it for yourself in this (completely fictional) article opening:

For the Anderson family, this was not the New Year’s Eve they were expecting. Last year, and every year before that, Mom Sheila, Dad Egbert, twins Drucilla and Delward, and little Ermintrude had gathered around the cheerful fire on their hearth, toasting one another with the vodka-laced grog Sheila’s grandmother used to make.

That was before the fire. Like so many now-scarred Americans, the Andersons were tragically unaware that vodka is flammable.

According to Smith, however, the turning of the year was not the only time the family used to drink. “I thought the kids were a little young. I mean, grog in the baby’s bottle? But hey, who am I to tell them how to raise ‘em?”

Did you catch it? No? Here’s a hint: WHO IS SMITH?

As an editor, this sort of editing error drives me nuts — and I assure you, it is an editing error, not a writing one. To an editorial eye, it’s fairly obvious that in an earlier draft, a sentence identifying Smith, probably including his first name and his relationship to the Andersons, appeared prior to the paragraph with the quote. In a subsequent draft, the reference was cut, and nobody noticed.

Except the confused reader, that is.

Would this be a good time to remind you to read your manuscripts IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and, if possible, OUT LOUD? No? Okay, I’ll move on to my next point.

(2) The swiftly-widening gap between advances for bestselling authors and those less established
Do I really have to explain to a readership of writers why this one is bad for our art form? I doubt it, but just in case I need to spell it out: tiny advances mean that first-time authors can’t quit their day jobs.

Am I the only one who worries that the full-time book writer is in danger of becoming obsolete? And does anyone seriously believe that eventuality will improve the overall quality of the literary market?

Especially in combination with…

(1) The rapid turnover of editors, or, the rise of the five-editor book project
Ten years ago, it was rare that the editor who acquired a manuscript did not remain with the project all the way through the publication process. Heck, it was fairly normal for an editor to stick with a successful author for half a career.

Now, a first-time author may thank her lucky stars if her book is handled by only two or three editors; the turnover rate over the last year has been so rapid that I know no fewer than three authors whose books were overseen by five editors, all of whom wanted the book to be something different. One poor novelist got assigned a new editor less than a month before his book was scheduled to be printed.

Guess how he spent the first three weeks of that month? Oh, well, his protagonist didn’t really need that lesbian sister, anyway.

I’m not casting aspersions on any of his five editors, of course; for all I know, each of their widely divergent opinions on the book could have worked — had it been the only editorial vision. I’m merely suggesting that continually asking writers to adjust their creative process to different masters’ expectations within a single project might not be the most efficient means to get the best out of talented people.

Of course, the rate of turnover isn’t really the editors’ fault — I’ve seldom meant one who actively yearned to be fired — any more than the notoriously short average tenure of agency screeners and editorial assistants is the result of some active conspiracy of the powerless. So before we leave behind the blame portion of our evening, let’s talk about one other negative development for writers that is very much within these decision-makers’ control.

Bonus: the increasingly common practice of agents and editors not responding to submissions at all
A decade ago, an agent’s using a form letter to reject a query was the most common source of complaint among aspiring writers; now, it’s far from uncommon for that same agent not to respond to a query at all if the answer is no. But until just a couple of years ago, it was unheard-of for an agency to apply the silence-means-no practice to requested materials.

The times, they have indeed been a-changin’. Now, it’s not unusual for a submitter to hear back 6 months later, or even not at all.

Obviously, this widespread policy shift has been terrible for agent-seeking writers — and not just because it’s harder to wait five months to hear back than two. How, for instance, is a writer to know whether four months of non-response means that (a) his manuscript has been rejected, (b) his manuscript has not been rejected, but has not yet been read by all of the people who need to read it before the agent can say yes, or (c) the manuscript never got there in the first place?

Yet despite this quite radical change in how some agencies — not all, thank goodness — handle requested submissions, most aspiring writers still submit to only one agent at a time. Or even — sacre bleu! — query one at a time.

In the current environment, that means that even a writer who gets picked up unusually quickly will unnecessarily waste a year or two. Once again, I implore you: unless an agent’s website or guide listing specifically says s/he will not accept simultaneous submissions, keep sending out your work.

Unless, of course, you have an extra decade or so to kill before your book gets published?

Okay, that’s enough gloom-inducement for one night. On to the reason that all of you talented writers out there should keep pushing forward, despite an increasingly difficult publishing environment.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper it: the fact that it’s become significantly more difficult to get it published has little to do with the quality of your writing; these are systemic changes. But that doesn’t mean a good manuscript isn’t still worth promoting.

Yes, yes, I know: that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve been saying here at Author! Author! for the last five years. It’s still true. The primary difference is that in the face of ever-heightening barriers to good writers’ getting discovered, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the faith.

And yet you still push forward, don’t you? That’s one of the things I love most about our Author! Author! community: we don’t give up on our talent. Even when the odds are, frankly, pretty ridiculous, good writers keep writing.

Which is why, despite my deep concerns about the future of writing, I’ve decided to end the year not with my suggestions for how to keep the faith, but yours. Here, at long last, are the winners of November’s Words to Write By contest:

“Don’t look down.” — Jennifer Crusie, bestselling romance author

Submitted by Jenyfer Matthews, who adds: “Seemingly simple, I interpret this quote to mean believe in yourself. Be brave enough to take that first step and then let the magic of the writing process carry you. Keep your head up, eyes forward, and just keep putting one word in front of the other until you reach the end. Don’t second guess yourself or the story – or else. Have faith.”

I’m with you, Jenyfer. Here’s another:

“You are allowed to suck.” — Mur Lafferty

Submitted by Bart Silverstrim, who went on to explain: “I first heard that aphorism as one of Mur Lafferty’s Rules of Writing in her podcast called “I Should be Writing.” My fears of ridicule, lack of talent, not being “good enough” to deserve the chance to become a published author melt away when I remind myself of this. It is the permission that all new (or aspiring) authors need in order to face that keyboard; you cannot edit your manuscript that sucks into something better until you have a manuscript to improve upon!”

So true, Bart. In a similar spirit:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — Dodie Smith

Submitted by Natalie Kingston, along with this charming comment: “I love this quote; it’s the opening line of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (more famous for her Disney-adapted work The Hundred and one Dalmations). It reminds me that it’s always possible to find the time and space to write, if you look hard enough. It’s Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” shrunk down to fit into the most prosaic, domestic space. The quote is typical of the whole novel, which contrasts romanticism of writing and the cold reality; the father takes a forty year lease on a dilapidated but charming castle in the hopes it will help him write his second novel, but it is his daughter who takes inspiration from their struggles to survive there. It reminds me not to cut myself off, and that the best ideas come from the most unexceptional places.”

Feeling more empowered already, aren’t you? Hold that feeling, because here comes the entry the judges found most inspiring of all, the winner of a brand-spanking-new copy of Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers’ excellent LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?”
~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

Submitted by Juniper Ekman, who went on to say:

“This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

I am a writer.
I have books to write.”

I can think of no better way to end the year. Congratulations, Juniper, Natalie, Bart, and Jenyfer for trumping some pretty hefty competition for top inspiring quote, and thanks for helping all of us keep the faith for another year.

I say it at the end of every post, but never have I meant it more: keep up the good work, my friends. The world needs to hear your voice.

Exercising breath control, or, why Millicent wouldn’t spend more than a minute or two on that Ivanhoe manuscript

Ivanhoe scenes

Have you noticed a running pattern in the last week or two of posts on self-editing, campers? Have you dimly sensed that no matter where my suggestion du jour may begin, my narratives always end up taking a scenic detour through the joys of keeping the pacing tight in your manuscript? Has your significant other been shaking you awake, demanding that you cease muttering, “But does it have conflict on every page? EVERY page?” over and over again in the night? Have you found yourself clapping your hands loudly in boring work meetings, exclaiming, “Where’s the tension? Let’s get things moving here, people!” At family gatherings? At church?

Glad to hear it. My subtle indoctrination technique is working!

In case I haven’t yet dumped enough cold water on those of you intending to submit your writing to professional scrutiny any time in the foreseeable future: manuscripts or book proposal that drag their feet even a little tend to get rejected. Especially, as we discussed yesterday, those that meander within the first few pages. And while we’ve all read dozens of published books that have rocked us gently to sleep by page 4, and it truly isn’t fair that your manuscript is being held to a higher standard than THOSE evidently were, sitting around resenting the differential isn’t going to help you get your work published so effectively as making sure that YOUR manuscript is as tight as a drum.

I’m aware that the very notion makes half of you want to curl up into a protective ball around your manuscript, whimpering, “NO! You can’t cut ANY of it!” I know perfectly well that many, if not most, aspiring writers beard the heavens with bootless cries against the strange reality dictating that a manuscript should be publication-ready before it has an agent, who will probably ask the writer to change it significantly before sending it out to editors, anyway. I am even fully cognizant of the fact that from a writerly perspective, we love your writing — give us less of it doesn’t make much sense at all.

Yet a sober recognition of the extreme competitiveness of the literary market and the ability to self-edit in order to render one’s work more marketable within its ever-changing landscape are species characteristics of the professional working writer; while it’s not completely unheard-of for a first draft to be what ends up on the published page, by and large, producing a book-length manuscript purely from inspiration, without revision or even close subsequent reads by the author prior to an editor’s involvement, is roughly as rare amongst the successful author population as qualifying for the Olympics is amongst the world population.

I know you have it in you to approach this like a pro. Let’s talk conflict.

As I may have mentioned once or twice throughout this series, it’s an industry truism that a novel should have conflict — or still better, tension — on every page. While anybody who has had a half-hour conversation with me about the current state of the industry knows that I feel this standard should not be applied arbitrarily to every book in every genre, you should be aware of this axiom — because, I assure you, every agency screener is. In my conversations on the subject, the word arbitrary tends to come up, as do the phrases knee-jerk reaction, radical oversimplification of a complex array of literary factors, and power run mad. I’ve been known to question whether, for instance, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, CATCH-22, or OF HUMAN BONDAGE could find a publisher today as new books, much less an agent.

Or, indeed, virtually any of the bestsellers of the 18th or 19th centuries. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is the opening page of the absolutely last word in exciting dramatic novels in 1819, IVANHOE:

Ivanhoe first page

“What is this?” a modern-day Millicent mutters under her breath, reading for the SASE that, naturally, Sir Walter Scott had included with his submission. “A book about furniture? A manual on room decor? Where is the conflict? And what’s the deal with the punctuation? Next!”

But that’s rich array of rejection reasons would not be what Sir Walter would hear, right? No, his only clue about why his submission was rejected would be this:

Dear Scott:

I read your submission with great interest, but I’m afraid your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with the story.

Another agent may well feel differently, and I wish you every success finding a home for this book.


Millicent’s boss
Great Big Agency

I’m making light of it, but honestly, I have sat up many a midnight, worrying about all of the talented aspiring writers out there currently relying upon, say, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen as pacing role models, only to have their hearts broken by rejection by agents, editors, and contest judges who, rationally enough, base their assessments about whether a book is marketable upon what has been selling within the last five years, rather than upon the kind of abstract notion of Good Literature that most of us encountered in our English classes. To say nothing of writers who chose as their lodestar books released a decade ago, or even, in some especially fast-changing genres, just a few years back.

If you doubt that, I invite you to round up all of the agents who were trawling writers’ conferences for chick lit in, say, 2002, at the height of the post-BRIDGET JONES enthusiasm, and ask them whether they still rabidly seeking chick lit today. Those genuinely enamored of the genre have stuck with it, of course, but don’t be surprised to hear that a good two-thirds of them have spent the last couple of years pursing the next big YA vampire classic.

My point is, publishing is driven as much by fads as by an appreciation for the beauty of a well-crafted sentence; in the mid-1980s, for instance, a novel’s being over 100,000 words was considered completely acceptable. Yet interestingly, the truism about conflict on every page has endured for a couple of decades now. There are plenty of agents and editors out there, and good ones, who do apply this standard to submissions, so you’re better off if you think about the pacing issue before you send your baby out the door, rather than later puzzling over a form-letter rejection, wondering if the pacing could possibly have been the problem.

Much of the time, it is. So much so that I feel a checklist coming on:

(1) If you’re editing for length, seeking out comparatively slow bits to shorten — or, dare I say it, cut altogether — should be at the top of your to-do list.

Actually, a search-and-minimize technique isn’t a bad idea even if length isn’t your particular bugbear, either, but it’s absolutely essential when editing for length.

