The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part II: consistency, consistency, consistency. And did I mention consistency?

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A quick reminder before we get begin today’s free-for-all: this coming Monday, May 31, is the deadline for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. To allow each and every one of you to squeeze every last second of productive time out of your Memorial Day weekend, entries do not need to be date-stamped until midnight in your time zone.

I would especially love to see entries from those of you who have spent the last couple of weeks reading my super-close analysis of a reader’s opening pages and slowly turning bright green with envy: here is your chance to subject YOUR first page to similar scrutiny, free, gratis, and without charge. And not only my scrutiny, either: the quite genuinely fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the newly-released YA novel WHISPER, has graciously agreed to join me in this critiquing venture.

The complete rules, should you care to take a peek at them, may be found here. We shall now rejoin the blog already in progress.

Yesterday, as sometimes happens, the universe obligingly stepped up and provided me with a simply delightful metaphor for what we were already in the depths of talking about here at Author! Author! Accompany me, if you will, to the wildlife-harboring, honeybee-attracting, neighbor-annoying thicket of blackberry bushes that spans the wee creek running outside my house.

Okay, so maybe the snapshot above doesn’t really give you much of an idea of it. If you squint at that mass of green behind the trees, though, you may see the yellow glint of raccoon eyes.

Due to a brisk little bout of rezoning a few years back, all of the land above us on our hill has been concreted or asphalted over, so we like to keep some of our yard wild for the sake of the critters. (Also, so the abundant local rainfall has someplace to go — hasn’t anyone else noticed that as more and more land is paved and built over, overflowing rivers have less and less ground to suck up excess? Why is anyone surprised that flooding ensues?)

Not all of our neighbors are crazy about our impromptu wildlife sanctuary. Why, only last autumn, one set of civic-minded folk expressed their aesthetic opinions by flinging a large wooden pallet formerly used for their building materials into the aforementioned blackberry bushes.

I was all for moving it immediately: it was partially on public land. What if, I asked my significant other, the city suddenly took it into its collective head to cut back the part of the thicket that impinges upon the road, as it occasionally does? Once the blackberries grew over the pallet, wasn’t a sleepy public employee only too likely to run his mower smack into it? And since I was neither physically strong nor raccoon-repellent enough to extricate the pallet from its green grave myself (wildlife interprets my cries of “Shoo!” as “Here’s your dinner!”), was my SO not the logical candidate to head off that municipal disaster by moving the silly thing before, say, any city-owned machinery were permanently incapacitated and we were fined?

In the time-honored tradition of inter-spouse communications all over this great land of ours, my SO chose to regard these questions as purely rhetorical. He must have found them interesting food for thought, however, if not action, as the pitter-patter of tiny raccoon feet on wood slats prompted me to repeat these questions roughly once per month. I can only attribute his not actually doing anything about the pallet to a great and abiding love of the sound of my voice — and to an oft-expressed opinion that the neighbors should clean up their trash themselves.

Yesterday, about a month after the neighbors in question had moved away (much to the relief of local wildlife), I was startled from my daily creative reverie by the immistakable racket of heavy machinery being driven up our hill by someone rather unused to the task. The clipper attachment dragged on the ground.

I went running into my SO’s study. (Actually, I limped slowly, due to my recent back injury, but allow me a bit of creative latitude here.) “They’ve come for our blackberry bushes! Did you ever manage to move that pallet?”

He admitted that he had not; the neighbors, he said, should have taken care of it. Upon further questioning and a spirited discussion on the nature of reality vs. wishful thinking and the annoying imperatives of linear time, he was heard to opine that it was now too late now to do anything about it.

Well, as long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, quite well aware, I’ve never been a big fan of letting fixable problems just lie there. Upon my repeated urgings, he begrudgingly invested the roughly 2 1/2 minutes required to shout at the operator to stop, free the pallet, and moving to our garbage bin. He explained glibly throughout about the nature of linear time and our deadbeat ex-neighbors’ ethical shortcomings.

The municipal handyman was effusively grateful. “I never would have seen that. It would have smashed up my machine.”

“Naturally,” my SO said, with a perfectly straight face. “Anyone could have predicted that.”

What does this little domestic homily have to do with our ongoing discussion of necessary manuscript revisions, you ask? Why, I should have thought that was obvious: if you wish to please a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, there’s just no substitute for taking the time to learn the rules of grammar, spelling, structure, and formatting, incorporate them consistently into your text — and then, before you submit your manuscript, double-checking how you have implemented those rules by reading your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, that wasn’t your first thought after reading that anecdote? How puzzling. What about if I put it this way: if you know the rules but don’t implement them every time, you should expect Millicent to be annoyed when she stumbles over them in your submission.

But most of us writers don’t expect that, do we? In fact, even the submitters of the most egregiously error-prone manuscripts and contest entries are both astonished and hurt when agents, editors, and contest judges respond as though not unprofessionally-presented writing were bad writing, or as if an apparently unproofread first page were an infallible indicator of a manuscript rife with spelling, grammatical, and logic problems.

To spare anyone reading this any shocks in future: they will respond that way, predictably. In their minds, it’s the writer’s job to free a manuscript of distracting errors, rather than a professional reader’s job to try to see past those errors in order to discover new writing talent.

And it’s not enough to present your writing professionally in some parts of your manuscript and not others, either; a pallet hidden deep in the weeds is as likely to wreck the machinery as one left out in the open. But if the inflexible rules of spelling, grammar, and connective logic are the necessary foundation of a strong submission, consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice.

Just in case I’m being too subtle about what this means for submissions: the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in manuscripts, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, style, or tone — and with good reason. People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: as a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

Why is it such a rare sight? Well, think about it: very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Or memoir. Or any other type of book, for that matter. It’s not even all that uncommon for a good writer to finish the first draft of her first novel, only to discover that her voice is significantly stronger, or even quite different, at the end of the book than at the beginning.

That should not surprise us very much, should it? After all, no one is born a technically perfect writer. And even after a writer has honed her professional toolkit, consistent authorial voice requires work to produce — and usually quite a bit of revision and re-reading.

Those of you who write only when you feel inspired are squirming right now, aren’t you?

I’m not astonished by that reaction — all too often, we writers talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

Voice is more than self-expression, a way of writing a sentence, or even inspiration: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to the Frankenstein manuscript, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

A Frankenstein manuscript, for those of you joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

To forestall your getting blank looks at writers’ conferences, I should hastily add: this is my personal nickname for such a book, not an industry-wide moniker. (Although since this blog has readers in circles in circles that might surprise you, the term has been gaining currency over the last couple of years.) I assure you, however, every single agent and editor currently working in North America is aware of the phenomenon and dreads it — because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Especially, alas, a writer so excited by an agent’s request for materials that he simply prints out the latest version of his manuscript and sends it off right away. Regardless of where it might happen to be in the revision process, getting it out the door before the requesting agent changes her mind seems more important than taking the time to make sure that each and every revision has been implemented consistently all the way through the manuscript.

I won’t make those of you who have fallen into this trap, only to kick yourself later, raise your hands. You know who you are.

The fact that aspiring writers generally don’t realize that their manuscripts are uneven should not surprise us unduly, right? Writing a book takes a long time: authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK — which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: there is absolutely no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, pronto, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Again, not precisely a surprise, is it?

But for most aspiring writers, tackling an entire manuscript, even if its their own, is a rather overwhelming prospect — so much so that many simply dismiss the idea of reading their own manuscripts in their entirety, much less fixing them, as impracticable. To assuage some of those fears, let’s embrace the old-time editors’ trick of attacking only one manuscript megaproblem at a time.

Seriously, revision is a process, not a one-time deal: breaking up that immense task into bite-sized pieces and eating them one at a time is far more sensible than trying to force your psyche to think about every conceivable problem in a 400-page manuscript simultaneously. Worry about the totality of the diagnosing and revising down the line — just for now, focus on only one easily fixable gaffe and repair that.

You can read through your work, searching for only a single problem, can’t you? Piece o’ proverbial cake.

Then, after you are positive that your manuscript is perfect in that respect, pick another megaproblem and work on that — for every page of the manuscript, so you may be absolutely positive that you haven’t missed anything. Repeat as often as necessary. When you are pretty sure that you’ve systematically rooted out all of the ongoing problems, sit down and read your manuscript — wait for it — IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any remaining Frankenstein tendencies.

Sound time-consuming? It is. But it’s far, far less likely either to drive you mad or lead you to throw up your hands in despair and abandon the book altogether than trying to tackle a universal revision in one fell swoop.

Don’t shrug off the latter danger as improbable, please: revision burnout is a very real phenomenon. I’ve seen many, many more promising manuscripts tossed into trash cans by their writers out of despair over how long revision might take than out of anger at rejection.

In the spirit of incremental progress, let’s begin with a single, extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery with an eye to rooting it out of the manuscript: the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past.

In fiction, the explanation for this phenomenon is usually pretty straightforward: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one writing in the present tense of events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops. What an annoying-yet-easily-fixable problem.

Spotting this particular Frankenstein problem is great practice for sharpening your editorial eye, because once you’re on the look-out for improper tenses, they will just start leaping off the page at you. (Hint: don’t try to catch them on your computer screen; sit down with a hard copy of your latest draft and a highlighting pen.) Quite quickly, you’ll begin to regard those tense slips in the same light as Millicent does: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Fair warning: sometimes tense slips are intentional. Sometimes — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can rapidly become darned confusing for the reader. To illustrate how and why, let’s take a gander at a favorite (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example of mine, Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage. Since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

As a well-established nonfiction writer, she was, obviously, able to get away with this choice, but that does not necessarily mean that the writer of a first book could. As we have often discussed, the standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit more stringent than those for the folks already in it. So it would behoove you to consider this authorial choice very carefully before submission: when most aspiring writers slip around in time, it’s because they’re trying to mirror the patterns of common speech or believe that actions described in the present tense are more immediate to the reader.