What should go in the place of the trimmed bits? Conflict, of course.

(2) If you want to keep a slow scene, ramp up the conflict within it.

“But Anne,” those of you who write introspective books cry, “what can I do if my plot is, in fact, rather sedate? I can hardly make the church down the block blow up in order to add spice to my domestic drama, can I? It would look so odd.”

This is a good question, and prompts me to ask another: what does tension on every page mean? Should every character be fighting with every other constantly? Do you have to show things exploding at least once every 33 lines? Should the librarian in Chapter 2 pull a switchblade on your protagonist when he tries to check out a book on gardening?

No, on all counts. But how about these tension-increasers?

Some character could want something and not get it on every page, right, without gunpowder being involved.

Characters could say one thing and do another.

Every conversation could contain some seed of disagreement.

That’s all realistic, isn’t it? After all, no two human beings are ever in absolute agreement on every point, right? At least no two I have ever known.

(3) Consider having allies disagree, harbor different motivations — or having the protagonist be less sure of her own.

Trust me, your protagonist’s relationship with her best buddy will come across to the reader as stronger, not weaker — not to mention more true-to-life — if they have the occasional tiff. A person has to care more about a friend to maintain a relationship through a conflict than through periods of sunny agreement; make your characters fight a little for their friendships from time to time. They’ll seem more valuable.

Where overt disagreement is not feasible, then how about a differential between what your protagonist is saying and what she is thinking? The protagonist could habitually bite her tongue, while her angry thoughts run rampant. Internal conflict is definitely interesting.

(4) Seek out dialogue-only scenes and inspect them for lack of tension.

Yes, I’m talking about ALL scenes where the dialogue is uninterrupted by narrative text for more than, say, half a page. Reach for your manuscript, scan it for dialogue-only scenes, and check to see whether those scenes are sufficiently conflictual to maintain Millicent’s interest. Most of the time, they don’t.

Did I just hear the battle cry of all of those writers out there who were taught since their infancies that dialogue should speak for itself, and that it is inherently bad writing EVER to include a character’s thoughts in the midst of dialogue? Am I about to be on the receiving end of a body blow from those stalwart souls who have doomed readers to two or three pages on end of pure dialogue, devoid of other activity, or even markers of who is speaking when?

Oh, dear. How shall I put this gently? If you are so gifted a dialogue-writer that you can convey every nuance of a relationship between two characters at a particular moment in time purely through dialogue, do so with my blessings. But honestly, if you have that particular talent, you might want to go into writing stage or screenplays. Novels, I believe, are places to show complex characters with interesting motivations, people who think and act as well as speak.

Personally, if I want to read transcripted conversations, a novel or memoir is not the first place I look. That’s what trial transcripts are for, after all.

I am aware, though, that there are plenty of writers — and writing teachers — out there who would disagree with me. (Look, Ma: conflict on this page!) If you prefer to follow their precepts, fine. But do be aware that it’s hard to maintain a sense of forward motion throughout pages of dialogue-only text, particularly if one of the speakers is a character the reader does not know particularly well.

(5) Consider the dramatic appeal of duplicity.

This is a great way to liven up those dialogue-only scenes. In my experience, the vast majority of people do not say everything that is on their minds at any given moment. Anyone who has ever been a teenager being lectured by a parent, for instance, or an employee shouted at by a boss, has direct personal knowledge of a situation where what is said out loud and what is thought is WILDLY different, where reproducing merely the dialogue would not give an accurate picture of what is really going on between these two people.

Almost everyone holds something back when talking to others — out of politeness sometimes, out of fear others, out of strategy, out of love. The struggle to express oneself without giving away the whole candy store is one of the great human problems, isn’t it? So why not let that struggle manifest on the page?

(6) Double-check all dialogue-based scenes for tension.

Is there enough conflict in them? If no emotion is being generated on either side of a discussion, there probably isn’t.

The conflict need not be large; an argument certainly isn’t appropriate to every scene. Are there a couple of small tweaks you could make to increase the tension between these characters, or the tension within the character’s own mind?

(7) Excise dialogue that doesn’t advance the storyline or provide memorable character development.

Is the conversation providing new information, or just rehashing what the reader already knows? If the latter, could the line be cut without the reader losing a sense of what is going on?

You’d be stunned by how often the answer is yes. Remember, repetition bogs down pace considerably. Trim as much of it as possible — yes, even if real-life characters would say precisely what you already have on the page.

(8) Scrutinize fill-in-the-friend scenes for conceptual redundancy.

Pay particular attention to scenes where the protagonist is telling another character what just happened; such dialogue is notoriously redundant. In fact, know a very prominent agent, one who gives classes and writes books to give advice to aspiring writers, who insists that any scene where characters are talking over ANYTHING that has already occurred in the book should be cut outright. However, since he also counsels removing any scene where the protagonist drinks tea, sips coffee, drives anywhere alone, or thinks about what is going on, I’m not sure I would advise taking his admonitions as revealed gospel.

But the next time you find your characters sitting in a coffee shop, chatting about what has happened in the previous scene, you might want to ask yourself: would the reader be able to follow what is going on in the book if this scene were cut?

(9) Generally speaking, a manuscript that has ups and downs will be perceived by the reader as more exciting than one that does not.

Consider changing the running order of the scenes. Alternating action scenes with processing scenes, or fast-paced scenes with slower ones, will give more movement to the plot.

(10) Experiment with varied sentence structure.

If you find yourself perplexed about the drooping energy of a scene whose action would seem to dictate tight pacing, try this trick o’ the trade: at exciting moments, make the sentences shorter than at more meditative times in your plot. That way, the rhythm of the punctuation echoes the increased heart rate of your protagonist. Your reader will automatically find himself reading faster — which, in turn, will make the suspense of the scene seem greater.

Good trick, eh? You can perform a similar feat with dialogue, to give the impression of greater underlying hostility between the speakers.

(11) Let the dialogue reflect the speakers’ breathing patterns.

People breathe less deeply when they are upset; breathing shallowly, they tend to speak in shorter bursts than when they are relaxed. Also, agitated people are more likely to throw the rules of etiquette to the four winds and interrupt others. It is not a time for long speeches.

Dialogue that reflects these two phenomena tends to come across to readers as more exciting than exchanges of hefty chunks of speech. If you are trying to make a dialogue-based scene read faster, try breaking up the individual speeches, providing interruptions; the resulting dialogue will seem more conflict-ridden, even if the actual conversation is not about something inherently conflict-inducing.

Seriously, it works. Consider this tame little piece of dialogue:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked. “I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like. The kids would love it; it would mean so much to them. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

Janie chuckled ruefully. “I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all. Even from preserves, though, the cherry cobbler you like takes a terribly long time to make. I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s pie recipe, the one she learned from that traveling pie pan salesman during the Great Depression. Infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey, with both: your Aunt Gloria certainly learned her lesson from that salesman well. But I’m sure that the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor, so to speak, show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

“Well,” Janie said, sighing, “you have a point, but I simply don’t have time to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

Not exactly a conflict-fest, is it? Now take a gander at the same scene with Albert and Janie taking shorter breaths — and some editorial rearrangement with an eye toward maximizing conflict. To make it an even higher dive, let’s maintain it as a dialogue-only scene:

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, “to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner.”

“I thought we were having cherry cobbler, the kind I like.’

“Even from preserves, the cobbler you like takes a long time to make.”

“The kids would love it. Don’t you remember how much time and energy they put into picking those cherries last summer?”

“I certainly do. I was the one who ended up pitting them all.”

“I’m sure the kids would like to see the fruits of their labor show up on the dinner table before they’ve forgotten all about summer picking season.”

Janie sighed. “Look, I never deviate from Aunt Gloria’s Great Depression cherry pie recipe…”

“Yeah, your Aunt Gloria certainly learned something from that traveling pie pan salesman.”

“…And infusing the cherries with cinnamon alone takes an entire afternoon. I can throw together an apple pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Quite a different scene, isn’t it, even though the dialogue is almost identical? Hardly divorce-court material, even now, but now the scene isn’t about pie v. cobbler at all: it’s about clashing expectations within a marriage — and what does Albert have against Aunt Gloria, anyway?

If you really get stumped about where to break the speeches, try running around the block, then coming back and seeing how much of each character’s speech you can say out loud before you have to gasp for breath — thus allowing another party opportunity to speak up.

I swear that this really works.

(12) Consider the possibility that you may be able to convey the necessary tension by showing only part of the scene — or winnowing down a conversation to a quick exchange.

Sometimes, less honestly is more. If the goal is to put tension into this particular scene, do you really need more than the beginning and end of the Janie-Albert exchange?

“We’re having apple pie for dessert?” Albert asked.

“I simply don’t have time,” Janie replied, ‘to make another dessert before the Graysons come over for dinner. Your favorite cobbler takes an entire afternoon of my time, but I can throw together a pie in an hour.”

“And the result is divine, honey,” Albert sneered.

Sufficient, isn’t it? That’s four lines of pure interpersonal conflict that could be dropped into any kitchen conversation between spouses of a certain age.

And that, my friends, is enough about editing for pace for one year; as of tomorrow, I’m on to other topics. Keep up the good work!

Allowing butter to melt in your characters’ mouths, and other little revisions you can make to brighten Millicent’s day


Hot on the heels of yesterday’s ruminations about the ever-changing state of publishing, I happened upon this article about print-on-demand going on in a local independent bookstore. Basically, the buyer picks a book off an extensive list (most of whose items are in the public domain, neatly side-stepping the whole how-does-the-writer-get-paid issue), a clerk sets up an industrial print-and-binding machine, and violà! Roughly 18 minutes later, the customer is holding a physical copy of a 19th-century novel that’s been out of print for decades.

Progress, or just another sled on the slippery slope toward authors not being paid for their writing at all? What do you think?

While you’re pondering that Gordian knot, let’s revisit yesterday’s subject, politeness as a scene-killer. In fact, while we’re already on the topic, let’s make a day of it and take a guided tour of standard agents’ euphemisms for being bored by a submission.

Why should every reviser worth her proverbial salt be aware of these euphemisms, you ask? A couple of reasons, and good ones. First, as I have pointed out several times throughout our recent discussion of self-editing tactics, writers of first drafts often don’t actively consider during the composition process the possibility that their stories or arguments, while no doubt beautifully written and new to them, may be rather similar to other stories or arguments currently making the rounds of agencies. Particularly — and it pains me to say this, but it is true — if the story or argument in question happens to bear even the slightest to a bestseller that came out any time within the last decade.

Trust me, no matter how slight the familial resemblance between your novel and, say, THE DA VINCI CODE, Millicent’s seen so many iterations of the latter come across her desk in recent years that a similar paragraph or, heaven help us, 3-page chapters may well strike her as the identical twin of something she’s seen 20,000 times before. Thus that latte Millicent, the agency screener in my examples, keeps chugging, regardless of the danger to her oft-burnt tongue. She has to do something to stay awake as she’s leafing through the fifty submissions before yours turns up to brighten her day and gladden her heart.

Which leads me to the second reason: boring Millicent is one of the most common reasons for rejection at both the submission and query stages, yet interestingly enough, when one hears agents giving advice at conferences about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition, “Whatever you do, don’t bore me!” is very seldom heard. Partially, I think, this is due to people in the industry’s reluctance to admit in public just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them.

How little? Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: the average submission is rejected on page 1. Sometimes in paragraph 1, or even sentence 1. As with query letters, submissions arrive at agencies in sufficient volume that screeners are trained to find reasons to reject them, rather than reasons to accept them.

Why isn’t this fact shouted from the rooftops and hung on banners from the ceilings of writers’ conferences, since being aware of it could only help everyone concerned, including Millicent? Well, having met my share of conference organizers, I would imagine it has something to do with not wanting to discourage attendees into giving up. It is a genuinely depressing state of affairs, after all, especially for those who have been querying and submitting for a while, and I can understand not wanting to be standing in a room with 400 writers hearing this hard fact for the first time.

Also, whenever I HAVE heard the news broken at a conference, the audience tends to react, well, a trifle negatively. Which is perfectly understandable, since from an aspiring writer’s point of view, such a declaration almost invariably means one of two things: either the agent or editor is a mean person who hates literature (but loves bestsellers), or that the admitter possesses an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners and thus should not be submitted to, queried, or even approached at all.

Either way, writers tend to react as though the pro were admitting a personal failing. That, too, tends not to help anybody concerned.

Actually, the prevailing assumptions about Millicent’s notoriously short attention span aren’t entirely fair. She may have a super-short of attention span for the opening pages of submissions, but she’s been known to pore over the 18th draft of an already-signed writer whose work she loves three times over. So have her boss, the agent, and the editor to whom they sell their clients’ work. However, since none of the three want to encourage submitters to bore them, they might not be all that likely to admit the latter before a bunch of aspiring writers at a conference.

Something else you’re unlikely to hear: that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control. I cast no aspersions and make no judgments, but they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know.

But heaven forfend that an agent should march into a conference and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening first few pages, okay?”

No, no, the prevailing wisdom goes, if the reader is bored, it must be the fault of the manuscript – or, more often, with problems that they see in one manuscript after another, all day long. (“Where is that nameless intern with my COFFEE?” the agent moans.)

As it turns out, while the state of boredom is generally defined as a period with little variation, agents have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them. Presumably on the same principle as that often-repeated truism about Arctic tribes having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

Here are a few of the most popular — and don’t be surprised if they seem a trifle familiar, long-time readers. I cribbed them from the extremely-useful-but-utterly-horrifying list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 we discussed in last January’s HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page, incidentally). They include :

(1) Not enough happens on page 1.

(2) Where’s the conflict?

(3) The story is not exciting.

(4) The story is boring. (I know: not a very subtle euphemism, but bear with me here.)

(5) Repetition on pg. 1 (!)

(6) Took too many words to tell us what happened.

(7) The writing is dull.

(8) I didn’t care enough about the protagonist and/or his situation to muster the effort to turn to page 2.

Sensing a pattern here? Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be screening a hundred submissions a day, that all sounds like variations on snow, doesn’t it? But put yourself in Millicent’s snow boots for a moment: imagine holding a job that compels you to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting, boring, and I’m just not interested.

This probably wasn’t the glamour she expected when she first landed the job at the agency.

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but not enough happens on page 1 might confuse, as it is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. Many a wonderful manuscript doesn’t really hit its stride until page 4 — or 15, or 146. And you’d be amazed at how often a good writer will bury a terrific first line for the book on page 10.

That’s not criticism; it’s just a fact. Unfortunately, neither Millicent, her cousin Maury who screens manuscripts for editors at a major publishing house, nor their Aunt Mehitabel, the inveterate contest judge, tends to have the time or the patience to wait for a slow-moving manuscript to pick up momentum.

The screening process is not, to put it mildly, set up to reward brilliance that takes a little while to warm up — and that’s not merely a matter of impatience on the reader’s part. Remember, that burnt-tongued screener racing through manuscripts will have to write a summary of any manuscript she recommends to her boss. So will Maury. Even Mehitabel will have to jot down a little something in order to pass a contest entry on to the finals round.

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate are any of them likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about by the end of page 1? Please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, give the reader a sense of who the protagonist is and what the book is about quickly.

Yes, even if you are convinced in the depths of your creative heart that the book in its published form should open with a lengthy disquisition on philosophy instead of plot. Remember, manuscripts almost always change between when an agent picks them up and when the first editor sees them, and then again before they reach publication. If you make a running order change in order to render your book a better grabber for Millicent on page 1, you probably will be able to change it back.

Or at least have a lovely long argument with your future agent and/or editor about why you shouldn’t. In the meantime, you might want to revise those early pages with an eye to getting on with it.

Speaking of unseemly brawls, where’s the conflict? is an exceptionally frequent reason for rejecting submissions — and not merely on page 1. In professional reader-speak, this means that the opening is well-written, but lacks the dramatic tension that arises from interpersonal friction (or in literary fiction, intrapersonal friction).

Or, to put it less technically, it’s not clear to Millicent what is at stake, who is fighting over it, and why the reader should care. Oh, you may smile at the notion of cramming that much information, which is really the province of a synopsis or pitch, into the first page of a manuscript, but to be blunt about it, Millicent’s going to need all of that information to pitch the book to her higher-ups at the agency. Giving her some immediate hints about where the plot is going is thus a shrewd strategic move.

Perhaps more to the point, while that’s going to be problematic at any point in a submission or contest entry, if it’s the prevailing condition at the bottom of page 1, our Millie tends, alas, to revert by default to #8, I didn’t care enough about the protagonist and/or his situation to muster the effort to turn to page 2. Next!

Where’s the conflict? has been heard much more often in professional readers’ circles since writing gurus started touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey as the story arc of the book. Since within that storyline, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes.

(If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. Or you can rent one of the early STAR WARS movies, or pretty much any US film made in the 1980s or 1990s where the protagonist learns an Important Life Lesson. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character where the goal is attained and the chase scenes begin on page 72 of the script.)

While this is an interesting way to structure a book, starting every story in the so-called normal world tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter, by definition: according to the fine folks who plot this way, the potential conflict is what knocks the protagonist out of his everyday world.

I find this plotting assumption fascinating, because I don’t know how reality works where you live, but around here, most people’s everyday lives are simply chock-full of conflict. Gobs and gobs of it. And if you’re shaking your head right now, thinking that I must live either a very glamorous life or am surrounded by the mentally unbalanced, let me ask you: have you ever held a job where you didn’t have to work with at least one person who irritated you profoundly?

Having grown up in a very small town, my impression is that your garden-variety person is more likely to experience conflict with others on the little interpersonal level in a relatively dull real-life situation than in an inherently exciting one — like, say, a crisis where everyone has to pull together. Having had the misfortune to work once in an office where fully two-thirds of the staff was going through menopause, prompting vicious warfare over where the thermostat should be set at any given moment, either hot enough to broil a fish next to the copy machine or cool enough to leave meat, eggs, and ice cubes lying about on desks for future consumption, let me tell you, sometimes the smallest disagreements can make for the greatest tension.

I know, I know: that’s not the way we see tension in the movies, where the townsfolk huddled in the blacked-out supermarket, waiting for the prehistoric creatures to attack through the frozen food section, suddenly start snapping at one another because the pressure of anticipation is so great. But frankly, in real life, people routinely snap at one another in supermarkets when there aren’t any prehistoric beasts likely to carry off the assistant produce manager, and I think it’s about time more writers acknowledged that.

I’m bringing this up for good strategic reasons: just because you may not want to open your storyline with the conflict of the book doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t open it with a conflict. Even if you have chosen to ground your opening in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1.

Or, to put it a trifle less delicately, it will not outrage the principles of realism to make an effort to keep that screener awake throughout your opening paragraphs. Or, indeed, on any page of your manuscript.

What was that shopworn industry truism again? Oh, yes: in a novel or memoir, there should be conflict on every single page.

Do I spot some hesitantly raised hands out there, perhaps ones that have been waving in the air since I posted yesterday? “But Anne,” some courteous souls protest, “conflict to me equals fighting, and I’m trying to show that my protagonist is a normal person, a nice one that the reader will grow to love. How do I present my sweet, caring protagonist as likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? Is it okay to have the conflict going on around her in which she doesn’t actually get involved?”

Ah, you’ve brought up one of the classic aspiring novelist’s misconceptions, courteous protesters, one that’s shared by many a memoirist: the notion that what makes a human being likable in real life will automatically render a fictionalized version of that person adorable. It’s a philosophy particularly prevalent in first-person narratives. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of otherwise well-written manuscripts where the primary goal of the opening scene(s) is apparently to impress the reader with the how nice and kind and just gosh-darned polite the protagonist is.

Butter wouldn’t melt in any of their mouths, apparently. As charming as such people may be when one encounters them in real life, from a professional reader’s point of view. they often make rather irritating protagonists, for precisely the reason we’re discussing today: they tend to be conflict-avoiders.

Which can render them a trifle, well, dull on the page. Since interpersonal conflict is the underlying basis of drama (you might want to take a moment to jot that one down, portrayers of niceness), habitually conflict-avoiding protagonists tend to stand in the way of both plot and character development. Instead of providing the engine that moves the plot forward, they keep throwing it into neutral, or even reverse, in an effort to keep tempers from clashing.

Like protagonists who are poor interviewers, the conflict-shy have a nasty habit of walking away from potentially interesting scenes that might flare up, not asking the question that the reader wants asked because it might offend another of the characters, or even being just so darned polite that their dialogue doesn’t add anything to the scene other than conveying that they have some pretty nifty manners.

These protagonists’ mothers might be pleased to see them conducting themselves so well, but they make Millicent want to tear her hear out.

“No, no, NO!” the courteous gasp. “Polite people are nice, and polite people really do talk courteously in real life! How can it be wrong to depict that on the page?”

Oh, dear, how to express this without hurting anyone’s feelings…have you ever happened to notice just how predictable polite interchanges are? As I mentioned last time, they’re generic; given a specific set of circumstances, any polite person might say precisely the same things — which means that if the reader happens to have been brought up to observe the niceties, or even knows someone who has, s/he can pretty much always guess what a habitually polite character will say, and sometimes do, in the face of plot turns and twists.

And predictability, my friends, is one of the most efficient dramatic tension-killers known to humankind.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a gander at this gallant conversation in a doorway:

“Oh, pardon me, James. I didn’t see you there. Please go first.”

“Not at all, Cora. After you.”

“No, no, I insist. You reached the doorway before me.”

“But your arms are filled with packages. Permit me to hold the door for you, dear lady.”

“Well, if you insist, James. Thank you.”

“Not at all, Cora. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thanks. Please convey my regards to your mother.”

“I’m sure she’ll be delighted. Do send my best love to your wife and seventeen children. Have a nice day.”

“You, too, Cora.”

Courteous? Certainly. Stultifying dialogue? Absolutely.

Now, I grant you that this dialogue does impress upon the reader that James and Cora are polite human beings, but was it actually necessary to invest 6 lines of text in establishing that not-very-interesting fact? Wouldn’t it be more space-efficient if the author had used that space SHOWING that these are kind people through action? (“My God, Cora, I can’t believe you risked your life saving that puppy from the rampaging tiger on your way back from your volunteer gig tutoring prison inmates in financial literacy!”)

Or, if that seems a touch melodramatic to you, how about showing dialogue that also reveals characteristics over and above mere politeness? While you’re at it, why not experiment with letting some of that butter in your protagonist’s mouth rise to body temperature from time to time?

“But Anne,” a few consistency-huggers out there shout, “you can’t seriously mean to suggest that I should have my protagonist act out of character! Won’t that just read as though I don’t know what my character is like?”

Actually, no — in fact it can be very good strategy character development. Since completely consistent characters can easily become predictable (case in point: characters on sitcoms, who often learn Important Life Lessons in one week’s episode and apparently forget them by the following episode), many authors choose to intrigue their audiences by having their characters do or say something off-beat every so often. Keeps the reader guessing — which is a great first step toward keeping the reader engaged.

And don’t underestimate the charm of occasional clever rudeness for revealing character in an otherwise polite protagonist. Take a look at this probably apocryphal but widely reported doorway exchange between authors Clare Boothe Luce and Dorothy Parker, and see if it doesn’t tell you a little something about the characters involved:

The two illustrious ladies bumped into each other at the entrance to the theatre. As it was an opening night performance and the two were well known to be warm personal enemies, a slight hush fell over the crowd around them.

In the face of such scrutiny, Mrs. Luce tried to rise to the challenge. “Age before beauty,” she told Mrs. Parker, waving toward the door.

“And pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker allegedly replied, sailing in ahead of her.

Polite? Not particularly. But aren’t they both characters you would want to follow through a plot?

“Okay,” my courteous questioners admit reluctantly, “I can see where I might want to substitute character-revealing dialogue for merely polite chat, at least in my opening pages, to keep from boring Millicent. But you haven’t answered the rest of my question: how can I make my protagonist likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? What if I just show conflict going on around her, without her, you know, getting nasty?”

For polite people, you certainly ask pointed questions, courteous ones: it means you’re starting to get the hang of interesting dialogue. As you have just illustrated, one way that a protagonist can politely introduce conflict into a scene is by pressing a point that another party to the conversation wants to brush off.

Nasty? Not at all. Conflictual? Definitely.

Not all conflict entails fighting, you see. Sometimes, it’s mere disagreement — or, in the case of a protagonist whose thoughts the reader hears, silent rebellion. Small acts of resistance can sometimes convey a stronger sense of conflict than throwing an actual punch. (For more suggestions on heightening conflict, please see the CONFLICT-BUILDING category on the list at right.)