While you are weighing your revision options, you might want to bear in mind that Millicent (a) tends not to be all that big a fan of narrative text that reads just like the spoken word UNLESS the manuscript is written in the first person singular, and (b) very few professional readers believe that ordinary readers are sufficiently now-oriented to prefer the present tense to the past. (“Wait — this isn’t happening right now? Why should I pay attention to it, then?”)

And then there’s the very real possibility that Millicent will simply assume that any slips between tenses are not a narrative choice, but a mistake. A mistake made by — chant it with me now, readers — a writer who did not bother to read his submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to make sure that the tense choices are consistent.

I like using THE WORDY SHIPMATES as an example of this dilemma, as it is one of the rare cases where reviewers were as uncharitable to a well-respected author’s efforts as Millicent would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the New York Post’s reviewer commented dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript.

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea at the composition stage. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant to the reader.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked — which irritated me, as this is an author for whom I harbor a great deal of ongoing respect. As a reader, though, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

But some of you out there share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past, don’t you? Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years (particularly short stories) that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. A reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts. Even the most minimal tense slip-up runs the risk of yanking the reader out of the world of the book and back into mundane reality.

All that being said, tense choices are entirely up to the author — if you love the present tense and feel it’s the best means of telling your story, by all means write in it. I ask only one thing, for your own sake: if you’re going to write in the present tense, do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best, and poorly revised at worst. So unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — assume that he’s going to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake, and an easily preventable one, at that.

Am I suggesting that you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer? Well, I hate to seem cynical, but it’s usually simpler to break into the book market that way. (The norms of the short story market remain quite different, I am grateful to report.) Many a well-respected literary luminary has cut his teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting, then moved on later to challenge the language.

Hey, Nobel laureate José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods. Do you honestly believe that a first-time writer could have gotten away with the same trick?

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less exacting standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Next time, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Millicent, may I introduce the Frankenstein manuscript, scourge of revisers everywhere?

bride meets frankenstein

For the last week and a half, I’ve been going over a real, live manuscript with the same variety of fine-toothed comb that Millicent the agency screener, Maury the editorial assistant, and Mehitabel the veteran contest judge so frequently pass around amongst themselves. While the experience of seeing just how closely professional readers scan manuscripts can be quite scarifying for a writer new to the game, just being aware that no gaffe, however small, is likely to pass unnoticed under Millicent’s watchful gaze can render that poor, trembling, crestfallen writer a significantly better reviser for the rest of his writing life: never again will he assume, as the vast majority of aspiring writers seem to do, that pretty good is close enough where submissions are concerned.

Or, to put it another way: perfect formatting, impeccable spelling and grammar, and a flowing, likable narrative voice are the minimum requirements for Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel to admire a manuscript, and a legitimately gripping hook, an interesting protagonist(s), and an intriguingly conflict-ridden plot are generally necessary to keep them reading beyond page 1.

This is hardly a well-kept secret, right, accessible only to those brave enough to climb to the top of Manhattan’s tallest building, turn around three times, and sacrifice 17 first editions of PEYTON PLACE on a bonfire to the literary powers that be? In these days of easy Internet access and free dissemination of information, an aspiring writer could hardly make it through the first 20 entries of a web search under getting published without learning that the competition is so fierce for agents these days that the average Millicent sees hundreds of technically perfect submissions in any given year.

Yet most aspiring writers submit manuscripts that fall short in one or more of these areas — and then are astonished when their work is rejected. Whether they admit it openly or not, they had been operating on the presumption that if the writing were stylish enough and/or the story intriguing enough, professional readers everywhere would be perfectly willing to overlook every other manuscript problem.

In fact, most aspiring writers are downright indignant when they first learn that this is not the case. I hate to be the one to break it to you (although that’s never stopped me before, has it?), but to Millicent and her ilk, technically flawless presentation of writing is simply a quality of professionalism, not the ultimate goal of a collaborative editorial process that happens mostly after a writer lands an agent.

Have I convinced you yet that proofreading before submission might be a prudent notion? Think about it: how are you ever going to know for sure how stylistically strong your writing is until it is free of distracting gaffes?

How distracting are those so-called little things, from a professional reader’s perspective? Let’s take a peek at what might happen if the first page of one of the great classics English literature if it happened to land on Millicent’s desk before she’s had her second cup of coffee?


See? Even a great story well told could use a little presentation help. Or at least a touch of updating: norms of literary style vary over time, like any other aesthetic trend.

I wanted to bring that up, on the off chance that any of you should be trying to land an agent for an aggressively 19th-century style novel. Or in case anyone had been casting about for a comeback for the next time that guy standing next to you at that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America starts griping about how the publishing world isn’t really interested in literature anymore. Why else, he reasons, could anyone possibly have rejected his manuscript?

Even without reading it, I would be willing to hazard a guess: the little things. And probably not just one or two of ‘em, either.

What makes me so sure of that? Well, experience: although submissions get rejected all the time for what most writers would consider nit-picky reasons, it’s virtually unheard-of for any manuscript to have only one problem. As we like to say here at Author! Author! — like ants, writing problems seldom travel alone.

That’s vital for a submitting writer to understand, particularly in these decadent days, when even entire manuscripts are frequently rejected with no explanation at all — or, still worse but increasingly common, rejected without even so much as a form letter notifying the writer. Because it’s so easy to guess wrong when casting about for a rationale, I would STRONGLY caution any aspiring writer against leaping to the conclusion that any single problem, formatting or otherwise, was the only reason a manuscript was getting rejected. As we have seen in recent posts, Millicent’s decision to reject is often based upon quite a few reasons working in tandem.

Which is why, unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon for your garden-variety Millicent, Maury, or even Mehitabel to come to believe that an improperly-formatted manuscript, or one containing a few misspellings, will inevitably turn out to be poorly-written overall. In their experience, it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that changing only one thing, even a major one, in the average manuscript would render it rejection-proof.

There is no such thing as a rejection-proof manuscript, you know. While it would indeed be delightful if there were a magical formula that could be applied to any manuscript to render it pleasing to every Millicent currently screening manuscripts, that formula simply doesn’t exist; individual tastes and market trends vary too much. Not to mention the fact that the slow economy is making most agents and editors really, really cautious about picking up any first manuscript at all right now.

Even, alas, very clean ones, free of formatting problems and grammatical mistakes. At the moment, no first-time author is getting a free ride. But you can bet your boots that the ones that are getting picked up are being selected from amongst the cleaner manuscripts.

But clean doesn’t mean devoid of individual style, right? Right? Do stop erasing adverbs from your tag lines long enough to answer me.

It’s most helpful, I’ve found, to think of revising your manuscript as clarifying your style, rather than forcing your story and voice into some mythical conception of perfect writing, the color of which Millicent happens to be thinking while she’s screening manuscripts. Like standard format, manuscript cleanliness is not a magic wand that can be waved over a submission to make every agent, editor, and contest judge on the face of the earth squeal with delight at the very sight of it.

It’s merely is a means of presenting your writing professionally, so Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel will be able to weigh it on its non-technical merits.

Or, to put it another way: taking the time to clean up your manuscript will make it less likely that your submission will be rejected on a knee-jerk basis. But it’s just a fact of publishing even a perfectly clean manuscript is going to garner its share of rejections, if it’s sent out enough.

So what should a savvy submitter be editing toward, over and above minimizing the more notorious of Millicent’s pet peeves? Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a secret of good writing: it flows smoothly. A compelling narrative voice is a consistent one.

Pulling that off is a lot harder than it sounds, you know; a seamless narrative is virtually always the result of many, many careful attempts at revision. The more successful those attempts, the less labored the result will seem — and the more writers brand-new to the writing game will derive the quite mistaken impression that their favorite books were their respective authors’ first drafts, and thus (they assume) that their own first drafts should be marketable without further revision.

That’s an unfortunate misconception, because the author of a well-crafted narrative works hard to create the illusion of spontaneous consistency. Awfully hard. Seamlessness doesn’t happen by accident, you know.

I blame the stubbornly pervasive real talent = first draft so good it needs no tweaking myth for the fact that many aspiring writers become quite testy when even manuscript faults easily discovered in a quick proofreading are pointed out to them. “Oh, the little stuff doesn’t matter,” they insist when some kind soul takes it upon herself to explain that the period belongs within the quotation marks, not after them, or that while a .75 inch bottom margin may well shrink the length of an overlong manuscript, Millicent is quite likely to see through the ruse. “The technical problems can be cleaned up later. All a good agent (editor, contest judge) will really care about is a good story well told.”

Had that ever actually been the case in publishing history — and offhand, I can’t think of a period when these were the only criteria for getting published — a good ten percent of the manuscripts Millicent sees every year would get snapped up immediately. The author would provide the story and the overall voice, and some luckless soul confined to the bowels of the publishing house would be assigned to excise all of the misspellings, grammatical problems, logic problems, continuity problems, storytelling problems, and all other text-based snafus prior to publication.

All the author would have to do is cash the royalty checks and show up to the occasional book-signing. Unfortunately, the publishing world doesn’t work like that.

In the first place, the average agent is not in a position to pick up the 10% of submissions that are well-written — or even her 10 favorite manuscripts of the year, usually. In the current literary market, most agents are picking up just a few clients per year. Given the choice between signing a client who produces impeccably-edited manuscripts and one whose work needs extensive revision, which would you choose?

Or, to put it another way: had you considered applying to medical school instead of trying to land an agent? Your chances of getting accepted are quite a bit higher.

In the second place, as publishing profits have dropped lower and lower — and it was not all that profitable a business to begin with — fewer and fewer people are charged with shepherding a manuscript from acquisition to publication. It’s a rare editor who has the time to proofread, much less the inclination. Consequently, the value of a writer who can (and does) produce beautifully-edited pages all on her own grows greater with each passing day.

Or, to put it another way: expect to be 100% responsible for copyediting your own work — and for book promotion as well, most likely. Your editor will probably make general revision suggestions, but bringing the finished manuscript up to professional standards is ultimately going to be up to you.