When in doubt about whether the conflict is sufficient to keep Millicent’s interest, try raising the stakes for the protagonist in the scene. As long as the protagonist wants something very much at that particular moment, is prevented from getting it, and takes some action as a result, changes are that conflict will emerge, at least internally.

Note, please, that I did not advise ramping up the external conflict, necessarily, especially on a first page. In a first-person or tight third-person narrative, where the reader is observing the book’s world from behind the protagonist’s eyeglasses, so to speak, protagonists who are mere passive observers of their own lives are unfortunately common in submissions; if Millicent had a nickel for every first page she read where the protagonist was presented as little more than a movie camera taking in ambient conditions, she wouldn’t be working as a poorly-paid screener; she’d own her own agency.

If not her own publishing house.

Should any of you nonfiction writers out there have been feeling a bit smug throughout this spirited little discussion of protagonist passivity, I should add that the conflict insufficiency problem doesn’t afflict only the opening pages of novels. It’s notoriously common in memoirs, too — as often as not, for the two reasons we discussed above: wanting to make the narrator come across as likable and presenting the narrator as a mere observer of events around him.

Trust me on this one: in both fiction and nonfiction, Millicent will almost always find an active protagonist more likable than a passive one. All of that predictable niceness quickly gets just a little bit boring.

Mix it up a little. Get your protagonist into the game from the very top of page 1.

Then keep her there. Oh, and keep up the good work!

Where ARE my manners? Slowing down the story, probably

me in the Xmas ball

I intended to post this self-portrait a few days ago. Don’t blame me: the flu snuck up behind me, repeatedly bopping me on the head. Which perhaps explains why there are four iterations of me in the reflection, instead of the usual one; if you don’t think that this year’s flu has the power to shred the soul into several jagged shards, or at least bifurcate it into the part that’s coughing mercilessly and the part that’s anxiously looking out the window for the undertaker, well, I’m guessing you haven’t had it yet.

And I hope that none of you do. It’s not an experience worth living through, even for the sake of writing about it later. But here’s a tip, just in case infection does catch up with you: do not, I implore you, use your convalescent time to peruse the latest news about changes in the publishing world. It might just kill you.

When you’re ill, you want your will to live bolstered, right, not rapidly drained away?

Think I’m kidding? Okay, try this little experiment: turn your head, cough — and contemplate Amazon’s recent press release asserting that on Christmas Day, more customers bought Kindle versions of books than physical copies.

Now, do you feel better or worse than before you began the experiment?

Admittedly, this downloading fiesta is best contemplated while carrying a giant grain of salt in one hand and waving a banner reading caveat emptor with the other. After all, it’s only reasonable to expect people who got a Kindle for Christmas to hop right on the downloading bandwagon, pronto. Their ardor may well cool as the weeks pass.

But still, that chilling claim bears thinking about, if you happen to be a writer. At least, one who is — or ever plans to — making a living by writing books.

Strange days for writers, these; the miasma of murky copyright issues hovering around electronic publication has been engendering some pretty fascinating discussion — and, let’s face it, quite a bit of anger. Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, has just resigned from the Authors’ Guild because, she says, she felt that its settlement with Google did not adequately protect its members’ rights. That was both brave and generous of her — an author as established as she has been for many years (and deservedly) is unlikely to suffer anywhere near as much as the legions of authors who will come into print over the next few years.

So on behalf of all of us: thank you, Madame LeGuin, for thinking of us. I’m perpetually shoving fledgling SF and fantasy writers in the direction of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN as a crash course in craft. And what’s not to admire in an author of your stature’s tackling the TAO TE CHING?

She’s not the only one, either — to register a public protest of the changing writerly landscape, I mean, not to explicate Taoism.

Sherman Alexie has been arguing, and cogently, that authors are in a battle to the death for their rights. Kudos to you, sir — and I thought your most recent book, WAR DANCES, was far more interesting a literary experiment than many reviewers seemed to notice. May your inventiveness and copyright protections endure long.

And they are certainly not the only authors who feel that the book may be tumbling down the same slippery slope as new music: still profitable for the companies doing the releasing and those artists lucky enough to have established a fan base before the industry transformed, but darned hard for anyone newer to the game to make a living at it. The game is changing, and not in a manner at all likely to enable the struggling writer to move out of that picturesque garret, or even to quit his day job: as I mentioned the other week, over the last couple of years, the disparity between bestselling authors’ advances and first-time author’s is about as great as it has ever been, and just keeps widening.

Which would concern me less, I must admit, if pretty much every author I know weren’t being expected these day to invest more resources than ever before in promoting her own books. Is it me, or is there something wrong with the math here?

Still, the picture is not all gloomy. Until I know for sure that the Kindle and similar devices can be used to read in the bathtub without being potentially life-endangering, I have to believe that the physical book serves a necessary function that cannot easily be supplanted by electronics. I do read the writing trades every day, however — in electronic form, I must admit — so I’m not laboring under any illusions that publishing isn’t going to have to change somehow. I’m just not convinced that it’s going to be as radically as we’ve all been asked to believe.

Case in point: if memory serves, practically the instant the internet hit the mainstream — i.e., when it stopped being almost exclusively the playground of academics and computer geeks, two groups for which I harbor considerable affection, and became absorbed into the non-specialist’s everyday life — media types threw up their hands in a panic, insisting that conventional shopping was dead. Within just a couple of years, these minor-key Nostradamuses (Nostradami?) assured us, no one, but no one, was going to be buying so much as a can of beets at the local grocery store. The internet was going to handle all commerce, we were told; the storefront mercantile would soon be as dead as the dodo.

It’s years later now. Tell me: where was the last place you bought beets?

For me, it was my local farmers’ market. Very good they were, too. Lovers of good literature are still trekking to the corner store for those beets, bless their hearts, if in dwindling numbers, And in case nobody out there has noticed it, it’s only the sales of new books that are dismal — used books are, I’m told by thems as know, actually selling better since the beginning of the economic downturn.

See my earlier comment about reading the bathtub. It’s a socio-economic phenomenon worth considering, I tell you.

Soggy pages and beet salad aside, I am darned worried about the future — and present — of the working author. Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I skipped running my usual GREAT GIFTS FOR WRITERS WITH GREAT GIFTS series this year: right now, I think the best thing any of us can do to help ourselves or the authors we admire is to buy books by living writers.

Oh, any of the gifts I suggested in the GREAT GIFTS series (gathered for your convenience under the category of the same name on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page, should any of you still be trawling for gifts) would probably make a serious writer happy, particularly the one where kith or kin create time or space for the writer to, well, write. That invaluable present has the advantage of being either very expensive (some of the writers’ retreats out there are essentially resorts, and are priced accordingly) or very inexpensive (what writing parent wouldn’t love a hand-colored book of gift certificates for undisturbed writing hours from a 7-year-old willing to play quietly by herself?)

Yet for months now, whenever I have been asked to suggest a present, I’ve simply told the asker to run, not walk, to the nearest physical bookstore, preferably an independent one that truly supports living writers, like Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books or Portland’s Powell’s — both of which will happily issue gift cards in any amount, you know — and start exercising some literary taste toute suite. Because as I have said before here at Author! Author!, and shall no doubt say again, if we writers want a world where new voices can break into the biz, we need to keep buying books.

Speaking of which, a quick reminder: between now and the end of the year, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) author and hyper-generous soul Mary Hutchings Reed will be donating $1 per copy sold of her novel, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a Chicago organization providing pro bono legal services to emerging artists, as well as 50 cents per copy to the Seattle YWCA for its GirlsFirst project because, well, it’s a cause I like. Full details of the charity drive may be found here, but to whet your appetite for literature:

CKH_Cover FinalCourting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Please consider helping us raise some money for these very worthy causes, by the karma-fluffing means of — wait for it — buying a book by a living author. Amazon offers it both in hard copyand for Kindle. In case, you know, anyone wants to enjoy the irony of ordering the latter.

Better still, buy it “directly from the author or from a great independent bookseller like Village Square Books (and you thought I forgot your impassioned plea for indie booksellers, Pat! Never let it be said that a reader left a good argument in my comments in vain.)

If not this book, by all means, pick another. And another and another, selected from the part of the bookstore where you hope one day to see your magnum opus gracing a shelf. Because the best, the most unarguably successful means of convincing agents and editors that there’s a market for books like yours is for readers like you to buy, you guessed it, books like yours.

That’s enough preaching for one day, I think; I’m feeling quite winded. Before another coughing fit carries me off, let’s knuckle down for some more discussion of self-editing for pace.

Last week, we were chatting about the desirability of structuring your submissions to avoid that most subjective of pitfalls, being boring. The problem is, a lack of tension — an extremely common cause of ennui amid agency-habitué set — is one of the hardest traits for a writer to spot in her own work. Especially, for some reason, in novels and memoirs.

Partially, I think, this writerly blind spot tends to be the a side effect of working so hard on plotting. The protagonist needs to get from Point A to Point B in a scene, and if the narrative gets her there in a fairly expeditious and plausible manner, we tend to be satisfied.

For the first draft, anyway. Then, if we’re good revisers, we suddenly awake one fine morning and exclaim, “Wait — there’s more to telling this story than getting to the end of it, isn’t there? Might I conceivably make some changes that — dare I say it? — render the protagonist’s journey from A to B more enjoyable for the reader?”

Oh, you may laugh, but you wouldn’t believe how often it comes as a surprise to aspiring writers who eschew revision that the manuscript not only needs to be a good story well told, but entertaining to boot. “But my novel/memoir/analysis of the rise of the Visigoths isn’t meant to be merely entertaining,” these first-draft lovers exclaim indignantly. “This is a story that needs to be told. If potential readers just want to be entertained, they’ll simply flop down in front of their TVs or computers.”

Precisely. Wouldn’t you rather that someone who liked to read would pick up your book and continue to peruse it with pleasure than surf the internet for, say, beets?

Like it or not, part of the job description for being an author involves entertaining people, regardless of the type of book. Good writing beguiles, among other things; it should not bore.

Before any of you begin rolling your eyes and decrying the decline of literature, allow me to add: Robert Louis Stevenson (after whom my junior high school was named, perversely enough) once compared the working life of the professional writer to that of a fille de joie. (If you can’t extrapolate what that is, your parents probably wouldn’t appreciate my filling you in.) Readers, even those who prefer the most literary of literary fiction, the most serious political analysis, or, heaven help us, in-depth discussions of semiotic theory, engage in the practice because they enjoy it.

As a matter of marketing, not to say ethics, I think it’s self-defeating to blame them for that. Or punish them with turgid prose.

Am I being a bit too subtle here? Okay, I’ll take off the gloves and take another swing: it’s pretty apparent to Millicent the agency screener — and, indeed, any other professional reader — when a writer who does not care enough about his readers’ enjoyment of his book to revise, or even re-read, his own manuscript before submitting it. Among other things, an obvious first draft (and they are often very obvious indeed to Millie) sends a signal that here might be a writer who will kick and scream if an agent or editor asks for any revisions whatsoever.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s a radical conclusion based on some pretty scant evidence. But remember, Millicent’s job is first and foremost to reject manuscripts, not to give them a nice, long chance to entertain her.

I suspect, too, that many, many writers worry a touch too much about making their protagonists seem like nice people, at the expense of other, more risky character development. Manners are certainly delightful and desirable in individuals, but when courtesy takes over dialogue for any length of time, the result can be deadly. Take, for example, this sterling bit of prose:

Everett lifted his hat, a well-creased Homburg inherited from his father, a man known all across the Back Bay for his impeccably-groomed head. “I’m delighted to meet you, Maude.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” Maude waved him to a chair. “May I offer you anything to drink? Coffee, perhaps? Tea? I could sacrifice a goat.”

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Nothing, thanks.”

Maude began to burrow in her purse. “I suppose you are curious about why I asked you here.”

“I am, rather.”

Did you notice how the pace of the scene stopped DEAD after Everett thanked Maude? There was a palpable lull, from which the reader was only saved by all of that purse-rummaging. Pretty remarkable, given that one of the characters here is evidently not averse to a spot of blood-shedding.

I tell you, lovely manners can be death to a scene. Minimize their appearance.

Don’t believe me? Okay, glance over that micro-scene again. Are you at all curious about what happens next? Do you want to hear more about either of these characters? To be blunt about it, have you in fact learned anything from that group of 103 words (yes, I checked) that could not have been easily conveyed in all of its glory in the following 36?

“Coffee?” Maude asked.

Everett scanned the tiny dorm room; it contained neither refrigerator nor hot plate, and the ambient smell, while possibly at one time food-related, did not suggest grounds. “Why did you ask me here?”

See how much snappier the second version is? Here we see in action tried-and-true editors’ trick: don’t have the characters answer questions just because they are asked.

Seriously — it’s often an almost instant scene-enlivener. While of course it is polite in the real world to respond directly and promptly to the queries put to one, a narrative that exhibits a slavish adherence to having all questions answered the very instant after they are put — and having characters answer them absolutely directly, truthfully, and completely — can get boring FAST.

Why? Well, characters who do this–– as most characters in most novels submitted to agents and editors do, I tremble to report — are the last thing you want an interesting character to be: predictable. REALLY predictable.

Take another gander at the shortened scene. Does Everett come across as particularly impolite? Not really. Both characters still come across as relatively nice people, but now, the reader is not invited to dwell on their manners — which, by definition, are impersonal, rather than habits that reveal individual character, right? — but instead is drawn into the mystery of why Everett has been asked to this strange dorm room.

Let me repeat something I just mentioned parenthetically, because it may be on the final exam: manners, like clichés, are reflections of social norms, not individual characteristics. Therefore, while showing a character deviate from good manners or mangle clichés can be effective character development, cliché-spouting (dangerous even as a comic device, in a submission) and courteous speech actually do not tell the reader much about the characters who emit them.

So when your protagonist shows what a nice guy he is by saying please, thank you, and asking about acquaintances’ mothers’ respective healths, he is not actually revealing much who he is as a person. He might be demonstrating something about the people who raised him, of course — while no one can deny that part of Elvis’ complicated charm was that he called people older than himself “sir” and “ma’am,” the fact that he habitually did so was certainly his parents’ and teachers’ doing, right? — but part of the point of good manners is that they are used socially to avoid insulting anyone.

Or to put rude people in their place. That, however, is conflict, and needs to be shown explicitly in the narrative; remember, however vividly the speaker’s tone may be heard in the writer’s head, the reader can’t know about it unless it shows up on the page. If the narrative simply assumes that the reader will fill in the necessary details, Millicent is all too likely to conclude with a yawn that politeness on the page is simply good manners, not tastefully-concealed conflict.

That’s not such an unwarranted conclusion: let’s face it, courtesy is generic. Manners are most people means concealing a part of their true identities, at least in the moment. Complete honesty tends not to be polite — and, as anyone who has spent 20 consecutive minutes with a small child can tell you, politeness is the learned skill, not truth-telling.

While absolute truth-telling is actually rather rare in adult life, except in small bursts — please tell me that no one is shocked to hear me say that — small, inadvertent pieces of self-revelation are lovely, aren’t they? I love to find them in a new writer’s work, as evidence of a good eye and a sharp insight into human nature.

I am not alone in this; telling little details are beloved by professional readers, partially because a manuscript peppered with ‘em is actually rather a rarity to encounter.

A shame, really — but let me turn the question around to you: given the choice, would you rather read a page of dialogue that showed a protagonist SAYING one polite thing after another? Or a page that showed the protagonist talking about something else entirely, perhaps engaging in conversation that reveals something about his relationship with the person sitting across from him, or a passion of his own — and then showed him leap to his feet, without even thinking about it, to give his seat to his grandmother?

Put like that, the choice is kind of obvious, isn’t it? Sounds like the first cousin of those old workhorses show, don’t tell and actions speak louder than words. Or the now seldom-used adage from before the crowned heads of Europe began to tumble, You can tell a lot about a man by the kind of lace edging his shirt.

Hey, times change. So do standards of what is and isn’t boring.

How can self-editing writers tell if the manuscript in their trembling little hands incorporates enough of this kind of telling little detail? Ah, that is one of the great burning questions of the writing life — and a subject for a future post, my friends. Like, say, tomorrow’s.

In the meantime, try not to be depressed by the trends in the industry; do your bit, however, small, toward creating the kind of literary market you want. Come up with ways to delight your readers, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Are we there yet?

penguin light display

No, that’s not a computer-generated image of post-global warming penguin habitat; that’s what happens when your humble hostess’ hand slips while her mouse is on the brightness slider in iPhoto whilst playing with a picture she took of a neighbor’s holiday decorations. I rather like the result.

But let it be a reminder to us all: once an artist starts tinkering, the resulting revision may not end up looking very much like the original.

Sometimes, that’s all to the good. On a not entirely unrelated topic, last time, I waxed poetic on the subject of boredom.

Not your standard, garden-variety, oh-God-I-can’t-believe-there-are-still-forty-six-minutes-until-my-lunch-break ennui, but the more specific get ON with it! impatience that tends to infect agents, editors, and their screeners if a manuscript drags for more than, say, a quarter of a page at a stretch. Which is, as I’m sure has already occurred to you, an absurdly short amount of text upon which to base any judgment whatsoever. Yet as I pointed out in my last post, the standards by which the rest of the world, including that large segment of it that happens to read books, gauges boredom is not really applicable to your manuscript.

So an aspiring writer has a clear choice to make here: pace purely according to the needs of the story and one’s own personal internal metronome, or structure one’s book-length narratives, especially within their first few pages, with the expectation that they must pass muster even with a reader whose idea of a long wait for an elevator involves just enough time to remove her finger from the call button.

Not certain which route is for you? Here’s a small hint of the direction I would like to see you choose: your submissions will ultimately be more successful if you edit them with an eye to the industry-specific tolerance for slowness.

Did I just hear a groan of disbelief out there? “Wait just an agent-boring minute,” some of you who favor slower pacing exclaim indignantly, “I can’t open three books at my corner bookstore without finding pages upon pages of slow build-up. I’ve read award-winning novels where positively nothing happened until p. 42 — and even then, it was subtle. So there must be agents and editors out there who appreciate slower work. I just need to find them, right?”

Right, with caveats: such agents and editors do exist within the continental United States — but their numbers are hardly legion. Just how rare are they, you ask? You know that overworked metaphor about finding a needle in a haystack? Picture an entire barn, stuffed to the rafters with hay and a single needle.

Still enthused about hunting for it?

Don’t believe me? Fine. But if your pacing tends to be on the slow side, I cannot urge you strongly enough to run, not walk, back to the bookstore where you found those gently-paced domestically-produced books in your book category and take another gander at them. I’d bet an hour of hay-searching that they all exhibit at least one of the following characteristics:

(1)The book in question is not the author’s first published book.

(2) The book in question was not written by an author who is still living.

(3) The book in question was first published outside the United States.

(4) The book in question isn’t a novel.

“Ha!” a couple of book-perusers shout. “I’ve found a slow-paced book — singular — for which (1) – (4) are not true. Start combing that haystack, my friend!”

Not so fast; I wasn’t done with my list of conditions. Shall I venture a guess that the book in your hand is either

(5) not published within the last ten years,

(6) self-published, or

(7) represented by an agent who picked up the author more than ten years ago.

Scratching your heads, wondering how I knew? Let me take these factors one by one, reserving the most common for last.

Wildly different standards of pacing used to be applied to books (points 1, 2, 5, and 7), because the readers at whom new books were aimed had quite a bit more time on their hands than they do now, when their hands are full of Blackberries and iPhones.

Remember, until the 1990 census, the MAJORITY of Americans did not live in cities. How were you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm without a good book?

Now, the publishing industry aims very squarely for city- and suburb-dwellers. Commute readers, for instance, and the fine folks who listen to books-on-tape in their cars. These people have less time to read than, well, pretty much any other human beings in the whole of recorded history, as well as more stimuli to distract them, so agents and editors are now looking for books that will keep the interest of people who read in shorter bursts.

Millicent’s speed-reading habit is starting to seem less outrageous already, isn’t it?

At least, US publishers have swung in the direction of tighter pacing. In other countries (point 3), different standards prevail. Why, in the U.K., many pros consider it downright stylish for nothing to happen for the first 50 pages, a pace that would make anyone in a Manhattan-based agency reject it by page 4 at the latest.

Of course, self-publishing authors (6) need not concern themselves with prevailing pacing norms in the traditional published market. Yet since it’s SIGNIFICANTLY harder for author-financed books to gain shelf space at brick-and-mortar bookstores these days — most of the big chains, like most libraries, have traditionally-published books only policies — you might not encounter any at all in your bookstore crawl.

One also encounters slower pacing — and more uneven pacing in general — in nonfiction books (4), especially memoirs. This is often true even if the author is as American as apple pie, his agency as New York-oriented as Woody Allen, and his publisher as market-minded as, well, an NYC-based publisher. So why the tolerance for a slower NF pace?

Simple: nonfiction is not generally sold on the entire book; it’s sold on a single chapter and a book proposal. Thus, the agent and acquiring editor commit to the project before they have seen the final work. This allows slower-paced books to slip through the system.

Which brings me to the first on my list (and the last in most aspiring writers’ hearts), the comparatively lax pacing standards applied to new books by authors who already have a recognized fan base. Established writers have leeway of which the aspiring can only dream.

To be specific, the kind of dream where one rends one’s garments and goes on frustrated rampages of minor destruction through some symbolically-relevant dreamscape. The torrid penguin hell above, perhaps?

As I am surely not the first to point out, the more famous the writer, the less likely his editor is to stand up to him and insist upon edits. This is why successful authors’ books tend to get longer and longer over the course of their careers: they have too much clout to need to listen to the opinions of others anymore.

I’m looking at you, Stephen King. Although I am continually recommending your book on craft and keeping the faith to those new to the game.

A writer seeking an agent and publisher for a first book, particularly a novel, virtually never enjoys this level of power, unless she happens already to be a celebrity in another field. Indeed, at the submission stage, the aspiring writer typically does not have any clout at all, which is why I think it is so important for writers’ associations to keep an eye on how their members are treated. (At a good conference, for instance, the organizers will want to know IMMEDIATELY if any of the attending agents or editors is gratuitously mean during a pitch meeting. Seriously, tell them.)

Since the first-time writer needs to get her submission past the most impatient reader of all, the agency screener, she doesn’t have the luxury of all of those extra lines, pages, and chapters. The pacing needs to be tight.

How tight? Well, let’s just that only first-time authors ever hear that tedious speech about how expensive paper, ink, and binding have become.

Here’s some more bad news: the pacing bar has definitely risen in recent years, rendering most of the books currently taking up shelf space at the local megastore are not a particularly good guide to pacing for first-time novelists. Five years ago, the industry truism used to be that a good manuscript should have conflict on every single page — not a bad rule of thumb to bear in mind, incidentally, while you are self-editing. Now, the expectation is seldom verbalized, but agents, editors, and their screeners routinely stop reading if they are bored for even a few lines.

Particularly, as we saw in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE series earlier this year (conveniently preserved under the category of the same name on the archive list at right) if those few lines happen to lie the first page of the submission. Bearing that in mind, here are a couple of sensible questions for any self-editor to ask himself at the end of every paragraph — and to ask the trusted first readers to whom I sincerely hope each and every one of is are showing your work BEFORE submitting it to the pros to flag:

At any point in the preceding paragraph, has my attention wandered? Did I ever lose interest for more than, say, ten seconds?

Such questions are not a mark of authorial insecurity — the willingness to ask them is an indicator that an aspiring writer is being very practical about the demands of the publishing world now, rather than ten years ago. Or a century ago. Or in the U.K.

Hey, professional readers scan those pages closely; most Millicents are simply too overwhelmed with submissions say to themselves, “Well, I’m bored now, but maybe the pace will pick up in a page or two.” Don’t test her patience.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, I’m going to sign off for today; my last couple of posts have been, I’m told, a trifle long to wedge into the schedules of last-minute holiday shoppers. So I’m going to show that I can take my own advice and know when my writing should take up less space.

May the season be bright — and keep up the good work!

Excising redundant dialogue, or, there’s a reason Chatty Cathy is not the world’s best-selling doll

reindeer in motion

Last time, I eased our discussion of self-editing for pace toward that graveyard of many a promising manuscript submission and contest entry, problematic dialogue. Through the subtle means of showering you with example after example, I sought to nudge you, gently, into an appreciation of just how annoying redundant, non-character-revealing, or just plain dull dialogue can be to someone who reads manuscripts for hours on end. Like, say, Millicent the agency screener.