I’m not bringing all of this up merely to depress you, contrary to what 2/3rds of you had been thinking very loudly indeed throughout the last few paragraphs — although frankly, given how radically speakers at most writers’ conferences soft-pedal these realities, I suspect a little well-timed depression-inducement might keep a lot of aspiring writers from assuming that the only possible reason that their work hasn’t landed them an agent is the writing quality. I’m bringing it up so writers may begin to come to terms with the reality that revising your writing is not extraneous to the writing life; it’s an integral requirement of it.

And when I say revising, I mean reworking your pages under the assumption that your target reader’s eye is as critical as this:

page 2 comments

Or, to put it another way (and if the repetition of that phrase automatically made your teeth grind this time, congratulations; you’re starting to read like a professional): it’s in your competitive interest to assume an uncharitable first reader. This places the onus for presenting your writing in its best light squarely where it should be: on you, the writer.

Yet even as I typed that last paragraph, I could feel all of this excellent (if I do say so myself) advice bouncing off the heedless many who simply submit whatever opening pages they happen to have saved on their hard disks at the moment an agent requests materials, even if those pages haven’t even been proofread or spell-checked yet. Yes, well-meant guidance ricochets straight off those people, landing instead upon the already beleaguered heads of compulsive revisers everywhere.

You know who you are: you’re the ones who gasp every time I start a new series of revision tips, scurry toward your manuscripts, and stay up half the night revising. You not only spell-check and proofread — you’ve stared at individual scraps of dialogue so long that you are no longer sure anymore whether the dialogue makes sense. You grind your teeth over battle scenes, wondering if there’s enough conflict on each page. And three days after you have submitted requested materials to an agent, you find yourself compulsively reading over your submission, searching for flaws that could scuttle your chances of making it past Millicent.

In short, you’re just like most working authors, bless your perfection-seeking hearts. We’re a worry-prone breed.

While that worry can be an outright blessing over the course of a book-long revision — what, stop halfway through Chapter 17, when there are 8 more chapters to go? — it can be something of a curse when trying to get requested materials out the door in a hurry. All too often, what chronic revisers end up sending is an uneven draft, hovering somewhere between Revision #12 and Revision #23.

How does that happen? Well, page 1 made it all the way through Revision #23, but at the time the agent of your dreams requested those first 50 pages, page 2 was still in the throes of an incomplete #17. Pages 3-10 are mostly the same as they were way back in #4, while Chapter Two is entirely new as of a week ago.

Getting the picture? The urge toward conscientious, ongoing revision — that drive for constant textual improvement that any agent in her right mind would be overjoyed to find in a new client — can often result in a submission that looks at first glance, ironically, as though it hasn’t been revised at all.

I know: bummer. I like to call it the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s made up of a part from here, a part from there…

Why is that a submission problem, you ask? Again, to put it another way: what do you think Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel thinks when they encounter, say, one sentence that’s in the past tense, followed by three that are in the present, because the phone happened to ring while the writer was in mid-revision? Or a character is named George on page 8 and Jorge on page 127, because the writer just didn’t have time to implement a late-breaking name change all the way through the manuscript?

Or even a problem as subtle as the unintentional perspective shift that follows, because Junior accidentally caught Sissy’s braids in the blender an hour and ten minutes after Mom realized with a shock that the story she had almost finished drafting with an omniscient narrator would work much better as a tight third-person piece focused solely upon the protagonist?

Great heavens, Edna thought irritably, isn’t anything going to go right today? First, the apple pies burned because she stayed too long on the phone with Mom, listening to her complain about her lumbago (what is that, anyway?), then it was so hot in the American Legion lodge’s kitchen that all of her carefully-applied make-up had melted right off her face and down onto her seersucker collar. Jeremy White had been so startled by her appearance when he bumped into her in the corridor that he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming aloud. She couldn’t possibly serve the veterans while sporting runny eyeliner, could she?

You wouldn’t have caught it if you hadn’t been looking for it, would you? (And in case you didn’t catch it: in three of the four sentences, the perspective remains squarely with Edna; in sentence #3, the reader is treated to what’s going on inside Jeremy’s head. Perfectly proper in an omniscient narrative, of course, but out of bounds in the tight third person with a single protagonist.)

Sometimes, the monster’s ways are subtle, as you may see, and sometimes blatant. However he may choose to manifest in the submission at hand, I must repeat my earlier question: what, I ask you, would a professional reader’s response be to any of these perfectly explicable clashes of incomplete revision passes?

“Inconsistency,” Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel breathe in unison. “This manuscript needs more work.”

Or at least (if I may be permitted to chime in here) a good authorial read-through IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

So here, my dear chronic revisers, is a revision series aimed squarely at you. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about how to transform that Frankenstein manuscript into a submission that positively glows with professionalism.

And you thought I wasn’t going to give you a Memorial Day present! Keep up the good work!

PS: speaking of Memorial Day, why not spend a few minutes this weekend sending in an entry to the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest? The deadline is this coming Monday at midnight in your time zone. Fortunate entrants will win hard-nosed professional critique of their opening pages BEFORE submitting them to Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel!

Improving those opening pages, part IV: there’s life beyond page one. Honest, Millicent, there is.

willie wonka screaming

Willy Wonka: Don’t you know what this is?
Violet Beauregarde: By gum, it’s gum.
Willy Wonka: [happily, but sarcastically] Wrong! It’s the most amazing, fabulous, sensational gum in the whole world.
Violet Beauregarde: What’s so fab about it?
Willy Wonka: This little piece of gum is a three-course dinner.
Mr. Salt: Bull.
Willy Wonka: No, roast beef. But I haven’t got it quite right yet.

After my last post in this series, I pondered starting on a new topic altogether. After all, I reasoned, most submissions get rejected on page 1; why pursue our practical example beyond that? Surely, there’s value in realism.

Then, after a couple of days, the writerly part of my brain began to rebel against the limitation. Realism, shmealism, my creative psyche cried: let’s go ahead and turn the page, already.

Besides, there’s a line on page 2 of our real-life example that would not only cause Millicent the agency screener to burn her lip on her too-hot latte; she would choke, gag, and have to be pounded on the back by the screener in the next cubicle. Here are the first two pages of our sample submission; see if you can spot the choke line. (If the type is too small for you to read, try holding down the command key while hitting the + key to increase the magnification.)

page 1 example wrong
page 2 example

Remember, we’re talking a real coffee-down-the-windpipe-inducer here, not just merely the normal Millicent pet peeves. But now that you’ve brought up the more common pet peeves — you just couldn’t resist, could you? — let’s quickly run over the Millicent-distracters on page 2, just to get them out of our field of vision, so to speak. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The incorrectly-formatted slug line, with the page number on the wrong location on the page

Yes, I wrote this up as several infractions last time — but as you already know about them now, I thought I’d skim over them quickly.

Except to say: I’ve been seeing quite a few manuscripts lately with inappropriate spaces between the elements in the slug line. Just to make absolutely certain that everyone’s aware of the proper format, a slug line should not contain any spaces between the slashes and the words. So in our example above, the slug line should read: Wantabe/Wannabe Novel/2, not Wantabe/ Wannabe Novel/ 2.

Everybody clear on that? Good. Let’s press on.

2. An incorrectly-formatted ellipsis on line 2…and again on the last line of the page.

I’m kind of glad to see this one crop up here (twice!), because it’s quite a common punctuation gaffe. When an ellipsis appears in the middle of a sentence, there should not be spaces at either end. Thus, the rather funny line

Emma did not have more money than God … but she could call that loan in any day now.

should instead read:

Emma did not have more money than God…but she could call that loan in any day now.

Naturally, this is not the only context in which a writer might choose to use an ellipsis. For a run-down on how to employ them properly, please see this recent post on the subject.

3. A misspelled word in line 5, and another in line 11.

Oh, you may shrug, but most Millicents will stop reading at the first misspelling; the rest will stop reading at the second. The same basic rule applies to graduate school applications, by the way. College application essays tend to be read a bit more leniently: their screeners often will not stop reading until the fourth or fifth misspelling.

Yes, seriously.

The moral: NEVER submit ANY writing to a professional reader without proofreading it — preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. While you’re at it, it never hurts to run a computer spell-check.

It especially never hurts to re-run a spell-check after you’ve made revisions in a scene. As we shall be discussing later in the week, even writers with sterling spelling and grammatical skills often end up with errors in their submissions simply because they forgot to proofread between Revision A and Revision B.

“Oh, I’ve already submitted an earlier draft of this scene to another agent,” revisers murmur blithely to themselves. “I’m quite positive that I spell-checked before I submitted. Since all I’ve made is a minor tweak or two to the scene, I don’t really need to proof it again…”

Bite your tongue, revisers: you most certainly do need to proof it again before you submit. Half-finished revisions are very, very common in submissions, as are misspelled words. Diligent re-checking is the only means of preventing this type of completely preventable error.

4. Single-sentence paragraphs in paragraphs 4 and 6.

This one has been on the rise, too, so I’m quite pleased to have the excuse to talk about it: in English, at least two sentences are technically required to form a narrative paragraph. In a paragraph of dialogue, only one is required. So while

“You don’t say!” Edgar exclaimed.

is a perfectly acceptable paragraph, one that would not give Millicent a microsecond’s worth of pause,

Going through grade school as “Casey Jones” was also that trainwreck-kind-of-interesting.

usually would. While this rule is not as closely observed as some others, when coupled with quotation marks around words that are not actually attributable to anyone (more on that later) and two words stuck together as one (trainwreck instead of train wreck), even a fairly tolerant Millicent might start to frown.

Some of you have been jumping up and down, hollering, trying to get my attention for this entire section, haven’t you? “But Anne,” single-line paragraph lovers everywhere pant breathlessly, “I see single-line paragraphs in published books all the time, and you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without being positively overwhelmed with them. So isn’t it safe to assume that this rule is, you know, obsolete?”

In a word, no — at least, not if you happen to write literary fiction, high-end women’s fiction, or aspire to the more literary end of most fiction categories, where the better-educated agents and editors dwell. Lest we forget, even people on the business side of publishing tend to go into it because they love good writing; scratch a Millicent at a prominent agency, and you’re very likely to find a former honors English major from a minor Ivy League school.

So you might want to ask yourself: is the impact of any given a single-sentence paragraph worth the risk of Millicent’s disapproving of my having broken the rule? Or, still worse, of her concluding that I simply am not aware of the rule, and thus every subsequent syllable in my manuscript should be scrutinized with unusual intensity, lest I run grammatically amok again?

While you’re pondering that one, I should concede: in AP format (you know, the standard for newspapers and magazines), single-sentence paragraphs are considered quite acceptable these days — which is why, in case you had been wondering, you will see even highly literate nonfiction authors dropping the occasional single-line paragraph into their books. Since journalists write so many books, journalism’s standards have (unfortunately, according to some) bled very heavily into the nonfiction literary market.

We could all sit around and blame Joan Didion, but I, for one, have better things to do with my time.

Some of you single-line lovers are flailing about again, are you not? “But Anne, I’ve seen it in fiction, too. What do you have to say about that, huh? Huh?”

Well, for starters, I sincerely hope that those authors’ old English teachers don’t know what liberties they’ve been taking with the language. It might kill anyone who got her teacher training prior to 1950. Second, and more seriously for our purposes, it has become (begrudgingly) increasingly acceptable for fiction writers to use the OCCASIONAL single-sentence paragraph for emphasis.

You know, when the information revealed in it is genuinely going to surprise the reader. As in:

The town certainly knew how to throw a good funeral; nobody, not even the grim Sisters Katzenberg, denied that. For even the poorest departed citizens, the locals would throw a potluck of the Stone Soup variety: everyone brought what she happened to have in her pantry, and somehow, out of that chaos was born a meal for several hundred grieving souls.

Or it had, until the time the grizzly bear family decided to drop by and pay its respects.

Admit it — you didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? Breaking off that sentence into its own paragraph emphasizes the twist. Not only does that format imply a pause both before and after the sentence, setting it off from the rest of the narrative, but it is also significantly more likely to be caught by a skimming eye.

That’s the most reasonable use of the single-sentence paragraph: rarely, and only when introducing a legitimate surprise.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of writers radically over-use it, incorporating it for rhythm’s sake when the actual content of the sentence doesn’t justify it. All too often, it’s simply used automatically for a punch line, as in today’s example:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore.

Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: a joke needs to be pretty uproarious in order not to be deflated by having its punch line offset like this. Especially to Millicent, who sees hundreds of offset punch lines in any given screening day, there’s no apparent reason that the narrative should not run like this:

She ended the joke by getting married. The name on her books was K.C. Winter. The train stayed around, but it wasn’t her dad’s anymore. Since Casey’s divorce, at least, Emma was its conductor.

Hasn’t really lost anything by being made grammatically correct, has it? Save the dramatic paragraph breaks for moments that are actually dramatic; the device will have a greater impact that way.

5. Use of the passive voice in paragraph 7, line 2.

Before anyone starts to panic at the invocation of the passive voice, let me hasten to point out that generally speaking, a narrative usually needs to have many sentences in the passive voice on a single page in order to ruffle Millicent’s nerves. Admittedly, if more than a couple should appear on page 1, some Millicents might become antsy.

And then there are the Miliicents who will automatically stop reading upon encountering a single such a sentence. Suffice it to say that no type of sentence annoys a broader array of Millicents in a broader variety of ways than one in which things apparently happen all by themselves — or at any rate, by actors relegated to subordinate clauses:

The coat was brown.
Traffic prevented Trevor from keeping his appointment with Maurice.
The candle floated around the room, carried by unseen hands.
Karen was stunned into silence.

You may have stopped jumping out of sheer shocked depression, oh hand-wavers, but I can tell that you still have a question to ask. “Seriously? There’s a type of sentence so toxic that Millicent won’t read it at all? In heaven’s name, why is she so afraid of the passive voice?”

For one exceedingly simple reason: she has been taught to regard it as style-free writing, at least in fiction. Nor are screeners the only ones who harbor such opinions: ask any ten agents, editors, contest judges, or even writing teachers for the shortest possible definition of lazy writing, and five of them will instantly spout, “The passive voice.”

You must admit, they have a point: writing a sentence in the passive voice is seldom the most interesting way to convey information. Most of the time, it’s relatively easy to work the information into a more complex sentence, particularly if those details previously appeared in the dreaded X was Y) structure.

Unseen hands carried the candle from tabletop to mantelpiece, pausing in the dead center of the room. Stunned into silence, Karen hugged her brown coat around her shoulders. Dimly, she could hear the normal sounds of ordinary life passing by the window: birds chirping, pedestrians chatting, traffic whizzing toward a collective destination. Fleetingly, she wondered if Trevor had been able to fight his way through the rush-hour crowds to keep his appointment with Maurice.

Okay, so I took a few creative liberties in that revision, but isn’t it more interesting now? With that qualitative shift in mind, let’s revisit the use of the passive voice in page 2 of today’s example. Actually, let’s take a gander at this whole section. If you were Millicent, would it give you pause?

Emma was in there. She wanted to talk. This was frightening.

I’m not going to second-guess our generous example-provider by reworking this, but I’m quite confident that there’s a more interesting way to express Casey’s thoughts and fears in this moment. The emotion here feels real, but it’s not fleshed out: the reader is told how Casey feels and what she fears, rather than showing those thoughts and fears in action.

Actually, that’s a pretty good revision rule of thumb: if an emotionally important moment summarizes the protagonist’s feelings (This was frightening.), ask yourself: is the narrative telling, not showing here? Is there a way I could convey that my protagonist is frightened, instead of just stating it in the passive voice?

6. Use of a cliché in paragraph 7.

Remember the ten professional readers we asked to define lazy writing? The five who didn’t immediately mention the passive voice instantly thought of clichés.

Agents, editors, and contest judges will not pick up your manuscript expecting to read other people’s voice — they are hoping to be wowed by yours. By definition, clichéd phraseology is not going to achieve that goal: phrases that everyone uses are, after all, not original.

Which is precisely why they roll so easily off the narrative tongue, right? They seem so natural — which is why a writer can occasionally (VERY occasionally) get away with incorporating them into dialogue. But think about it: in a narrative paragraph, what are the chances that Millicent is going to read a stock phrase like world enough and time and think, “Wow, I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Roughly nil, I’m afraid. Avoid clichés like the plague; keep an eagle eye out for them while revising, and always let your conscience be your guide. Remember, a stitch in time saves nine.

Annoying, isn’t it? Multiply that by a few hundred per day, and you’ll see why even the hint of a cliché will set an experienced Millicent’s teeth on edge.

7. Placing words within quotation marks that are not in fact quotes.

This one is such a common professional readers’ pet peeve that I remain perpetually astonished that agents and editors don’t run screaming into writers’ conferences, bellowing, “Don’t stick quotation marks around those words unless someone is actually speaking them!” at the top of their lungs. In a submission, the mere sight of misused quotations (particularly the odious advertising practice of placing words within quotes simply to emphasize them) is usually enough to make even the most hardened Millicent turn green.

Reserve quotation marks for when people are actually speaking. In a pinch, you can sometimes get away with the common use of quotation marks to indicate so-called (“What do you think of this “Louis XIV” table, Gerald?”), but as with any other tone in dialogue, it’s unwise to rely upon punctuation to convey every possible conversational nuance.

Generally speaking, italics are the safest way either to indicate verbal emphasis or to set off words from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate the difference using in the last paragraph of today’s example, this is likely to annoy virtually any Millicent:

If you looked up “hole in the wall” and cross-checked it with “Corpus Christi, Texas” you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

But what about this version?

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas you might find a photograph of a little yellow resturant named The Halyard.

Actually, that was a trick question: one spelling mistake and two punctuation errors still remain. Did you catch them, or could you use a bit more proofreading practice?

To help sharpen your eye, here is a version that Millicents everywhere would approve:

If you looked up hole in the wall and cross-checked it with Corpus Christi, Texas, you might find a photograph of a little yellow restaurant named the Halyard.

8. And then there’s the conceptual stuff.

All of those little points aside, the second page of this example exhibits one very common structural reason that submissions get rejected — and one very specific content problem that writers occasionally include innocently. They don’t mean to fluster anyone, but pop goes the envelope, and before you know it, Millicent’s latte is all over her nice ivory-colored blouse.

Let’s take the structural reason first. Go back to the section break on page 1, then read on. Notice anything about the pacing?

If you instantly shot your hand into the air and shouted, “By gum, the plot seemed to stop cold while the narrative gave us backstory!” give yourself a gold star for the day. First novels — and memoirs, too — are notorious amongst Millicents for establishing conflict in an opening scene (or part of a scene), then setting the conflict on the proverbial back burner while the narrative tells about what has gone on before, what the participants are like, how they got their names…

That’s a whole lot of telling, rather than showing, isn’t it? Little does Millicent know that the original version of many of these stop-and-go novels featured seven pages of backstory before the plot even began; that opening half-scene prior to the three-page digression was just a teaser, added because somebody told the writer that Millicent likes to see conflict on page 1.

News flash: she likes to see conflict on EVERY page. So does her boss — and so do editors and contest judges. Keeping that opening momentum going is a great way to win friends and influence people at agencies.

Unfortunately, even very promising manuscripts often start with a bang, then peter out almost immediately. Partially, this problem may be traced to how introductory writing teachers push hooks. Most fledgling writers learn about opening with a hook — a grabber that draws the reader into the story at the top of page 1 — without learning that in order to sell a book, a writer has to keep the reader hooked for a long time. Digressing from the story for paragraphs or even pages at a time in Chapter 1 is seldom the most effective means of keeping the tension high.

The good news: if the opening scene is compelling and character-revealing enough, including backstory usually isn’t necessary at all. Instead, save it, then reveal it in increments, later in the book.

Stop shaking your head — or at least try writing an opening scene unencumbered by backstory before you insist that it’s not possible. Concentrate on the conflict; keep your characters focused on what they want in the scene and how they are going to overcome the obstacles to getting it.

I could go on for days and day about the ubiquitous early tension-sagging phenomenon (and probably shall, in the weeks to come), but I’m already running long for today. Before I sign off, though, I should ask: did anybody catch the line of text that would have sent Millicent’s coffee flying?