So I guess that, in a manner of speaking, this sprawling series on the art of revision is not only my holiday present to aspiring writers all over the English-speaking world, but all of the Millicents as well. God bless them, every one.

In the interest of making this the kind of present our Millie will really love, I’m going to turn the discussion toward a few types of dialogue that are particularly irritating to see for the 700th time. Let’s start with one that gets under her skin like wet sand under a swimsuit: the de facto monologue.

You know, the kind of ostensible dialogue that involves one character talking about something, while the other character doesn’t really add much to the conversation. It tends to run a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Sandy fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Jeff replied.

“I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”


“You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No.” Jeff was crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Sandy dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it? Or do you think that’s just blaming the victims?”

“Could be.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Jeff said, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Jeff serving in this conversation, other than listener? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of mostly colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious. We all know by now, I hope, how Millicent and her cohorts feel about that in a submission.

So if such lightly-disguised monologues provide neither character development, interesting inter-character conflict, nor, frankly, many sentences worth preserving for posterity, why are they so very popular with writers? Expediency, mostly: there’s no denying that having a protagonist, villain, or crucial minor character suddenly hold forth like Hamlet is a mighty efficient way to convey information to a reader.

But from the professional reader’s point of view, this use of page space is not efficient at all: it’s the narrative equivalent of having a play’s lead excuse himself to the other characters mid-scene, walk to the edge of the stage, and say, “Look, I really don’t have time to convey everything you need to know in dramatic form, so I’m simply going to tell you what would have happened in the next couple of scenes, okay?”

It’s not okay, at least according to Millicent. At the risk of sounding like everyone’s 9th-grade composition teacher, show, don’t tell.

Everyone clear on why that one is problematic? Okay, let’s move on to another that makes Millicent’s teeth grind: characters with catchphrases.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Sitcoms are famous for it, as are sketch comedy shows: a character, usually a comic one, repeats his stock statement at every available opportunity. And the audience laughs not necessarily because it’s funny, but because it’s familiar.

But I can tell you now that Millicent will not laugh. At all. Because to her, repeated dialogue is simply redundant. Not to mention a missed opportunity for character development.

How so? Here’s an axiom for the ages: because by definition, redundant text adds nothing new to a narrative. It merely takes up space.

Some of the comedy writers out there are grumbling into their eggnog over that one, I bet. “But Anne,” hilarity-mongers everywhere protest, “people constantly repeat themselves in real life.”

Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.

That answer didn’t mollify you, did it? “But isn’t realism valuable in and of itself? I know plenty of people who effectively have their own catchphrases.”

As do I, as it happens. In fact, I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.” Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual people say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”

A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. She was supposed to be visiting her mother sometime soon. She’s not married yet, is she?”

A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”

Me: (Seeking escape route.) Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to significant other, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

A: And how’s your mother?

Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.

B: Give my regards to your mother.

Me: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to Bobby.

A: Well?

B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right? Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life.

More to the point of this series, the boring bits of this ripped-from-reality dialogue would be significantly more difficult to edit out of a manuscript than a linguistic trope such as my old pal’s “like I said…” Cutting the latter would a particularly easy edit, not only because the writer could simply use the FIND function in word to excise it, but because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice).

But reworking the exchange above to render it snappy? That would take an almost complete rewrite. Nevertheless, one of the best places for a self-editor to start looking to trim manuscript fat — or even eliminate entire scenes — is generally in scenes taken directly from real life. Most writers cut-worthy include elements in such scenes simply because it happened that way, not because those elements or lines of dialogue add crucial elements to the scene.

To put it bluntly, blandness tends to linger in reality — and that’s potentially problematic at the submission stage. To paraphrase one of Millicent’s most frequent exclamations, via a quote from Nietzsche: “Against boredom, even the gods struggle in vain.”

While I think we can all agree Nietzsche would have made a lousy agency screener, this might be a good adage to bear in mind while preparing your manuscripts for submission. For one very simple reason: the average agent or editor’s maximum tolerance for boredom in a manuscript is approximately well under a minute.

Not a lot of room for fudging there. So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “Just wait until page 15 — it really picks up there,” you might want to give some thought to how to make your submissions more user-friendly for a reader with the attention span of an unusually persistent mosquito.

And THAT is why, in case you were curious, writing gurus urge students to begin their works with a hook, to establish interest right away. But capturing a reader’s interest – particularly a professional reader’s interest – is not like tag: once you’ve hooked ‘em, they don’t necessarily remain hooked. Think of maintaining interest as being akin to love: no matter how hard someone falls for you at first, if you do not keep wooing, that interest is going to flag sooner or later.

Too many aspiring writers take their readers’ interest for granted, an often-costly assumption. So let’s talk wooing strategy.

In the industry, the standard term for what keeps a reader turning pages is tension. All too frequently, tension is confused with suspense, and thus taken less seriously as a writing necessity by writers in other genres. Suspense is plot-specific: a skillful writer sets up an array of events in such a way as to keep the reader guessing what will happen next. In a suspenseful plot, that writing-fueled curiosity keeps the reader glued to the page between plot points.

Suspense, in other words, is why one doesn’t get up in the middle of a Hitchcock film to grab a bag of baby carrots from the fridge, unless there’s a commercial break. You want to see what is going to happen next.

Tension, on the other hand, can stem from a lot of sources, mostly character-generated, rather than plot-generated: the reader wants to know how the protagonist is going to respond next, a different kettle of fish entirely. Sometimes tension-rich dilemmas are plot points, but not always – and this gives the writer a great deal of freedom, since it’s a rare plot that can maintain a major twist on every page.

Or even every other page. (THE DA VINCI CODE, anyone?)

Some of the greatest contemporary examples of well-crafted, consistent tension in novels are the HARRY POTTER books. (Yes, I know that they’re for children, but children grow up, and it would behoove anyone who intends to be writing for adults ten years from now to be familiar with the Harry Potter pacing.) Actually, not a lot happens in most of the books in this series, particularly in the early chapters: kids go to school; they learn things; they have difficulty discerning the difference between epoch-destroying evil and a teacher who just doesn’t like them very much; Harry saves the world again.

Of course, the lessons they learn in the classroom ultimately help them triumph over evil, but that’s not what makes the HARRY POTTER books so absorbing. It’s the incredibly consistent tension. If J.K. Rowling’s publisher infused each page with heroin, rather than with ink, her writing could hardly be more addictive; there’s a reason that kids sit up for a day and a half to read them straight through. With the exception of the first 50 pages of the last book (hey, I’m an editor: it’s my job to call authors on their writing lapses), the tension scarcely flags for a line at a time.

Technically, that’s a writing marvel, a achieved not by magic, but by doing precisely the opposite of what the movie and TV scripts with which we’re all inundated tend to do: she gives her characters genuine quirks substantial enough to affect their relationships and problems that could not be solved within half an hour by any reasonably intelligent person.

Rather than making the reader guess WHAT is going to happen next, well-crafted tension lands the reader in the midst of an unresolved moment — and then doesn’t resolve it immediately. This encourages the reader to identify with a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) to try to figure out how that character could get out of that particular dilemma. The more long-term and complicated the dilemma, the greater its capacity for keeping the tension consistently high.

A popular few: interpersonal conflict manifesting between the characters; interpersonal conflict ABOUT to manifest between the characters; the huge strain required from the characters to keep interpersonal conflict from manifesting. Also on the hit parade: sexual energy flying between two characters (or more), but not acted upon; love, hatred, or any other strong emotion flying from one character to another, spoken or unspoken. Or even the protagonist alone, sitting in his room, wondering if the walls are going to collapse upon him.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for judging whether a scene exhibits sufficient tension: if you would be comfortable living through the moment described on the page, the scene may not provide enough tension to keep the reader riveted to the page. Polite conversation, for instance, when incorporated into dialogue, is almost always a tension-breaker.

“But wait!” I hear some of you slice-of-life aficionados out there cry. “I hate to be redundant with the questions, but shouldn’t dialogue EVER reflect how people speak in real life?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it should, insofar as good dialogue reflects plausible regional differences, personal quirks, and educational levels. I’ve heard many an agent and editor complain about novels where every character speaks identically, or where a third-person narrative reads in exactly the same cadence and tone as the protagonist’s dialogue. Having a Texan character use terms indigenous to Maine (unless that character happens to be a relative of our last president’s, of course) is very likely to annoy a screener conversant with the dialect choices of either area.

Yes, Virginia, the pros honestly do notice these little things. That’s one of the many, many reasons that it is an excellent idea for you to read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you mail it off; it really is the best way to catch this flavor of writing problem.

But it’s just a fact of the art form that the vast majority of real-life dialogue is deadly dull when committed to print. While the pleasantries of manners undoubtedly make interpersonal relationships move more smoothly, they are rote forms, and the problem with rote forms is that utilizing them absolutely precludes saying anything spontaneous. Or original.

Or — and this is of primary importance in a scene — surprising. Think about it: when’s the last time someone with impeccable manners made you gasp with astonishment?

Even rude real-life conversation can be very dull to read. If you don’t believe this, try this experiment:

1. Walk into a crowded café alone, sit down at a table near a couple engaged in an argument (not all that difficult to find at holiday time, alas(, and start taking notes.

2. Go home and write up their actual words — no cheating — as a scene.

3. Read it over afterward. Does it work dramatically? Is it character-revealing? Or do these people sound generic and their bickering dull?

99% of the time, even if the couple upon whom you eavesdropped were fighting or contemplating robbing a bank or discussing where to stash Uncle Harry’s long-dead body, a good editor would cut over half of what the speakers said. And if the two were in perfect agreement, the entire scene would probably go.

Why? Because real-life conversation is both repetitious and vague, as a general rule. It also tends to be chock-full of clichés, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, jokes that do not translate at all to print, and pop culture references that will surely be outdated in a year or two.

In a word: boring to everyone but the participants. It’s an insult to the art of eavesdropping.

“Boring,” of course, is absolutely the last adjective you want to spring to Millicent’s mind while she’s perusing your work. Even “annoying” is better, because at least then the manuscript is eliciting a reaction of some sort. But once the screener has a chance to think, “I’m bored with this,” if the next line does not re-introduce tension, chances are that the submission is going to end up in the reject pile.

That’s the VERY next line; you can’t count upon your manuscript’s ending up on the desk of someone who is going to willing to be bored for a few paragraphs. As a group, professional readers bore FAST.

How fast, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, my friends, but many of the fine people currently reading submissions across this great land of ours are disconcertingly capable of becoming bored within the first paragraph of a novel. Or, at the very most, by the bottom of the first page.

While we could talk all day about the ethics of agencies and publishing houses employing screeners and assistants with attention spans comparable to the average three-year-old’s — and I’m talking about a three-year-old who has just eaten two big slices of birthday cake here — I have to say, I’ve read enough manuscripts in my time to understand why: the vast majority of manuscripts suffer from an ongoing lack of tension.

Dull dialogue that does not reveal interesting things about the characters saying it is a primary culprit. I know, I know, being courteous SEEMS as though it should make your protagonist more likable to the reader, but frankly, “Yes, thank you, George,” could be spoken by anyone. It doesn’t add much to any scene. And reading too many pages of real-life dialogue is like being trapped in a cocktail party with people you don’t know very well for all eternity.

“Deliver us from chit-chat!” the Millicents moan, rattling the chains that shackle them to their grim little desks clustered together under those flickering, eye-destroying fluorescent lights. “Oh, God, not another attractive stranger who asks, ‘So, have you been staying here long?’”

At the risk of art’s imitating life this holiday season, I’m going to be talking about interpersonal — and inter-character — tension for the rest of the week. Keep that dialogue lively, everybody, and keep up the good work!

More of those telling details lifted from real life, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

camel in profile

Last time, in the midst of indulging my passion for telling details, I forgot to tell you about my recent holiday encounter with the camel pictured above. If this isn’t a story where the specifics provide all of the characterization needed…well, I let you judge for yourself. While you’re at it, why not continue our ongoing tradition of figuring out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer have been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — has plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, bellowing words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

Almost immediately, a bulbous man in shorts and a t-shirt appeared by my side. Despite ambient cold that left our breath visible, his exposed arms and legs were not even goose-bumped. “Come over here,” he barked at the little girl, dragging her along the fence until they were directly in front of Curly.

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? I doubted Curly would appreciate it.