No? Try this on for size:

She worked as a literary agent. God knew why. Casey certainly didn’t.

Didn’t jump off the page at you, did it? It would to Millicent, for the same reason that an orchestra conductor’s eyes light up when someone she meets at a party suddenly starts talking about piccolos: this story is apparently set in the world she knows. And because it does include types of characters she knows intimately in real life — in this case, an author and an agent — she’s going to increase her scrutiny a thousandfold, eager to catch lapses in realism.

Were this submission a meticulously-researched exposé of conditions in the publishing industry, that hyper-intense gaze might prove helpful to the writer: if he got everything right, no reader is going to appreciate that more that Millicent. But had I mentioned yet that this book is a fantasy?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that the writer in this instance has done all of the necessary research to present an agent and her client believably to those who know them best. Take another look at the paragraph where Emma’s vocation is revealed — can you spot any reason Millicent might take umbrage at it?

Here’s a very good reason: not only is the Emma character presented as unreasonable (and, to some readers, unlikable) in these opening pages, but this paragraph implies either that (a) Emma is entirely unsuited to being an agent, for reasons not divulged to the readers, or — and this is the one most likely to occur to Millicent — (b) the narrative is implying that no one in her right mind would want to pursue that line of work.

See the problem, when submitting to people who have chosen to devote their lives to that line of work? Who are, in fact, sensitive human beings, longing to be treated with respect, like everyone else? Whose feelings might conceivably get a trifle bruised by an insensitive portrayal of someone like themselves?

You hadn’t thought of Millicent as someone whose feelings could be hurt by a submission, had you? Sort of changes how you think of the submission process, doesn’t it?

Don’t be disappointed, if you didn’t catch the negative implication. Many, if not most, writers who have not yet had the pleasure of working with an agent probably would not have caught it — or did not think that it might have ruffled Millicent’s feathers. It may even have struck some of you at first glance as humorous.

To someone working within the publishing industry, though, that paragraph of text would have come as something of a shock. Over-sensitive? Perhaps, but in a way that it’s certainly possible to predict and plan a way around, no?

Next time, I shall begin talking about a completely different set of submission perils, pitfalls into which even the most conscientious of self-editors often tumble. Keep plowing forward with those revisions, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part III: lights, camera — revisions?


A quick reminder before we begin today: entries for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest must be in by midnight in your time zone on May 24th — or, as we like to call around here, the point at which next Monday becomes next Tuesday. The exceptionally easy-to-follow rules may be found here.

I’m hoping that many of you will enter the first pages of your manuscripts, but I’d especially like to encourage those of you who write YA to seize this opportunity: the lucky winners of the YA category will win a first-page critique by no less a storytelling-for-youth authority than YA author Phoebe Kitanidis. I’m excited about judging in the adult category myself, of course, but I’m also really looking forward to hearing her insights on your work!

Okay, that’s enough contest promotion the nonce. Let’s get back to work.

All this week, I’ve been taking a fine-tooth comb, a magnifying glass, and a huge grain of salt to a real, live reader’s real, live first page, pointing out the nit-picks, large and small, that might cause our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to become distracted from the inherent beauty of the writing, originality of the story, or any other selling point a writer might wish her to notice instead. As those of you who have been following this series may have noted with alarm, I’ve been talking for three days straight about potential sources of distraction in what is, frankly, a page 1 that would not have raised most readers’ eyebrows in the slightest.

Just in case you haven’t been keeping score, Millie’s cumulative remarks would have looked like this, had she been noting them on the manuscript page:

marked-up page 1

That’s not an unusually high level of feedback for professional critique, by the way: the pros read closely. While some writers might find facing that level of scrutiny a trifle intimidating, jumping on every last little manuscript error is considered perfectly normal amongst agents and editors. Why, they reason, would a good writer want not to know how to improve her manuscript?

In fact, extremely nit-picky feedback is considered indicative of respect in publishing circles: trust me, they don’t bother to jump all over manuscripts that they do not believe to be worthy of publication.

The moral, lest the combination of the image and that last insight not have driven it home with sufficient force: despite the fact that it’s Millicent’s job to screen submissions in order to find exciting stories and fresh literary talent, it’s also her job to read manuscripts critically. Many submissions (and contest entries, come to think of it) get knocked out of consideration not because of a single mistake, but due to an array of small, avoidable missteps.

What practical lesson might we derive from that? Perhaps that it behooves a writer (or literary contest entrant) to scan his manuscript as closely as Millicent would before submitting it, rather than assuming — as most aspiring writers do — that an agent seriously interested in literature would readily forgive technical mistakes, reading ten, twenty, a hundred pages before deciding whether this is a book she wants to represent.

But Millie is not paid to read with a charitable eye, nor should she; she’s well aware that if anything, her boss is more likely to reject a manuscript on technicalities than she is. (Yes, really — it’s significantly less time-consuming to represent a client whose self-editing skills are demonstrably immaculate.) Because the agent doesn’t have time to read every submission in its entirety, she employs Millicent to narrow the field down to a few manuscripts already of publishable quality AND likely to sell in the current market AND packages professionally.

Or, to put it another way: the little stuff matters. Quite a lot, as a matter of fact.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professional readers — screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges, to name but a few — do not read like other people. Instead of reading an entire scene or page before making judgments about the story and the writing, they judge each line as they encounter it. Typically, when Millicent encounters a line of which she does not approve, she does not read on in the hopes of finding one she will enjoy more — she generally will simply stop reading.

What does this mean for most submissions, in practical terms? Well, take our example from yesterday, the manuscript that opened with an unattributed piece of dialogue. The vast majority of submitters would assume that Millicent would see the page like this:

page 1 example wrong

Whereas what Millicent is likely to see for evaluation purposes is this:

first line page

What makes me think she might choose to stop reading at that point — and not, say, immediately after spotting the unusual slug line or odd pagination? As I mentioned earlier in this series, small formatting errors are seldom instant rejection triggers; presentation gaffes may affect how seriously Millicent reads the text (see my earlier comment about how much more time-consuming it is for an agent to represent a client who doesn’t know the self-editing ropes), but it’s rare that she would dismiss it entirely on cosmetic grounds alone.

She may reasonably be expected to read what follows with an a slightly jaundiced eye, though, if not an outright expectation that the writing will not be polished up to professional standards. Which is precisely what happens in our example: manuscripts that open with unidentified speakers are a notorious Millicent pet peeve.

Actually, cutting the narrative off here gives us a sterling insight into why. Take a gander at the first sentence (and first paragraph) of this manuscript, forgetting that you know anything about the story to follow:

“It’s your ex, hon.”

What does it tell us, stripped of context? We already established last time what this opening doesn’t tell us: who the speaker is. Or who the listener is, for that matter, beyond the fact that s/he has evidently participated in a relationship prior to the beginning of the story. It also doesn’t tell us whether the speaker or the hearer whether is male or female, anything about his/her tone, what the environment is like, the speaker’s motivation in bringing this information to the listener’s attention…

We don’t even know how crucial this statement is to the actors, whether it’s the key to the story to come or merely one line of dialogue amongst many. Standing alone, this speech could serve equally well in the mouth of a bored operator transferring the thirtieth perfectly mundane call from a civil ex and coming from the lips of a horrified onlooker who has just spotted an axe murderer standing behind her best friend.

Even more serious from Millicent’s perspective, it also doesn’t really give us any hit about who the protagonist is or what conflict s/he faces — which are, lest we forget, questions that she fully expects a well-written page 1 to answer, at least provisionally. While naturally, it would be a tad unreasonable to expect the first paragraph of a manuscript to answer both of those questions (which form, presumably, the basis for a 350-page book), is she so wrong to expect that first paragraph to whet her appetite about the story to come?

Bearing all that in mind, let me ask you: in Millicent’s shoes, would you keep reading?

A forest of hands just shot into the air. Yes — you in front? “I wouldn’t keep reading,” an inveterate conference-goer points out, but not because I was confused about who was saying the speech, or because I was not sufficiently intrigued by it as conflict introduction. No, if I were Millie, I would have stopped reading as soon as my gaze hit that first set of quotation marks: I’ve heard agents say at conferences/in interviews/on their blogs that they just don’t like to see manuscripts open with dialogue on the first line.”

I’ve heard this one from time to time, too. Usually, one agent sitting on a panel will begin a critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like to see dialogue in the first line.” Almost invariably, the agent sitting next to him will turn to him and say, “Really”

It’s not a universal pet peeve, in short. As simple observation of the literary world will tell us: a lot of very good books open with dialogue. That being said, I would certainly advise a writer who hears an agent express such an opinion immediately to make a mental note never to send that agent a manuscript that opens with dialogue. That’s just basic prudence.

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it.

Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

Unfortunately, the writer of our ongoing example is quite unlikely ever to find out whether the Millicent who passed on her submission harbored a lingering resentment against opening dialogue, or didn’t like the unattributed dialogue, or indeed, any other actual cause of complaint against the manuscript itself. These days, it’s quite rare for a rejection to contain any concrete reason at all. Most of the time, queries and submissions alike are rejected with the same form letters filled with stock phrases: we’re sorry, but it did not meet our needs at this time; I just didn’t fall in love with this protagonist; I don’t feel I can sell this book in the current market.

Which makes it rather hard to learn much from the rejection experience, admittedly. All an aspiring writer can do is keep pushing ahead, polishing her craft in private, until she finds the right agent. Keeping an eye on what’s been published lately in her chosen book category can’t hurt, either.

Yes, persistent hand-raiser off in the corner? “Okay, Anne, I understand both that it’s a good idea to avoid opening a manuscript with an unattributed piece of dialogue, and that since there are a few agents out there who will reject submissions with dialogue in their first lines, attributed or not, I cannot please all of the people all of the time if I want to keep my initial dialogue. But let’s say that I just love my opening quote, and I’m willing to trust my luck that it will land on the desk of someone who doesn’t hate initial dialogue. How would you suggest I present it without running afoul of your second critique from last time, over-using tag lines? Or, to take advantage of our ongoing example, how would you suggest changing it to be more appealing to Millicent?”

Ooh, that’s a tough question, persistent hand-raiser. As you point out, the easiest way to correct the first problem would be simply to add a tag line, identifying the speaker:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

It’s not a very creative solution, though; it neither adds much interest to the paragraph nor gives the reader much insight into who Emma is, what her primary conflict might be, etc. Also, this approach might be problematic if Casey turns out to be the protagonist — as, indeed, Millicent would have assumed from the original submission.

And why would she have leapt that conclusion, you ask wearily? The same answer as before: selective reading. Here’s the point in the text where she would have made up her mind on the subject:

second line

Generally speaking, Millicent will assume the first named character on page 1 of a novel to be the protagonist until proven otherwise — especially if that character is the most active one in the opening scene. Since she doesn’t always appreciate being informed later in the text (or even on the page) that she was wrong about that, you might want to construct your opening scene accordingly.

Let’s assume for the sake of example, though, that Emma, and not Casey, is the protagonist, since it’s entirely possible that this was the author’s intended implication by having her speak first. (At least I assume that it is Emma who speaks first in this scene, rather than someone in the background.) What our exemplar’s quickest revision options for steering a middle course between no speaker identification in the first paragraph and applying tag lines indiscriminately?

Why quickest, you ask? Oh, you’ve never caught a manuscript problem ten minutes before you were about to stuff it into an envelope — or two minutes before hitting the SEND button? Lucky you.

No, but seriously, folks, it’s been my experience that once an opening scene hits a page, many, if not most, aspiring writers are rather reluctant to change its structure or even its wording much. Writers can get extremely attached to their opening sentences and paragraphs; even those tinker endlessly with mid-book phraseology are often downright defensive about their initial scenes.

We all imagine future browsers lovingly pulling our books off shelves years hence, you see, sitting down to devour our first pages at a glance. Who wants some third party, even one as advantageously placed to help you get your book published as Millicent, to dictate the first impression we will make on our as-yet-unborn fans?

Back to the problem at hand. Identifying the speaker in a separate sentence within the first paragraph is the method most editors would suggest, as it provides ample opportunity for providing context for an opening comment, giving characterization hints, introducing the protagonist as active, and so forth.

It’s also, if you play with the running order a little, a dandy way to side-step the perils of running afoul of opening-dialogue-hating agents. You simply have the narrative sentences come first.

What might this look like in practice? Instead of simply using a tag line to identify the speaker, like so:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma said.

The reviser could add some action to the opening — ideally, action that sets the tone for the scene to follow. Since the line of dialogue follows immediately thereafter, the direct implication is that the primary actor in the first paragraph is also the speaker.

Emma dodged the knife-wielding maniac, escaped, panting, down the hallway, and collapsed at her best friend’s usual lunch table. “It’s your ex, hon.”

No doubt about who is speaking there, eh? Or that the protagonist is an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Beefing up a dialogue-bearing opening paragraph can also provide a great opportunity to introduce physical characteristics of both protagonist and place. Be careful in what you choose to put here, though — mundane descriptors tend to imply rather ordinary protagonists. Telling details, however, can be worked in beautifully. Borrowing from lower on our example page:

Emma’s collection of silver rings danced under restaurant track lights. “It’s your ex, hon.”

I see a few more raised hands waving frantically at me. “But Anne, the reason I’m starting my manuscript with a piece of dialogue is that I feel that the spoken words themselves are important — so much so that I genuinely like seeing them all alone at the top of the page, as in the example. What you’re suggesting seems to water down their impact a little. Couldn’t I just, you know, add a tag line with an adverb attached, providing enough information that Millicent won’t jump down my throat, but still preserving the opening sound that I like?”

Well, you could, oh frantic ones, if you minimized the tag lines throughout the rest of the scene AND you happen not to be writing in a book category where tag lines are positively to be avoided (literary fiction, for instance, eschews them to a remarkable extent). If the initial statement is crucial to the scene — as it should be, if you’re opening with it; as in a screenplay, the first thing the protagonist says in the book sets up the reader’s idea of what kind of a person she is — it might well make sense to highlight a particularly startling statement that reveals character or conflict in a surprising or original manner.

In other words, don’t try it with an everyday statement; it’s probably not worth the risk.

If you’re going to incorporate a tag line in the first sentence of your book, make sure it pays off. There’s just no getting around the fact that adding a tag line might not pass muster with a Millicent who believes that tag lines are always avoidable (as they almost invariably are, with some rhetorical gymnastics), but if you feel that it’s the best means of kicking off a conflict, go a head and give it a try. It helps if you choose an interesting speaking verb, instead of the prosaic and ubiquitous said:

“It’s your ex, hon,” Emma spat, slamming her tray down on the tiny, slick table.

Casey Winter blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

You want to read on, don’t you? That’s because these initial lines jump straight into a conflict. (One that I have no reason to believe exists in the manuscript as it is currently written, but work with me here.)

Still, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to maintain a similar energy while trimming the tag line. Implication is the writer’s friend, after all.

Emma swerved her way through the crowd of tray-wielding lunchers, slamming her tray down loudly on Casey Winter’s table. Gossip boiled in her system, and she could hold its hot fire inside no longer. “It’s your ex, hon,”

Casey blanched. Her stomach twisted into snake-knots…

Up go those hands again. “But Anne, what if Casey, and not Emma, is the protagonist? How would you suggest revising the opening then?”

That’s a good question, talking hands — frankly, in that case, I would be reluctant to allow Emma to speak first. I would be easy enough to move the content of the initial piece of dialogue into her mouth, after all. I would, however, trim her reactions so that they all take place inside of her (as opposed to blanching, something Emma might see from the outside), to ramp up the intensity of the opening:

“My ex?” Casey Winter’s stomach twisted into snake-knots. She had a psychosomatic ache in her face and temple and a not-quite-so-matic one in her right knee. She wanted to tap on something, a glass, the tabletop, maybe Emma Parker’s skull, and bleed some of her tension out. “What does he want?”

Emma leaned forward…

My overarching point, should you care to know it: good revision — on the stylistic front, at least — is less about applying hard-and-fast rules than making choices. Nowhere is that more true than on page 1 of your manuscript, for once a reader gains an impression of your protagonist (even if it’s an incorrect one), that’s going to inform how he responds to the rest of the book.

Page 1, in essence, is your story’s introduction to the world. How do you want it to appear?

And, of course, Millicent’s decision whether to keep reading or reject is based entirely on page 1, necessarily. She will be deciding line by line, sentence by sentence, whether to push on or reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

At the submission stage, then, there’s no such thing as a throwaway line on page 1 — or page 2, or page 15, or in the first 50 pages. Grabbing and keeping the attention of as nit-picky a reader as Millicent requires not only telling a good story well, but also paying attention to the details.

Practically nothing escapes her notice, you know. But isn’t that ultimately a very gratifying reader to have for your work, one who notices and appreciates all of your fine work, all of your intelligent choices?

Sort of strange to think of ol’ Millie in that light, isn’t it? Give it a ponder — and, of course, keep up the good work!

Improving those opening pages, part II: preparing your manuscript for its first target reader

public market sign

Last time, I posted an honest-to-goodness reader’s honest-to-goodness page one and began to examine it as any professional reader — an agent, say, or editor, or contest judge — might. As those of you who joined me in that endeavor no doubt recall with a shudder, what a pro would consider a fairly cursory examination of presentation issues would strike most aspiring writers as a no-holds-barred critique.

Why would I do such a thing to a perfectly nice manuscript, other than to drum up enthusiasm for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest (entry deadline next Monday, in case anybody’s forgotten)? For starters, to encourage all of you self-editors out there to start to look at your work not like a writer, or even like your ideal reader, but like an agency screener.

You know, the person who culls the hundreds of queries and dozens of submissions the average agent receives in any given week down to the happy few that the agent actually has time to read. Here at Author! Author!, that dreaded first line of defense and most critical first reader is known as Millicent.

Learning to read through Millicent’s eyes is an exceedingly useful skill for an aspiring writer to develop; in fact, for a writer intent upon landing an agent in North America, it’s a necessary skill. No matter how delightfully apt a manuscript may be for its intended ultimate readership — you know, the fine folks who are going to buy your book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, take it home, and cherish it for the rest of their reading lives — if a submission can’t please the Millicent screening for the agent of your dreams, you’re bound to be out of luck.

With that dire warning ringing in our collective ears, let’s take another gander at yesterday’s example, shall we?

page 1 example wrong

Last time, I mentioned in passing that the italicized part would raise most Millicents’ eyebrows, if not red flags over the manuscript. While indicating thought by either using italics or saying she thought is acceptable in many book categories (but not all; taking the time to learn the conventions of your chosen book type will serve you well at submission time), it’s never considered right to use both simultaneously.

In other words, while Millicent would never consider this correct:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking I should have known. I should have known.

Of course this would happen today.

depending upon the book category, she would be perfectly happy with either:

Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” she said, all the while thinking: I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.


Casey swallowed. “Do you know how bad off she is?” I should have known. I should have known. Of course this would happen today.

The trick is to pick one method of indicating thought and stick to it consistently throughout the manuscript — ideally, the method utilized in the current bestsellers in your chosen book category. If a conscientious flip through recent releases of your type of book does not reveal a category convention, don’t stress out about it; just use the method that appeals most to you.

Bearing in mind, of course, that there are quite a few professional readers out there — yes, including a hefty minority of Millicents — who simply don’t like italicized thought on general principle. “Humph!” they say, wrinkling their noses over type dancing across the page. “Is this honestly necessary? Shouldn’t a good writer be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type?”

I have to admit, as a reader, I’m seldom inclined to argue with them on this point, particularly if the manuscript in question also uses italics (correctly) for emphasis (“I’m talking to you, Reginald!”), to indicate foreign words (“You left off the requisite accent grave, Marie.”), or includes a lot of song or book titles (“I know — let’s play Rubber Band Man while reading My Life as a Contortionist by I.M. Bendy!”). Used rarely, there’s nothing wrong with italics, but in a manuscript with a lot of italicized words, the skimming eye can easily become confused, even to the point of skipping lines.