Releasing the quivering child, the man — whose clothing, I noticed, was emblazoned with advertisements for a local band and Nike, not the nursery — abruptly reached up and over the chain-link fence, snapping his fingers. Placidly, Curly dipped his head, extending his hyper-mobile lips toward the hand.

Curious to hear what happened next, aren’t you? That’s a good indicator that a scene is paced well. See how selecting those details carefully, as we discussed yesterday, as well as not over-burdening the text with explanations, can increase suspense while simultaneously moving the plot along?

So why, I ask you, would our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #2? Because, I assure you, most Millicents would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the first and second paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraph #1 is in the present tense; paragraph #2 is in the past. Submissions and contest entries do that all the time. Sometimes, they even switch back within a paragraph or two.

Already, I can spot some raised hands out there. “But Anne,” adherents of variable tenses point out, and with some reason, “Paragraph #1 describes an ongoing condition, while paragraph #2 on focuses upon one-time events. Doesn’t that mean that the tense choices here are appropriate, or at least defensible?”

Good question, tense-switchers. Remember how I mentioned earlier in this series on self-editing that professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript? They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process. And, like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

You habitual tense-switchers are not particularly happy with that answer, are you? “Okay, so she’s detail-oriented, but this isn’t a writing mistake; this is a stylistic choice. So why would Millicent be annoyed by it?”

On its face, your logic is pretty sound, tense-switchers: it would indeed be possible, within the context of a civil conversation between author and reader, to justify the tense choices in the example above. A writer could very likely win an argument with, say, a writing teacher, critique group, or even an editor about keeping the switch in the text. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to submit pages with tense inconsistencies to Millicent — or to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: because the writer is seldom present when an agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge encounters his manuscript for the first time. Successful manuscripts and contest entries are thus those that do not require additional verbal explanation.

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. Why risk it?

Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer had been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to see, folks. It just requires a good proofreading eye to catch — and need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

I thought not. Let’s move on with the story, to see if we can catch any other Millicent-displeasers.

Delicately, politely, as if he were extracting an egg from beneath a mother hen, Curly took the man’s fingers into his gargantuan mouth. The hand did not budge. Curly paused meditatively for a few seconds, tasting, then sucked the hand into his mouth up to the elbow.

Instinctively, I took a step toward the child: if the object lesson about the dangers of violating animals’ personal space was about to go horribly awry, the least I could do was shield her from seeing the bloody denouement.

The man waved me back with his free hand. “See, Tanya?” he told the saucer-eyed girl. “They like people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”

“That’s right, sweetie.” A stringy-haired woman called from the nearby wreath display. “Be nice to the animals, and they’ll never hurt you.”

“You just have to learn what they like.” A helpful bystander kicked a crate toward the man’s feet, so he could follow his arm skyward. “Camels love sucking on things.”

Mentally, I began taking notes, in preparation for my inevitable testimony at a lawsuit. “I think she’s got the point. Maybe it’s time to back off now?”

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even more subtle than the last.

No? What about all of that redundancy in the dialogue?

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” several exclaim, “that’s how people talk in real life! You’re not gearing up to tell us that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Um, sort of. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on. Or just plain boring.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “haven’t we already talked about this in this series? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”


“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well.

But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in on the page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. If it isn’t either interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

One more insight, then I’m done for the day: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? Some part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth?

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now.

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense. In the case of my camel story, now would be a good time.

“Give me a boost,” the man asked calmly, but his eyes were beaming panic over his daughter’s head. Curly’s lips were exploring the first few inches of his t-shirt sleeve.

The crate-kicker and I complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man was freed.

He strutted his way down from the crate. “See?” he told the girl. “If you know what you’re doing, they won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm.

The moral, if I may venture one: just because something seems like a good idea at first blush doesn’t mean that it’s worth stubbornly adhering to it. One of the keys to successful self-editing is flexibility.

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Keep up the good work!

Details that tell it all, or, leaving on a jet plane

leaving on a jet plane

Throughout December, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been concentrating on craft issues, the nitty-gritty business of constructing and polishing a narrative. Specifically, because my magic bloggers’ antennae tell me that quite a few of you are planning to query and/or submit right after the new year (or, if you’ll take my advice, three weeks later, after all of the writers whose New Year’s resolution to get their work out the door have begun to flag a bit), I’ve been talking about self-editing.

Today, you may or may not be delighted to hear, is no exception. But before I launch into the hardcore theory part of our program, allow me to tell you a little story.

To set it up: I’ve been traveling a good deal lately, boarding plane after plane. (My ailing Grumpy Relative lives far away, alas.) Since the airlines have started charging to check bags, many passengers have simply begun wheeling their bulky suitcases down the center aisle, fighting with one another to find space for them in the overhead bins. During the holidays, this battle royale necessarily entails jostling some passengers’ shopping bags full of presents too delicate or valuable to pack in checked luggage. In the midst of this ongoing conflict between the crammers and the fearful, I set my tale.

After my companion and I were seated — he in 18B, I in 18C — I felt my chest tighten: the gentleman behind me had evidently bathed that morning in cologne. That, or he was a secret agent for the airline transit authority, testing the viability of toxic scents in rendering nearby passengers senseless.

A sympathetic flight attendant told me I could move if I could find an empty seat free of nerve agent. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack, wiggled my way into the center aisle, and began scouting.

Up by row six, I was brusquely pushed aside by a tall woman in cashmere. Hastily, I vaulted out of her way, which unfortunately placed me in the lap of the man in 6C. I apologized for treating him like Santa Claus (he didn’t seem to mind much), but I could not budge: the imperious woman was blocking the aisle too thoroughly while searching for a place to stow her immense roll-on luggage in the already crammed overhead bins.

A time-conscious flight attendant murmured in her wake, tactfully replacing the shopping bags the passenger was blithely flinging to the floor. “Could you please hurry, ma’am?” the flight attendant kept saying. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Clearly, though, that baggage had to be placed just so. As the passenger made her noisy way down the aisle, I was able to free myself of my human seat cushion. Trying to make my way back to my seat, I felt like the caboose in a slow-moving train.

By the time I could smell where I was supposed to be, the picky passenger had managed to free enough space in the bin above row nineteen to shove her suitcase inside. The flight attendant and I pushed from behind.

As I slipped, choking, into my assigned seat, the woman turned to the flight attendant. “Well, that’s a relief. Now you need to switch my seat assignment.”

The flight attendant looked at her blankly. “You’re in 6E.”

“Yes,” the woman said testily, “but my bag is back here. I’ll have to wait until everyone else gets off the plane before I can grab it. I need to sit next to it.”

Feeling both revolutionary levels of resentment rising off the rest of the passengers and my throat constricting from the cologne fumes, I knew my time had come. “She can have my seat!” I exclaimed, leaping to my feet. “I don’t mind coming back for my carry-on.”

The woman had plopped herself into my seat before the flight attendant could even nod. She thanked no one.

The flight attendant propelled me forward to row six before the picky passenger could change her mind. I gave the five extra bags of pretzels she slipped me to the man who had let me share his lap.

Amusing, I hope? Good, but as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! has probably already begun suspecting by the end of the first paragraph, I didn’t share that anecdote with you purely for entertainment value, or even to vent. (I thought the other passengers were going to attack the rude woman. She must have delayed our departure by 15 minutes.)

No, I’ve included this story here because it has an editing problem — several, actually. Any guesses?

Hands up if you think it is too long. Is the action/narrative ratio off? Do you think a swifter telling would have allowed the comedy inherent in the situation to come out more clearly, or would you have liked to see more internal reaction from the narrator?

Which is right? Well, it depends upon what kind of narrative it is — and where the scene is going. In a memoir, the reader expects the narrator’s character to be revealed through her reactions to the events around her, so I might well want to ramp that up. In a romance, the reader would probably want a slightly different focus, perhaps showing my companion’s dismay at being first left alone, then saddled with another seatmate, or more complex interactions with the gentleman with the lap.

If, on the other hand, this is a thriller, and the reader has some reason to suspect that one of the passengers on the plane is carrying something lethal, this semi-amusing bit of business is merely a way to prolong the suspense, right? In that instance, I would want to edit to speed up this scene.

Many self-editors, though, as well as a hefty percentage of writers’ group critiquers, would not take intended book category into account when making the decision to trim this scene. All too often, short and terse is deemed appropriate for any type of book.

But it doesn’t always work, because — wait, I’m going to let you see why for yourself. Here’s that scene again, winnowed down to a just-the-facts-ma’am telling.

After my companion and I reached our seats, I felt my chest tighten: the guy behind me reeked of cologne. I waved down a flight attendant to ask if I could change seats, and she said yes, but she was too busy to find one for me. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack and began scouting.

A woman shoved me into some guy’s lap in row six. She was trying to find an overhead bin to stow her luggage, but the ones near her seat were already crammed. The flight attendant kept urging her to hurry, since the plane couldn’t start taxiing until everyone was seated. I remained trapped in the guy’s lap until the woman had exhausted all of the possibilities near her seat and moved up the aisle, with the flight attendant replacing the items she had displaced.

The woman finally found enough space for her bag above row nineteen, just behind me. But before I could buckle myself in, the woman demanded to sit near her bag, rather than in her assigned seat.

The passenger and flight attendant had a small argument about it, causing the other fliers to express resentment. I offered to switch seats with her, in order to solve both of our problems. The flight attendant gave me extra pretzels; I shared them with the guy whose lap I had occupied.

Not a very effective editing job, is it? It’s precisely the same story, true, but most of its charm has evaporated. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “The humorous voice is gone!” lower that hand and pat yourself on the back with it. Very, very frequently, insecure self-editors will sacrifice narrative voice to pace, resulting in the kind of tale you see above.

But one of the main selling points a writer has for an agent or editor is freshness of voice! If it’s largely edited out, how is Millicent to know that this is a writer with an interesting and unique worldview?

If, on the other hand, you cried out, “In this version, the reader doesn’t really learn much about who these characters are or why this incident is important. It’s just a flat description of events,” you also deserve a pat on the back, because that’s also true. Characterization is another very frequent casualty of the revision process, because, well, it takes up room on the page.

I’m reserving today’s gold star, though, for those of you who noticed both of these problems, yet pointed out, “Hey, Anne, both of these examples share a flaw I’d like to see fixed: what are any of these people like? Admittedly, the second example exhibits much weaker characterization than the first, but most of these characters are one-note: the pushy passenger is rude, the flight attendant harried, and the guy with the lap vague. I’d find this story both more enjoyable and more plausible if the narrative showed them more. In fact, isn’t this a show, don’t tell problem?”

Wow, that’s one well-earned gold star. Both versions are indeed light in the characterization department.

Some lovers of terseness out there find that diagnosis a bit dismaying, I sense. “But Anne,” they protest, trying to keep their commentary brief, “isn’t the usual point of editing to cut out what doesn’t work? You admitted above that the original anecdote was a little long — won’t adding characterization just make it longer?”

Not necessarily — if the characterization is achieved not through analysis or lengthy descriptions, but through the inclusion of telling details. Such as:

The lanky woman seemed barely muscular enough to drag her leopard-print suitcase behind her, yet she surged up the aisle, flinging open every single overhead compartment on both sides as she passed. They gaped in her wake. The flight attendant leapt to keep the morass of holiday gifts, rolled-up winter coats, and overpacked suitcases from tumbling onto the passengers who had arranged their carry-ons so carefully just minutes before.

“Could you please hurry, ma’am?” she kept murmuring after every slam and between bites on her regulation pink-frosted lips. The first-class flight attendant was wearing the same color. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Thirteen sets of hanging doors later, the woman shoved aside a red shopping bag to make room for her suitcase. I helped the flight attendant wrestle the last three compartments shut before both of us provided the necessary muscle to inter the leopard. She did not thank us.

Obviously, these two paragraphs are not an adequate substitute for the entire story, but see what I have done here? The details provide characterization that neither the first version’s narrative reactions nor the second’s series of events showed the reader.

In this third version, however, the reader is neither left to fill in the specifics nor expected to guess what conclusions the author wants him to draw from these actions. The telling details make it perfectly plain that the lanky woman could not care less about anybody else’s comfort, feelings, or even rights: leaving those bin doors open behind her for the flight attendant and another passenger to close shows the reader what kind of person she is, just as the specifics about the volume of the luggage and the uniform lipstick, contrasted with the flight attendant’s consistent politeness, illustrate her dilemma, and the narrator’s automatically pitching in to help demonstrates her approach to the world.