There’s another reason an aspiring writer might want to be sparing in his use of italics, especially on page one. It’s very, very popular to use italics on an opening page to highlight a brief opening scene or image.

Everybody knows what I’m talking about, right? In theory, the italics are intended to alert the reader to the fact that the paragraphs in the funny type aren’t in the time, place, and/or mindset of the ACTUAL opening scene that follows immediately thereafter. On the manuscript page, it usually looks a little something like this:

Ima's italics

One often sees this done in published books, right? Unfortunately — feel free to chant along with me now, long-time Author! Author! readers — manuscripts are not supposed to look like published books; they differ in many significant respects. Still more unfortunately, many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware of those differences when they submit.

The usual result? Well, we saw a bit of it yesterday, didn’t we? Instead of treating the deviation from expected formatting as an intriguing authorial choice, Millicent usually just regards it as (a) a mistake, (b) an indicator of the submitter’s lack of familiarity with the publication process, (c) carte blanche to take the submission less seriously, or (d) all of the above.

So when Millie spots an italicized opening paragraph or two, she tends not to exclaim, “Oh, here is a suggestion to the editor about what the formatting of the published book should look like,” as italics-loving submitters hope. Instead, she says, “Oh, here’s another one who doesn’t know that italicization choices are the province of a book’s editor, not the author.”

In other words, she tends to regard block italicization in much the same way as she would any other deviation from standard format — if she doesn’t happen to work for an agent who has a pet peeve against this type of opening. As many, many agents do, I’m afraid.

How would that affect how Millicent would read such an opening? 99% of the time, like so:

italicized opening

In response to that vast collective gasp: yes. The vast majority of Millicents will simply skip over italicized opening text, treating the first normal line after it as the opening sentence of the manuscript.

My, the group’s gasping a lot today. “Why on earth,” italics-lovers the world over croak in aghast unison, “would any literature-loving human do such a thing? Published books open all the time with italicized bits!”

A fair question — but actually, there’s a pretty fair answer. Most Millicents just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which, they conclude (and not always wrongly), begins with the first line of plain text. In their experience, that’s where the action usually begins.

In other words, they’re apt to skip the italicized bits to save themselves some time.

Which is, as some of you may have noticed, the justification for many, many of the instant rejection norms that plague the nightmares of submitters. Millicent’s workday moves along at quite a clip, after all.

To distract you from any well-justified artistic seething you might be tempted to do over that last observation, take another look at that italicized section. Can you spot any other problems our pal Millie might have with it?

page 1 example wrong

Any luck? Actually, to Millicent’s eye, the problem is pervasive throughout the entire page. Here it is again, with the words that would jump out at her highlighted.

Ima's first with reps

Easier to see the word and phrase repetition now, isn’t it? (Although the slug line seems to have vanished mysteriously in the transition, I notice.) Trust me, Millicent would swoop down on each and every one of ‘em like a bird of prey.

Why is she so much more likely than the average reader to notice word and phrase repetition and be bugged by it? Like most professional readers, Millicent’s eye for redundancy has been sharpened not only by years and years of reading manuscripts, but also by training: textual repetition is one of the first things fledgling editors are taught to spot.

Why might a savvy submitter want to avoid tripping her delicate redundancy sensors on page one? Because of an underlying assumption necessary to justify quick rejections: almost universally, professional readers will assume that the writing on page 1 is a representative sample of the writing throughout the entire book.

Which it usually isn’t, in practice. Most first-time writers improve as they work their way from Chapter One to The End, so it’s not all that unusual for the sentence style and word choice to be quite different in Chapter 2 than in Chapter 18. It’s also quite common for writers to revise sporadically, resulting in a highly polished Chapter 6 followed by a virtually first-draft Chapter 7. And don’t even get me started on the number of submissions in which the first ten pages are impeccable (possibly because their writers had heard someone like me point out that unless the opening pages are buffed to a high shine, Millicent is unlikely to read past them), while the rest of the text remains largely unrevised.

Be that as it may, Millicent has a LOT of submissions to get through in any given day — and it’s her job to narrow the field of applicants for the post of agency client, isn’t it? So while she may decide to keep reading past the bottom of page 1 to see if the writing becomes less repetitious, or more exciting, or more genre-appropriate, or more anything else she knows that her boss is looking for in a new client’s work, structurally, there isn’t a great deal of incentive for her to invest the extra minute or two.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your best interest to revise the opening pages so that they reflect your most polished writing style. If page 1 doesn’t wow Millicent, page 2 may not get a chance to impress her.

Fortunately, redundancy can usually be removed at little or no cost to the meaning of a paragraph, and without even much effort. Take a peek at our example after roughly 43 seconds of revision:

example no reps

Do I spot a few eagerly-raised hands out there in the ether? “But Anne,” a few sharp-eyed souls point out, “that’s not the same text as before — it’s a few lines longer.”

Well spotted, sharp-eyed ones. More space on page 1 to show off your good writing is a dandy fringe benefit that often results from minimizing repetition. Don’t say I never gave you a present.

I have quite a bit more to say about this first page as a submission, believe it or not, but let’s save it for next time. Then, if we’re very brave indeed, we may take the plunge into page 2!

Clearly, we like to live dangerously here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Hey! Do I spy some faint signs of life?

Ste Cecile at Albi

No, that’s not a photo of me convalescing after my recent back injury — I seldom can be spotted sporting a turban. It’s a statue of Ste. Cecile, snapped from the middle of a mob of waist-high French schoolchildren at Albi. As a working writer, I harbor great fondness for Ste. Cecile: even after Roman jailors third attempt to chop her head off (thus the slashes on the statue’s neck), she kept right on talking. She has my vote for patron saint of queriers and submitters, therefore.

Speaking of submissions, I had a bright idea whilst I’ve been lolling about moaning in recent weeks. We had been just wrapping up a nice, meaty series on multiple-protagonist novels with discussion of how to write a synopsis for the tricky things. Just before my back decided to start playing tricks on me, I had promised you an in-depth look at how to write a standard-length synopsis for a super-complicated novel.

A most worthy endeavor, obviously, but equally obviously, one that is going to require some pretty hefty examples. Now, in my ordinary day-to-day life, tossing off a mock synopsis is quick work for me — as I mentioned earlier in the series, it’s a professional skill that becomes honed only with long practice. Trying to repeat the trick whilst on painkillers, however, is another matter altogether.

So rather than hold off on posting further until I have the oomph to pull off that high dive again, I’ve decided to put it on the proverbial back burner for the nonce and dedicate myself to a new series. Something a trifle more conducive to the kind of shorter posts one can write comfortably in bed, as well as one that’s been pressing on my mind lately.

I’m going to be spending the next few days, in short, presenting you with an actual reader’s actual first pages of text, helping you (and the reader kind enough to provide them) see how Millicent the agency screener is likely to respond to various aspects of them. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but never has it seemed like a more valuable endeavor: while I’ve been bedridden, I’ve been re-reading John Steinbeck’s entire literary output, and I wish someone had sat him down for a stern talk about his opening pages. Your garden-variety Millicent of today would not make it past the first page of most of his books.

And it’s not because of the writing. Honestly, TEN PAGES on soil conditions in Salinas before the story starts in EAST OF EDEN, John?

Why use a real, live, feeling aspiring writer’s opening pages for this exercise, you ask, when I generally make up examples from scratch? Well, several reasons, not the least of which I touched upon above: coming up with examples in time-consuming, and in my current condition, much harder than usual. Also — and this is significant for an exercise like this — I’ve been a professional writer and editor for an awfully long time now, and my parents before me; the errors I might make, even for illustrative purposes, might not be the same as those new to the game’s.

Third, I’m hoping by having abruptly selected a reader from amongst those of you who have commented over the last few months, startling that sterling soul by requesting pages out of the blue, and lavishing this level of attention and blog space upon one writer’s efforts, not only to encourage more of you to comment from time to time, but also to enter the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

The deadline of which, incidentally, is a scant week away, in case anyone is wondering. I just mention, because the prize here is a very practical one, quite worth winning: Fab YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I will critique the first pages of the lucky winners’ manuscripts in this very forum in June.

I know what you’re thinking, but this is not one of those annoyingly time-consuming literary contests that require entrants to twist their manuscripts into all sorts of gymnastic poses for submission. All the rules ask you to do here is something most of you have already been doing: present the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages.

Think of it as a pre-Millicent test drive.

Professional feedback comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from pointing out ultra-basic presentation problems (“Um, is there a reason that you’re using 8-point Copperplate Gothic Bold when folks in publishing expect to see 12-point Times New Roman?”) to clarity issues (“Pardon my saying so, but is it really essential to the story not to describe the fellow standing behind your unsuspecting protagonist with an axe?”) to marketing considerations such as hooking the reader’s interest early (“TEN PAGES on soil conditions in Salinas before the story actually starts, John?”) Today, I am going to ease us into manuscript critique in its most simple form: the purely cosmetic.

That’s right, campers: it’s time for another round of Millicent’s Knee-Jerk Reaction Theatre. Ready, set — let’s look for superficial turn-offs!

Before anybody out there dismisses this level of critique as beneath the notice of a serious writer, allow me to point out that the since vast majority of submitted manuscripts get rejected on page 1, it’s poor strategy to ignore the superficialities, as all too many submitters do. Writers may prefer to think that their manuscripts should — and will — be judged purely on the quality of the writing, but since all professional manuscripts look the same way, it’s simply a hard fact of submission that an improperly-presented manuscript is generally dismissed faster than a properly-presented one, even if the writing is identical.

To put it less harshly, a savvy submitter recognizes that an agent or editor can only fall in love with the writing if s/he reads it — and reads it with an open mind. A misformatted manuscript, however, walks into the game with a strike against it.

That’s an important realization, because even aspiring writers familiar with the basics of standard format (and if you do not count yourself among them, I would strenuously urge you to consult the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right without delay) frequently submit manuscripts that would strike Millicent as, well, a tad unprofessional. The most common problems are subtle ones.