Starting to get the picture? Good, because I’ve been yammering about telling details, albeit sometimes indirectly, all month.

But that’s appropriate, because telling details are the gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little details that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which telling little details appear in a manuscript is often one of the primary factors professional readers use in determining whether to keep reading.

Why? Well, more than almost any other device, they give the reader insight into the author’s worldview.

Sound like too amorphous a concept to be useful at revision time? It isn’t. A good writer sees the world around her with unique eyes, and — ideally, at least — powers of observation heightened to an extent that many non-writers would actually find painful.

This requires pretty sensitive nervous tissue, as H.G. Wells pointed out: he liked to call writers Aeolian harps (that’s a fancy way of saying wind chime, in case you were wondering), responding to our perceptions of the world through our art and, he hoped, making it better in the process.

Wells is now best-known for his science fiction, of course, but in his lifetime, many of his most popular novels were about social interactions. As I mentioned back on Veterans’ Day, his Mr. Britling Sees It Through was considered at the time THE definitive work on the British home front during the First World War. My favorite of his social novels is The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, a comedy about marriage and the establishment of decent, affordable apartment buildings for young working women.

Okay, so his political beliefs were not particularly well-hidden in his social novels. But his eye for social nuance — and social comedy — was exceptionally good.

The tiny little details that our sensitive nervous tissue lead us to notice — the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, as the song says — are a large part of what makes great writing seem almost miraculous to readers. Not everyone notices the worn-down heel of the left shoe of the man in his interview suit, after all, or the way the eyes of the president of the local charitable organization occasionally glaze with hatred while her mouth is loading the members with drippingly complimentary gushings.

Feeling special yet? You should: being aware of these telling little details is a gift, after all, an eye with which not very many human beings are endowed. Yet most writers don’t rely upon it nearly heavily enough in constructing their narratives.

And to someone whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, every day, seeing that gift wasted can start to get pretty annoying. “Where are those delightfully unexpected little insights?” the Millicents of the world think, running their fingertips impatiently down page 1. “Where is the evidence that this writer sees the world in a way that will change the way I see it myself?”

A tall order, yes, but — wait, do I hear some cries of distress out there? “Did you just say,” a strangled voice asks, “page ONE? As in my manuscript should produce evidence of my unique worldview and uncanny eye for telling little details that early in my book? Can’t I, you know, warm up a little?”

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s a series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1, a pretty sobering group of posts.)

Some of you may find the necessity for cajoling reading more than a few paragraphs from people who, after all, asked you to send a chapter or 50 pages or your entire book. If you’re a novelist, it can be especially galling: presumably, if your forté as a writer were brilliant single-page stories, you would be entering short-short competitions, not writing 400-page books, right?

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to this view. If I ran the universe, agents and editors would be granted an entire extra day per week, so they could read at least 10 pages into every submission they request. Writers would get an extra day, too, and lots of paid vacation time, so we could polish our work to our entire satisfaction before we sent it out.

And Santa Claus would tumble down my chimney to shower me with presents every day of the year, instead of just Friday morning.

Unfortunately, I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe. If we writers want to be successful, it behooves us to recognize that submissions are often read very, very quickly, and adapt our first few pages to that reality.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that. But before you condemn the rigors of the industry too vigorously, take a moment to consider the conditions that might lead to someone at an agency or publishing house to conclude that it would be desirable, or even necessary, to give a requested manuscript only a page to establish the author’s brilliance.

Lest we forget, Millicent the agency screener is the world’s most impatient reader, the one to whom you pray your manuscript will not be assigned: while some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millicent is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

It is now 12:10, she’s just noticed a run in her tights, and your manuscript is the next in the pile. How easy do you think it is going to be for it to impress her into reading past page 1?

I bring up Millicent’s foul mood not to scare you — but since a writer has absolutely no control over the mood of the person deciding whether to accept or reject his manuscript, it is worth preparing your submission so that it would impress EVEN Millicent at her most frustrated. That’s just good submission strategy.

Actually, I have a quite a bit of sympathy for the Millicents of the agenting world, as well as Maury, the editorial assistant who is her equivalent in publishing houses. They are expected to read reams and reams of paper very, very fast — and for this Herculean effort, they are not necessarily always paid. Often, in this harsh economy, this work is assigned to interns. If it’s the summertime, Millicent is probably on break from a good Northeastern college, someplace like Barnard, and since her parents can afford to support her while she takes an unpaid but résumé-building job, she’s probably from an upper-middle class background.

If it’s the rest of the year, or she has already graduated, she is probably paid — poorly — and lives in an apartment the size of a postage stamp with four other young people with similar jobs. Millie would not have gone into this line of work had she not liked reading — in fact, she may have writing aspirations herself, or she may want to become an agent or editor, so taking a job screening queries and submissions seemed like dandy on-the-job training at the time.

But now, after weeks on end of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of rather similar storylines, her capacity for appreciating literature has markedly dimmed. Sometimes, when she is especially cranky, a single line of awkward dialogue or two lines free of conflict can make her feel downright oppressed.

And your manuscript will have to get past Millie, and often also a senior assistant who has been screening manuscripts for even longer and has an even shorter boredom fuse, before it lands on the agent’s desk.

It had better not bore her.

Especially if, as occasionally happens, your manuscript is the next on her list to read immediately after she has broken up with her loutish boyfriend, she twisted her ankle clambering up from the subway, or she’s wondering how she’s going to pay the rent. And if poor Millie has just burned her lip on her non-fat double-shot tall latte…well, let’s just say that the first few pages of your manuscript had best be tight.

And feature at least a few delightful little details that will make Millicent sit up, forgetting her bright magenta lip, and cry, “Eureka! This writer showed me something I’ve never seen before, presented in magnificent, clear prose! Forget my lunch date — I have something to READ!”

The miracle of talent, as Mme. de Staël tells us, is the ability to knock the reader out of his own egoism. Let your first pages be living proof of that.

I think you have it in you; that gift of insight is what made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Don’t let the difficulties of the submission process dim that mission. Millicent, and readers everywhere, will be the better for the originality of your insight.

Show it to the world; don’t leave Millicent wondering about it. Oh, and share those overhead bins, please — that space is for everybody, and some of us are transporting glassware. Keep up the good work!

Am I hallucinating, or is the screen going wavy again?

oil spill on beach

Did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in yesterday’s post? Nobody left a comment about it, so I assume nobody noticed. Or perhaps those who did were merely too kind to point it out. Any guesses?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous cry of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad since first I read that otherwise excellent post. It was a post on conceptual redundancy that was itself conceptually redundant. You had already lectured us about the dangers of repeating salient plot points in a post the previous week. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener.

Or indeed, like most people who read manuscripts or contest entries on a regular basis. She and her ilk wouldn’t merely have noticed my conceptual redundancy over the course of a week; she would have been outraged by it.

“In heaven’s name, why?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did yesterday, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is often a signal that some editing is needed.

You can feel your homework coming, can’t you?

Who am I to disappoint you? Here it is:

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submission tend to get rejected in the early pages (thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often), page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you want to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) After you finish, go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on?

In answering that question, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.

(5) Go back and re-read the pink sections. Are all of them actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason.

Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips. Save something for the sequel.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

This is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. All too often, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who include the real: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear about everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Okay, that’s enough looking backward for today. Time to move ahead.

Of course, in order to do so, I’m going to need to backtrack a little first. In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut. Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. Note just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, please, and keep up the good work!

Let’s hear it one more time! (Or maybe not.)

Nixon on peter pan ride

Did my odd mid-week hiatus leave you wondering if I had slipped off for some holiday merry-making? No such luck; just swamped with work. That, and being comatose with depression over some recent news, international, national, and personal. I doubt 2009 is a year I shall remember fondly.

Or that writers in general will: this was the year that advances plummeted, especially for first-time authors. I was reading only just today that in the UK, advances as low as £500 on debut novels are now considered acceptable, even from major publishing houses. Lest those of us on this side of the pond are tempted to feel superior, the average advance for first-timers has dropped between 30 and 50%, although advances to authors already on the bestseller lists continue to spiral upward.

As the old-timers used to say: don’t quit your day job until someone other than your mother is buying copies of your work. To which I would add the latter-day caveat: and that work is your fifth book.

Sorry to be the bearer of such awful news, but I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers with completely unrealistic expectations about what publishers are willing to pay for brilliant writing. Many sincerely believe that it’s routine for writers who have successfully sold a first book to quit their proverbial day jobs the next day, but honestly, it’s been true for a long time that advances, especially on first novels, tend to be more in the new car range than the retire-for-life range.

And recently, they’ve been in the used car range, unless the manuscript happens to be one of the few that sells at auction. That’s just what it says on the box: if more than one publisher is interested in a book — a logistical impossibility for novels agents choose to submit, as many do, to only one editor at a time — then they will bid against each other for the rights. If the competition is fierce, that price can go quite high, of course, but for a first-time author, that’s pretty rare.

Why? Well, think about it: publishers can make educated guesses about what readers will buy, but there’s no way to know for certain, short of hopping on a time machine, what’s going to be the hot book a couple of years from now, right? So given the choice of shelling out up front for a book by an author who already has an established readership and one whose work is brand-new to bookstores, they tend to opt for the former.

All the more so in the last couple of years, when authors are increasingly being held responsible for promoting their own books, something considerably easier for an established author to do. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, wait a minute — if advances are dropping like stones, where is the small-but-serious author to get the resources to promote her own book?” congratulations; you’re understanding the current dilemma of many an exceptionally talented published author.

Starting to see why most published authors don’t quit their day jobs? And why staring glumly at the Senate health care debate on C-SPAN might have seemed like the least depressing way to spend a few hours than blogging about writing?

So how do the authors making a living at it make a living at it? For fiction, usually by having a number of books out. And teaching. And promoting the heck out of their books. Or by writing in different book categories, up to and including nonfiction.

For nonfiction, the picture is a trifle less grim, and remains so. That’s largely because (a) historically, it’s been easier to sell nonfiction than fiction, except for memoir, (b) a nonfiction writer doesn’t have to write the entire book before selling it, and thus can potentially market proposals for several different books in any given year, and (c) unlike fiction, which is typically sold on a finished manuscript, nonfiction writers are often paid to write the book before they’ve written the book (see point b). Yet even there, publishers are becoming increasingly cautions, even to the point of canceling long-established book contracts — especially the later books covered by multi-book contracts — if they’re not absolutely positive that the books in question will sell well.

See earlier comment about advances rising for bestselling authors. We writers often forget just how much greater a gamble taking a chance on a new writer actually is.

I mention all this not because misery loves company, but because writing a novel is so many day-job-having writers’ plan B. And plan Bs — and Cs and Ds and Qs — tend to get trotted out in a slow economy. Which, perversely, means that there’s simply more competition for the increasingly few publishing slots in any given year, both at the publishing house and agency level.

Translation: it’s been harder than usual to find an agent or sell a manuscript this year in the English-speaking world. Significantly harder. Just ask all of those published authors toiling away at their day jobs.

So please, as the year and the decade wind down, don’t fall into the trap of judging your writing purely by the yardstick of whether an agent fell in love with it, or an editor was able to move an editorial committee to cough up a couple of thousand dollars for the rights. Plenty of good books, plenty of brilliant books, even, got rejected this year.

Keep your chin up, literarily speaking, and remember: there will be other years. Recessions don’t last forever.

So what does a savvy-but-depressed writer do while waiting for advances to rise again? Why, the same thing one does during the annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s publishing world slow-down: work on one’s craft. And revise, revise, revise, so one’s manuscript’s chances are even better in the year to come.

Let’s hear some enthusiasm, people. I, for one, am raring to go.

Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. The screen goes wavy, and I see it all before me: I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all brown eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. Not that I was particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story, even then; the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean. Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives remained dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride; it was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. And the longer we stood in line, the less enthused I became.

Why, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!” After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions.

By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth; it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, walk into a popular café during a midwinter cold snap and count the variations on, “Wow, I’m cold?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to incessant repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up and excise all of that ambient redundancy.

Okay, not really. But it does make Millicent the agency screener mutter into her too-hot latte, “I KNOW that. Move on!” more than the average submitter might like.

At base, conceptual repetition is another trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.

Who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being an astronaut or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a depression-avoidance project for a rainy winter day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.

Okay, it’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!