So subtle, in fact, that someone who did not read manuscripts for a living might not catch them at all. That’s the case even though we’re days away from even considering the kinds of red flags a writer would usually catch only by reading her submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

How subtle are the formatting issues that might leap out at Millicent from page 1, shouting, “Strike one; no runners on base!” you ask? Well, see for yourself — in the example below, there are no fewer than ten of them, although some Millicents would spot only nine. Take a gander — and if you have trouble reading it at this size, try double-clicking on the image and opening it into its own window or saving it to your hard disk:

page 1 example wrong

How many of them did you catch? To sharpen your eye a little, here is the same page with all of the purely formatting problems corrected. (For your comparing-and-contrasting pleasure, I’ve touched nothing else.)

first page better

Seeing more of them now? If some of these differences jumped out at you, considering that Millicent stares at manuscript pages all day, every day, how many of them do you think she would spot within the first couple of seconds?

Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page with her, so to speak, let’s go over the purely cosmetic problems here. In the order they appear on the page:

1. The slug line is in different typeface than the text. (The slug line is in Arial, the body in Times New Roman.)

2. Incorrectly formatted slug line includes author’s first name, instead of just the last.

3. Incorrectly formatted slug line does not include the page number.

4. Incorrectly formatted slug line has a space between the forward slash and the title. The spacing in a slug line should be continuous: Name/Title/#

5. The page number is in wrong place on the page; it belongs in the slug line.

6. Pagination includes the word page. Although many aspiring writers think this looks nifty, a professionally-formatted manuscript would never include the word.

7. There’s an extra space before first word of paragraph 2. (Yes, most Millicents would catch that in either a hard or soft copy submission.)

8. There’s only a single space between each period and beginning of the next sentence. Admittedly, some agents would not consider this improper formatting; check each agency’s submission guidelines. If they do not mention preferring the single space, use two.

9. The narrative uses both the verb thinking and italics to indicate thought, a notorious screeners’ pet peeve.

10. In final line of the page, there are two spaces between considered and traffic. To a professional reader, this is a dead giveaway that the submitter did not proofread in hard copy.

Quite a lot of eyebrow-raisers for such an innocent-looking page of text, isn’t it? That’s how closely agency screeners read — and we haven’t even begun to talk about the writing itself, you will notice. Take heart, though: unless Millicent is having a spectacularly bad day, none of these problems by itself, or even all of them together, is likely to result in an on-the-spot cry of “Next!”

Why not? Well, believe it or not, the first version might be one of the more professional-looking first pages Millicent sees today. Most of the elements of standard format are in fact done correctly here, and it’s relatively free of misspellings and grammatical problems. (Although while we’re being nit-picky, there should be a comma after documents in the last line, and technically, it takes at least two sentences to make a proper narrative paragraph.)

So an optimistic aspiring writer often can — and does — get away with submitting a first page like the former. Most professional readers, including agents, contest judges, and Millicents, are willing to overlook a small cosmetic error or two, just as they tend to discount the occasional typo, provided that it is not repeated in the manuscript. (The first misspelling of a word might legitimately be a slip of a finger; the second indicates that the writer just doesn’t know how to spell the word in question, right?)

It doesn’t take too many tiny problems, however, to render a pro much less sympathetic than she might otherwise have been to a larger problem like an awkward sentence or the appearance of a cliché. And that’s on a good day — do you really want to take the chance that Millicent won’t just have burned her lip on a too-hot latte just before turning to your first page?

I see a forest of hands waving in my general direction. “But Anne,” some of you point out, and rightly, “I’m finding this rather depressing. Taken individually, the deviations from standard format we’re talking about are all quite small; I just don’t want to believe that good writing could ever fall prey to what, frankly, looks at first glance like a pretty respectable formatting job. I’m not discounting Millicent’s ability to reject the submission that happens to be in front of her when she scalds herself, but surely nobody concerned really wants aspiring writers to believe that their work could be rejected based on anything but the writing.”

It depends upon whom you ask, actually: I’ve met plenty of screeners — as well as agents, editors, and contest judges, come to think of it — who regard writers that, as they tend to put it, “haven’t taken the time to learn the business,” just aren’t as ready to be published as those who have. Part of working with an agent involves learning how to follow certain rules. It’s not as though any agent worth his salt would submit the first version above to an editor at a publishing house, after all; that would just be self-defeating.

Besides, these days, most good agents see so many cosmetically perfect submissions that they don’t lose too much sleep over rejecting those that are not. Or over Millicent’s having been more critical in the hour after she scalded her lip than on a normal day. They just figure that if a writer has real talent, s/he’ll go away, get better at presentation, and get picked up somewhere else.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, there’s no appeal for Millicent’s decisions: it’s not as though most agencies will run submissions past a second screener if the first did not like it, after all. Good writers are expected to be tenacious — and to take the time to learn how the publishing industry expects manuscripts to be presented.

So instead of regarding presentation as a secondary issue, try to think of paying attention to the cosmetic details as being polite to the person conducting the interview for a job you really, really want. Even if you have good reason to believe that some of the other interviewees are getting away with taking a few liberties, it honestly is in your best interest to be polite enough to show her your writing in the manner that Millicent is accustomed to seeing the best work in your chosen book category presented.

All that being said, did you spot the non-superficial reason this page might engender a knee-jerk rejection, even after just a superficial first glance? (Hint: it’s a marketing issue.)

Any guesses? No? Then let me ask you this deceptively simple question: based on this first page alone, in what book category does this manuscript belong?

It’s not readily apparent, is it? Depending upon the intended category, that could or could not be a problem. If this manuscript were, say, women’s fiction, this first page might not raise Millicent’s overactive eyebrows — but were it a mystery, the lack of species markings might well make her wonder when the mystery’s going to start. Ditto if this were Action/Adventure, Western, any stripe of romance…

Well, you get the picture. Millicent likes to be able to tell if a submission falls into a category that her boss represents — and she likes to be able to tell by the bottom of page 1.

Seem strange that she would want to make up her mind on the subject so quickly? Her reason is very practical, I assure you: since every book category has its own particular style — language choices, conventions, stock characters, etc. — and no agent represents every book category, it can save Millie’s boss a heck of a lot of time in the long run if she weeds out manuscripts that don’t fit comfortably into the category. While many writers legitimately find this professional desire to place their work in a box a trifle maddening, it must be admitted that it’s usually far, far easier for an agent to sell a book if he knows which shelf it might occupy at Barnes & Noble. If any.

Why not wait until, say, page 50 before making that determination? Do you have any idea how many submissions Millicent has to get through this week? It’s her job to narrow the field as quickly as possible. With that in mind, which Millicent do you think is most likely to reject the example above: one whose boss represents mainstream fiction, or one who represents primarily science fiction?

Or, to put it another way, would you or would you not be surprised to learn that the page above is the opening to a fantasy novel?

A word to the wise: if a reader who knows nothing about your book cannot tell by the bottom of page 1 what type of manuscript it is, it’s very much in your interest to revise with an eye toward making the category more obvious.

Don’t those of you who write exciting stories that begin in the everyday, mundane world, then leap into fast-paced action, wish you had heard that salient little piece of advice before you submitted for the first time? Yet I’m not sure how you would have known it — while it’s something that any agented writer could probably have told you, it’s one of those things that it’s just assumed every serious writer already knows.

Case in point: I flatter myself that I write about submission pretty exhaustively here at Author! Author! yet for the life of me, I can’t recall my ever having brought it up before. Strange, but true.

So please join me in a deep and heartfelt shout of gratitude to the reader who was kind enough to let me use this first page. Because frankly, had I not seen the title page, and thus known that this manuscript was intended to be fantasy before I read the first page, I doubt it would have occurred to me mention this extremely common rejection reason.

Already, my tricky strategy for the week is bearing fruit. Tune in next time to see if the trend continues. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VIII: taming the many-headed beast, or, what do you mean, you want me to sum up a 12-protagonist novel in a single page?

gargoyles at Mirapoix2

The very title of today’s post made most of you cringe, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. Although they require great care and effort in construction, they’re not documents that one’s fans are ever likely to see, after all: they are used purely to market one’s books to agents, editors, and, frequently, contest judges.

In short, anyone who might be inclined to judge your manuscript without reading it. Hard to imagine why any writer would resent that, eh?

But our feelings about synopses run even deeper than disliking their potential substitution value, don’t they? As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces. That, too, is understandable: obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to 1, 3, or 5 pages.

Does all of that bated breath out there indicate that those of you who have been following this series on juggling protagonists are hoping that I’ll tell you that you don’t even have to try?

Sorry, my dears: not this time. If one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time.

The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. Distract your mind from trying to visualize it by looking at the pretty picture of gargoyles above, please. (Oh, you thought I included all of these photos just to separate the posts?)

The bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s also the basic goal of the query letter descriptive paragraph and any length of pitch. Unlike a query or pitch, however, the synopsis needs to show the entire story arc, not just the premise of the book.

If you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect may seem quite daunting. If you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done.

Once again, the key lies in telling the story of the book, not the protagonists. Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option.

Before I elaborate upon that horrifying thought, I should set a few ground rules. Since I’ve gone over the ropes of short-short synopsis-writing in some depth in this forum (for a few dos and don’ts for writing a 1-page synopsis, please see the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right. Or if you dug up this post in the archives in the midst of a frantic last-minute search, try starting here), I don’t propose to start from scratch here.

What I would like to do instead is talk about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. (Is it more helpful or terrifying to think of it that way, do you think?) Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in our protagonist-juggling series? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

In a single-page synopsis, the goal is to tell what the book is about. So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere protest, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. To answer it, write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the book. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript. Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story briefly may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most aspiring writers to try. Do bear in mind, though, that opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — in chronological order, for instance, if your narrative jumps around in time, or by leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book. Just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags, trying to regularize your breathing again: believe me, this suggestion is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically, though: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of a synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may strain your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts. “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that showing off that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of the synopsis?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this series. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short. Which brings me back to another suggestion from a few days ago.

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more strategy in the writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. And there’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which isn’t for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel, but bear with me here; it’s what I have on hand):


with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complex plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the second example exhibits in spades but the first avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses. Don’t be afraid to do some trimming, and keep up the good work!